Bal Gandharva was a singing star who excelled in feminine roles on the Marathi stage in the first half of the twentieth century. He was hailed as “Nat Samrat” – the king of thespians.
Stamp on Bal Gandharva
The Department of Posts issued a commemorative postage stamp in honour of Bal Gandharva on 22 February 1988. The 60-paise stamp, perf. 13, was printed on indigenous un-watermarked PG Matt coated paper by photogravure process at India Security Press, Nashik.
The First Day Cover and the stamp depict a portrait of Bal Gandharva. The cancellation has a line drawing of one of his feminine roles in his musicals.
Narayan Sripad Rajhans was born in Pune on 26 June 1888 in a middle class brahmin family. As a child he evinced no interest in studies. Endowed with a musical voice, he showed a marked predilection for singing. He was therefore put under a teacher in Jalgaon for training in classical music. During a brief visit to Pune he had the chance to sing before Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak who gave him the title ‘Bal Gandharva’, from which time he became famous by that name.
Narayan’s talent in music came to the notice of the ruling prince of Kolhapur, a patron of music and drama. He arranged for Narayan’s training in the Kirloskar Natak Mandali, then camping at Miraj. Kirloskar was the premier drama troupe of Maharashtra and the founder of the Marathi musical drama. In those days young and handsome men with skill in singing were trained to play female roles as women did not enter the dramatic profession for fear of social ostracism. Bal Gandharva received intensive training in the Mandali from Govind Deval, an eminent playwright and excellent teacher.
Success in theatre
Bal Gandharva won the hearts of his audience with his very first performance as Sakuntala at Miraj in 1906. All of 18 then, he never looked back.
In the next few years, Bal Gandharva excelled himself enacting such feminine roles as Nandini (in Gupta-Manjush), Subhadra (in Saubhadra), Bhamini (in Manapaman), Devayani (in Vidyaharan) and Rukmini (in Swayamvar). His continued success was as much due to the excellent guidance and training he received from very senior actor-teachers as his consistent practice and dedication to the art.
With the Kirloskar Mandali breaking up in 1913, Bal Gandharva formed his own group and named it Gandharva Natak Mandali. He also managed to secure the rights to stage the musicals popularised by him while he was in Kirloskar. His Mandali produced two plays – Samshaya-Kallol (a hilarious comedy and adaptation of the popular play Comedy of Errors), and Mrichchhakatika (an adaptation of the Sanskrit classic of the same name).
Besides mythologicals, the Mandali also staged two sociological plays – Sharada, a devastating commentary on child marriage, and Ekach Pyala of Ram Ganesh Gadkari on the evils of drinking (see Dinanath Mangeshkar, Sruti 331). Bal Gandharva’s role as Sindhu, the devoted wife of the alcoholic, received acclaim. His other plays included Asha Nirasha and Nand Kumar. All the plays were well received. It is on record that he played as many as 36 roles in 27 plays and held more than 5000 stage shows.
Bal Gandharva’s enactment of women’s roles seemed like a transmigration into the body of a woman. Every aspect of his demeanour – his expressions, postures, the way he moved, talked, the costumes – appeared to be that of a woman. Acharya Atre, a prominent Marathi writer and orator, once said about Bal Gandharva’s enactment of women’s roles that a woman’s beauty had never before appeared so attractive through a man’s body. Bal Gandharva even set the fashion in women’s saris and jewellery; most of them were designed by him and were made to his order. Even men raved over his charm.
While the Mandali enjoyed a prosperous time, Bal Gandharva was battered by one tragedy after another in his personal life. He married Lakshmibai in 1907 and seven children were born to them. He lost his eldest child, a daughter, in March 1911 on the day of the maiden show of Manapaman in which he was to play the role of the heroine Bhamini. His fans implored him to postpone the show, but he politely declined, saying, “I cannot forget my duty to the benefactors and my admiring audience.” He virtually lived his role on the stage, and moved the spectators to tears. “Can there be another example of such a singular dedication to art?” exclaims his biographer, Mohan Nadkarni, a respected musicologist and critic. In 1918, Bal Gandharva lost two sons in their infancy.
Fate did not allow him to live in peace for long. In 1928 the Mandali was all set to stage Mrichchhakatika at Amravati. On the opening day, he received the shocking news of the death of his eldest surviving daughter. She too died of a serious infection, like his first daughter who died on the day of the inaugural show of Manapaman. Though utterly devastated, he went ahead and presented an excellent performance as Vasantasena in the play; the entire audience was in tears.
He got the elder of his two surviving daughters married to a practicing doctor. As was his wont, he spent lavishly on the wedding and landed in a huge debt. He performed an elaborate yajna to propitiate the gods to bless him with a son. A male child was born, but lived for but a day.
In January 1944, Bal Gandharva bade farewell to his Mandali, handing over charge to Goharbai Karnataki, a Hindustani vocalist. He also asked her to substitute him in feminine roles in the dramas. He lived with her and his continued association with her culminated in the agonising break-up of his family life. Not long thereafter, his wife Lakshmibai died in Pune.
Bal Gandharva now started giving concerts of devotional music and bhajans, though his voice had lost its sheen. He had to make a living, and his loyal fans did not forsake him.
Goharbai’s death in late 1964 left Bal Gandharva literally orphaned and destitute. In 1952 he had been struck down by paralysis which left him incapacitated for the rest of his life. Coming to know of his pitiable state, his friends shifted him from Bombay to Pune for medical treatment. There he lay in coma for three months, and breathed his last on 15 July 1967. With his passing away, a glorious era in Marathi musicals came to an end.
Bal Gandharva was not only a rare genius but also a man of culture, great humility and intense humanism. A teetotaller, he did not fall a victim to the temptations associated with glamour, and remained faithful to the family till his unfortunate association with Goharbai in the closing years of his life.
In his relentless pursuit of ‘ultimate perfection’ in his profession, he spent fabulously on stage settings, dress, ornaments and make-up for the plays, especially mythologicals. It no doubt accounted for the trailblazing success of all his plays, but left him in deep debt. He was indeed a debtor most of his life, in spite of sizeable earnings. In its heyday, the Gandharva Natak Mandali had over a hundred people on its rolls and almost all of them lived under one roof.
To quote Mohan Nadkarni: “It is on record that Bal Gandharva’s annual earnings amounted to Rs. 1.75 lakh for a continuous period of ten years since 1921 onwards. Yet, he found himself heavily in debt and died in utter penury. His was a Spartan life with his vast fortune spent on enrichment of the stage art.”
In 1924 Bal Gandharva presided over the Dramatic Conference at Pune. In 1944 he was unanimously elected President of the Marathi Natya Shatabdi Sammelan in Bombay to commemorate the centenary of Marathi Theatre. In 1955 he received the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Award (then known as President’s medal) for stage acting. In 1964 a public felicitation was held in his honour on his 75th birthday. In the same year he was conferred the Padma Bhushan.Bal Gandharva’s fans and admirers were legion; they continued to revere him till his end.
Bal Gandharva was a thespian non pareil. He was also a singer of Hindustani music, though he did not pursue it as a profession. In his stage plays he enthralled the audience with a variety of padas, based on Hindustani ragas, and light classical music like thumri, tappa and hori.
Biographer Mohan Nadkarni draws attention to a significant aspect of his musical training. He says that while grooming his protege his principal mentor, Bhaskarbua Bakhale told Bal Gandharva “not to go too much into the technicalities of classical music. He guided him to sing what was sweet and soulful, and more important, suited to the mood of the situation of the song, no matter if it marked any deviation from the conventional style of classical singing. In fact alltime greats like Alladiya Khan and Mal Jan came to the shows to listen to some of the favourite raga-based padas, specially those in which he conjured magical deviations from the conventional norms of melodic form and structure.” (Bakhale’s advice virtually defines all forms of ‘applied music’.) Bal Gandharva added a new dimension to Marathi Natya Sangeet.
His voice could communicate a whole gamut of emotions – from eroticism to pathos. His gayaki has been described as ‘revelatory’, a kind of “bhav samadhi” he shared with his audience. The numerous songstudded plays in which he acted and sang are recalled with nostalgia by old time theatre-goers even today. His unparalleled voice and songs won a permanent place among music lovers and theatre-goers in Maharashtra.
Bal Gandharva cut several discs over forty years, and this is the only treasure he has left for posterity – over 400 songs (about 200 records) issued on different record labels, mostly on HMV. At the tailend of his career he also recorded on the Columbia and Odeon labels. He is known to have recorded on cylinders but no such recording has been traced so far.
On the occasion of his birth centenary on 26 June 1988, HMV reissued a new set of LP records and cassettes.
Bal Gandharva perfected the form of Marathi musical drama. In the beginning of the 20th century, pure and light classical music was confined to the courts of kings, nawabs and the elite in society. These avenues were not open to an average middle class family. Bal Gandharva brought in the dadra, ghazal, qawwali, thumri and other forms of classical music into the houses and minds of millions, simply through his songs in the musicals. As a critic observed, “The appreciation of drama and classical music itself became a fine art; this is the greatest contribution he has made in Maharashtra in the early period of the 20th century.”
On his birth anniversary on 26 June 1968, the Bal Gandharva Theatre was inaugurated in Pune. Built by the city Municipal Corporation, this stands today as one of the few memorials raised to Bal Gandharva.
Nitin Chandrakant Desai, a national award winning art director, produced a biographical Marathi film on Bal Gandharva. Titled Sound of Heaven, it was directed by Ravindra Jadhav, and was released on 6 May 2011. It was declared a ‘super hit’ at the box office. The film was screened around the globe, starting from the New York Indian Film Festival in May 2011, and later at the Cannes and Venice festivals. It won three awards at the 59th National Film Awards in 2011.
Hemanti Banerjee has produced a documentary on Bal Gandharva, which received the President’s award. His gramophone records and their cassette versions are all that posterity has as mementos of the great Nat Samrat.