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Marathi Musicals

Future and fantasy seemed to fuse by the shores of the Arabian Sea, when the Festival of France was inaugurated this February at Chowpatty. With its flashing lasers, giant computerized images, electronic music and sensuous dance, the hi-tech show “Encounter” offered an epiphany to technology.

A few blocks away, at the Mumbai Marathi Sahitya theatre, near Charni Road Station, a Marathi musical play was in progress. The contrast between the two shows could not have been greater. The French festival was sleek – marionettes and machines – full of hi – technology. And the Mrathi one was comfortably old – fashioned – baroque and baronial – full of “hand” technology; with brass bells ringing and joss sticks lit on the stage, and characters in quaint mythological costumes singing lines composed a hundred years ago, set to ragas centuries older. For the largely middle class spectators it was a nostalgic trip into the past.

Somehow it seems appropriate that both shows were held in Bombay, a city capable of straddling a fuzzy future and a frozen past. Paradoxically, for all that frenetic activity Bombay is seemingly caught in an evolving mélange of styles and attitudes constantly threating to disinegrate into chaos.

It is in such a milieu that one can appreciate the value of traditional performing arts. The musicals seem to other nostalgic lifelines as we move on to a hi – tech future.

Most Mharashtrians who are brought up with a strong dose of rtradition describe themselves as “mad after musicals”. For the initiated, a single line from classic plays such as Manapman or Saubhadra can often evoke an entirely different world. But what about the uninitiated younger generation, the outsiders, and, alas, the philistines? They often fail to understand why a man dressed as a woman – the singer-actor Balagandharva ( 1988-1967 ) – could ever have been the range of an entire age in Maharashtra. How can Balagandharva’s performance continue to be regarded as an unattainable benchmark, they may wonder.

Today the non-initiates are the majority. And they tend to ignore the glory of the Marathi stage which began with a command performance of Vishnudas Bhyave’s Seetaswyamvar at the royal court of Sangli in 1843.

Marathi musicals began their dizzy climb to popularity with the advent of Balvant Pandurang’s Annasaheb, Kirloskar’s Shakuntala (1980) and Saudhadra in 1882.

And 107 years later, Saubhadra still draws a crowd whenever it is performed in city. But there is no doubt that for all the popular and governmengal support, the form is on the decline. “Apart from the hardy evergreens, our repetoire of musicals is hardly growing” says Bhalchandra Pendharkar, 69, doyen of the Marathi stage. “The last new musical was launched in 1983. Because of the risks and costs involved in lavish launchings and also because of uncertain audience support, new production are few and far between. More important, not many young singer-actors are joining the ranks of the agening maestros”.

Pendharkar runs the 82 –year-old Lalitkaladarsh, one of the three professional groups devoted to musicals in the city. The other two are Vidhadhar Gokhale’s Rangasharda and the state-supposed Sahitya Sangha.

Although organization like Goa Hindu Association and Natya Sampada did launch epoch – making musicals like Matsya-gandha and Katyar in the 1960’s most groups today rely on time-tested play like Saubhadra or Samshaya-kallol. During the “season” from October to May shows are held in theatres like Dinanath Natyagriha, Shivaji Rangmandir, Sahitya and Tata Theatre. A number of amateur groups regale audiences in smalkler halls and premises in the city. However, as the performers say, most of the audience who comes to resurrecat for the musicals are over 45. and the number of musicals staged per month seems to have hallen alarmingly.

With dwindling gate receipts, companies are understandably reluctant to renew their efforts to resurrect the Marathi musical. Indeed, its flagging fortunes were gloriously revived in the 1960s by playwrights like the classicist music directors like Jitendra Abhisheki and the talented acots and actresses. But since then the flowers seem to have faded.

When the first performance of Bhave’s play was held in Bomaby at the Grant Road Theatre on March 9, 1853, one of the newspapers said, “Several European gentlemen were present (for) the play which is of genuine native origin from early classical drama of hindoostan. The performance seemed to us very creditable and gave us a much higher idea than we presumably possessed of the capacity of the native Hindoo actors”. A similar lack of perception, this time among “native” audiences, seems to threaten the survival of the Marathi musical today.

Meanwhile the show goes on. A 69-year-old actor comes on to the stage, dressed as a 27 –year-old man. As he sings a song set to the raga Bhairav in a resonant voice, an American woman in the front whispers to me, “It’s incredible; such power, such atmosphere... Surely there ought more people for this?” That the show continues to be held at all is a tribute to the musicals’ timeless appeal.