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
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
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 Balagandharvas
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 Bhyaves
Seetaswyamvar at the royal court of Sangli in 1843.
Marathi musicals began
their dizzy climb to popularity with the advent of Balvant
Pandurangs Annasaheb, Kirloskars 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
Pendharkar runs the 82
year-old Lalitkaladarsh, one of the three professional groups
devoted to musicals in the city. The other two are Vidhadhar
Gokhales Rangasharda and the state-supposed Sahitya Sangha.
like Goa Hindu Association and Natya Sampada did launch epoch
making musicals like Matsya-gandha and Katyar in the 1960s 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 Bhaves 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, Its
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.