Bal Gandharva (26 June 1888 – 15 July 1967) was the undisputed king of Marathi musicals and theatre. He was born as Narayan Shripad Rajhans in the Nagthane village of Palus taluka, located in the Sangli district of Maharashtra. Even though women had started to work in theatre as early as the 1870s, the trend of celebrated female characters being played by men had continued till the early 1930s. Bal Gandharva played the role of women in over 27 original plays & 5000 stage shows (a period spanning over 40 years!)
Music was an essential part of Narayan’s childhood : his father Shripadrao, loved singing and played sitar for pleasure. It was his daily routine to sing bhoopalis (Marathi devotional songs) accompanied by the melodious tunes of his sitar early in the morning. Moreover, Narayan’s mother Annapurnabai, and aunt Haribai, were into singing what were known as “women’s songs” that were popular in the late 19th century.
His exposure to theatre too, started early and because of family: Narayan’s maternal uncle Vasudevrao Puntambekar, was one of the founders of a drama troupe called Natyakala Pravartak Natak Mandali; Abasaheb Mhalas, married to Narayan’s cousin, was as an ardent lover of drama and music and his home had become a rendezvous for the members of drama troupe that visited the place from time to time. The young Narayan thus, had numerous coveted opportunities to watch acclaimed plays by leading drama companies of the time.
It is not surprising that the music and theatre-loving environment in which Narayan grew up paved a way for his future career. The story of the life and career of this phenomenally talented actor and singer though, was also a reflection of the fluctuating fortunes of the Marathi musical drama.
Here are 5 things to know about Bal Gandharva
1. From Narayan Rajhans to ‘Bal Gandharva’ : the child with a heavenly voice
While Narayan was pursuing his musical training, he had a chance to visit Pune for a stay with his uncle Yeshwantrao Kulkarni. The latter worked at the office of Kesari, the leading nationalist newspaper which was edited by Lokmanya Tilak. It was during this visit that the ten-year-old Narayan had the opportunity to sing before Tilak. It is believed that Tilak was so deeply moved by the soulful rendering of the song sung by the boy that his instant reaction was:
“Oh! How beautifully does this Bal Gandharva pour forth his music!“
Narayan Rajhans was thus given the moniker ‘Bal Gandharva’ (Bal meaning ‘little child’ and Gandharva, a reference to celestial singers!). The name, as we know today, stayed with him for his lifetime.
A series of misfortunes followed the Rajhans family after this event. Narayan’s father met with a serious accident which confined him to bed without pay. His mother also fell ill at the same time and he himself became a victim of a dog bite. In order to receive better treatment, Narayan was transferred to Kolhapur. After his recovery, Narayan was introduced to the ruling Prince of the state, Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj. The Prince was so impressed by Narayan’s singing, his handsome personality as well as his dignified demeanour, that he offered to arrange for the treatment of Narayan’s ear infection, which impaired his hearing. At the same time, the Prince directed Narayan to engage with the Kirloskar Natak Mandali during the period of his treatment.
2. Bal Gandharva, a.k.a ‘Nat Samrat’ aced the role of female characters
The year 1905 proved to be a turning point in the fortunes of Kirloskar Natak Mandali. It was also the beginning of Bal Gandharva’s epochal rise to fame and popularity. His debut as a singer – actor came about at the age of 18 with Kirloskar’s Shakuntal. This play generated keen interest and opened to a packed house, winning the hearts of stage lovers. In the years to follow, Bal Gandharva toured several cities and towns along with the Kirloskar troupe. He played roles that would make him famous: as Shakuntala (in Shakuntal), Subhadra (in Saubhadra), Bhamini (in Manapaman), Devayani (in Vidyaharan) and Nandini (in Gupta-Manjush).
For his delicate portrayal of female characters and melodious musicals, he earned both critical acclaim and commercial success. In the opinion of the theatre connoisseurs of the generation:
“Bal Gandharva’s greatness lay in the way he backed up his training with with consistent practice and unflinching dedicaition.”
It was during this period Bal Gandharva’s future was cemented in the musical theatre. His genius began to bloom as he received nourishment from the tradition of the stage. However, the year 1911 brought in the untimely death of Nanasaheb Joglekar, an important member of the troupe. This created a problem of succession and the internal feuds among the group added fuel to the fire. Eventually, this led to the Kirloskar Natak Mandali splitting up. Even as Bal Gandharva’s journey with the troupe came to an end it only led to new beginnings.
The Golden Age of Marathi Musical Theatre
In 1913, Bal Gandharva started his own troupe : the Gandharva Natak Mandali was co-founded with Ganpatrao Bodas and Govindrao Tembe. At the age of twenty-five, Bal Gandharva not only proved to be a natural leader but also a driving force for the group. After much negotiation, they secured the rights of the original Kirloskar plays and continued to perform them with the same ethos. In the new productions of the company, Bal Gandharva starred as Rukmini (in Swayamvar), Vasantasena (in Mrichchhakatika) and Revati (in Samshaya Kallol) among many others.
Bal Gandharva’s talent took stage music not only into Maharashtrian homes but also attracted the bordering Hindi, Gujarati and Kannada speaking audiences. In addition to public support and adulation, the troupe also received patronage from the royals. For instance, the Maharaja of Baroda awarded Bal Gandharva’s group an annual grant of Rs. 5000/- as evident from the poster below:
The clear diction of Bal Gandharva’s songs, accuracy of rhythm and the delicacy with which he presented the musical ornamentation of the tune he sung was impeccable. With their enchanting finesse and mesmerizing musicals, the plays of Gandharva Natak Mandali symbolized the Golden Era of Marathi musical theatre.
Bal Gandharva’s looks, histrionic talent and musical gift combined together so beautifully that he was acclaimed as Nat-Samrat. He dazzled the public with his singing which had acquired a rare quality on account of his melodious voice.
3. Bal Gandharva – the trendsetter & fashion icon for women!
Over the years Bal Gandharva aced the representation of the female body through his expressions, body language, costumes etc. Known for his graceful and authentic portrayal of women, he even ended up setting the trend in women’s fashion! Sarees and jewellery designed by him were custom made and often non-Marathi speaking crowds flocked to watch his performances for the ‘latest trend’. In place of the conventional nine-yard saree, he wore ten-yard sarees for extra effect. His hairstyles and mannerisms too, became quite popular among the masses.
The kind of outfits he used to wear in real life were also very much in vogue in those days. It was regarded as a status symbol by the fashionable elite to wear what was popularly known as the ‘Gandharva cap’, ‘Gandharva coat and trousers’, ‘Gandharva turban’ and what not!
Bal Gandharva reigned supreme in the theatre scene for over three decades. The road wasn’t easy as he suffered the loss of his three children as well as his troupe members. Personal loss aside, he remained in debt despite raising a flourishing company owing to expenses on his elaborate (and perfect) sets. Notwithstanding any of these challenges, Bal Gandharva continued to enthral the audience. But time as we know never stands still : his increasing age and the inclusion of women on the theatre scene only meant one thing – it was time to move on and possibly try something new?
4. A fateful outing with the talkies
The advent of the talkies in 1932 -33 led to a gradual decline of theatre, the traditional form of entertainment. A few leading drama companies, including Gandharva Natak Mandali, decided to switch over to the film world. That was how Bal Gandharva entered into a six film contract with the Prabhat Film Company.
Bal Gandharva’s film debuted in 1935 with the movie Dharmatma directed by V. Shantaram (available to view on YouTube). Ironically, he played the male role of Sant Eknath which was to be the only incursion of Bal Gandharva in the screen world. The film flopped and he realized that working in the studio atmosphere was not his cup of tea. So he cancelled the contract even before it matured and returned back to theatre in 1936 to play feminine roles.
Another opportunity to work in a film came through Baburao Ruikar, a wealthy theatre fan who had floated a film company of his own. In 1937, he cast Bal Gandharva as Meerabai in Sadhvi Meerabai for a film based on the acclaimed original play Amrit Siddhi. It was a ‘stage-talkie’ where the entire film was recorded with its artificial and static stage setting. But the camera couldn’t do much to boost the appeal of an ageing Gandharva. Much to the dismay of the thespian and the producer, the audience justifiably rejected it. However, Gandharva did excel in merging himself back into his favourite female role. Here is a glimpse of his singing from the film:
After this episode, Bal Gandharva decided to return to his first love – the musical stage – once and for all. By that time, however, all he could give at that age and deteriorating health was a few fleeting glimpses of his former glory. The final parting came in the year 1944 when he severed the ties with Gandharva Natak Mandali.
5. The Legacy of Bal Gandharva
Bal Gandharva continued to pursue his old practice of holding public concerts of Marathi devotional music to regale his listeners. He also recited bhajans by great luminaries by lending his repertoire to cater to a wider audience. The thespian was unanimously chosen as the president of the Marathi Natya Sammelan held in 1944 to commemorate the centenary celebrations of Marathi theatre. It was in March 1955 that he was nominated for the President’s Award instituted by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. The Nat Samrat was awarded with Padma Bhushan in 1964 by the Government of India.
The goodwill, admiration and reverence he enjoyed during his heyday remained undiminished until the end. The thespian lay in coma for hundred days before passing away on 15 July 1967.
The genius of Bal Gandharva had an impact outside the Marathi – speaking regions as well. Celebrated Gujarati thespian Jaishankar Sundari moved the Gujarati theatre lovers with his art inspired by the Nat Samrat. In the south, celebrated actors like Shivaji Ganesan and K. Raghuramaiah also derived inspiration from Gandharva for their acts.
Today, Bal Gandharva’s musicals are celebrated every year in mehfils on his birthday (26 June) or death anniversary (15th July). The theatre hall ‘Bal Gandharva Rang Mandir’ in Pune is named in his honor. A Marathi film by the name ‘Bal Gandharva’ was also released in 2011 which celebrated the musicals and life of the iconic thespian.