Friday, August 4, 2017


Monday, 31st July 2017
"The figures in drama appear predominantly as people who portray themselves rather than exist in their own right- that is they generally appear in terms of the way they interact with others rather than as solitary individuals"….wrote drama critic Manfred Pfister, on the question of identity between the actor and his or her Role. Vasantrao Deshpande in the role of Khansaheb of Katyar Kaljat Ghusli however remains a classic exception to this belief. His identification with that role is so complete that he is remembered by posterity more as Khansaheb, than as Vasantrao himself! For admirers of the Marathi stage such as YT, reviling that figure would be murder-most-foul of an icon residing in the minds of the people who care about the Marathi theatre and classical natyasangeet. Alas such a murder was committed in broad daylight, by our saffron friends in the name of religion in a vicious and despicable manner, in the remake of the epic play in movie form. Katyar pathit khupasli- dagger sunk into the back. Khansaheb who emerged a hero in the Purushottam Darvhekar’s scrupulously secular play is tarred and feathered in his movie avatar played by an over-rated and over-grown child-star of Bollywood cinema. O tempora, o mores  is all that one can say, and the film’s immense popularity at the box-office is simply a reflection of the times we are passing through.

Provocative as these antics are, we are here not to join issues with idiots, but to pay tribute to Vasantrao on his death anniversary that went past un-noticed yesterday. VaRa was the most unpretentious genius known to Indian Classical. He was sort of a tiger in sheep’s clothing. This he did, not consciously or contrived-ly, but naturally and nonchalantly, as a matter of being true to his own nature. He worked diligently for decades as a clerk in the Central Government, last in Assam, till the great Begum Akhtar, his soul-mate, prised him away from that avatar. If one has to relate VaRa’s life to a movie, Forrest Gump it will be, the landmark events of his life often narrated in the same droll manner as Forrest, by VaRa himself. Who but VaRa can casually narrate this piece which concerns one of the two greatest Marathi musical geniuses in its golden era :

My uncle used to work in the Revenue Department (at Kolhapur). He was on friendly terms with (artistes of) Dinanathrao Mangeshkar’s Balwant Sangeet Mandali and would attend all of their stage dramas. I too would accompany him. As I watched the dramas, I was gradually drawn to the songs. Moreover, I began attempting to sing them. Inspired by Dinanathrao’s musical style, I sang his songs in the same manner. Everyone, especially Dinanathrao, was very appreciative of my renditions. The road that led to his theatre passed by our house and I would wait at the window for him (Vasanta was in his early teens then). When he sighted me at the window, he would signal me with a wave of his hand to join him. I would eagerly run to him and together we would go to the theatre. On the occasions that he did not see me by the window, he would peep in and ask, “Hey, aren’t you coming to the theatre?”

[Translations: Veena from 'Vasantrao Deshpande: Ek Smaran']

By the way, Asha adapted to her father’s genre natyasangeet admirably and she was coached by none other than VaRa.

How about this, where the name of one of the greatest composers of Hindi Cinema crops up:

“As a student of music, I had to occasionally participate in a different type of activity. Reagent Talkies of Nagpur used to be called “Birdie Picture House” in those days and it used to screen silent films. Background music for the films would be provided by musicians sitting near the screen and playing the harmonium and the tabla.  Sapre-Master would occasionally send me and C. Ramchandra for this job.  I played the tabla and Ram, the harmonium and together we had a blast with the back-ground score.  Nobody expected that the music be suitable to the film situation...we sat  there and just played all the songs we knew.”

Vasantrao, Pu La Deshpande and Bhimsen Joshi used to be pals and would jam regularly in Pune. When VaRa passed away, Pt. Bhimsen reputedly said “alas, Marwa is no more!” Marwa and Vasanta were like twins and behind this lies another of those unbelievable stories that strung together form Vasanta’s life.

When in his late teens, Vasanta was taken by his Mama (maternal uncle) to Lahore where he served in the Railway, the object being to locate a guru for him. An observant class-mate at school, one Khanna told young Vasanta about a fakir who had made his home across the Ravi in Jehangir’s tomb at Shahdara. The fakir sings the sort of things you do, so he was told. The boys trudged their way to the dargah, where Vasanta heard the soul-stirring voice of the fakir, who turned out to be none other than the recluse Ustad Asad Ali Khan of Agra. I’ll teach you one cheez a day, but you have to give a paisa to each of those five fakirs sitting there everyday, the Ustad jokingly told our boy. Having secured the necessary financial sanctions from Mama, Vasanta would pay the sum agreed upon faithfully, and would take down the wordings of one bandish daily, the practice of notation not having arrived then. These untiring efforts failed to impress Mama, what Vasanta was taking down were simply words, words, and it was decided to change tack, for what was being done was no way to please a fakir, Mama rightly felt. Vasanta therefore took a basket of roses, a seer of sweetmeats and five rupees worth of charas to the fakir, which coming from a delicate child really moved the Ustad to tears. The customary ganda was tied, and Vasanta formally enrolled as a disciple. The lessons commenced the same day. The six fakirs and Vasanta converged under a dense clump of trees, sitting on the verge of the large prodigious well there, legs dangling inside and Vasanta was asked by Asad Ali Khan to demonstrate what he had learnt so far. Dusk had arrived by then and it was time for a Marwa. Vasanta sang whatever he had learnt of Marwa, the sombre notes resonating from the depths of the well. One by one, the five companions of Asad were asked to sing Marwa after their respective gharana tradition, and Asad Ali Khan rounded off the mehfil, landing the complex final taan on the sam with such dexterity that the others could only bow down and weep. Each of the five other fakirs was a consummate singer, having surrendered to Sufism, abandoning the worldly way. For three months, everyday, they sang Marwa and only Marwa, and when time came, the Ustad bade farewell to the boy, with the words: “Ek saadhe to sab kuch saadhe, sab kuch saadhe to kuch nahin!” You master one and you have mastered all…Only the swaras differ, but essentially all ragas are comrades-in-arms, to be sung in like manner. Go forth and apply the same methods to each raga, you are a most intelligent boy, and by the grace of Allah you’ll go very far.  

Uncanny isn’t it! Can you imagine a teen-aged seeker of music from Nagpur land on the banks of the Ravi at Lahore, at the mazaar of Jehangir the Great, running into six of the best Hindustani Classical vocalists who had renounced the world and were now Lotus Eaters!

We’ll talk again someday about VaRa, there is still so much to be said, but we’ll end with another observation which relates to Katyar. There was hardly any money in Classical those days, and some of the greatest of our singers such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan died in abject penury. Today we cannot imagine a Shreya Ghosal working as a clerk in a bank and singing part-time, but the financial insecurity that was VaRa’s constant companion stayed with him even after he retired, and he took up the job of an accountant in a private business at Nagpur. On the eve of the day he was to join, Purushottam Darvhekar, the great playwright who created the fabulous Katyar approached VaRa at his residence, entreating him to play the role of Khansaheb in this new play of his, in which Abhishekiji was rendering the music, and was keen on VaRa’s singing the lead in the play.

This Universe would not have been the same had Darvhekar not placed Khansaheb’s taaj on Vasantarao’s humble brow!







The awesome Ghei Chhand on Youtube

The only video recording of Vasantrao’s original version of the play ever made was erased by Doordarshan in 1982 as they were running short of the medium on the eve of Asiad. It survives only in the minds of contemporaries and all that will be left physically for records will be the communal and divisive film, for that is the general course on which our society is moving, and that’s a one-way street...Chandakant Limaye's version is on YT and is authentic...


sanjiv bokil said...

Thanks..your comments are interesting but how come they are published seemingly in a Corporate capacity? What's the kahani?!!

Unknown said...

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sanjiv bokil said...

Don't think that's harmful. Some thought is also there.

Unknown said...

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sanjiv bokil said...

I don’t know how intimate you’re with Indian Classical music, nevertheless your appreciation matters a lot Helmut!