Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Marathi moments

While the Thackerays and Azmis compete with each other to raise the dignity and stature of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly, I had a remarkably Marathi weekend and would like to report on some of its charming moments.

It started with my watching the play Sapadlelya Aathavani (literally, "Found Memories"). This play was originally written in English by Girish Karnad, then adapted in Marathi by Amruta More and staged by Satyadev Dubey last Friday at TIFR. Both Karnad and Dubey were in the audience (actually Dubey was staging a play of his own outside, but I'll come back to that later). I quite enjoyed the play and found the Marathi fairly easy to follow - Dubey had earlier assured us it was in simple Bombay Marathi ("after all what other Marathi do I know?" he dramatically exclaimed). In fact much of the dialogue consisted of "Really ग!" and "What do you keep doing in that cyber cafe?" which, technically, are not pure Marathi phrases.

The play is nice, and modern, but not a masterpiece. Consider that its co-producer Girish Patke described it as "a trite story of flawed family relationships". But the sisters Vidula and Hema make for a believable duo and their humorous antics, which turn into histrionics towards the end, are most entertaining. The play had one thing in common with a lot of Marathi (and Hindi) dramas - once the emotional pitch goes up and the characters start shrieking and sobbing, there seems no turning back. After ten minutes of this stuff the cast all have sore throats and their shrieks sound more and more comical. But at least in this play the tension abates in the last scene and the characters, not having found any clear resolution to their problems, dance a jig all over the stage.

A number of Bengalis (I use "Bengali" in its TIFR sense of "non-Maharashtrian") left after the first ten minutes, understandably since the play is wordy and hard to follow if you don't know the language. But many others stayed on and formed bunches in the audience around anyone who knew the language. This resulted in an annoying buzz as each twist of the plot got explained in a sequence of Marathi-Chinese whispers, but at least people did try to follow -- which was nice.

As for Mr Dubey, he decided to guard the doors of the auditorium to prevent people entering after the play had started. As there had been no warning about this (and the announced timings had shifted back and forth a bit) there were apparently several latecomers. After trying to shoo them away without too much success, the venerable Mr Dubey lost it and started casting aspersions (in Hindi) on the relationships of various TIFR members to their mothers and sisters! My only regret is that this piece of experimental and participatory theatre did not get filmed.

So, on to my second Marathi moment. Emboldened by my comprehension of the play, on the following evening I dug out my VCD's of the movie Sant Tukaram (if you're interested, here is an astounding website about Tukaram, though not actually about the movie). Any hopes I had of following the dialogue were dashed by the fact that (i) the Marathi of 1937 is not Satyadev Dubey's Marathi (and still less his Hindi, thankfully!), (ii) the sound quality was good for 1937, but no more than that. Fortunately the VCD's were subtitled and I also had a Maharashtrian friend on hand.

So about the movie itself -- now here was a masterpiece. The first thing I noticed was the truly outstanding quality of the music. Everyone sings, and sings brilliantly - Tukaram himself, the evil Salomalo, the vamp what's-her-name who tries to seduce Tuka but becomes his devotee. Maharashtrians understand and feel Indian music in a way that I find remarkable. Somewhat to my friend's astonishment, I sang along with the movie for two solid hours.

The acting too was brilliant in its own way. Vishnupant Paganis as Tukaram manages to stay on the right side of the fine line that separates an expression of devotional ecstasy from the goofy grin of a pot smoker. The good-vs-evil battle plays out with a constant increase of tension but (thankfully) no shrieking or sore throats. My only complaint about the movie is, did they have to make Mrs Tuka such a thick-head? I mean, living with him all those years she must surely have figured out that possessions are BAD and saintly behaviour is GOOD, no? But right until the bitter end when Tukaram flies up to heaven sitting astride a fluffy eagle toy, she just does NOT get it. Anyhow, the acting is wonderfully spontaneous and the directing very sure-footed and innovative, so the movie fully deserves its "Special Recognition" award at the Venice film festival.

To slightly elaborate on a theme above, I'm amazed at how Maharashtrians trump just about all of India when it comes to Hindustani music. After all, the major gharanas like Kirana, Gwalior, Jaipur and Agra are all from North India (eek!! Sena alert!!!), leaving only the infelicitously named Bhendi Bazaar gharana for Maharashtra (and that anyway is an offshoot of Agra as far as I know). But just about anyone who was anyone in Hindustani music, at least in the second half of the 20th century, either was Maharashtrian or lived in Maharashtra or both. And Marathi stage songs (natya sangeet), devotional music (abhang) and folk songs (bhaavgeet) are all steeped in this culture.

My Marathi moments weekend concluded with a morning concert on Sunday by Shruti Sadolikar-Katkar and Satyasheel Deshpande. No prizes for guessing which state they belong to! Not a Marathi word was actually spoken that day, but the music was totally Marathi in spirit and totally wonderful.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

But just about anyone who was anyone in Hindustani music, at least in the second half of the 20th century, either was Maharashtrian or lived in Maharashtra or both.

Um... Bhimsen Joshi, Mallikarjun Mansur, Gangubai Hangal, to name three of the greats from the period you mention, were from Karnataka -- I hope you're not re-igniting the border dispute with your claim. And the latter two lived in Karnataka too. I've heard it suggested that their exposure to Carnatic music increased the "depth" of their music. Gangubai Hangal's mother was a Carnatic musician, and I have a CD of Bhimsen singing Purandaradasa in a Hindustani-tinged style.

Many musicians have lived in Mumbai, but as Sachin Tendulkar said recently, Mumbai belongs to all of India.

And, of course, many greats (the majority, I'd say) were from the Hindi-speaking states or Bengal, and lived in those places. Hardly surprising, that.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Rahul: Since when did I stay away from igniting disputes, be they with borders or friends.

You say that the exposure to Carnatic music (of Bhimsen, Mallikarjun, Gangubai) increased the depth of their music. This is true, but seems to prove the opposite of your point. Despite their location, none of these greats actually became a Carnatic musician, and this is precisely because the border district of Dharwar is steeped in the Maharashtrian musical sensibility. That this is a composite sensibility is not in doubt, the compositeness being due to absorption of influences from both North and South. These influences are strongest on the Maharashtra-Karnataka and Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh borders, in contrast to for example the Maharashtra-Gujarat border.

As for the majority of Hindustani greats of the latter 20th century coming from or living in the Hindi belt or Bengal... this is a matter of opinion, and I've stated mine. (BTW in my posting I was referring to vocal rather than instrumental music, even if I didn't say so).

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Oh, Hindustani music is much more inclusive than Carnatic music, which is dominated by a particular community and is almost exclusively religious in its themes. So I am not surprised that the musicians in question chose to perform Hindustani music. I'm only disputing that they are Maharashtrian. I'm not sure about Bhimsen, but the other two were Kannada-speakers (and writers).

As for Hindustani vocalists from the Hindi belt or Bengal -- there are surely far too many to list here. Certainly there were and are many greats from Maharashtra, but your statement that "just about anyone who was anyone in Hindustani music, at least in the second half of the 20th century, either was Maharashtrian or lived in Maharashtra or both" sounds like absurd hyperbole. What about Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Amir Khan, Jasraj, Omkarnath Thakur, Rajan and Sajan Mishra, and in today's generation, Rashid Khan, Ajoy Chakraborty, and many, many others? (Come to think of it, if you are referring only to Hindustani women vocalists, you may have a point...)

Vishu Guttal said...

>>>this is precisely because the border district of Dharwar is steeped in the Maharashtrian musical sensibility.

Dharawada (closer to local pronounciation) is a Border district? Yes, all of which are Karnataka districts. Should be quite easy to check on a map :-).

This is not to deny the influence of Maharashtra culture on northern Karnakaka (likewise AP culture in Hyderabad Karnataka region; perhaps TN culture in southern parts like Bengaluru).

Sunil Mukhi said...

Rahul: It's exactly the list you provided (minus Amir Khan, who is a remarkable exception) which formed the basis for my original statement! Many people on this list have sonorous voices but little else to offer. As I've said, that's merely my opinion.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Glad Amir Khan meets with your approval :)

Mind Without Fear said...

I am little dizzy from these comments and not sure have understood what the fuss is about. But Sunil, did u mean to say - even as a personal opinion - that Bade Ghulam Ali Khan had very little to offer other than a sonorous voice?

I am a bit stunned by this.

Anyway, there is no denying that Maharashtra has provided a cultural setting to nurture many of these greats and I am just thankful for that. I do hope it continues .... If other parts of the country ( how about Agra Gharana, Patiala Gharana )
produces such greats ( e.g. Salamat Ali Khan whom I had the good fortune to listen to even though he was quite old at that time - not sure what gharana he was from ), my happiness only increases ....

I have not seen a good Marathi play since Ghashiram Kotoyal performed by the original group, I need to make an effort to catch another one when it comes around to Bangalore.

Thanks for the post

Anant said...

Maybe off topic, but I find that in scenic Bangalore, and especially amongst the members of the IISc community (myself included) there are those who do not know Kannada and have never made an effort to speak a word. But fortunately, the friendly folk here are not making it an issue. But there is a serious issue here: many people who emigrate to regions from where they do not hail, find it very difficult to learn a new language late in life. If ours is to be one country, one must necessarily be tolerant of its plurality, of its language-enabled folks and also of its language-unenable folks as well.

Sunil Mukhi said...

MWF: Now you'll need to hold on to something stable: I don't even think BGAK has a sonorous voice. Sorry, I honestly had no idea my very opinionated opinions would bother others so much!

Anant: Yes you're off-topic, but of course this is one of my pet topics. I want to mention that Maharashtrians are in person equally friendly folk, at least in my city. Yet they have this penchant for supporting "unfriendly" political parties... It's baffling.

Mind Without Fear said...

another off the topic comment - inspired by Anant's comment - I am learning conversational kannada and having a lot of fun. The most gratifying part is when the shopkeepers indulgently listen to my wrong sentences but nonetheless they smile and feel happy that an outsider is trying to communicate in their language ...