Indian Theatre has an unbroken tradition of over 2000 years, starting with the monumental Sanskrit dramas of play-wrights like Bhasa, Kalidasa, Shudraka, Vishakadatta, Bhavabhuti and Harsha. Indian drama was however reborn during the British period, right from the 18th to the 20th Centuries.
There was corresponding unprecedented development in theatre: the rise of urban entertainment theatre.
This arose in order to provide entertainment to the increasing population of big cities consequent upon industrialization.
Simultaneously, literary drama was the output of great Indian language writers in different parts of India. The most famous of such playwrights was Rabindranath Tagore, who enriched the genre of drama as much as he enriched poetry and fiction.
There were counterparts of Tagore in other languages also. The greatest poets in different languages produced a rich harvest of drama: Samsa and Kuvempu in Kannada, Subrahmanya Bharathiar in Tamil, Sreekanthan Nair in Malayalam, Bharatendu Harishchandra and Jaishankar Prasad in Hindi.
In Pre-Independence India, Bombay with its rich urban theatre in the form of the ‘Parsi Theatre’, the Kannada theatre, Bengali theatre, Gujrati theatre, Tamil theatre movement spurred by Shankaradas Swamigal and the Marathi Natyasangeet that combined different genres of drama, music, dance and folk traditions into an entertaining experience were some of the leading lights of the Indian theatre scenario. When recording technology came to India in 1902,Gaisberg, the Gramophone Company’s agent made recordings of several theatre artists in Calcutta like Star, Corinthian and others with several important artists like ‘Noti’ Binodini and others being recorded. In time, the Company also recorded full-length plays and a collection of about 10-11 discs containing the entire play made for ideal gifts for people to give others!
We present here, glimpses of these voices from the theatres of India—from Bal Gandharva’s Marathi theatre, Bidaram Krishnappa’s Kannada theatre in Mysore to Gujrati Theatre, Alfred Natak Mandali’s Hindustani drama ‘Asire Hir’ and the Shining Star Society’s Tamil play ‘Lava Kusha’.
Bal Gandharva (1888-1967)
Marathi Theatre & Natyasangeet
Narayan Sripad Rajhans, better known as Bal Gandhrava after he was christened thus by freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak, is undoubtedly the greatest figure of the Marathi Theatre. Born in Nagthane Village of Sangli in Maharashtra he started off by singing Bhajans.
In 1905 he began his career with the Kirloskar Natak Mandali and later along with stalwarts of the Marathi stage like Ganpatrao Bodas and Govindarao Tcmbe, formed the Gandharva Sangeet Mandali in 1913. He acted in about 25 classic Marathi plays. He particularly won attention for the several female roles that he played and one of the most popular figures of Marathi Natya Sangeet.
He was a disciple of Bhaskarbuwa Bakhale. His famous roles include that of Bhamini in ‘Manapaman’ , Rukmini in ‘Swayarnvar’ (1916) and ‘Sindhu’ in Ekach Pyala (1920). In 1964 he received the Padma Bhushan Award from the Government of India.
Bidaram Krishnappa (1866-1931)
Kannada Theatre in Mysore
Krishnappa came from a family of Yakshagana artists in South Kanara District of Karnataka. His father Vishwanathayya Kini joined the royal theatre of the Maharaja of Mysore Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar. His early death forced his two orphaned sons Krishna and Subba to start singing in an Anjaneya temple of the city to eke out a living. Krishna’s melodious voice caught the attention of many philanthropists and musicians of Mysore and he was drawn into music lessons under several Palace musicians Karagiri Rao and Veena Seshanna.
In no time, 19 year old Krishnappa became a Palace musician of Mysore himself and started performing all over South India. His strong sense of Tala or rhythm won him the epithet of ‘Tala Brahma’ or ‘Master of Rhythm’. The Maharaja awarded him the title of ‘Ganavisharada’ or one who excels in music.
A disciplinarian to the core, Krishnappa trained several students including the indomitable violinist T. Chowdaiah, B Devendrappa, R R Keshavamurthy, B Naranappa, Rallapalli Anantha Krishna Sharma and Bangalore Nagaratnamma. He was the first musician to start singing Kannada songs in concerts including the famed devaranamas of Purandaradasa which he popularized even in Madras. He was among the early male vocalists of South India to start recording on the gramophone.
Between 14th and 22nd August 1910, at the behest of Maharaja Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar several artists of the Palace were recorded by the Gramophone Company. This included the Carnatic band of the Maharaja, the Dramatic troupe of the Palace which also had Krishnappa rendering songs and dialogues, B Rachappa, M Shamanna, Prof Imdad Khan of Delhi and others, as also renderings of Carnatic music and devaranamas by Krishnappa.
Alfred Natak Mandali
“Salim aur Hasina ka gana” is a slapstick comedy track from the stage production ‘Asire Hir’ of the Alfred Natak: Company. It must have been a popular drama if gramophone records were issued. The actors Kashi and Murad Ali sound largely amateurish by today’s standards, but the recording offers a view of this very popular genre of entertainment - theatre, in pre cinema times.
Anandji Bhagwanbhai Pandya and Keshavlal Naik
This amusing piece with a strong social message belongs to Shri Deshi Natal: Samaj’s I928 production ‘Satta Ni Mad Ma’. Partly in dialogue and song, it is an endearing exchange between a married couple. The husband is concerned about the weight of the pots of water his wife has to carry, but his wife (played by Keshavlal) is unable to accept the solutions offered by her broad minded husband for fear of offending the male dominated society.
This performance of Anandji Bhagwanbhai Pandya and Keshavlal, ‘Bhari Dedo ane hoon to najukri naar’ was tuned by Master Cassum.
Shining Star Society
Theatre, as a precursor to Tamil cinema played a major role in the popularization of music in South India. Under the guidance of the father figure of Tamil theatre Sankaradas Swamigal (I867-1922), drama in the Madras Presidency saw a huge revival. He set up an all boys’ theatre: group where effeminate men and teenagers donned the roles of women too. This ‘Boys’ Company’ was established under the name of Bala Meena Ranjani Sangeetha Sabha.
Many of the later Tamil celluloid icons like M.G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan started their acting careers in the Boys’ Company.
Founder Trustee — Vikram Sampath