(Last Updated on : 29-01-2009)
Keshavrao Vitthalrao Bhonsle was popularly known as 'Sangit Surya' or Sun of Music for his amazing versatility in singing. He was born in the year 1890 in a poor family of Kolhapur. Bhonsle could not receive a formal education and was brought to the prestigious Swadesh Hitachintak Mandali in 1893. The owner and director, Janubhau Nimkar, spotted his talent, trained him in the basics of stagecraft, and gave him small roles. In 1902, he played the heroine Sharada in Deval's Sharada, followed by Subhadra in Kirloskar's Saubhadm, both staples of Sangitnatak. Govindrao Tembe coached him for the songs in these plays. Later he learnt classical music from Dattopant Jambhekarbuwa and Ramkrishnabuwa Vaze. As a result of differences with Nimkar he left Swadesh Hitachintak, of which he had become a partner.
Keshavrao Vitthalrao Bhonsle went to Hubli in Dharwad district, Karnataka, and co-founded the phenomenal Lalitkaladarsha Natak Mandali on 1st January 1908. The company proudly proclaimed the 'patronage of people' rather than the patronage of a prince. It won great popularity and critical acclaim for its fine performances and innovative experiments in realistic stage setting by the soon-to-be-famous Anandrao Painter. Bhonsle switched to male roles later on though he won great appreciation for his female impersonation of Mrinalini in Wamanrao Joshi's Rakshasi mahatwakanksha i.e. 'Demonic Ambition' in 1914. In Warerkar's Hach mulacha bap i.e. He's the Bridegroom's Father' in 1918 and Y. N. Tipnis's Sbaha Shivaji i.e. 'Shahaji and Shivaji' in 1921, he first took women's roles, then male ones. In 1917, he became sole owner of Lalitkaladarsha. In 1919, he staged Sanyashyacha sansar i.e. 'Sanyasi's Life' by the company playwright, Warerkar, in Bombay. He did the first open-air Marathi performance of Sudraka's Mricchakatika in Kolhapur, at the behest of Shahu Maharaja in 1920. His progressive outlook and alliance with the radical political movement was evidenced both by his plays and by his co-production of Khadilkar's Manapaman i.e. 'Honour and Dishonour' with the Gandharva Natak Mandali in 1921. This was for the reason to raise money for Bal Gangadhar Tilak's Swarajya or self-rule Fund. In contrast to Bal Gandharva's style marked by feminine elegance, Bhonsle represented masculine vigour and dynamic vitality. He electrified audiences with his powerful voice, which could easily move through all scales. Although a great singer, he never allowed his acting to take a back seat. He also introduced the red velvet curtain and mechanical electrical bell to Marathi theatre. Three months after his collaboration with Bal Gandharva he contracted typhoid and died. Lalitkaladarsha continued the fine tradition through Bapurao Pendharkar and Nanasaheb Chaphekar. Pendharkar brought it to Bombay, where Warerkar provided script after script and all of them were successful. Some of the names can be mentioned as Turungachya darat or 'At the Prison Door' in 1923. This one dealt with untouchability, Satteche gulam or 'Slaves of Power' in 1927 dealt with the problems of political power. Sonyacha kalas i.e. 'Golden Spire' in 1932 dealt with exploitation of labour. Under P. S. Kale the tradition of realistic sets continued. Lalitkaladarsha also produced fine actors among whom Nanasaheb' Phatak ranks first. After Pendharkar's death in 1937, his son Bhalchandra was trained by the company's guru, Vaze. It resumed production in 1942 and persevered with the Sangitnatak tradition into the 1990s. The sole Sangitnatak company to survive for over eighty years, it fought a losing battle despite talented music directors such as Vasant Desai, Neelkantha Abhyankar, and Yashwant Dev as well.