In a sense, Sangitnatak was a response to colonial domination. With the advent of the British, the systems of cultural production in native society had received a setback. Classical music was losing royal patronage in the durbars. But the popular rural form of Tamasha, which employed folk music, was also on the decline in urban areas like Pune and Bombay. Besides, the newly-educated middle class had imbibed Victorian values of morality from the British, looked down upon Tamasha horseplay and open sexual jokes as cheap and vulgar entertainment. This had created a vacuum in the cultural life of the region, which the new literate sought to fill with translations and adaptations of plays by Shakespeare, Moliere, and others. Although these created a taste for well-knit drama, their unfamiliar form and alien themes, significantly different from traditional theatre, could not fire the imagination of the general public. At the same time, translations from Sanskrit playwrights gained popularity among readers owing to the regeneration of interest in the indigenous literary and mythological heritage. Artists felt the need to invent an authentic cultural form to express suppressed creative energies and establish a meaningful relationship with tradition for their audience.
Influenced by Yakshagana, Bhave incorporated music as an important formal element. The songs in his plays were set to tunes from classical ragas as well as folk forms such as saki, ovi, dindi, and katav, and sung by the sutradhara to express the various characters' feelings. After Bhave, Datar Shastri developed the 'Vishnudasi' plays further. He started preparing written scripts on the lines of the 'bookish', or translated English and Sanskrit drama. There also includes the composed verse dialogue, and also used Kannada and Hindi in the lyrics. At the same time, interesting developments took place in Bombay's emerging Parsi theatre. It catered to the tastes of a new cosmopolitan audience and evolved a genre of entertainment. It presented well-made plots based on tales of fantasy interspersed with beautiful dances and melodious music.
In the 1880s, Kirloskar combined various elements borrowed from all these predecessors, and modified and recast them to create Sangitnatak. He perceived the importance of classical and folk music, the organized structure of Sanskrit and English drama, and the romantic and comic aspects of Sanskrit theatre. It is said that the performance of Indarsabba by Sorabji Patel of the Parsi theatre greatly impressed him. This is because of the fact that the actors themselves sang, unlike in Bhave's plays where the sutradhara used to sing all the songs. Kirloskar's Shakuntal, adapted from Kalidasas Abhiijnana Sakuntala, firmly established Sangitnatak in 1880. It had a close-knit form, and the romantic tale was well known to his audiences and conducive to music.
The characters delivered songs, as in the Parsi theatre, set to lilting melodies from classical, semi-classical, and folk music. Kirloskar employed Hindustani ragas such as Yaman Kalyan, Kafi, Deskar, Hindol, and Sohini, as well as Carnatic ragas like Lilambari, Arabhi, Sankarabharanam, andAnanda Bhairavi. Lesser-known Hindustani ragas like Lalitagauri, Marva, and Jhinjhoti were also used. Thus the play was like a concert of sorts. Padas were not external to the story but part of the dialogues. The dialogues were mostly in prose. They offered a lot of scope for actors to display their histrionic and singing abilities. Kirloskar was ably assisted in this endeavour by some of the best singer-actors of his time. The names can be mentioned as Balkoba Natekar and Moropant Waghulikar. They mesmerized audiences with their electrifying rendering of the padas. Kirloskar made his musicians sit in the orchestra pit, as in Western theatre, rather than in the wings, as in Bhave's plays. The middle-class spectators were enthralled.
After Kirloskar, G. B. Deval further refined Sangit-natak. He blended thepadas more organically with the text, the diction became more lucid, elegant, and, at times, poetic and intense. His play Sharada (1899) was a landmark. S. K. Kolhatkar's Viratanaya ('Hero's Son, 1896) experimented with musical forms borrowed from Parsi theatre. B. V. Warerkar added a new dimension with Kunjavihari ('Wanderer in Gardens', 1908), and R. G. Gadkari's plays (1912-19) proved eminently successful. But Bal Gandharva's Gandharva Natak Mandali and Keshavrao Bhonsle's Lalitkaladarsha Natak Mandali took Sangitnatak to its highest pinnacle. Their productions were instant hits, like Manapaman ('Honour and Dishonour', originally for Kirloskar, 1911) and Swayamvar ('Choice of Groom', 1916) written by K. P. Khadilkar, the first author who did not compose the music himself.
These plays made use of tunes picked up from the newly available records of such popular singers as Gauharjan, Johrabai, and Moujudin Khan, skilfully adapted by gifted 'music directors' like Govindrao Tembe (the first of this breed), Bhaskarbuwa Bakhle, and Ramkrishnabuwa Vaze, to provide a theatrical structure. They innovated on conventions of classical music to suit the dramatic situation, for instance the time for singing specific ragas, or the moods they could evoke. Some verse forms and their traditional melodies, like katav or dindi, even lent themselves easily to rhythmic rendering of prose dialogues and prose-like padas, thus adding an astonishingly easy flow to the language. Various changes in instrumentation took place. Previously only harmonium and tabla were used. Later, the Gandharva Natak Mandali introduced organ and two sarangis, which enhanced musical quality greatly.
After the 1930s, Sangitnatak began to slide. With the emergence of realist social themes from the mid-1920s, music and plot had already started to separate, because music could not be cast into the form that the new topics required. Sangitnatak remained in the straitjacket of traditional, classical, and similar styles of presentation. Music did not integrate with the narrative; on the contrary, it dominated, far exceeding the limits set by the context. Soon, people went to hear a play only as a recital. Moreover, it catered to the taste of limited sections of the middle class. The use of exclusively classical music, not exploring the links with bhakti or folk, rendered attempts to develop this genre futile. Besides, on stage, the singer-actors ignored their roles and utilized the space to project themselves only as vocalists. Bal Gandharva popularized singing to such an extent that the play was virtually thrown backstage when he came forward to sing. Alap (introduction), tankari (embellishment), and swaravilas (elaboration) were profusely utilized and productions went on for over six hours because of the demand for encores.
A general feeling that Sangitnatak was irrelevant, unnatural or an appendage grew among playwrights and the discerning public. Eventually, texts without songs, or prose drama, usurped the stage. The appearance of films in the 1930s as a medium of entertainment contributed substantially to Sangitnatak's decline in popularity. Cinema offered a lot of scope to artistes for narrative experimentation as well as compositions from various Indian musical traditions, therefore it could chart out ways left unexplored by Sangitnatak. However, playwrights like P. K. Atre and M. G. Rangnekar attempted to breathe life into Sangitnatak; producers like A. N. Bhalerao, through *Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh, staged the old plays more systematically.
After Independence, Vidyadhar Gokhale's Ranga Sharada Pratishthan tried to sustain the form in Suvama tula ('Weighed in Gold', 1960), Panditmj Jagannath (1960), Mandarmala (1963), and Madanachi manjiri ('Madan's Playmate', 1965), with very talented singer-actors like Ram Marathe, Ashalata Wabgaonkar, Arvind Pilgaonkar, and Jyotsna Mohile. Experimentation by the Goa Hindu Association through Vasant Kanetkar's plays such as Matsyagandha (1964) and Lekiire udandjali ('Too Many Brats', 1966), inserting songs more organically into the texture of the script, briefly rejuvenated the form. The Shiledar family also contributed to attempts at revival in the 1960s, as did Purushottam Darwhekar and his Ranjan Kala Mandir with productions such as Abol jhali satar ('The Sitar Has Become Mute', 1969) and Chandra nabhicha dhalala (The Moon Is Down', 1972).
Music directors like Yashwant Dev, Bhaskar Chandavarkar, and Jitendra Abhisheki brought a spirit of experimentation to the conception and presentation of song structures but it was short-lived. Chandavarkar and Anand Modak evolved a completely different idiom for Theatre Academy, Pune, in Vijay Tendulkar's Ghashiram Kotwal (1972), Satish Alekar's Mahanirvan (1973) and Begum Bane (1979), and P. L. Deshpande's Tin paishacha tamasha (1978, adapted from Brecht's Threepenny Opera). These may not qualify as Sangitnatak, yet they represent significant attempts to integrate various, including Western, musical forms in Marathi theatre.
The history of Sangitnatak illustrates how it evolved as a cultural strategy, but also reveals how an imperfect and inadequate understanding of the traditions of music and theatre language resulted in a stilted genre that became a curiosity. It remained imprisoned in the narrow classical confines of middle-class Brahman sensibility, and few attempted to explore the music available in various native traditions.
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