Theatre or plays in Marathi are referred to as natak, the literal meaning of which is, well, drama. Although drama is just one aspect of a play, in our culture and tradition it represents an integral aspect. Natak wasn’t just an art form created for entertainment; it was also a way of storytelling. Most plays came into the limelight by talking about the social and political events of their respective eras.
It will be hard to confirm the exact date and place of the very first natak in Maharashtra. There is, however, evidence to suggest that it all began even before the Peshwa-Maratha era. The Maratha era saw the rise of a different art form that mingled with the plays, called powada; a genre of Marathi poetry that emerged during the late 17th century. Early powadas were composed using eye witness accounts and would narrate historical events in an inspiring manner. The powadas were instrumental for keeping alive the idea of Swaraj and Marathi pride induced by Shivaji Maharaj in the general populace. Thus, theatre and associated art forms found the funding and support of the princely class and the Maharajas and Peshwas would normally be part of the audience.
By the late 18th century, Vishnudas Bhave, a leading dramatist, pioneered the presentation of Marathi theatre, staging famous plays like Seeta Swayamvar, which had the Raja of the princely state of Sangli as part of the audience. Later, Annasaheb Kirloskar, another Marathi playwright, translated the four acts of Kalidas’ renowned Sanskrit play Abhidnyan Shakuntalam. He presented them on stage in 1880 as a musical play titled Shakuntal. It comprised a mix of Hindustani and Carnatic classical music and paved way for Sangeet natakas, which would dominate the 19th century. Govind Ballal Deval, a part of Kirloskar’s theatre group, was mentor to illustrious students like Bhaurao Kolhatkar, Ganesh Bodas and Bal Gandharva. While his plays Durga, Mricchakatika, Jhujjarao and Sanshaykallol were legendary, it was Sharada that was a milestone in terms of bold natakas. Sharada voiced against the custom of marrying young girls to older men. Such was its impact that it led to the introduction of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, passed in 1929.
From then on, plays would not only be an art form for retelling stories but also a form of portraying the right and wrong in society. Krushnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar was a noted writer and also editor of Kesari, a newspaper started by the great Indian freedom fighter Lokmanya Tilak. His plays would attack the social traditions of the time and appeal to masses with an aim to support the freedom struggle. Keechakvadha was based on an episode in the Mahabharata, which metaphorically attacked the policies of the British colonial Government. The play was later was banned for its revolutionary impact. Other notable plays composed by him include Bhaubandaki, Maanapmaan, Satvapariksha and Sangeet Swayamvar. A central character from some of these plays, played by Bal Gandharva, gained mass appeal.
Narayan Shripad Rajhans, better known as Bal Gandharva (a name given to him by Tilak), was known for his soulful voice and great acting. He gained fame for his portrayal of female characters in Marathi plays, as women were forbidden to take part in plays back then. The songs rendered by him are, till date, considered classics and greatly appreciated by Marathi critics and audiences. Bal Gandharva helped revive Marathi plays, which faced difficult times after great singer-actor Bhaurao Kolhatkar’s death. His contemporaries include Keshavrao Bhosle (known as Sangeet Surya) and Deenanath Mangeshkar. Ram Ganesh Gadkari was another theatre veteran at the time and is considered the greatest poet-dramatist in India, after Kalidas.
Marathi theatre, nevertheless, lost its impact and hold over the audience since the introduction of cinema. Despite the popularity of other art forms introduced ever since, Marathi theatre came through and even today, finds a good audience. Theatre is still considered an important art in Maharashtra, especially in a culturally-inclined city like Pune. Sangeet natakas of the Bal Gandharva era are being revived and have found immense respect and adoration among the audience.
Jaanta Raja, a popular play chronicling the life of Shivaji Maharaj and written by Shiv-Shahir Babasaheb Purandare, has been staged over 800 times, not only in Maharashtra but also in Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Agra, Madhya Pradesh and even the United States! The drama casts over 200 artists, along with animals such as elephants, camels and horses, bringing historic scenes to life. Marathi Bana is another stage act that has kept alive the tradition of Marathi theatre and sangeet.
Looking at the response Marathi natakas and theatre are getting in the 21st century, we can confidently say that the art form will thrive for generations to come!