Theatre is an art form considered to be a very rich aspect of the Indian culture. The first Marathi stage performance was the play Seeta Swayamvar done by Vishnudas Bhave in 1843. But it was more of an experimental form of theatre derived from the folk forms and the already existing Shakespearean and Parsi dramas. After that it took almost three decades for Marathi theatre to lay its foundations. But the tradition of Marathi theatre in the true sense of the term is said to have started with the musical Shakuntal staged by Annasaheb Kirloskar in 1880. Playwrights and directors used the old Sanskrit and English dramas as a reference and started writing and designing their plays and performances. The play Thorle Madhavrao Peshwe written by Vinayak Janardan Kirtane in 1961 can be said to be the first original historical play written in Marathi that was not an adaptation or one based on myth. Successful plays like Jhansichya Raniche Naatak (1870), Sawai Madhavravancha Mrutyu (1871), AfjhalKhanachya Mrutyuche Naatak (1871) and Malharrav Maharaj (1875) were staged during that period.
Era of Farcical plays - the springboard for social drama
Along with Bhave’s mythological plays, light-hearted farcical plays portraying the social life of those times were also done in large numbers. Dhongi Bairagyache Fars, Kutil Krutyadarsh Fars, Punarvivah Dukhhadarshan, Basundipuricha Fars, Khaprya Chorache Prahasan, Hunda Prahasan are a few of them. These plays commented or criticized comically on the contemporary social developments in those times, hence proving to be a conducive platform for the social drama that followed.
Era of musical plays
When Marathi drama companies were busy doing entertainment of the Marathi drama lovers with mythological plays between 1843 and 1855, a new star called Annasaheb Kirloskar was born on the horizon of Marathi drama. After the 1880s, farcical plays were overshadowed by the glamour of Kirloskar’s musicals. On 31st October 1880 in Pune, Kirloskar’s epic play Shakuntal was staged for the first time. This revolutionary effort laid foundation to the formulation of what we today call Marathi drama. The tickets for the show were sold out even before the day of the show; the auditorium called Anandodbhav in Pune where the play was presented on that day was jam packed with an eager audience. After the success of Shakuntal, Kirloskar wrote plays like Sangeet Saubhadra and Ramrajyavirog that enjoyed similar success. In the history of Marathi musical drama Annasaheb Kirloskar is regarded as the father of Marathi Sangeet Natak (musical drama). The Marathi theatre movement in a way stabilized thanks to the creative brilliance and organizational excellence of these plays.
Era of social drama
Govind Ballal Deval
The years between 1885 and 1920 were very productive in terms of the quality and the quantity of plays written for the Marathi stage, giving birth to excellent playwrights, directors and actors. On the forefront was Govind Ballal Deval with epic plays like Durga (1886), Vikramorvashiya (1889), Mruchhakatik (1889), Jhunjharrav (1890), Phalgunrav athva Tarbiricha Ghotala (1899) which was later converted into Sangeet Sanshaykallol, Shapsambhram (1893) and Sangeet Sharda (1899). Being the first of its kind, Sangeet Sharda is rightly called the pioneer of social Marathi drama. The play is very artistic and progressive in nature. Its story is full of simple but dramatic incidences. Govind Ballal Deval carried on the great tradition of Annasaheb Kirloskar’s Marathi theatre with the same success. The compositions from his plays are popular even today. Deval’s compositions, full of meaning and melody, fascinated Marathi theatre audience and lingered long in the minds of music lovers. They are said to be the golden treasury of Marathi musical drama. Even the verses from Kirloskar’s Shakuntal were written by him. Deval is said to have laid the foundation and given impetus to further writing in the thought provoking and progressive social genre of playwriting.
Shripad Krishna Kolhatkar
Kolhatkar was the most influential theatre figure in the post-Deval era. A new era began in Marathi drama and Sangeet Natak, initiated by Shripad Krishna Kolhatkar. His plays seem to be heavily influenced by the works of Moliere. The plays written by Kolhatkar are Veertanay (1894), Mooknatya (1897), Guptamanjus (1901), Mativikar (1906), Premshodhan (1908), Vadhupariksha (1912), Sahchaarini (1917), Parivartan (1917), Janmarahasya(1918), Shivpavitrya (1921), Shramsaafalya (1928) and Mayavivah (1928). A major characteristic of his plays was the variety evident in them. They were full of suspense and fantasy. Their storylines were new and imaginative. The wit and parody in his plays was exceptionally brilliantly crafted. Kolhatkar thought that Kirloskar’s old compositions were not favourable for extension and he composed a verse in Raag Malkans (a classical note), creating shock waves among the established norms in musical drama. He introduced compositions into Marathi plays that were from Parsi and Urdu theatrical style. These plays were an instant hit and became very popular amongst the audiences. Kolhatkar’s first few plays had singers like Bhaurao Kolhatkar, who were blessed with a heavenly voice, hence adding to the popularity.
Contemporary relevance of plays
Krishnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar
A very ambitious theatre person in nature, Khadilkar lent beauty and might to the Marathi theatre movement. Kanchangadchi Mohana, written by him in 1897, was a play about an imaginative solemn character Prataprao who propagated the notion of independence. His play Keechakvadh, actually based on mythical stories but full of contemporary relevance, was the first political play in Marathi. It was instrumental in arousing a public sentiment against the atrocities of Lord Curzon and hence it was banned by the Government in 1910 after running in the theatres for only three years. After that all of his plays like Bhaubandaki, Maanaapamaan, Premadhwaj, Vidyaharan and Satvapariksha gained immense popularity. Khadilkar’s Maanaapamaan has been a miraculous gift to Marathi musical theatre. Working hard continuously for six years in Kirloskar company along with Balgandharva resulted in the rise of Gandharva Natak Mandali (drama group). Balgandharva’s exemplary skills gave justice to the play Maanaapamaan and took Marathi theatre to new highs. But the next play Sangeet Swayamvar written in 1916 started a new era on Marathi stage. It excelled the earlier plays in terms of music and melodious compositions and scaled new heights of popularity. After Sangeet Swayamvar he wrote the plays Draupadi, Menaka, Savatimatsar, Savitri and Tridandi Sanyaas. All the main characters in Khadilkars plays are sublime, inspirational, and full of might and bravery.
Ram Ganesh Gadkari
A playwright who considered Kolhatkar to be his guru, Ram Ganesh Gadkari followed suit by writing plays based on new and independent storylines. Gadkari was part of Kirloskar Natak Mandali where its manager Shankarrao Mujumdar took keen interest in him. Bal Gandharva was at the height of his powers this time and asked Gadkari to write a drama for him. Vedyancha Baajaar and Garvnirvan were the first plays he wrote. Later his plays Premsanyaas, Punyaprabhaav, Ekach Pyala and Bhaavabandhan achieved great success. He had told BalGandharva to act in torn clothes in his play. In the play Ekach Pyala, BalGandharva had to play the feminine character of Sindhu, who is a poor but devoted wife of a drunkard named Sudhakar. His play Rajasanyaas (a play based on the life of King Sambhaji) was left incomplete because of his death. In a short writing career spanning only eight years, he mesmerized audiences with his bright language and fantastic imagination. His plays are full of grandeur, spontaneity, and funny, bizarre happenings. Gadkari’s poetry is even more famous than his plays. He wrote poems under the pen name Govindagraj. His poems exerted major influence in the decades following his death. Gadkari also tried his hand at humour under the pen name Baalakram.
Sawarkar’s three plays Usshaap, Sanyastakhadga and Uttarkriya are notable for their dialogues and dramatic content. The plays fundamentally commented on socio-political issues. Similar in style to his other works in literature, Sawarkar’s plays caught the eye of readers and audiences because of the radiant language and the sense of rebellion in them.
B. V. (Mama) Warerkar
Mama Warerkar, as he was fondly known, started writing plays in 1914 and continued writing till 1960. Hence it is possible to sketch a graph of the changes in the condition of Marathi theatre over that period. His earlier plays Sanyaashaachaa Sansaar (1919), Turungaachya Daaraat (1923) and Sattechey Gulam (1927) aimed at creating social awareness. But his play Bhoomikanyaa Seeta (1950) tries to unravel the psychological complexities of Seeta also talking about male-female relationship, king-subject relationship and empowerment of women.
Influences of modern media and world theatre
Natyamanvantar and Andhalyanchi Shaalaa
The Marathi theatre movement underwent a slump after 1925 thanks to the growing influence of radio and cinema. But it was due to the cinema and radio that Indian theatre became aware and informed about the progress on the western theatre scene. Inspired by new sensibilities in world theatre, K. N. Kale, Anant Kanekar, G. Y. Chitnis and S. V. Vartak started a theatre group called Natyamanvantar. In 1933 Vartak’s Andhalyaanchi Shaalaa (Blind School) opened in theatres. This was the first Marathi play to have a female actor. It was also revolutionary in bringing naturalistic sets, acting, background music and lighting on Marathi stage. Although NatyaManvantar stopped functioning in merely four years owing to the ideological differences among its members, its tradition of making naturalistic plays was taken forward by the likes of P. K. Atre and Altekar in their plays. Vishram Bedekar’s BrahmaKumari, a mythological play with contemporary relevance, is also from this decade.
P. K. Atre
The years between 1933 and 1943 are said to be the Atre Age of Marathi theatre. His first play Sashtang Namaskar became popular overnight and fetched him acclaim. It literally brings to life the world of a capricious person. Not only is this play an excellent parody on the traits of human behaviour but it also gave the theatre tradition in Maharashtra an interesting turn. Atre wrote many plays after that namely Sashtang Namaskar (1935), Gharabaher (1934), Bhramacha Bhopala (1935), Udyacha Sansar (1936), Lagnachi Bedi (1936), Moruchi Maushi (1947) and To Mi Navhech (1962). In all of these plays Atre shows as excellent sense of characterization, situation building and dialogue writing. Atre was instrumental in helping the farcical genre attain a respectable status in society.
M. G. Rangnekar
Rangnekar founded his own theatre group called NatyaNiketan and presented his plays through this group. Through his plays he portrayed issues pertaining largely to the Marathi middle class. For example he brought forward the problems of the working young woman in Ashirwad whereas KulaVadhu discusses the problems of a female artist. Taking into consideration the change in the taste of the audiences, he incorporated five-six popular genre cinema-like songs in each of his plays. They were simple to understand and easy to sing and hence were preferred over the traditional NatyaSangeet instantly. Realistic setting, dramatic dialogues and light hearted themes made his plays very famous in his times. Majhe ghar, KanyaDaan and Vahini also ran successfully in theatres.
Doosra Peshwa, Vaijayanti and Kounteya are examples of plays V. V. Shirwadkar wrote between 1947 and 1954. He also adapted Shakespeare’s Macbeth into Marathi by the name Rajmukut. In that period, on one hand his plays show Khadilkar’s influence on his style of writing but on the other hand they have been staged in modern styles. Hence these plays are considered to be very important to have served as the link between tradition and modernity on Marathi stage.
P. L. (PuLa) Deshpande also wrote interesting plays like Tuka Mhane Aata (1948), Ammaldaar (1952), Bhagyawan (1953) and Tuza Aahe Tujpashi (1957) in the first decade after independence. Amongst these, Tuza Aahe Tujpashi is the one was most successful. It is even staged by various groups even today. It is a complex mixture of several cultural issues.
Baban Prabhu wrote farcical plays in the same period. Zopi Gelela Jaga Zala (1958) and Dinuchya Sasubai Radhabai (1960) are two farces by Prabhu that achieved tremendous success on the Marathi stage. Such farces were instrumental in bringing certain flexibility on Marathi stage in terms of incorporating a different kind of wit and humour in the scripting and the free acting style.
The likes of Bal Kolhatkar and Madhusudan Kalelkar became well known for their family dramas or living room dramas. These kinds of plays were a hit amongst the masses. Thousands of shows of Kolhatkar’s Waahato Hi Durvanchi Jodi have been performed till date.
Around the mid-sixties novelists and litterateurs like G. N. Dandekar, Vyankatesh Madgulkar and S. N. Pendse wrote for the stage. They even adapted their own novels like Shitu, PavanaKaathcha Dhondi, Raje Mastar, Garambicha Bapu, Yashoda etc. into plays.
Modern day Marathi Theatre
The decade between 1955 and 1965 saw Marathi drama open new avenues for itself with the likes of Vijay Tendulkar, Vasant Kanetkar, Jaywant Dalvi, S. N. Pendse, Vidyadhar Gokhale, Ratnakar Matkari and P. L. Deshpande starting off as playwrights. The journey from tradition to modernity had begun. Revolutionary plays like Khanolkar’s Ek Shunya Bajirao (1966) and Tendulkar’s Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe (1967) changed the course of the Marathi theatre tradition. This period also saw theatre personalities like Madhukar Toradmal - Sainik Navacha Manus, Kaley Bet Laal Batti, Jhunj, Tarun Turka Mhatare Ark etc. and Purshottam Darvhekar - Warhadi Mansa (1964), Abol Jhali Sataar (1968), Katyaar Kalajaat Ghusali etc. emerge as playwrights and directors. The commercial drama scene brightened up with V. V. Shirwadkar’s Aamcha Naav Baburav, Natasamraat, Vidushak and Veej Mhanali Dhartila as well as by the plays written by Suresh Khare and S. N. Navare.
Vasant Kanetkar set a new benchmark as a commercial theatre playwright with the quality of his plays as well as the number of shows that were done of his plays like Vedyacha Ghar Unhat, Raigadala Jevha Jaag Yete, Ithe Oshalalaa Mrutyu, Vishavrukshaachi Chhaya and Himalayachi Savali. Kanetkar wrote plays on a variety of themes and tackled a wide array of issues through his plays. His control over the design of a play and ease in dialogue structure make his plays special. He can be said to be the most popular playwright ever on the commercial Marathi stage.
The first playwright responsible to take Marathi plays beyond the frontiers of Maharashtra and even India was Vijay Tendulkar. Plays like Gidhade, Sakharam Binder, Baby, Ghashiram Kotwal, Mitrachi Goshta, Kamala, Ashi Paakhare Yeti etc. created ripples throughout Maharashtra and elsewhere. Tendulkar stretched the limits of daring and experimentation in an otherwise conventional theatre tradition. An in-depth understanding of the medium enabled him to go beyond the boundaries of the Marathi language. He realistically portrayed the complex relation between the common man and society with all its nuances and intricacies. Neither was he in search of simplistic resolutions to problems that exist in society, nor did he find naïve and convenient endings to his plays, hence making his art large.
Jaywant Dalvi made the commercial audiences watch plays and think about them differently with thought provoking plays such as Sabhya Gruhastaho and Sooryaasta. He also adapted his novels into plays like SandhyaChhaya, Mahasagar and Barrister.
The generation of playwrights that followed included names like Mahesh Elkunchwar, Satish Alekar and G. P. Deshpande. Elkunchwar experimented with form in his plays Garbo, VaasanaKand, Party and RaktaPurush. His trilogy Wada and Atmakatha talks about the complexity in interpersonal relations and the rising communication gap between individuals. He used humour, wit, sarcasm and verse to achieve the desired effect.
Satish Alekar brought freshness into Marathi theatre with his one-act plays like Bhajan, Jhulta Pool, Bhinta and Walan and plays like Mickey ani Memsaheb. Through personal experiences, Alekar tackled the absurdity in his times in the middle class in Pune and its lifestyle using black comedy as a tool in his play MahaNirvan. He has portrayed the problems of hangover of the Sangeet-Natak tradition and the problems pertaining to the middle class in Begum Barve. Mahapur is an excellent work on issues of the youth, the trauma of heartbreak and ideological differences between two generations.
Udhwasta Dharmashala a play written by G. P. Deshpande was staged first in 1974. This play is a verbal political play considered to be a very important play to have been written in the 70s. a few other important plays written and staged in the 70s were Chal Re Bhoplya Tunuk Tunuk by Achyut Vaze, Thank You Mister Glad, HamidaBaichi Kothi and Putrakameshti by Anil Barve and Ti Phulrani and Teen Paishyacha Tamasha by P. L. Deshpande.
Important plays written after 1985 include Kon Mhanto Takka Dila by Sanjay Pawar, Chahul and Charchaughi by Prashant Dalvi, Adhaantar by Jayant Pawar, Kirvant by Premanand Gajvi, Mumbaiche Kavle, Shobhayatra and Samadvibhaj Trikon by Shafaat Khan, Chaarshe Koti Visarbhole and Surya Pahilela Manus by Makarand Sathe, Wata-Palwata by Datta Bhagat, Saavalya by Chetan Datar and Sathecha Kaay Karaycha by Rajiv Naik.
Rajiv Naik has also written theoretical books on Marathi theatre. Naatakatil Mithak and Khel Naatakacha are two such books which discuss in detail the concept in theatre such as time, space etc.
The amount of theatre that is being done on the commercial as well as parallel stage in Marathi is very encouraging. The Marathi theatre scene is the most happening in the whole of India.