Maharashtra is known as the land of scholars, poets and actors. Over the centuries, many great personalities from this state have contributed to the development and evolution of India’s cultural heritage. Poets and actors of Maharashtra present their art with rustic simplicity and utter frankness. An entirely unique genre of musical drama aka Natya Sangeet, rooted in Hindustani classical music, developed under the guidance of these maestro singers, poets and actors.

Natya Sangeet is basically a unique kind of musical theatre that depicts the story in musical form.  As the name suggests, Natya Sangeet, combines Natya-drama and Sangeet-music; this art form is a combination of both prose and poetry. It blends patriotic feelings, social issues along with cultural milieu.


The History of Natya Sangeet

This art form is believed to have taken birth in the 19th century. In those times, classical music and theatre were solely in control of the rich or aristocratic and royal families. Common people were not allowed to watch and enjoy classical music. During this era, Natya Sangeet emerged as an alternative form of theatre that the public could enjoy and appreciate. This way they got aware of classical music since Natya Sangeet is based on it.


Even today, Natya Sangeet has a noticeable presence in Maharashtra and a loyal audience base.


In 1879 play writer and producer Trilokekar individually presented, Nal-Damayanti, a brilliant play for Marathi audiences that incorporated music in the story narration. This play is considered to be the first ever musical play that was enacted on Marathi stage.


Subsequently, Annasaheb Kirloskar (also known as Balwant Pandurang Kirloskar) presented another musical play titled Shakuntl. It was inspired by Abhijñānaśākuntalam (Devanagari: अभिज्ञानशकुन्तलम्), a famous Sanskrit play written by Kalidas. The tradition of musical drama started by him has continued and enthrals audiences to date.


Mohan Nadkarni wrote, “A visionary who lived ahead of his times, Kirloskar hailed from North Karnataka. He was an educated man, a poet and gifted writer of musical plays and an equally talented actor. And, what is more significant, he had also an exceptionally refined taste for music. In sum, he was destined to become the founding father of Marathi musical drama. The songs he wrote for his plays were an utterly delectable assortment of sakidindi and lavani tunes side by side with those from Hindustani and Carnatic music”. Source link 4

Origin of Natya Sangeet

The origin of Natya Sangeet can be traced to classical and Indian semi-classic music style. Natya Sangeet has lyrics in form of songs, poetries, nazm and gazals which are sung by the actors in the drama (natak). Thus, Natya Sangeet uses all the classical styles of singing which comprise of Thumri Ang, Khayal Ang, and light classical forms like Bhavgeet, Tappa and Dadra. Hence, Natya Sangeet is also a kind of vocal art in which the background instrumentation music rivets the composition entirely in sync with the lyrics. “The key difference between Natyageet and Bhavageet is that the latter stresses more on words while the former gives a lot of significance to Raga.”

In earlier time performance artist of Natya Sangeet were called from all across the country to entertain gatherings of the rich and royals. Gradually it became very popular amongst the common people. The art became so famous that, during British rule, they were compared to western Operas.

 Natya Sangeet was primarily based on the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. This was understood by audiences who could easily relate to them. The Natya Sangeet themes were mostly focused on small but engaging stories from these epics. Rather than presenting the entire story, a small yet powerful part of the epic was presented in an extremely majestic form.

These sub-stories were very simple and easy to understand; therefore Marathi audiences were attracted to this art form. This art form gradually brought about a change in entertainment for the masses. Consequently, Sangeet Natakas became extremely popular which inspired many actors and dramatists to adapt this art form. 


Popular dramas and notable personalities of the Natya Sangeet

With the popularity and growing success of Natya Sangeet, many dramatists began to experiment with this art form on stage. This experimentation gradually pushed the mythological plots and themes into oblivion.


The new range of Sangeet Natyas were mainly focussed on social issues. These were intended to make the audiences more aware of contemporary issues and social ills in society. One such example of a female-centric play is Sangeet Sharada. Here the sentiments of a young teenage girl who was to be married to an old widower are depicted beautifully. This play struck a deep chord with female audiences.


Kichak Vadh, another form of Natya Sangeet drama (natyas) is highly popular drama among Marathi audiences. In Kichak Vadh, the British ruler was equalled to an evil character from Mahabharata Kichak, who had tried to malign the reputation of queen Draupadi. In this drama, Draupadi represents the downtrodden and backward sections of Indian society. This play effectively showed how British rulers harassed their subjects. The British were so disturbed with their portrayal that they banned these dramas.


Dr Vidya Hattangadi wrote, “Similarly the famous musical drama Ekach Pyala by Ram Ganesh Gadkari depicts the pathetic decline of the alcoholic and the devastating effects his addiction has on his family life. How his family gets devastated because of his addiction.” Source link 1


One of the most renowned dramatists of this art genre was iconic Marathi stage actor Bal Gandharva. He was recognised for his legendary singing style.  Though his actual name was Narayana Shripad Rajhans he was popularly known as Bal Gandharva, a name given to him by Lokmany Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He secured his special place in Marathi stage by portraying and enacting female characters in numerous Marathi plays. In those days, women were not allowed to take part in any form of enactments on stage. Bal Gandharva essayed the role of women characters with full conviction. His iconic depiction of the opposite gender attracted a huge number of women to his plays.


Bal Gandharva started his career on stage under the guidance of Anna Saheb Kirloskar. It was in 1905 that Bal Gandharva first joined Kirloskar Natak Mandali, Anna Saheb's theatre company. This theatre company was managed by Mujumdar and Nanasaheb Joglekar. Unfortunately, Nanasaheb Joglekar passed away in 1911. After his death theatre actors had problems working under the control of Mujumdar Company since he was considered to be manipulative and dictatorial. Due to these problems production of Natak Mandali gradually decreased and it suffered heavy losses. 


Deenanath Mangeshkar was another well-known Marathi theatre personality who was known as a musician in Natya Sangeet and for his contribution as a Hindustani classical vocalist. He joined the Kirloskar Natak Mandali and Kirloskar Sangeet Mandali at the age of eleven. Deenanath Mangeshkar is also the father of world-class singers Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Usha Mangeshkar and the famous composer Hridaynath Mangeshkar.


Also read

1 Incomparable Natya Sangeet

2 Poets of Maharashtra

3 Super hit Natya Sangeet by Manik Verma

4 Marathi Natya Sangeet: A Trend-Setter in Indian Musical Drama

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