Bal Gandharva played a woman in more than 25 films

His singing was “in a voice naturally suited to both female and male roles”

Published - December 09, 2017 04:18 pm IST

 Rajhans finally played a man’s part in Dharmatma.

Rajhans finally played a man’s part in Dharmatma.

The crumbling of an era coincides with the emergence of another, the ensuing churn crushing the fortunes of many. Take, for instance, the transition from silent cinema to sound. Motion pictures were never the same again.

Actors who had once lit up the screens with their beguiling faces found it hard to keep up with new accents and aesthetics. In India, talkies arrived just four years after The Jazz Singer (1927) marked the end of the silent film era in the U.S., with Alam Ara (1931) heralding the age of ‘song and dance’, which hasn’t yet waned.

While many prominent silent film icons in India were female stars, in the very first silent feature, Raja Harishchandra (1913), Dadasaheb Phalke was compelled to cast cameraman Anna Salunke as Taramati because it was still anathema for women to work in cinema.

What is perhaps less known is that Phalke overturned this in his very next film. He cast pioneers Durgabai Kamat and Kamlabai Gokhale in Mohini Bhasmasur, also released in 1913. Meanwhile, Salunke’s stint included a triumphant turn in Phalke’s Lanka Dahan (1917), where he played both Rama and Sita.

A revival

In theatre, women started working on stage from the 1870s in a sporadic fashion, but the trend of celebrated female roles being played by men continued till the 1930s at least. Singing stars like Bal Gandharva (stage name for Narayan Rajhans) oversaw a veritable revival of Marathi Sangeet Natak, with his portrayal of women in more than 25 classic productions under the aegis of his own company, the Gandharva Sangeet Mandali.

In the late 30s, the company roped in Gohar Bai Karnataki of Bijapur to take on the mantle of its prima donna. Rajhans married her in 1951.

In 1935, under a six-film contract with V. Shantaram’s Prabhat Film Company, Rajhans finally took on a male part — that of Sant Eknath in the devotional biopic Dharmatma , which was made in both Marathi and Hindi. Approaching 50, he had temporarily dissolved his debt-ridden theatre company and all but abdicated his throne as the custodian of feminine iconography on the Marathi stage.

His singing was “in a voice naturally suited to both female and male roles. Clear enunciation, proper emphasis, and ability to enter the sentiment of a song were his special achievements,” wrote sociologist Meera Kosambi. Thus it wasn’t too much of a stretch to picture him as Eknath, whose devotional expression through abhangas and folk poetry almost transcended conventional notions of gender. In Dharmatma , Rajhans wore a dhoti and long tunic, his head was sheared but for a Brahmin’s lock of hair, and he sported a moustache, but traces of his female persona of 40 years endured.

Although Dharmatma was successful, and Rajhans was able to pay off his debts, he refused to play Tukaram in Prabhat’s next. According to Madhura Jasraj’s biography of her father, Shantaram, Rajhans wanted to go back to playing a woman. The stalemate resulted in his contract being terminated. Sant Tukaram was ultimately released in 1936, with Vishnupant Pagnis in the lead.

Widely regarded as one of Prabhat’s best productions, it won a Special Recommendation at the 5th Venice International Film Festival. Like Rajhans, Pagnis had worked extensively in female roles. Directors Vishnupant Govind Damle and Sheikh Fattelal had initially resented his selection, but Pagnis adapted his feminine style to match the role of a saint “whose verses reflect an urge towards god as a woman pines for her lover,” writes academic Rina A. Pitale.

Pagnis became immortal in the part and even performed as Tukaram in live performances for years. Rajhans’ next film was Baburao Painter’s 1937 recording of a live performance of the play Sadhvi Meerabai , which was a disaster at the box office. It marked the end of his short-lived cinematic career.

The writer sought out cinema that came at least two generations before him, even as a child. That nostalgia tripping has persisted for a lifetime.

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