Those familiar with the folk arts of Thanjavur would have heard of gondhala as an accompaniment to the Poikkal Kudirai dance. But this aspect of gondhala was a much later development. Although gondhala is now known as a Marathi folk art, it perhaps had its origin in Karnataka, and then spread to Maharashtra. Kalyani Chalukya king Someswara III (1126–1138 CE), author of Manasollasa , systematised the dances of the Bhils and called them chitra gondhalis. Jayan, a commander-in chief of the King of Warangal, in his work Nritya Ratnavali written in 1240, says that gondhala is a dance festival of the Bhils of Kalyana, in Karnataka.
Gondhalis in Maharashtra were not restricted to one caste. There were Brahmin gondhalis, Renukrai gondhalis, Kadamrai gondhalis, Koombhar gondhalis and so on. The appeal of the gondhali songs was such that Chatrapati Shivaji himself used to give gondhal performances in honour of Amba Bhavani of Pratapgadh!
The gondhalis are worshippers of Renuka and Tulja Bhavani. The Renuka gondhalis say they originated from sage Jamadagni and Renuka Devi. The story goes that Parasurama killed a demon and used his head as a musical instrument. This is the tuntun, the drone instrument of the Gondhalis.
Kadamrai gondhalis were hereditary office holders in the Tulja Bhavani temple.
The gondhalis later became ballad singers too, rousing the patriotic fervour of the Marathas against the Muslim forces. Many of them were appointed as artistes in the Maratha army. They served as spies and fighters too, when needed. Gondhalis who, until then, had been singing mythological and religious songs, have come up with songs about Shivaji, Tanaji, Bajirao, Bhansaheb, Malharrao Holkar and Dattaji Shinde. These ballads of the Gondhalis were called powadas. There were at least 300 popular powadas. In 1891, Harry Arbuthnot Acworth and S.T. Shaligram collected 60 ballads and published them. Acworth’s English translation of 10 of them was published in 1894.
Types of troupes
While describing the art, Ramchandra Chintamani Dube quotes from an unpublished Sanskrit text — Amalikaagraama Mahatmya . Amalikaagraama is present day Mahur, in Nanded district, Maharashtra, where there is a temple for Renuka Devi. Three types of gondhali troupes are described in this text. A superior troupe has 32 members. One that has 16 is passable and one that has eight is inferior. There is a warning that a troupe should not have less than eight members. The text gives instructions about the size of the area in which the performance should take place, about playing musical instruments and so on.
When the Marathas became rulers of Thanjavur, they brought the gondhal tradition with them, and there were so many gondhalis in Thanjavur, that an entire street was named Gondhala theru! Gondhala is referred to in an original side civil suit that came up in 1912 in the Subordinate Judge’s court in Thanjavur. Many Modi manuscripts were translated and presented during the court hearing. If the translations had been available, they could have shed more light on gondhala in Thanjavur.
Although Amalikaagraama Mahatmya forbids a troupe that has less than eight members, in actual practice, for a long time, there have been only five members — the main storyteller called Nayak, another singer who sits behind him, also called nayak, the gundala player, the cymbal player and the tuntun player.
The Sanskrit word ‘gud,’ means to indulge in playful activities. From ‘gud’ came the Marathi word Gundala. Gondhala comes from ‘gundala.’ From Gondhala comes the name of the dancers, Gondhalis. The gundala is made of bronze or wood. The mouth is covered with buffalo hide. Two such drums are joined together with a thick rope and slung over the left shoulder. The drum that produces the ‘na’ kara sound is struck with a stout stick and the one that produces the ‘tha’ kara sound is struck with an ‘S’ shaped stick. The tuntun is made of wood. The mouth is covered with skin and a hole is made in it, through which a string is passed. The other end of the string is tied to a bamboo, which is bent slightly and fixed to the wooden structure. The string is struck gently with a small stick.
Must in weddings
Gondhala performances take place during the worship of Bhavani, Mallari and Khandoba (manifestations of Siva), Mahalakshmi, and also during Navaratri. In addition, Gondhala was mandatory in weddings and cradle ceremonies among Deshastha Brahmins and Marathas. After all the wedding rituals were completed, the gondhala would begin around midnight, and end early the next morning. The gondhalis would sing songs making fun of the groom’s family and the bride’s family. This good natured ribbing helped the families relax, and laugh at each other’s foibles. “There were even songs about local issues. Gondhala, therefore, had a significant social purpose,” says Babaji Rao Bhosle, Prince of Thanjavur. “Gondhalis were knowledgeable about a lot of things — religion, international politics and economic issues.”
“The gondhalis are mostly male, although women too sometimes form part of the troupe,” says Bhosle. “Kaliamma Bai, mother of Thanjavur based Poikkal Kudirai exponent Nadi Rao, was a gondhali.”
The players in the troupe are dressed colourfully. The nayak wears a turban with zari, which is decorated with cowrie shells. He wears anklets and a cowrie shell necklace with a gold pendant, which has Goddess Bhavani embossed on it.
Dube writes that gondhalis were highly respected during the reign of the Peshwas, and received many expensive gifts - “bracelets, earrings, bags of money, shawls and an abundance of food.” In course of time, interest in gondhala began to wane, and even as early as 1894, Acworth wrote that gondhalis had not come up with any new songs and the last new one was about the railways.
Babaji Rao Bhosle says that for his wedding gondhalis had to be brought to Thanjavur from Tuljapur. Bhosle says that even in Maharashtra most people don’t arrange for a gondhala performance at weddings. Instead they just pay the gondhalis in Tuljapur to offer a performance at the temple. The art, according to Bhosle, has been reduced to mere tokenism. “In conversations with Marathas settled in Thanjavur, I find that many of them want to have gondhala at weddings, but don’t know where to find artistes,” he says.
Dr. Eleanor Zilliott and Dr. Maxine Berntsen record three events that offer hope regarding a revival of gondhali. Bhimsen Joshi had a gondhali perform at his house-warming ceremony. In 1982, Indian National theatre sponsored a festival of traditional performers at Pandarpur, and Gondhal was acclaimed as the most dramatic among all those presented. The Central Government’s Song and Dance division sent a gondhali party to tour the villages in Nashik district, where they gave performances on family planning and agriculture. Zilliott and Berntsen write: “Of all the traditional performers in Maharashtrian popular Hinduism, the Gondhalis seem to have the best chance of surviving in the modern world.” Babaji Rao Bhosle who wants to train folk artistes of Thanjavur in gondhala, can take heart from these words.
Books referred to :
Encyclopaedia of Indian literature, volume II, published by Sahtiya Akademi, edited by Amresh Datta
Ballads of Marathas- H.A. Acworth and S.T. Shaligram
The Experience of Hinduism: Essays on religion in Maharashtra- edited by Dr. Eleanor Zilliott and Dr. Maxine Berntsen
Gondhala Sahityam- T.R. Bhima Rao
Administration and social life under the Maratha Rulers of Thanjavur- K.M. Venkatramaiah