At the outset I would like to congratulate Gorakh Thorat for choosing to translate Abhiram Bhadkamkar’s novel Asa Balgandharva, and not any other account of Balgandharva’s life, which are available in plenty, in Marathi. Bhadkamkar’s account is by far the fullest account of the star-actor’s life in one place, in Marathi!
Secondly, I must also make a confession: I can read and understand Hindi and I did read Thorat’s translation fully, even as I had read Bhadkamkar’s book earlier. But, I am not an expert in Hindi and therefore my review does not claim to comment on the Hindi translation. All I can say is that I found it as readable as the Marathi novel.
Thorat rightly translates the Marathi title Asa Balgandharva as Balgandharva: Adhunik Marathi Rangmanch ki ek Mithak ki Talash, because the Marathi word ‘asa’ (lit, ‘this’ or ‘like this’) has a resonance among Marathi readers as the word comes from a well-known verse on Balgandharva, the celebrated female impersonator actor in early modern Marathi theatre. But that resonance would be lost in Hindi. More than that, in titling this novel as a search for a myth, Thorat indicates the nature of the novel: it is indeed a search, an exploration of the available fragments of an archive in Marathi which comprises some biographies, some unpublished sources and a few well known anecdotes/rumours/legends. Balgandharva, nee Narayan Shripad Rajhans (1888-1967), a female impersonator actor-singer in the newly shaping commercial and ‘modern’ Marathi theatre in colonial India was not only popular but was a ‘star-heroine’ and a trendsetting icon in the transformations in the idea of femininity. Befitting a ‘star’ in the genre of Sangit-Natak (musical-theatre), his life had a public presence engulfed in legends and rumours. Additionally, his life and career also went through rather unusual ups and downs. As a ‘novel’ Balgandharva retains the myth and the search for it becomes a theme in that novel.
Bhadkamkar launches the search through two frames. The outer frame comprises a contemporary interest in Balgandharva, the actor-singer, featuring a group of young men and one woman around the figure of a ‘Sir’. This elderly figure, perhaps a professor, is initially steeped in the nostalgia of Sangit-Natak but seems to awaken to the problematic of this theatre through the questions and concerns of the young people. The inner frame is created through the ‘archive’ on Balgandharva, mainly comprising autobiographies and biographies and some other material published in Marathi and well known public anecdotes about this theatre and the star actor. (A reference list is given at the end of the original version, but the translation does not carry it.) As such, this framing has indeed produced a fuller and a somewhat nuanced account of the protagonist’s life and times. But it is also limited by certain ideological trends. The review below takes up this question at the end.
Balgandharva’s career shows a clear graph of an ascent and a descent. In terms of historical times, he joined the famous Kirloskar Natakmandali (drama company) during the first decade of the 20th century and rose to stardom with the success of the play Sangit Manapaman in 1911. From then on, his success depended upon the glorious and opulent productions, first in the Kirloskar Company and from 1913 onwards, in his own Gandharva Natakmandali. But we need to understand its background first to make this event intelligible.
Marathi theatre claims a ‘new’ beginning in the mid nineteenth century. In real terms the ‘novelty’ at the beginning is mostly of the entry of the upper caste (specifically, Brahmin) men into a profession, hitherto unavailable and also ‘forbidden’ for them. Gradually, however, this new Marathi theatre established itself through an imitation/adaptation of western or European theatrical genres such as comic farces and importantly Shakespeare’s plays in translation and as model for independent Marathi plays. The all male composition of the emerging repertory drama companies in the Marathi region has much to do with the Brahminical rejection of women in theatre, on the one hand of hereditary women artists who belonged to either ‘lower castes’ or the ‘other’ religion, and on the other of ‘upper caste’ women on the basis of their ‘respectability’. This along with the emergent definition of theatre as a slice of life with moral instruction went a long way in nurturing the goals of cultural nationalism in colonial India. Sangit-Natak that emerged in the 1880s can be seen as the epitome of the earlier negotiations. Suffice it to note that Vishnushastri Chiplunkar, an influential Brahmin publicist congratulated the playwright Annasaheb Kirloskar for the production of the play Sangit Shakuntal by calling it an ‘opera’ and for avoiding to include the ‘prostitute’ actress who, acccording to him, were the very incarnation of immorality, in his play.
But it is also to be noted that the larger social and cultural transformations pan out with specific particularities in the life of an individual. For example, though some Brahmin men appropriated theatrical skills, there was never a clear acceptance of this profession in the conservative circles. The life-stories of especially the 19th century actors show that they had to face social censure and oftentimes, ostracism from caste, for their choice of profession. However, the Brahminical objection to the deviation was also easily resolved through rituals of purification and by the early 20th century theatre became an acceptable profession as far as caste was concerned. But, again, there was the question of sexuality. Life-stories of actors show that the female impersonator actors found it difficult to get married. This question is partly about the deviation from caste values but it is mostly about the unutterable possibilities of homoerotic relationships within the drama company. Thus, it became extremely important to get the female impersonator actors married as soon as possible for social respectability.
Balghandarva’s ascent as a trendsetting heroine for the fashioning of new femininity needs to be understood against this background. Bhadkamkar’s account of Balgandharva’s life shows some understanding of these issues as panned out in his sources. Even though he received the appreciation of the respected figures of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and encouragement and help from the Shahu Maharaj, the Prince of Kolhapur State, Balgandharva’s family was unhappy with his entry in theatre until he was married. And so, it seems that he was married off to Lakshmi, a girl from a poor Brahmin family, in haste. This resulted in, as the omniscient narrator of the novel—who is outside of both the narrative frames—tells us, an unsuitable marriage between a good looking and glorious bridegroom and an unlettered and commonplace bride, and never really matured into mutual love or marital satisfaction. Clearly, there is some anachronism here, since this is a common enough narrative of upper caste marriages in colonial India. In fact, Shripad Krishna Kolhatkar analyses this to some extent in his autobiography, Atmavrutta. In his account, it is not so much the looks of either party but the distance in the location of the man in the fast-changing cultural public world from that of the ‘respectable’ woman in conservative domestic sphere. Mutual love and companionate marriages became the agenda of the 1920s.
However, the latent homoerotic love also plays a part. Again, Bhadkamkar does indicate his awareness of this at two levels. Within the inner frame he highlights Balgandharva’s ‘dependence’ on his male friend Balasaheb Pandit, the growing interference of Pandit in the affairs of the drama company and the ensuing debts and financial instability of the drama company quite elaborately alongside the story of Balgandharva’s rise as a star. In other words, the narrative of Balgandharva’s rise as a star is on the one hand, a progressive narrative of his growth as an actor and as a superlative singer, the contribution and training of renowned musicians like Govindrao Tembe, and more importantly like Bhaskarbua Bakhle, playwrights like Kirloskar, Deval, Kolhatkar, Khadilkar and Gadkari, and teachers like Deval and others. On the other hand, the same period also shows the unpredictable commercial and financial success, sudden failures and debts and depression.
One more turning point came in 1919, with the production of the ‘tragedy’ Ekach Pyala, (Only one glassful) which portrayed the life of the alcoholic lawyer Sudhakar and his loyal wife Sindhu, who bears the life of abuse and impoverishment with dignity and finally succumbs to her death at the hands of her husband. In this play, the opulent and glorious spectacularization of the earlier female protagonists was rejected in favour of a poorly clad female protagonist, speaking and singing in tragic tones while she faces her fate. Marathi hagiographies of Balgandharva celebrate this moment as the epitome of Balgandharva’s portrayal of respectable femininity, even though several plays after 1919 till about 1930s re-captured the opulent glory of the female protagonist.
The 1930s start the period of descent in Balgandharva’s life. Bhadkamkar fixes the tipping point in the same tradition of some other biographers of Balgandharva. The focal point of these narratives is the entry of the woman-actor Goharbai Karnataki in Balgandharva’s life and his ‘fatal’ attraction to her. In a nutshell, the story as captured in the archive goes as follows: Goharbai Karnataki came to Bombay in the early 1930s, she was a fan of Balgandharva, she had also fashioned her own music by imitating him closely. She established herself in Bombay through alliances with several male directors and music producers, acted in a few films and published a few recordings. But her goal was to meet Balghandharva, and she tried hard for it. The meeting happened sometime in 1938. Balgandharva was attracted to her. He also saw Goharbai as a potential actress in his drama company while he transited to playing male roles. But that design did not work out, Goharbai failed as an actor-singer. Already facing financial problems, Balgandharva could not retire from theatre and had to return to playing female roles. But even then he did not leave Goharbai. The uncanny relationship continued, even at the risk of causing great trauma to Balgandharva’s wife and family and resulting in the death of the wife and the penury-stricken state of the family. Balgandharva and Goharbai’s life, on the other hand, continued in Balgandharva still helplessly playing the female roles, touring the countryside rather than the urban centres, falling seriously ill with a stroke but continuing to sing in concerts to earn money and Goharbai somehow ‘controlling’ his life and finances. Some biographers of Balgandharva have taken great pleasure in stating that Goharbai never attained the status of a legitimate wife despite their marriage and was excluded from Balgandharva’s public and state felicitations!
It is to Bhadkamkar’s credit that he narrates the story of Goharbai with much more nuance than the biographers. In contrast to the heartless biographers, Bhadkamkar posits a narrative of love, with sympathetic understanding. He is sensitive to the complications of love as well as to the inevitability of the financial difficulties of Balgandharva which made his later life a tragic public spectacle. He also ascribes a ‘duality’ to Balgandharva’s character: his uncanny ability to take glory and success equally with poverty and failure. But again, in the novelist’s opinion, this is not an acquired character, rather it is the ‘fate’ of the man, quite clearly seen by the astrologer when he first looks at the horoscope at the time of his birth!
With this, I turn to the final section of my review. Yes, Balgandhrava, as I said at the beginning, is by far the fullest and most nuanced account of the star actor’s life in Marathi. It offers the contemporary understanding of gender-sexuality and culture at two levels: at the level of the ‘archive’ the narrator reads into the archive rather than imitating it and is mostly open minded and sympathetic to forms of relatedness. Bhadkamkar also shows a keen understanding of the financial-commercial foundation of the business of theatre and shows the trends that drove the business into a shaky affair.
The outer frame of the contemporary characters trying to understand Balgandharva and the cultural trends of his times help render the question of gender-sexuality and business somewhat more legible. Instead of avoiding the question of homoeroticism, the young men in the group around the professor discuss the ‘bisexuality’ of the male actors. The lone young woman in the group discusses the lives of women like Balgandharva’s wife and Goharbai through a feminist lens, commenting on the amount of sorrow women have to face in their relationships steeped in patriarchy. Most importantly, Goharbai, otherwise treated as a sorceress tempting Balgandharva, appears ‘human’ in this account.
However, there are limitations to both the reading of the archive, and to the omniscient narrator and the group of contemporary discussants. The most pronounced limitation is the result of the faith in some version of populist theory of psychology, which deciphers a peculiar gender-body-mind connection. For example, the attribution of ‘effeminacy’ to Balgandharva (‘his walk became effeminate’) and taking recourse to an earlier biographer’s belief that by playing female roles Balgandharva’s ‘mind’ became woman-like so that he felt attracted by the aggressive man-like Goharbai. In many places the present novel repeats these turns found a-plenty in the archive. The ‘feminist’ viewpoint in this novel is limited to recognizing women’s domestic sorrow but fails to note the professional accomplishments of Goharbai. Nowhere is it mentioned that she was a star heroine in her own right in a Kannada drama company before her entry in Bombay. This account is easily available in Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur’s autobiography Rasayatra (translated into English in case the Kannada version is difficult to read!) Moreover, the portrayal of Goharbai (always referred to as Gohar in the novel) as someone who ‘knew how to use her body as the means to professional success’ does not even recognize the hidden ‘casting couch’ in the cultural industry. These are the limitations of understanding ‘love’ and gender at the level of populist theories of psychology and not lifting the understanding women’s cultural labour in the discourse of power that surrounds it. Shades of this are also seen in the portrayal of Sundarabai, a professional and successful hereditary woman singer who composed the music of the aforementioned Ekach Pyala. In the present novel, she appears almost apologetic about her music, while her recordings showcase her as an extremely powerful, erudite and confident singer. There are also accounts of her superb understanding of the recording industry and its future to the extent that she persuaded some unwilling ustads to record for the gramophone companies. Lastly, since the archival search in this novel is limited to the accounts of Balgandharva’s life the novel fails to set up the question of Goharbai’s ‘failure’ either in the 1930s debates on ‘respectable’ women’s entry in the culture industry or in the Marathi audiences’ latent homoerotic inclinations for a theatre or female impersonation. Added to these, in the archive, there is the Marathi regional bias against a ‘poorer’ Kannada theatre, which remains unattended in the present novel.
Another limitation is about the recognition of ‘bisexuality’ of the actors. I make two points in this regard. Firstly, the contemporary characters portrayed in this novel are still hesitant to even utter the word ‘bisexual’! The hesitation portrayed here shows (perhaps realistically?) the hegemony of heteronormativity in the discourse of sexuality among the elite group of characters in the novel. In her essay ‘A Different Desire, A Different Femininity’, Kathryn Hansen notes the silence surrounding sexual practices around this theatre in colonial times, and it seems that it still haunts the discourse of sexuality among the contemporary youth, as portrayed in the novel. At the same time, the novel does bring out the tormenting question of paedophilia in this theatre, albeit without specific details.
In conclusion, then, Balgandharva, as said before, is indeed a fuller account of the life of the protagonist, but it also reveals the limitations of the contemporary elitist Marathi discourse of gender and sexuality as well as cultural labour and leaves out the embedded narratives of exclusion and appropriation.
Urmila Bhirdikar is in the Department of Sociology, Shiv Nadar University, New Delhi.
 . Pt Mansur Mallikarjun, Rasayatra: My Journey in Music, translated by Pt Rajshekhar Mansur, Delhi: Roli Books, 2005.
 . Hansen, Kathryn, ‘A Different Desire, A Different Femininity: Theatrical Transvestism in the Parsi, Gujarati, and Marathi Theaters, 1850-1940’ in Queering India: Same Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society, edited by Ruth Vanita, New York: Routledge, 2002, 163-180.