A cultural icon

Print edition : July 22, 2000
P.L. Deshpande, 1919-2000. G.P. DESHPANDE

ONE inevitably thinks of the two historic pats on the back in Maharashtra's cultural history. In the first decade of the 20th century a young and aspiring vocalist, Narayan Rajahans, was singing in Pune. Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak was in the audience. As the young man concluded his recital and touched Tilak's feet, the grand old man of the anti-imperialist struggle and the first icon of 20th century Maharashtra, patted him on the back and said that Narayan was a young Gandharva (Bal Gandharva). He gre w up to prove Tilak more than right. He became the second icon of Maharashtrians.

In 1930 or thereabouts, Bal Gandharva was in the audience when a young man played a famous Bal Gandharva song on the harmonium. Gandharva patted him on the back. Yet another icon was born. P.L. (Pu.La.) Deshpande was his name.

The man was known by his Marathi initials. A number of Marathi writers and public figures are. But how was Pu.La. known is not an easy question to answer. What was he known for is a question that is far more difficult to answer. Somewhere deep within him was a musician and a musicologist. He popularised vocalists such as Mallikarjun Mansur, Kumar Gandharva and Gangubai Hangal. Maharashtra loves vocal music and vocalists. P.L. was one among many who made that love real, discerning and lasting. Even at th e risk of ativyapti (overstatement) one must say that the phenomenon of collections of poetry having titles of a line from Bandishes is a phenomenon made possible entirely by P.L. (and also Keshvarao Bhole). The level of musical literacy in Mahara shtra is quite high. P.L. was one of those who made it possible.

The end of the Second World War and the years immediately before and after it worked wonders with modern Marathi writing. Mardhekar's modernist poetry, Madgulkar's short stories and P.L.'s humour were products of this period. It was said of Govindrao Tem be (actor, musician, music director) that he made solo performance on the harmonium respectable. As his contemporaries put it, Tembe brought the harmonium from the side of the stage to its centre. P.L. did not quite do that but came fairly close to doing it. He did the same to vinoda (humour). He and C.V. Joshi created almost classical humour. Consider Batatyachi Chal, Vyakti ani Valli (the 1965 Sahitya Akademi award winner. One mentions this because it is not his best book. Chal sh ould have got it!), Apurvai, Purva Raya and the rest.

WHAT kind of a writer was he? Immensely popular. Humorous, poignant, witty, near-philosophical and all the rest. In contemporary Maharashtrian society, urban society that is, the lower middle class is dying. P.L. tried to capture that class, its history, its worldview and its memories.

This is such a strong instinct with him that even when he is writing about the West, the book turns out to be more on the lower middle class worldview. Batatyachi Chal is some kind of humorous elegy of this class. This fictitious chal is a larger-than-life cultural reality of modern-day Maharashtra. It is a multi-caste community. But clearly there is only a limited number of castes. These people are clerks, schoolteachers, music teachers and the like. As we go through its poignant accounts we realise that it is an elegy for a dying, if not already dead, class.

Indeed in his most famous play Tuzhe ahe Tuzhepashi there is an elegy of the aristocracy from the (Maharashtrian) princely States such as Indore or Gwalior. A man who has a fine taste in music and situates the music in his feudal surroundings neat ly and indeed discerningly, who speaks Marathi in a slightly Urdu-affected manner, who knows all the answers, is at the centre of the play. The play was a runaway success, coming as it did within five or six years of the States becoming the part of the I ndian Union.

There was a populist in Pu.La. This populism made his writing highly sceptical of Gandhi and Gandhians. In the upper middle class Maharashtrian ethos this was neither new nor surprising. One would have thought, however, that given his sensitivity P.L. wo uld have risen above it. But he did not. Acharya (The Gandhian character in the play described above) becomes a pathetic caricature of himself. The urban middle classes lapped up the portrayal.

This populism made him equally suspect of modernism in poetry. Modernism never had an easy going anywhere. If in Europe the Marxists joined the conservatives to bash it up, here even the liberals joined the crusade. The ambivalence of P.L.'s attitude on modernism is more than evident in his early writing. Later perhaps as an atonement he (and his wife) did public performances of readings from Mardhekar. Yet a sceptic always felt that his heart was with Borkar and Khanolkar (liberal romantic poets whose poetry was also read by them) rather than with Mardhekar. You can buy the cassettes of his Borkar readings. I do not know if you could get hold of his Mardhekar readings altogether that easily.

This is strange because he had one connection, albeit tenuous, with Mardhekar. Mardhekar has written a brilliant poem on Ganpat the grocer. P.L. Deshpande made a film on a grocer's shop assistant. Mardhekar's Ganpat Vani (the Grocer) indulged his futile dreams of adding a floor to his dilapidated house. P.L.'s shop assistant saw himself in a number of roles which he would never be able to play. A classic of a film. No brave new world awaited Ganpat Vani. Nor did it look any the real for P. L.'s shop assistant; except that Mardhekar is ruthless, P.L. is soft and indulgent.

The reason for this is the nostalgia. No, not the nostalgia of the Tarkovsky kind. Tarkovsky's nostalgia is a function of certain history. P.L. Deshpande's nostalgia is an escape from certain history. It is not easy to understand this nostalgia. Frankly, I do not. But his world, however nostalgic, captivates me. There is something nostalgic which does not quite leave any one of us, maybe.

P.L. was a remarkable performer. His one-person shows created a genre in Marathi theatre. Gulacha Ganapati (the film on the shop assistant) is one big P.L. performance. He wrote that film and composed music for it. He directed it and played the le ad role in it. In the final analysis, he was a performer par excellence.

Carlyle once said that there are very few lives well spent. P.L.'s was surely one of the few well-spent lives. "Well-performed" might be more accurate, though.

G.P. Deshpande is Professor of Chinese Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. One of the foremost Marathi playwrights, he is a winner of the Sangeet Natak Akademi award.

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