Govindrao Tembe

Govindrao Tembe

Govindrao Tembe
Photo credit: Makarand Tembe


♫ Marathi natyageet in Raga Mand [Harmonium solo]

♫ Song from AYODHYACHA RAJA (1932)
[From the oldest surviving Indian talkie; song written, composed & sung by Tembe]


About Govindrao Tembe

Govindrao Tembe
Vaman Hari Deshpande
(Translation by Ram Deshmukh and B.R. Dekhney)

Govindrao is dead and with him is gone the majesty of the mehfil. His
arrival at a concert or at a theatre-gathering was indeed an event. The
audience would whisper “Govindrao is here … Govindrao is here,” and
when he left the mehfil would appear deserted. The only person whose mere
arrival could light up a mehfil and who could almost extinguish it when
he departed has now left us permanently!

I had seen Govindrao at music recitals on several occasions before I
was formally introduced to him. To watch him hear and appreciate classical
music at a concert was itself an aesthetic experience. I can recollect
an entrancing recital by Manji Khan with Govindrao in the forefront of the
select audience. On such an occasion it used to be difficult to decide
whether one should listen to Manji Khan’s singing or watch Govindrao’s
appreciative gestures and the charming responses reflected on his face.
I began to feel an irresistible desire to be introduced to this person and
get to know him well. This happened twenty-six years ago though its memory
is still as fresh in my mind as if it had happened yesterday. Govindrao is
no longer amidst us and his death has created a void which is not likely
to be filled in future.

Govindrao’s death was unexpected. Of late, he had taken considerable
interest in the work of the Central Audition Board of All India Radio.
He had gone to Delhi in connection with the work of this Board and suffered
a heart attack on 29th September, 1955. Dr. Sumati Mutatkar conveyed the
news to the Minister in charge of Information and Broadcasting Dr. B.V. Keskar
and Shri P.M. Lad, I.C.S., who took keen personal interest and had Govindrao
removed to Wellington Nursing Home. They also arranged for a thorough medical
check-up and treatment by expert doctors. It was felt that somebody from
Govindrao’s family should go over to Delhi and stay with him. Shri P.M. Lad,
Secretary to Government in the Department of Information and Broadcasting,
wrote to Govindrao’s eldest son, Pilunana and called him to Delhi. For the
first few days Govindrao was unable to move his hands and feet. But soon he
rallied round and was well enough to send a telegram home saying – “I am feeling
better. The A.I.R. officers have made excellent arrangements for my treatment.
There is, therefore, no need for anybody from the family to come here. There
is absolutely no cause for anxiety.” In the meantime his youngest son, Bhaurao
and his eldest daughter-in-law, Indirabai, had left Kolhapur for Delhi; but
having seen (at Pune) the reassuring telegram from Govindrao they returned home.
Fearing that the telegram might not have reached Kolhapur and that Bhaurao
might have started for Delhi, Govindrao pressed Pilunana to go to the Delhi
Railway Station to fetch him. Pilunana left the Nursing Home for the station.
At 5.35 p.m. Govindrao suffered a heart attack apparently caused by a coughing
fit which brought his life to an end in a matter of seconds. When Pilunana
returned from the station at 7 p.m. he found that his father had passed away.
Officers of the All India Radio rushed to the hospital on hearing the news.
Dr. Keskar too came to pay his respects to the departed soul. He gave
instructions to his officers in regard to the funeral. During this terminal
illness of Govindrao, Dr. Keskar, Shri P.M. Lad and Dr. Sumati Mutatkar had
paid personal attention to Govindrao’s treatment and made every effort
to make his stay at the hospital as comfortable as possible. They all
felt a sense of guilt for the tragedy since it was in response to their
invitation that Govindrao had gone to Delhi.

It appears that Govindrao’s death was destined to take place in Delhi, the
Capital of India. In a sense it was both natural and inevitable. He had lived
like a prince; so it was proper and fitting that he should breath his
last in the Capital of India. Born in a middle class family and pursuing
a career in music, theatre and literature, Govindrao went through events
and experiences which even a prince would have envied. He was on the most
intimate and cordial terms with Rajas and Maharajas. These latter at least
had or seemed to have the responsibility of running the affairs of their
States. Govindrao did not have any. He was fortunate enough to enjoy the
beauty and fragrance of a rose without suffering the pricks of the thorns.
He did not have to worry about running the affairs of his family or perhaps
he was not habituated to bear the burden of family anxieties. As he was always
surrounded by artists, the affluent and the powerful, his personal needs were
automatically taken care of. He was, therefore, in a position to give undivided
attention to the pursuit of beauty in all its forms. He did not hanker after
the impossible and did not, therefore, suffer the pangs of unfulfilled desires.
It should also be said that he was extraordinarily adept at drawing the curtain
over tragic happenings.

In this connection an incident in his life is worth recording. Some
sixteen years ago, while Govindrao was staying with me in Bombay, he lost
his most intimate friend and patron, the Yuvaraj of Mysore. He returned from
the funeral with a very heavy heart. I had never seen him so stricken with
grief. I said to him, “Your life has been a shock-absorber. You have the
capacity to neutralize the impact of any grief or calamity. Why are you so
distressed today?” He immediately put a rein on his grief. It was not a
surprise that he was so grief-stricken that day; the surprise was that he
collected himself so quickly.

This trait is probably shared by many great artists. Bhaskarbuwa
Bakhale lost a dearly loved daughter. When he found that friends and
relations around him showed no sign of coming out of their gloom, he asked
them, “Why are you all so quiet? Why don’t you ask me to sing?” Govindrao had
a similar quality of aloofness in things, which he maintained throughout
his life; and it was because of this detachment and restraint that he was
able to become such a faithful worshipper of beauty and enrich it in so many
different ways.

This statement of mine may surprise many, but I am making it with a
full sense of responsibility. I have reached this conclusion after observing
him at close quarters as his disciple over a long period of twenty-five years.
Govindrao, however, always treated me as a close friend and allowed me privilege
of observing the innermost workings of his mind. Govindrao enjoyed the good
things in life becoming their captive. He did not allow himself to be
carried away.

The purest among the classical artists used to take particular delight
in singing light Marathi compositions of Govindrao. By now there have been
numerous successful Marathi sound-films but it was Govindrao who brought
‘sound’ to Marathi cinema by his dialogues and songs in the film
Ayodhyecha Raja (The king of Ayodhya). It was he who set the style of
writing on music in Marathi. In his celebrated book Maza Sangeet Vyasang
Govindrai has adopted a model for later writers on music.

He traversed different spheres of life and thereby enriched his own
life. He also established several high water-marks in his art career.
Both these things are very important. Leaving aside his brief spells
as a clerk, as a pleader, and as a manager of a circus troupe, his playing
diverse roles as a stage actor, as a playwright, as owner of drama company,
director, composer and director of stage and cinema music, shows the
extensiveness of his life and versatality of his interests. Similarly his
extraordinarily high reputation and popularity as a musicologist, song-writer
and composer show the depth of his interests.

Although Govindrao pursued various interests and vocations in his life,
his main preoccupation for nearly half a century was harmonium playing.
If he was famous in Maharashtra and outside, it was because of his
uncommon skill as a harmonium-player. He revolutionized the art of
playing on the harmonium. Harmonium is an instrument basically suited
to Western music. Govindrao brought Indian classical music within the
ambit of this instrument and for nearly forty years he identified himself
with it so completely that Govindrao and harmonium became almost
synonymous terms.

There had been harmonium players before Govindrao, many of his
contemporaries played harmonium, and there is no dearth of such players
even today; but none could cast his spell on the audience as Govindrao did.
He made the knowledgeable give their nod of approval and appreciation,
mesmerized the ignorant and the uninitiated, and induced the serious-minded
to store the music in their memory. His technique of fingering was so perfect
and entrancing that it was not observed in any other player except those few
who were fortunate enough to have received training from him. Govindrao
in his prime displayed extraordinary virtuosity but he never allowed sheer
skill to mar the aesthetic charm of his performance. The compositions he
played on harmonium were rhythmic and of a caressing quality and utterly
free from acrobatics. This needs to be emphasized because acrobatic exercises
dominate present day musical performances!

Narayanrao Bal Gandharva’s music, naturally sweet and velvety in its
smoothness, clothed with the discipline of conventional classical music,
is, broadly speaking, how one can describe Govindrao’s art. I was often
intrigued to find that Narayanrao often referred to Govindrao as Guruwarya
and Govindrao rated Narayanrao very highly. The mystery was cleared when
I heard Govindrao playing on the harmonium one day and attended Narayanrao’s
vocal recital on the following day. It became quite clear to me that these
two artists had an identical aesthetic conception. When I met Narayanrao at
Nagpur on one occasion, he told me, “I have immensely benefited from
Govindrao’s help and guidance. You also should take full advantage of his
knowledge and direction.” Although Narayanrao developed his aesthetic
ideology quite independently, there is no doubt that its origin and
inspiration is traceable to Govindrao.

It cannot be said that Govindrao received training in harmonium-playing
from any particular teacher. His career in harmonium playing actually
started with Marathi stage-songs and it was further developed under the
influence of celebrated stage artists like Bhaurao Kolhatkar, Dattoba
Halyalkar and others whose company he sought and enjoyed. Later his
harmonium-playing became more brilliant and sophisticated through listening
constantly to famous Vocalists like Bhaskarbuwa Bakhale, Mojuddin Khan,
Miyajan and Alladiya Khan. It acquired both a rare charm and a structural
integrity. He had heard all the well-known vocalists and instrumentalists
of his period and had on occasion provided them accompaniment
on the harmonium. He took immense pains to reproduce in his playing
every nuance and improvisation employed by these artists with the same
unerring grace and neatness. He would not rest content with mere precision
of the notation unless he also reproduced the grace of the singer; and even
if he got the bandish right he was not happy if he did not reproduce it
with the special caressing quality of his playing. Today the situation is
precisely the reverse. Present day artists think they have not established
their expertise unless they eschew all feelings and emotions from their
performance. How I wish Govindrao were here to show them the way in this
distressing situation! It is indeed unfortunate that performers
who are now lost in their acrobatics did not hear Govindrao when he
was at the zenith of his career.

One special feature of Govindrao’s art was the restraint he exercised
while performing. He always prepared an appropriate background for
exhibiting the pure beauty of a certain note (swara) or a group of notes.
In doing so, he never did anything which would mar the beauty of what he
meant to present. He appeared to adopt a certain plan or strategy in the
presentation and development of his art of playing. He made each rhythmic
cycle (avartan) serve as the background for the succeeding cycles and each
succeeding series appeared to enhance the melodic quality of what he had
played earlier, till the whole pattern of notes reached a crescendo almost
like a logical sequence. His tana patterns were also organized with the
same objective in view and the internal structure of tana patterns
was aimed to achieve similar artistic culmination. Uncommon success is
achieved in the field of music only if there is an integrated design
in expression.

Govindrao devoted himself whole-heartedly to the study and practice of
harmonium-playing and vocal music and without allowing his art to
become sterile and dull he made beauty its sole aim. His entire life
was full of grace and charm. The creator had showered on him all the
choicest gifts. He was a good listener and appreciator of art, be it
vocal or instrumental music, dance or literature and his
face would glow with pleasure whenever he could discern even a
fragment of beauty in the presentation of art. Mogubai Kurdikar only
recently said to me, “Govindrao alone could appreciate good music; he
alone knew when, where and how much appreciation to bestow on a performer.”
Govindrao’s heart appeared to have a number of chords, each reserved for
a separate performer. If an artist could strike the proper chord he would
get immediate response from Govindrao and his face never failed to, register
this appreciative response. This was the main reason why both artists and
listeners cared so much and longed for his presence at concerts. One who
aspires to become an eminent artist must have very sharp and sensitive
ears and an exceedingly receptive heart. To lose this sensitivity
is to block the road to eminence.

Although Govindrao had derived much knowledge in music from
Bhaskarbuwa Bakhale and although he always remained beholden to him, his
ultimate loyalty, so far as music was concerned, was to Khansaheb Alladiya
Khan. His devotion, his love for Khansaheb was boundless. He once said to
a friend in my presence, “I regard even a dog at Khansaheb’s house as
sacred.” By way of self-defence he immediately added, “Khansaheb’s dog also
would be such as would possess a dignity no other dog can have.” Since his
devotion and loyalty to Khansaheb was so completely unadulterated it was
only natural that the influence of Khansaheb should have been discernible
in his aesthetic ideology, harmonium-playing, temperament and even his
gestures. His harmonium playing was entirely based on Khansaheb’s
gayaki (style). He had not only searched for Khansaheb’s aesthetic
principle but had actually found and mastered it. The only difference
(and this was inevitable) was due to the technical changes made necessary
by the different media through which it was expressed – human voice and
the harmonium.

Perhaps because the harmonium could not fully absorb Govindrao’s
musical virtuosity, the overflow was diverted to theatre. His achievements
in music had their origin in Marathi stage music; and now he dedicated to
the same stage music what was not fully absorbed by the harmonium. The
music compositions which he contributed to the Marathi plays – Manapaman
and Vidyaharan – brought about a two-fold revolution in Marathi stage music.
The tunes he gave to the stage music were based on pure classical Hindustani
music. But along with it he also provided semi-classical music of the
Purab (Eastern) variety. Since then, Marathi stage music has represented a
very happy combination of highly classical and Purab style music
and the credit for blending these two variants of Hindustani music
must go to Govindrao.

Though music was Govindrao’s first love, his literary life was
equally rich. In him music and literature went hand in hand and
his artistic life would not be fully revealed or understood unless
we take into consideration this happy and rare blending of two
kinds of talents. His published literary output would amount to
nearly 2000 to 2500 printed pages (without counting his other
scattered published material numbering about 500-1000 pages of
articles on Bhaskarbuwa Bakhale, the famous singer Goharjan,
etc.). These include Maza Sangeet Vyasang, his autobiography; a
work on scientific analysis of music, his biography of Alladiya
Khansaheb, his several plays, his music compositions as well as operas.
His literary contribution is thus variegated and rich, taking into
consideration the variety of topics dealt with and the excellence of
expression and style.

His famous book Maza Sangeet Vyasang will remain an immortal
achievement not only in the field of fine arts but also as a priceless
piece of Marathi literature. This publication has given a new turn to
literature on music. It has also opened a new vista in Marathi
literature while giving an appreciative account of the contribution of
famous musicians he had heard. The book, while drawing attention also to
the abiding values in music, in a sense, established a new tradition of
appreciative writing on musical performances. Govindrao must be considered
the high priest of this literary genre. His recent book Kalpana Sangeet
has again made a new and valuable contribution to scientific literature
on music. His novel interpretation of the evolution and development of
the various notes of the octave, his novel method of written notation
based on western staff notation, his new classification of ragas (Jati
vyavastha) which is essentially akin to that of Bharata and which is
distinctly different from Pandit Bhatkhande’s Thaat system and his
selection of about a hundred ragas to portray their structural beauty are
some of the main features of this work. This book is indeed a fine blending
of science and artistic experience.

One more important facet of Govindrao’s career is his contribution to
musical compositions, an activity in which he concentrated the quintessence
of his musical career. He also wrote and staged his plays, e.g., Tulasidas,
Patwardhan, Varavanchana etc. He himself wrote the lyrics for these plays and
set them to music. These songs soon attained the status of highly classical
khayal compositions. It is indeed rare to come across a person who combines
in himself the qualities of a musicologist, first-rate music composer and
a man of letters. In ancient Sanskrit lore such a gifted person was
designated – Vaggeyakar. Govindrao was the Vaggeyakar of modern times.
Yet one more outstanding achievement of his career as musician, actor
and playwright were the operas which he composed, directed and staged.
Jayadev and Mahashveta, which were only recently broadcast on All India
Radio, are two examples of the operas he wrote. Mahashveta was also put
on the stage. Swaranatikas (operas) were an entirely new addition to
Marathi literature and Marathi stage critics have expressed many
different views on them. Are these operas essentially a form of music
or a form of literature ? Do they lend themselves easily and appropriately
to the employment of high class music or, alternatively, folk music? Does
classical music obstruct the natural flow of an opera ? Would the staging
of operas necessitate changes in stage-craft ? These are some of the
technical issues which have arisen in this context. To employ high
classical music so as to make a play fully musical and to run it on the
stage for two hours and a half, smoothly and in a manner which would
sustain public interest, needs considerable imagination, tremendous
effort and skill of a very high order. These operas are the culmination
or end-product of Govindrao’s experience as an actor (the principal roles
played by him were Dhairyadhar, Kach, Dushyant, Arjun, Pundarik, Charudatta
etc), as a playwright and as a music composer. They also provide irrefutable
evidence that Govindrao, even at the ripe age of seventy-four, still
retained his freshness of outlook, his zest for novelty and his
readiness to experiment.

I went to Pune towards the end of August 1954 and I found Govindrao
preparing to stage an abridged version of Soubhadra for the All India
Radio. When I called on him he was asking the man who played the role of
Narad to sing the song Radhadhar Madhu Milind. I had previously heard the
man sing but on this occasion his performance was absolutely entrancing.
It was a clear demonstration of how an ordinary artiste’s performance
could be transformed into great art under Govindrao’s magic touch.
How can one do full justice to Govindrao’s artistry ? I have learned
from him many cheejs during the last twenty-five years. I had yet to
learn from him many more. I had to discuss with him innumerable subjects
and I had to explore the mainsprings of his artistic life. I used to find
my discussions with him completely absorbing. We had spent long hours
together and I was looking forward to spending even more
time in his company. But it proved to be a dream. He went away without
a word of farewell. He has departed leaving the art of music orphaned!
When he left for Delhi be had promised to return in about a month. But
he was to go to that place from which no traveller returns!