Juggling a family business of mangoes with musical shows under his banner Chaurang, Ashok Hande has created 9 different musical programmes over the past 25 years. The producer, writer, director, art-director, music director and narrator of these shows - talks at length about life before and after the "70 mm" Marathi musical -MARATHI BAANA (1300+ performances to date) with Deepa Ranade.
Ashok Hande - Centrestage in MARATHI BANA
Deepa Ranade (DR): A big milestone - 25 years of Chaurang. Hearty congratulations to you. Rewinding back in time, how did you become a singing star?
Ashok Hande (AH): Thank you. My earliest singing memory goes back to my school days when I was considered a 'picnic star'. I would be asked to sing and there I would be - singing away. Even during my college days at Ruparel, it was expected that I would sing at picnics. While in college, I had written and performed a show called 'Pasayadan tey Kasaydaan' depicting the deterioration of Marathi culture, which in many ways can be seen as the beginning of MARATHI BAANA.
DR: From whom have you learnt singing and how did you familiarise yourself with the various song and dance forms of Maharashtra - ranging from tamasha (folk performing art of Maharashtra), bhakti geet (devotional songs) to tribal tunes?
AH: I am not a trained singer, but somehow I think I was born to be one. I grew up in Rangari Badak chawl in Lalbaug which had 16 buildings and 10,000 residents. It was a crowded, noisy area but it was also the hub of cultural and festive activities. There I have seen dombari khel (street acrobats), bhaloo naach (bear dance), powadas (short performances about patriotic leaders and historical figures), performed lezim (a drill routine with cymbals), heard kirtans (songs from religion and mythology) and speeches of prominent leaders like Acharya Atre and Yashwantrao Chavan. I participated enthusiastically in various competitions during the Ganpati festival. That was my learning ground.
When I visited my home town in Junnar district during vacations, I saw Vasudev (a dervish announcing the arrival of dawn) visiting homes early morning, people going for Khandoba jaagar (staying up through the night in devotion of Lord Khandoba) - that was a big lesson in rustic folk music. In college as part of the NSS (National Social Service) group, I footed out over 100 kms through the tribal areas of Vangani -there I picked up their music. I have taken lessons from life.
DR: Who has influenced your singing performances?
AH: I have many gurus. From kirtankars Sonopant Dandekar, Nijampurkar Baba to shahir (poet) Sable, Amar Sheikh, Balakram Worlikar Kalapathak who put up dazzling shows of Marathi folk songs and dance. From musical plays like GHASHIRAM KOTWAL and TEEN PAISHACHA TAMASHA that I watched in Chhabildas Natyamandir - I learnt the dynamics of putting up musical shows. From Shivshahir Babasaheb Purandare I picked up the confident manner of presentation. I also learnt a lot from the radio -my film music knowledge comes from our neighbour Bendkhale's radio, the only one in our whole chawl!
DR: When did you launch your banner and why did you name it Chaurang?
AH: There are three primary colours -red, yellow, blue; we are adding the fourth colour to the palette with our music and dance - hence, Chaurang. It was launched on August 7, 1987 with a medley of Marathi folk and film songs -MANGAL GAANI DANGAL GAANI. It was only after our trip to London that the show became a blockbuster and we have staged over 1800 houseful shows of it since then.
DR: What prompted you to launch shows based on Hindi film music?
AH: Noted Marathi singer Sudhir Phadke was the chief guest at our 725th gala show of MANGAL GAANI... and he said that while he could barely manage the two musicians on his show, he was impressed that our show had played on for so long with 40 musicians. He urged me to reach out to a wider audience and thus AWAZ KI DUNIYA based on Hindi film music was born. GAANE SUHAANE is another kind of show about the impact of film songs in our lives.
DR: And then came MARATHI BAANA which changed the perspective of Marathi shows altogether! Can you recall the first show?
AH: MARATHI BAANA was conceived as a "70 mm" Marathi cultural show on stage. We Maharashtrians are very humble. I wanted to fill the Marathi manoos (man) with pride about our culture and also educate the younger generation about our rich heritage. MARATHI BAANA is straight from the heart! The first show was staged at Dinanath Natyagruha in Vile Parle on November 01, 2005. It was the auspicious occasion of Diwali pahaat (dawn) and the show was sold out. Siddhivinayak temple trustees sent ladoos (a sweet) to be distributed among all the viewers. This is a truly blessed show. The show includes the farmers' lives, the tribals' stories, bhakti sangeet (devotional music), tamasha-lavani (folk dance), celebration of various festivals, koli dance (popular folk dance by the Kolis- the fisher folk of Maharastra), burgunda (common sense passed on verbally from one generation to the next), as well as ritual festivities like mangalagaur (games women play), gondhal (folk ritual) and jogwa (dedicated tribe of devotees - jogta/ jogtin who ask for alms).
DR: From sarees such as the Paithani to the extravagant backdrop -you haven't spared any effort in making it a grand show. What might be the budget of this extravaganza?
AH (guffaws):Naticha vaay, ambyacha bhaav, natakacha budget - kaddhi vicharu naye! (The age of a heroine, the price of mangoes and the budget of a play are best not asked!). But to give you an idea - we just cut even when the show is houseful, which so far it has been. I am a big shopper and the last time when I went to Yevla - I picked up 30 Paithani sarees. I always buy saaj (traditional necklace) from Kolhapur, kurtas from Rajkot, shoes from Kolkata and bandhani (a weaving style from Kutch) dresses from Indore to be used in the show. We have always had live music and singing in all our shows. My marketing mantra is simple - deliver the best product.
DR: You also have a range of biographical shows - MADHURBALA (Madhubala), AMRUT LATA (Lata Mangeshkar), MANIK MOTI (Manik Verma) and GANGA JAMUNA (P Savlaram) - who does the research work?
AH: MANIK MOTI was proposed by Manik Verma's daughters, Bharti Achrekar, Vandana Gupte and Rani Verma after her death. Bhakti Barve was the announcer and she also helped me with the research. I am very fond of Hindi as well as Marathi film music and hence the other shows.
DR: Is it true that Lata Mangeshkar hasn't still seen AMRUT LATA , which is dedicated to her only because you haven't included a single song composed by her brother Pandit Hridaynath in it?
AH: On Lata ji's 75th birthday, I saw a show dedicated to her on a TV channel. It was such a disgustingly shoddy production that I was inspired to pay a well-researched tribute to her by showcasing the best 75 songs. I assure you it was a Herculean task to shortlist 75 songs out of 5000. The top 75 Hindi songs do not include Pt. Hridaynath's compositions. But that's how it is! Lata didi remains the heavenly voice we all draw inspiration from. I am sure she will grace the show someday.
DR: Of all the shows so far, which has been the most memorable for you? Why?
AH: Most definitely the specially commissioned show - MEE, YASHWANT, which is based on Yashwant Rao Chavan's life and achievements. He is only next to Shivaji Maharaj in the history of Maharashtra. I was overwhelmed when our previous President, Pratibha Patil disregarding the protocol came up to me on the stage to hand over a bouquet.
DR: You have never been drawn to films or politics?
AH: My medium is the stage. I am performing my duty of entertaining and educating the audience through it. Films and politics are not my path. I am so busy juggling my family business of mangoes with these shows, that I really don't have the time for anything else.
DR: What are the future plans for Chaurang? Is your son Sujay ready to take over the reins from you?
AH: Sujay is an ad filmmaker and assistant to Vikas Desai. He does help me with the technicalities like audio-visuals. I wish to stage more shows of MEE, YASHWANT and also make a show on Shivaji Maharaj's ideology - his secular, democratic views and his fair and just administrative policies. Our shows have taken us to the UK, the USA, Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia and to Dubai. But there is still a lot to do.
*Deepa Ranade is a film and theatre reviewer. She has been an entertainment journalist for over fifteen years.