Maharashtra has long been known for innovative, pioneering musicians. One of the Subcontinent’s largest and most populous states, it features wide, rolling desert plains and vast cities, including Gwalior, a musical hub, Pune, a centre of education, and Mumbai, home to Bollywood. Notably, the region has produced some of Indian classical’s most esteemed modern vocalists, spanning Hindustani legends such as Kishori Amonkar and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi to Carnatic singing queens like Aruna Sairam and Bombay Jayashri.
All of Maharashtra’s superstar singers draw from its numerous folk traditions, interweaving them in their own ways and colouring the resulting blends with ideas drawn from all over India and beyond. Classical music has also fed back into the stylistic workings of its folk forebears. Here’s a quick taste of four key Marathi folk styles…
• The abhang repertoire praises Vitthala, an incarnation of Vishnu often depicted as a ‘mysterious young boy’. Translating from Marathi as ‘uninterrupted’, the name reflects the style’s hypnotic, continuous melodic flow.
Songs, which have roots in the ascetic rituals of Varkari poet-saints, are often exuberant, celebrating the communal sentiments bound up in acts of worship and devotion. Lyrics typically venerate the legends and characteristics of Vitthala – for example those in Aruna Sairam’s performance below (“Vitthala is tranquility, Vitthala is everlasting…I have found sanctuary in Vitthala, Even in this age of the demon, I can come to no harm!”).
• Natya Sangeet (‘dramatic music’), also known as pad, mixes music with poetry and theatrical storytelling techniques. Though its roots stretch back millennia, it was only established as a distinct creative form in more recent generations, via the work of playwrights such as Annasaheb Kirloskar, who included 209 musical pieces in his famous Shakuntal production of 1880.
Natya Sangeet performances may open with songs praising Nataraja, the ‘ecstatic fire-dancing’ incarnation of Lord Shiva, and can progress through Hindustani, Carnatic, or light-classical selections, all lyrically-focused and designed to shape and serve the overall dramatic narrative. Though relatively young, the genre has already exerted a hidden global impact via its wide-ranging influences on the early Indian film industry.
• Lavani (‘beauty’) is a lively song-dance form, traditionally performed to the driving rhythms of the double-headed dholki drum. Featuring long, colourful saris and the jangling of ornate jewellery, lavani is led by women, and tackles decidedly human themes.
In the words of the late poet Ayyappa Paniker, “The main subject matter of the lavani is love between man and woman in various forms. Married wife’s menstruation, sexual union between husband and wife, their love, soldier’s amorous exploits…pangs of separation, adulterous love…childbirth…the lavani poet out-steps the limits of social decency and control when it comes to the depiction of sexual passion.”
• Gondhala music brings energy and vitality to traditional Marathi celebrations. The name derives from the Sanskrit word gud, meaning ‘to indulge in playful activities’, and the sound mirrors these original sentiments, with danceable rhythms and chanted, chorus-like refrains. Legends associated with the genre include that Parasurama, an avatar of Lord Vishnu, killed a demon and refashioned its skull into a musical instrument, thus creating the one-string tuntun.
Suganthy Krishnamachari, writing in The Hindu, describes how the music has been historically associated with weddings and cradle ceremonies: “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.”
Maharashtra, naturally, has many more folk forms. Koli dance, still popular in some fishing communities, recreates waves and the casting of nets with sinuous movements – and humorous bharud celebrations are used further inland to instruct the public in how to imbue mundane life with spiritual concerns. The powada is a ballad style based on inspirational, eyewitness-imagined retellings of great historical events, which has been reworked in more recent times to explain Marxism to the masses. There are countless more musical delights too – go forth and explore.