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Know Your City: A revolutionary, a ‘peculiar’ 1965 protest, and the link to Pune’s dhol-tasha tradition

For Appasaheb Pendse, the dhol-tasha procession was a means to bring discipline among the youth and create social leaders. Decades later, the beats of the dhol-tasha have become an integral part of Pune’s Ganeshotsav celebrations

According to Parag Thakur, president, Dhol Tasha Mahasangh Maharashtra, Pune boasts between 22,000-25,000 dhol-tasha performers who make up the city’s more than 120 troupes or pathaks.

Crowds flocking makeshift stalls are selecting colourful Ganesha idols for homes, offices and neighbourhoods. Others, with artistic fingers, are shaping eco-friendly clay into figurines of the god. Family recipes for modak are being revived and lists are being made of festive decorations. Putting these activities in context is a sound that bursts through several localities of Pune in the evenings — the dynamic clang of numerous tasha and the beats of the dhol (types of drums). It’s the season of Ganpati Bappa and there are few clearer signs of Ganeshotsav approaching than the beats of the dhol-tasha as men and women practise their movements in groups.

According to Parag Thakur, president, Dhol Tasha Mahasangh Maharashtra, Pune boasts between 22,000-25,000 dhol-tasha performers who make up the city’s more than 120 troupes or pathaks. The dhol-tasha has become such an integral part of Ganeshotsav that it appears to have been there since Lokmanya Tilak popularised the festival in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but, in reality, the tradition, as it is prevalent today, was started as recently as 1965 by an educationist who wanted to create leaders among the youth.

The father of the modern pathak tradition

Dr Vinayak Vishwanath Pendse, popularly known as Appasaheb Pendse, first launched dhol-tasha among the pupils of the school he had founded in Pune, Jnana Prabodhini Prashala. Rambhau Dimble, a Sanskrit professor at Jnana Prabodhini, was a part of the school’s first pathak and has watched the evolution of the ritual. He links its history to “a peculiar incident that happened in 1965”. “At that time, there were riots during the Ganesh festival and the police had prohibited the playing of instruments during the procession. Appasaheb decided to challenge this prohibition. With a tasha around his neck, he stood at the chowk of Laxmi Road and started playing it. The modest protest with humility was supported and encouraged by people,” says Dimble in the film ‘Gajar – Magova Dhol Tasha Paramparecha’.

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According to Abhishek Jog, chief, Shaheed Bhagatsingh Dal, and one of the leaders of Yuvak Vibhag (youth organisation) of Jnana Prabodhini, Appasaheb saw in the dhol-tasha procession a potential to bring discipline among young people and create social leaders. “In the early 1960s, when Appasaheb was working on dhol-tasha practices, Ganeshotsav was one of the biggest cultural events in Pune but the problem was that people used to go in a procession in an undisciplined manner. Appasaheb created a form where a dhwaj or pennant would be at the head of the procession, followed by the troupe walking in columns with dhol and tasha,” he says. The dance that Appasaheb preferred for the pathaks was inspired by the tandav and performed by the youth who represented the disciples of Shiva. Armed with barchis, among others, the students dancing in formation looked like soldiers with spears.

There was resistance from the people at first but the first pathak by pupils of Jnana Prabodhini had set the trend among other schools, such as Vimlabai Garware Prashala, Nutan Marathi Vidyalaya Prashala and Ramanbaug Prashala who created their own pathaks. “Initially, playing dhol-tasha was not seen as respectable. But, once Appasaheb proved that it could be done in a structured and disciplined way, and have attractive music and dance, the tradition began to gain acceptance,” says Jog. He adds that the spread of pathaks, with regular people forming groups and performing, began around 1998-2000. “Until then, it was pupils of schools who formed the pathaks. After that, it became a mass movement  as more young people were drawn to it. Dhol-tasha is also easier to pick up if one puts in dedicated practice for a month,” says Jog. “Eventually, it became a matter of prestige for mandals to have dhol-tasha troupes in their processions,” he adds.

Appasaheb, who was born in Pune on August 17, 1916, had been a sensitive and thoughtful child who surrounded himself with books. According to Jnana Prabodhini’s website, “When he (Appasaheb) was 10 years of age, Swami Shraddhananda, a great leader, was assassinated by a fanatic in Delhi. The news reached Pune and caused deep anguish in the heart of this young boy. A question arose in his mind – ‘Who will take Shraddhananda’s place now? I must do it,’ was the spontaneous outburst.’”

One of Appasaheb’s first acts of resistance was against the British regime. At the age of 12, he was among those who marched with black flags shouting to the Simon Commission to go back. His idols were freedom fighters such as Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdeo, Chandrashekhar Azad and V D Savarkar. According to Jnana Prabodhini, Appasaheb used to write in his personal diary every day that he had to become a revolutionary and “wage a war against the imperialist forces”. “Not just personal acts of revenge and violence, not just small skirmishes here and there, but actually a full-scale war, in which the British army would be defeated and independence would be won,” he wrote. When he was 14, Appasaheb promised himself that his life would be spent fighting for the freedom of India.

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Appasaheb’s patriotic fervour was nurtured by organisations such as the National Boy Scout Movement of Lala Lajpat Rai and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which he joined in 1932. “He was also one of the first seven volunteers when the Rashtra Seva Dal was started by Sadubhau Godbole,” informs Jnana Prabodhini. During this time, Appasaheb and his group of friends formed a music band. When Jawaharlal Nehru visited Pune, this band played in a procession to felicitate the leader. After Independence, Appasaheb decided to work towards channeling the intellectual talent of the country in order to transform society. He was deeply inspired by Swami Vivekananda, and set up Jnana Prabodhini, the name meaning ‘awakener of knowledge’ as a movement to motivate intelligence towards social change.

The sound from villages

Though Appasaheb is credited with harnessing the energies of schools to create pathaks, the music of dhol and tasha had reverberated in the region long before him. According to Thakur, dhol-tasha is a part of Maharashtra’s age-old history with deep rural roots and linked to village fairs and processions of the village deities. The dhol was seen as an instrument of celebration (mangal vadya) or war (ran vadya). “In the villages of Maval and Mulshi, for instance, men used to work during the day but, in the evenings, the elders would go to temples for bhajan and prayers while the youngsters would meet after their meal. Playing musical instruments became their way of creativity,” says Thakur. These were the musicians who would come to the city to play at Ganeshotsav before Appasaheb gave a formal definition to the dhol-tasha.

Aniruddha Wagh, Mahavidyalayeen Dale Pramukh, which, loosely translated, means chief of youth units, and a member of Yuvak Vibhag of Jnana Prabodhini, says that Appasaheb created seven patterns, which form the foundation for pathaks even today. “Different groups innovate over these patterns,” he adds. The rhythm starts slowly and , gradually, the pace picks up until the beats become really fast. “Multiple composers have approached us as they wanted us to play in their films. Many pathaks are getting attracted to this because there is money involved,” he says, adding that Jnana Prabodhini still looks upon the music as a means of social transformation.

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The youth wing has grown into a social organisation that conducts activities, such as leadership development camps and science exhibitions, throughout the year for students and young working people. “Our volunteers do shramdaan i.e. they give their efforts and energies to causes such as rural development. We call people when we start practice for Ganeshotsav at least one-and-a-half months before. At least 50 to 60 per cent participants come from the multiple activities we conduct,” says Jog.

After a two-year gap

Ganeshotsav returns in its full form after two pandemic-stricken years, and crowds lining Laxmi Road will get to celebrate with pathaks once more. Entrepreneur Manjeet Avinash Bhuskute, who had been a part of Ramanbaug Dhol Tasha Pathak for 18 years, can finally take out the white salwar-kurta that he wears only at this time. He was four or five years old when his father used to take him to watch pathaks practising before Ganeshotsav. After Class X, his elder brother, who used to play dhol at Ramanbaug, took him to meet the group. “I joined Ramanbaug in 2004 but didn’t get a chance to play for two years since I was new. I used to go to practice and look after maintenance activities. Finally, I was given a chance and have been actively participating for 16 years,” he says.

The way Ramanbaug works is indicative of the inner functioning of most dhol-tasha groups. They have 12 groups, of which two are in charge of maintenance of instruments, crowds and training newcomers while the rest practise. “When we meet after 11 months to prepare for Ganeshotsav, the first few days are spent in taking out the dholtashadhwaj and poles and cleaning them. Instruments are carefully tuned. We have more than 160 dhol, 50 tashas and a dozen poles for the dhwaj. Then, daily practice begins. The new participants are taught from 6 pm to 7 pm, and then those who are slightly more experienced or are working in offices start playing, till 8 pm. The older hands take over from 8 pm to 9 pm. The rigorous practice happens every evening until Ganeshotsav,” says Bhuskute.

The performers are bound by shared experiences and memories as much as by the sheer pain in the initial days when every body part aches from muscles getting into action to beat heavy dhol and tasha, dance or hold up the dhwaj. Bhuskute talks about the time they performed for six hours straight, in one position, outside SP College on Tilak Road as the rain pelted them and soaked the dhol so that it took every bit of effort to beat out vigorous music. “I am feeling an extreme level of adrenaline rush to be back,” he says, “When I go for dhol practice, I feel my frustrations and stress driven away from me as a sense of meditation takes over. It is the kind of feeling we hope to share with all who hear and see us,” he adds.

First published on: 27-08-2022 at 11:10:21 am
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