What is the maximum number of novels or plays a person can write in his/her lifetime? 50? 100? 200? Will you believe me if I say here is an Odia playwright who has written more than 500 (most likely close to 800) plays?
Will you believe me if I add that most of those plays have been extremely popular among the audience—when performed on stage and/or broadcast on radio?
Yes, such a person, whose ‘prolificity’ did not, in any manner, come in the way of his ‘class’, did exist among us in flesh and blood. He still does—albeit in our collective memory.
Gopal Chhotray—whose birth centenary was celebrated yesterday—was not just an extraordinarily successful playwright; he was an institution in himself. And before you take that as cliché, let me explain what exactly do I mean by that.
Gopal Chhotray was associated with all the possible platforms where a play could be performed—stage, radio, cinema and finally television. He experimented with all kinds of themes—social, family, historical, mythological… And when it came to performance of a play, both on stage and on radio, he was involved with all aspects of its production—from choosing of characters to dialogue delivery to music. Even when stalwarts like Pandit Balakrushna Dash or Akshaya Mohanty would be in charge of music, Chhotray would ensure that the note that he wanted sounded just right. But the unassuming way in which he would do that ensured that all he got from these great people was respect, nothing else.
Yet, the true greatness of this man lay neither in his prolificity nor in his versatility. It lies in the fact that—and I have the advantage of saying this in hindsight—in a career spanning half a century, he almost defined and shaped Odia drama as a genre—warding off some mindless external influence that Odia theater was beginning to pick up in the post-Kavichandra phase. For long, he almost carried it on his shoulder.
Don’t get me wrong. It is not to suggest that he was better than others.
Take Manoranjan Das, probably the only other name an average Odia would take alongside Chhotray’s when quizzed about Odia drama literature. Das, incidentally, was a colleague, contemporary and very good friend of Gopal Chhotray. (Trivia info: Devdas Chhotray, Gopal Chhotray’s son and noted Odia lyricist actually performed in many of Manoranjan Das’ radio plays, not so much in his father’s plays).
As a playwright Manoranjan Das—who has inspired a lot of researchers to study his creation—was extremely talented. But if his plays impressed the critics more than the audience, it was because he experimented a lot—and many a times, was way ahead of his times.
Gopal Chhotray came from a solid theater background and always had an ear to the ground. It is to his credit that he never used that advantage to just play to the gallery. On the other hand, he experimented and introduced new ideas, both in theme and presentation—but keeping the audience in mind. He defined, shaped and ‘cultivated’ the taste of Odia drama audience.
This contribution of Chhotraty—shaping an entire genre—to my mind, is a far greater contribution than creating some great pieces of individual plays. Alongside people like Kavichandra Kalicharan Pattnaik, Balakrushna Dash, Akshaya Mohanty and Kanhu Charan Mohanty, Chotray’s name should be taken as a great influencer of popular culture in post independent Odisha.
It is to his credit that he used this influence to do more than just ‘successful’ and ‘experimentative’ work. Like a true cultural leader, he took it on his shoulders to do more for the community. One was to revive traditions and (as I have written above) thereby ensure that Odianess remains in Odia drama.
Take his single-handed effort to resurrect the legacy of Ganakabi Baishnab Pani’s rural street plays. By writing and composing his geetinatyas following the patterns and musical scores of Baishnab Pani’s geetinatyas for All India Radio, Chhotray, for the first time, got the poet of masses (ganakabi) to the classes. For the first time, Pani was in the drawing room of the urban households.
In fact, to the people of my generation—I grew up in the 80s—Chhotray is best remembered for these geetinatyas like Ganesha, Janmashtami, Napahu Rati Namaru Pati, Mahishasura Mardini, Sampurna Ramayana, Bindu Sagara and the like.
Janini mu kie Siba kouthi ta ghara, Kandile ki heba karindra gamana Indra ki sahaje chhadiba, Dina ganutha ganutha mesha chhiati, Bindu bindu tirthakalare purna e saroabara still reverberate in our minds.
The list, of course, willingly leaves out the most popular of them all—Patent Medicine. That deserves special discussion. If Chhotray resurrected Baishnab Pani, he gave new kind of popularity to Fakir Mohan’s Patent Medicine. In a recent Twitter poll, we asked the Odia tweeple what their favorite Fakir Mohan work was.
Which of the following work of the Fakir Mohan is your favorite? For other answers, use reply
— Odia Culture (@OdiaCulture) June 14, 2016
Patent Medicine scored above even Chha Mana Atha Guntha (and Rebati, Daka Munsi). In the discussion that accompanied, many had no hesitation in admitting that it was Shrimati Samarjani, the geetinatya version of Patenr Medicine that is etched in their minds. Many also explicitly said it was Chhotray and Akshaya Mohanty who should share the credit for taking the work to a new level of popularity. Just to reiterate, many even tweeted lines from it—from Babu hei jebe kabu kala mote to Epakhe das sepkahe das; from Makara to helu pagala to Na Sulochana kolata chuna. By the way, it is four decades since it was first broadcast.
It is probably apt to share the genesis of the geetinatya. Gopal Chhotray had adapted works of many great writers to stage and radio plays. Among Fakir Mohan’s works, he had adapted Mamu andChha Mana Atha Guntha among others for radio. Patent medicine was, however, first written for stage. It was even staged in the Collegiate School in early 60s, with Hemant Das and Urvashi Tripathy as the lead pair of Chandramani Babu and Sulochana Dei. But after success of mythological geetinatyas on radio, Akshaya Mohanty suggested that Chhotray adapt Patent Medicine to a geetinatya form. While it was a big challenge to present a social story to a melodramatic geetinatya form with so many songs, Chhotray took it up. The rest is, as they say, history.
Not only did it go on to win All India Radio’s pan-India award for best radio play, it created a cult work in Odia—with a modern theme presented in traditional Odia musical style. Imagine Akshaya Mohanty using an Odissi tune To lagi gopadanda mana re kalia suna in a Fakir Mohan social!
Yet, these geetinatyas are only a small fraction of Chhotray’s work. To the older generation, his plays such as Para Kalama and Bharasa (originals) as well as the likes of Jhanja, Amada Bata and Malajanha (adaptations) are the ones that define Gopal Chhotray. He has written screenplays for more than a dozen Odia movies, including such notable movies as Shri Jagannatha, Maa, Nua Bou, Amada Bata, Abhinetri, Matira Manisha, Kie Kahara, Adina Megha, Dharitri, Bandhu Mohanty and Badhu Nirupama. As you can notice, most of them are strong adaptations. Unfortunately, not a single original of his—many of them very successful on stage—has been made into a movie. It should also be noted that for Malajahna, the movie, which got some rave reviews, especially for the music scored by Akshaya Mohanty (his first as a composer), was not based on Chhotray’s screenplay. This was because he had earlier committed to someone else for that, though that was never made. But being a man of words, he stuck to his promise and politely declined to do the screenplay for Malajahna, which Akshaya Mohanty was co-producing.
Today, Odia is a recognized classical language. Outsiders are a lot more interested in studying the language and culture of Odisha. Odia gananatyas are a multi-crore industry. Yet, somewhere the distinct yet liberal popular Odia culture, whose foundation was built by the likes of Chhotray, seems to have lost its vibrancy, between the rampant copying and ‘lifting’ culture on one hand and the ultra-conservative puritanism that frowns even at healthy cultural exchanges, on the other.