Sunday, August 27, 2006

Importance of being Aarthi Prabhu

(During every Ganesh Puja my mind goes back to the Ganesh festival I celebrated some 15 years back at Kudal, a modest Maharashtra village. This piece, published in 2002, is about a legend Kudal gave to Marathi literature. About Aarthi Prabhu, who continues to live in the hearts and minds of the people of Kudal decades after the poet's demise.)

I had not heard of Aarthi Prabhu till I visited his native village, Kudal, in Maharashtra. This was some 15 years ago, over two decades after Aarthi Prabhu's death. But people still talked about him as if he had been with them till the other day. They spoke of him in endearing terms, but with an acute sense of sadness. Aarthi Prabhu died young, at the age of 46, in 1976.

My Kudal visit was sponsored by a generous friend, R.S. Sawant, settled in Chennai, and made annual visits to his native Kudal during the Ganesh festival. When I expressed a desire to visit his part of the country during Ganesh puja, a major social event for Marathis, Sawant readily offered to take me along, but on one condition. "You shall not open your purse during the entire trip," ruled Sawant, "better still, forget your wallet at home." It was a ten-day trip. Such was his Maratha hospitality.

As I said, everyone in Kudal knew someone who had known Aarthi Prabhu, Kudal's native man of letters. He is still so much a household name that you have got to be bit of a dud not to be familiar with the name - if you ask, "Aarthi, who?" folks in Kudal could give you that funny look. Mrs Sawant, wife of my host, had been to the same school as Aarthi Prabhu. Their headmaster, K.A. Wardekar, was the first to identify Aarthi's literary potentials. Wardekar was a Maths teacher, and Aarthi had particular distaste for the subject. But then he used to show his early writings to Wardekar, who felt inadequate to judge their literary merit - "I referred the boy to P.S. Nerlurkar."

My hosts took me to Wardekar's house at Vengurla. Every other person you are introduced to makes it a point to mention that Sunil Gavaskar belongs here and they have named a local sports stadium at Vengurla after the cricket legend. Mr Wardekar talked about 'madcap' Chandu, as Aarthi Prabhu was known among friends and schoolmates. Chintamani Triambak Khanolkar was his name. "Magazines would not accept his initial poems," said Wardekar, "perhaps, because his name didn't sound literary." The pseudonym - Aarthi Prabhu - helped sell his works. After he had gained literary fame Aarthi Prabhu had novels and treatise published under his own name.

Aarthi wasn't particularly well-read. He was not familiar enough with Marathi literature to be influenced by anyone's works. At school he was poor in studies; at home he wasn't endeared by his parents. Wardekar had kept in touch with Aarthi Prabhu even after he gave up studies to help his father at the eating house run by the family - "Aarthi was a victim of child abuse, often beaten up by his father." Wardekar was a regular customer at the eating house - "They served mid-day meals at Rs.50 a month."

After his father's death Aarthi wound up the family eating house and moved to Bombay, in 1959, with his wife, three children, widowed mother and an uncle. The first and the only job he held was that of an attendant in All India Radio. He used to commute to work from Karjat, which is closer to Pune than Mumbai. Aarthi Prabhu could not hold the AIR job for long. He was turned out on suspicion that he had Communist leanings.

It turned out to be a blessing, as Mrs Sawant put it. The Tata Centre for Promotion of Arts and Literature discovered Aarthi's potential and offered him a monthly scholarship of Rs.1,000. The two-year term was extended for a further period of two years. It was during this time that Aarthi's oversized family saw some happy days. It was also a period during which Aarthi was prolific in his writings. His plays became popular.

For someone who had problems getting through high school, Aarthi Prabhu's works came to be prescribed for Marathi literature students at the post-graduate level. Seven scholars have done PhDs on various aspects of Aarthi Prabhu's literary work. His literary reputation brought Aarthi Prabhu close to the Mangeshkar family. Lata and her sister Asha Bhosle set to music and sang some of his poems. As Wardekar put it, Aathi's regret was that his literary worth went unrecognised in native Kudal during his lifetime. Kudal boasts of a 125-year-old public library with a collection of 20,000 titles, but it did not have a set of the complete works of Aarthi Prabhu.

His personal misery and poverty did not cramp Aarthi's literary output, which was prolific till the end. They say that even in his deathbed at K E M Hospital he didn't give up on his writing; he handed in to the attending doctor a scrap of paper in which he had scribbled these lines shortly before the end came:

"At the last turn of my life's journey,
There should be a blossom of flowers;
And if possible, I should get up and walk,
To complete my journey of life."

The leading character in American Beauty, that masterpiece on decadence of life in the suburbia, says, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life; and this is true of every day, except the day you die." Aarthi Prabhu, even on the verge of death, sought to live even his final hours as if it were his first day.

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