RAMNATH N PAI RAIKAR | NT BUZZ
The passing away of well-known stage, television, and film performer, Ashalata Wabgaonkar, popularly known as Ashalata, after being infected by the deadly coronavirus is a sad occurrence. A singing star, who blazed upon the Marathi musical stage during the late 1950s, and then made a debut in the commercial Marathi theatre in 1964 by enacting the title role in the iconic drama, ‘Matsyagandha’, Wabgaonkar had Goan roots and was proud of the same.
It all started when Kala Vibhag, the cultural wing of The Goa Hindu Association, an organisation set up by like-minded Goans in Mumbai decided to participate in the Bombay state (now Maharashtra) drama competition, which began in 1955. The association presented the Marathi drama, ‘Khadashtak’ at this contest and won the first prize by competing against 350 other participating dramas. The overwhelming and unexpected success made the members of the association decide to participate in this competition the next year. The Marathi stage musical, ‘Samshaykallol’ was chosen as the entry for the contest in the year 1956.
The choice of ‘Samshaykallol’ demanded an actress, who could act as well as sing, and look beautiful on stage in the role of Revati. Ramkrishna Nayak, one of the members of the association reached Pavwala Street, in South Mumbai searching for the actress and found Ashalata Naik, a young girl residing with her mother. However, her mother refused to allow Ashalata act on the stage, as she wanted her daughter to work in films. Finally, the mother relented after Nayak convinced her that Ashalata would get basic training in acting if she initially performed on stage.
The adolescent Ashalata acted so well in ‘Samshaykallol’ that the drama won the first prize in the competition and fetched best actress award for her. During the next two years, Ashalata acted in The Goa Hindu Association’s entries in the competition namely ‘Sharada’ and ‘Mritchhkatik’, repeating the feat of winning these prizes. In fact, her singing in all these dramas mesmerised both, the audience as well as the judges. When noted playwright Vasant Kanetkar saw Ashalata acting in ‘Mritchhkatik’, he was so thrilled that he announced that the lead role in his new stage musical, ‘Matsyagandha’ would go to her.
‘Matsyagandha’, which was based on the incidents at the beginning of the Mahabharata epic, had Ashalata enacting the role of Satyavati, the daughter of a fisherman who marries Shantanu, the King of Hastinapur, and alters the course of the events. ‘Matsyagandha’ which made appearance on Marathi stage on May 1, 1964 heralded the arrival of Ashalata as well as another Goan singing actor, Ramdas Kamat. The music composed for the film by talented Goan vocalist, Pt Jitendra Abhisheki was highly appreciated. Ashalata’s songs like ‘Arthshunya Bhase’, ‘Gardasabhovti…’ and ‘Tav Bhas Antara Jhala’ became so popular that the HMV Company brought out a record of the songs. The drama went beyond 500 shows and was instrumental in the rejuvenation of the Marathi musical stage.
The success of ‘Matsyagandha’ opened doors of the Marathi commercial theatre to Ashalata. When stage producer, Mohan Wagh decided to cast Ashalata in Vasant Kanetkar’s new drama, ‘Gharat Phulala Parijat’ to enact the role of Chandralekha, he was so impressed with her, that he named his newly formed drama company as Chandralekha.
Ashalata also had a knack of imparting new dimensions to the characters earlier essayed by other actresses. She played Anandibai in the drama, ‘Bhaubandaki’, a role earlier enacted by Durga Khote. Similarly, she was Yesubai in ‘Raigadala Jevha Jaag Yete’, in the role earlier played by Sudha Karmarkar, Radha in ‘Garambicha Bapu’, in the role earlier enacted by Usha Kiran, and Kalyani in ‘Guntata Hriday He’, which was earlier performed by Padma Chavan. Some other dramas in which Ashalata performed include ‘Goodbye Doctor’, ‘Tarun Turk Mhatare Ark’, ‘Swami’, ‘He Bandh Reshmache’, ‘Vidushak’, and so on.
It is interesting to note that while working on the Marathi stage, Ashalata also completed her education. She did her graduation in arts and then completed post-graduation in psychology, from the SNDT Women’s University.
When television arrived in Mumbai during the 1970s, Ashalata began to work for this new medium. She was there in ‘Varyavarchi Varat’, a Marathi form of French revue written and directed by eminent playwright, P L Deshpande, when it was performed for Mumbai Doordarshan. Coincidently, filmmaker Basu Chatterjee saw her performing in a Konkani play on Mumbai Doordarshan and immediately signed her for the role of Siddheshwari in his 1980 film, ‘Apne Paraye’ based on a novel by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee. Ashalata was nominated for the Filmfare Award, in the Best Supporting Actress category, in this film.
Soon Ashalata was flooded with offers to play various roles in films, which included ‘Namak Halal’ (1983) starring Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor, and ‘Ankush’ (1986), a film that introduced Nana Patekar to the Hindi film fraternity. Basu Chatterjee repeated her in his films like ‘Shaukeen’ (1982) and ‘Kamla ki Maut’ (1989). She then signed films of major banners such as ‘Sadma’ (1983) directed by Balu Mahendra, ‘Coolie’ (1983) directed by Manmohan Desai, ‘Sharaabi’ (1984) directed by Prakash Mehra, ‘Awam’ (1987) directed by B R Chopra, ‘Ghayal’ (1990) directed by Rajkumar Santoshi, and many more.
Ashalata also worked in Marathi and Konkani films. In fact, her film, ‘Maherchi Sadi’ (1991) was one of the most successful Marathi films, while others like ‘Navri Mile Navryala’ (1984) and ‘Aatmavishwas’ (1989) directed by Sachin, and ‘Umbartha’ (1983) directed by Jabbar Patel were quite popular. She also acted in Konkani films like ‘Dekhni Durai’ in 1997 and ‘Aleesha’ in 2004; the former shot in Canacona, her native place.
Ashalata was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to Marathi theatre and cinema, during the Goa Marathi Film Festival in 2014. Three years later, in 2017, she was conferred Master Dinanath Mangueshkar Award at the hands of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, Mohan Bhagwat, in the presence of
In recent times, Ashalata had moved back to television with serials like ‘Javai Vikat Ghene Aahe’ and ‘Kulvadhu’. She was shooting for the television serial, ‘Aai Mhaji Kalubai’ at Satara when she was infected with the fatal virus. She literally died with her boots on.
In the theatrical parlance, the term ‘exiting the stage’ marks the disappearance of a character from the stage in the normal manner. Ashalata has taken an exit, never to return back to the stage. Her countless fans and followers will find it difficult to accept this final act of the actress.