Vishnu Vāman Shirwādkar, better known by his pen name, Kusumāgraj; was an eminent Marathi poet, playwright, novelist, short story writer. He was also a passionate humanist, who wrote of freedom, justice and emancipation of the deprived.
In a career spanning five decades, starting with the pre-independence era, he wrote 16 volumes of poems, three novels, eight volumes of short stories, seven volumes of essays, 18 plays and six one-act plays.
His works like the Vishakha (1942), a collection of lyrics, inspired a generation into the Indian freedom movement during the Quit India Movement. It is considered as one of the masterpieces of Indian literature. His play, Natsamrat, also has an important place in Marathi literature.
He was the recipient of several State awards, and National awards including the Sahitya Akademi Award (1974), the Jnanapith Award (1987) and one of the highest civilian awards of India, the Padma Bhushan in 1991.
Vishnu Vāman Shirwādkar was born in Pune on 27 February 1912. He was named Gajanan Ranganath Shirwadkar, which was changed to Vishnu Waman Shirwadkar, when he was adopted. He later took the sobriquet ‘Kusumagraj’.
He had his primary education in Pimpalgaon and high school education in the New English School of Nashik. He passed matriculation from Mumbai University. In 1944, he married Manoramanée (Gangubai Sonawni). He is connected with Rajaram college Kolhapur.
Shirwadkar had his poems first published in the Ratnakar magazine, when he was at the H. P. T. College in Nashik. In 1932, when he was 20, Shirwadkar participated in a satyagraha to support the demand for allowing the entry of the untouchables in the Kalaram Temple at Nashik.
In 1933, Shirwadkar founded the Dhruv Mandal and started writing in a newspaper called Nava Manu. Same year, his first collection of poems, Jeevanlahari, was published. In 1934, Shirwadkar got his Bachelor of Arts degree from the H. P. T. College in Nashik.
In 1936, Shirwadkar joined Godavari Cinetone Ltd., a film company and wrote the screenplay for the film Sati Sulochana in which he also played the character of Lord Lakshmana. However, the film was not commercially successful.
He later worked as a journalist and wrote for periodicals Saptahik Prabha, Dainik Prabhat, Saarathi, Dhanurdari, and Navayug. In 1942, the father-figure of Marathi literature, Vishnu Sakharam Khandekar, published Kusumgraj’s compilation of poetry, Vishakha at his own expense, and in his foreword described Kusumagraj as a poet of humanity. Its publication coincided with the Quit India Movement, and carried the message of freedom. It became very popular and has since become a classic in Indian literature.
After 1943, he started adapting the plays of European literary giants like Oscar Wilde, Moliere, Maurice Maeterlinck and Shakespeare into Marathi. This played a very important role in boosting Marathi theatre during that period.
In 1946, he wrote his first novel Vaishnav and his first play Doorche Dive. From 1946 to 1948, he edited a weekly called Swadesh.
In 1954, he adapted Shakespeare’s Macbeth as Rajmukut in Marathi. It starred Nanasaheb Phatak and Durga Khote who played Lady Macbeth. He also adapted Othello in 1960. He also wrote lyrics for the Marathi cinema. In 1970, his masterpiece Natasamrat was first staged with Sriram Lagoo in the lead role, which in 2016, after his death, was made into a film with Nana Patekar in the lead role.
Shirwadkar died on 10 March 1999 in Nashik, where his home also served as the office of the ‘Kusumāgraj Pratishthān’.
Kusumagraj’s main claim to fame was as a poet and writer; but he also championed the cause of the downtrodden without involving himself in ground level activities.
In 1950, he founded a social and philanthropic organization, the Lokahitawādi Mandal in Nashik, which is still in existence. Shirwadkar was also an active participant in the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement. He also edited a few textbooks for school students.
His work reflected the changing social milieu, from the national uprising during Indian freedom movement, to the post-independence era. It brought about a social-consciousness amongst Marathi writers. His writing marked the advent of modern Dalit literature.
Awards and Honours
V. V. Shirwadkar received numerous awards and honours; a few of which are listed below:
Every year, 27 February, the birthday of Kusumagraj, is celebrated as “Marathi Bhasha Din“; to honour his work in Marathi Literature.
Sahitya Akademi Award in 1974 for his play Natasamrat, an adaptation of King Lear
The honorary degree of D.Litt. by Pune University in 1986
Jnanpith Award in 1987 — the most prestigious literary award in India, in recognition of his literary achievements
Chairperson of the Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan in 1989
Padma Bhushan award in 1991
A star was named as “Kusumagraj” in the galaxy in 1991.