The Jatra, based primarily on religious stories – both Hindu and Islamic – faded out, and English theatre started becoming prominent from mid 18th century, and finally came Bengali theatre in 1795
By Sandip Ghosh
PART – 4
Let us proceed on our golden quest of understanding the evolution of the Indian theatre as we have been seeing it in Bengal.
The first part of the 19th century saw the onset of a qualitative change in the social structure of the Hindu Bengali community, especially in urban areas such as Calcutta (now Kolkata).
In short, we can say this transformation was based on realism, against religious and orthodox thinking, unlike the Jatra themes of preceding years, as we have seen,
The Calcutta-based nationalistic theatre movement enthusiastically embraced this change.
That is why around 1820, the metamorphosed form of Jatra shed its skin of the then moribund “Krishna Jatra”.
This new Jatra was completely focused on non-religious content of entertainment, at a much more humanist level.
In terms of storytelling, it merged with the European theatre-thinking of the dialectic of action and reaction, based on a form of dialogue that was new to Indian theatre.
However, the stem of the narrative of this form was based on ancient Puranic stories, which also set it backward in thematic terms, especially due to its allegiance with the rise of neo-Hinduism after 1870s.
This was a regression because it attempted to re-establish the spiritual and religious themes in theatre.
As a result, this fuelled religious sentiments. And there was a demand for more such performances. Madan Mohan Chattopadhaya rose to the occasion to respond to this demand for the new form of Jatra based on religious scripts of what was earlier known as Puranic Jatra, like those founded on Ramayan, Bhagvat, Brahma Vaivarta Puran, Harivansh, etc. The content of the new Jatra was collated from these.
Jatra at this stage could not penetrate the thematic scheme of the heated political milieu of the 1920s and chose to regress to the old religious themes.
But from the middle of the 20th century, Jatra turned towards and reflected social themes, and went into the contradictions between society and its crisis, and the conflicts within it. It dealt with issues like the attrition between Hindus and Muslims. And yet, the approach in dealing with such issues was not intellectual, but emotional.
Today, Jatra as it was originally known, has burnt out completely, regressing into cheap drama primarily focusing on sleazy sexual adrenalin rush just to grab the attention and make some living out of a dwindling volume of audience.
We do not find much credence in the Islamist theatre, or Jatra during the late 19th or early 20th century. After the rebellion of the Peer movement, we see a fall in their agency of followers.
From 1819, Haji Shariatullah led the Faraizi reform movement within Islam, preaching reverting back to original Islamic praxis. It was largely centred in what was once known as East Bengal, now Bangladesh. Due to these factors, performances related to Khwaja Khizr, a Sufi saint who had been promoted by Ibrahim Lodi in early 16th century, also dwindled.
The first ever Bengali play was “Kalpanik Shambadal”, an adaptation of the English play “The Disguise”. Amazingly, it was translated into Bengali by a Russian, Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedeff, an Indophile, who even produced the play from his own pocket and was its director as well!
The Faraizi-based Jatras were the weakest amongst the strains of Islamist theatre, of which the three much more prominent ones were one promoted by Peer Gazi ( based all around the Sunderbans area); Satya Peer (around Dinajpur-Rangpur-Rajshahi, now in Bangladesh); and Manik Peer of Khulna-Jessore area, also now in Bangladesh. Performances with these themes as the base are still extant in Bangladesh.
The political content of European theatre greatly influenced the resident British residents in Bengal from 1757 (after the fall of the last independent ruler of Bengal, Shiraz-ud-Daula in the Battle of Plassey) and of the early 20th century, and this added fuel to what is known as the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century. This majorly influenced the leaders of the Bengali intelligentsia at that time.
But its immediate impact was that this split the society of the day into two distinct parts: rural and urban. The culturally and financially strong theatre of the minority community adapted to the European pattern, and gained tremendous vibrancy, opening up new vistas. But in most cases this theatre got distanced from the majority community.
This was the reason that it ultimately failed to respond to the needs of Bengali society of the 19th century, which was fundamental to its ossification and eventual demise.
On the other hand, European theatre flourished because it related to the urban intellectual class which responded well to the demands of the urban educated section.
Till 1947, Calcutta (now Kolkata) – the centre of British power till the late 19th century ‑ was the firm base of this theatre centred on the urban educated class.
In Calcutta, European theatre was based in certain proscenia. Prime among them was “The Theatre”. It was established in 1753, just three years ahead of Nawab Shiraz-ud-Daula’s invasion of Calcutta (1756).
In 1775 was established “The New Playhouse”. It was also called “The Calcutta Theatre”. It stayed afloat till 1808, but lost its relevance after that, but till then, plays of William Shakespeare, Phillip Massinger, William Congreve, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and others were staged in these theatre halls.
Initially, men would act in the role of female characters in these plays, but not before long, ladies themselves started playing the female characters.
Two of the other proscenia were also prominent: “Chowringhee Theatre” (1813-1839) and “Sans Souci Theatre” (1839-1849). Of these, the only Indian associated with “Chowringhee Theatre” was the Bengali entrepreneur Prince Dwarakanath Tagore. He later bought up this hall, and till it got gutted in a massive fire, British theatre enthusiasts kept the show going, performing plays of Shakespeare, Sheridan and Irish novelist Oliver Goldsmith. All the actors were British.
However, from the period when “Sans Souci Theatre” got going, there was a steady increase in the number of Bengali actors, and in the play “Othello” in 1848, it was a Bengali actor, Vaishnav Charan Adhya, who played the protagonist’s role, though all the other actors were British.
The “Sans Souci” hall at 10 Park Street, built one year after “Chowringhee Theatre” was destroyed, was a majestic building designed like the Parthenon of Greece. And only English plays were staged there. Till the second half of the 19th century, English theatre ruled to roost. However, with the gradual advent of Bengali theatre, English theatre started waning.
This Bengali theatre initially started by adapting western plays. The first ever Bengali play was “Kalpanik Shambadal”, which was an adaptation of the English play “The Disguise” a comedy by Richard Paul Jodrell. Amazingly, the play was translated into Bengali by a Russian, Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedeff. Not only did he translate the play, this Indophile produced the play from his own pocket and was its director as well!
The play opened to public awe on November 27, 1795, at the” Bengali Theatre” in Domtala, now known as Ezra Street.
(To be continued)
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Sandip Ghosh lives in Salt Lake City, Kolkata. He stays clear of politics, sports or regular curricular studies, but loves learning varied issues. His personal romance is theatre. Now 61, he has worked in various embassies and private organisations, but ploughs himself back into acting whenever he can. His latest book is titled “Theatre in the Districts and Suburbs”