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Theatre as We Went by, in Bengal

Theatre as We Went by, in Bengal

Indian Native workers in an Indigo Factory

From Shobhajatra to Jatra, followed by English theatre and then Bengali theatre, it all came to fruition under greats like Girish Ghosh, Michael Madhusudan Dutta and Dinabandhu Mitra

By Sandip Ghosh

PART – 5

The evolution of theatre in India – as seen in the eastern parts of India, including what is now called Bangladesh, but which was part of Greater Bengal in undivided India – has a rich socio-religious context.

This, we have noted in my previous articles on the subject, which I shall be delighted if my readers go through and pen their thoughts.

(Read: Jatra’s Demise And Rise Of Bengali Theatre)

It started with a system of religious processions, termed “Shobhajatra” and went on to become “Jatra”, a form of open-air theatre, quite distinct from the proscenium, which gradually went on to become sleazy sexual enactments of today.

As we went by, we had come to the staging of the first ever Bengali language theatre in 1795.

Poster of Lebedev’s first performances of his plays on 27 November 1795. Image taken from Wikimedia (Public Domain)

Amazingly. It was based on the adaptation of a British play, “The Disguise”, and was played for the first time in the Bengal Theatre that year, and was translated into Bengali by an Indophile Russian, GS Lebedeff, who also financed the entire cost and directed the play!

The ticket prices were fairly on the higher side, and yet, the fact that it went on House Full showed the vigorous enthusiasm of the Bengali aficionados for theatre, moving away from the English language theatre of the day.

Anyway, towards the start of the 19th century, British colonial educational institutions such as Oriental Seminary and Hindu College, were the most influential in stoking the curiosity of the Indian theatre buffs towards European theatre styles and content.

In starting the British colonial ‘ideal’ schooling, William Shakespeare was taken as, needless to say, an ideal figurehead of culture and literature.

Within this perspective, towards the first half of the 19th century, the proscenium became acceptable to the upper class gentry in Bengal as a progressive form of theatre. And they funded it fairly energetically.

Belgechiya Villa
Paikpara Rajbari Belgachia Villa Belgachhia Rajbari. Image taken from Wikimedia (Public Domain)

The then landed aristocracy, or zamindars, made this their personal theatres towards the middle of the 19th century. Of these, the most influential was the Belgachhiya Theatre (1858-1861).

This, established by the Paik para zamindars in their Belgachhiya Villa, was the most well founded proscenium of its time.

The theatre prided itself on its unique, painted backdrops, a great orchestra, illumination by gas light and the use of arc lamps.

It was also around the same time that Bengalis tried to emulate and internalise European theatre style and thinking, and the torch-bearer of this was the legendary Bengali litterateur, Michael Mdhusudan Dutta, who first exhibited this in his play “Sharmishtha”, staged in 1859.

His next play “Padmavati” was published in 1860 and staged in 1865.

The historic tragic-play “Krishnakumari” was published in 1861 and was staged in 1867.

December 7, 1872, marked a landmark in the history of Bengali theatre and this lasted between then and 1920s. On this date was staged “Neeldarpan” for the first time in a ‘public theatre hall,’ a hall that was not the exclusive province of the landed aristocracy and was open to all people

Michael Madhusadan Dutta
Michael Madhusadan Dutta

Madhudusadan Dutta’s sharp intellect was best reflected in his biting comedies. These were fiercely aggressive commentaries on social hypocrisy of the times, and the characters in these plays were vivid.

In his play (Ekei Ki Bolay Shobbhota?” (Is this what is civilization?) he ripped through the so-called Young Turks of the age who were mindlessly immersing themselves in European culture and thought. That was published in 1860 and staged in 1867.

He went on to script the play “Buro Shaliker Ghare Ron”, or the “Ambitions of and old bird” which lambasted the shameless hypocrisy of the landed gentry.

Michael also tried to transcend the hurdles that the Sanskrit plays created, which was reflected in the last play he had scripted, “Mayakanan”.

A contemporary of Michael was Dinabandhu Mitra, who wrote the landmark play “Neeldarpan” (Mirror on Indigo Farmers), on the mindless torture of Bengal farmers by the British to cultivate indigo instead of rice, for indigo was used in the British fabric industry as a commercial crop.

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Dinabandhu Mitra and his famous play "Neeldarpan"
Dinabandhu Mitra and his famous play “Neeldarpan”

This was a highly realistic play, which some have faulted for over-emphasising the melodrama of the torture and bloodshed, nut it nevertheless had touched the cord of the hearts and souls of the then contemporary Bengal.

Though Mitra had written quite a few other plays, he became best known for his comedies such as “Biey Pagla Buro” (The Marriage-Crazy Oldie”) and “Shodhabar Ekadoshi” on the institution of marriage (both in 1866) and “jamai Barik” (1871). Mitra was called the prince of comedy.

Public Theatre Arrives

December 7, 1872, marked a landmark in the history of Bengali theatre and this lasted between then and 1920s.

On this date was staged “Neeldarpan” for the first time in a public theatre hall’ a hall that was not the exclusive province of the landed aristocracy and was open to all people.

The play was staged in the National Theatre. The whole thing was a temporary structure, created by a few theatre enthusiasts of the Bagbazaar Amateur Theatre, many of whom were on the verge of entering a professional career in theatre.


The top image depicts the native Indians working in an Indigo Factory


(To be continued, as part of the series after East India Story, moves ahead in its regular features, followed by our Durga Puja edition coming on October 17, 2020)

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