Flickr/ Alan Cleaver
Flickr/ Alan Cleaver

Bengali theatre, then and now

What is wrong, and what is right, with the industry.

On 27 November 1795, the curtains were raised at the Calcutta's Bengally Theatre for a Bengali version of Richard Jodrell's comedy, The Disguise, produced by a Russian named Gerasim Lebedeff, and with an 'all-native' cast. Many historians consider this the first instance of a Bengali play on a proscenium stage in Bengal – theatre in which the audience sits in front of the stage and actors face a single direction, rather than moving around the stage performing for a 360 degree audience. However, it would be a bit myopic to credit the first theatre production in this part of India to Lebedeff's ground-breaking act alone. From the 16th century, with the modernist trend in Bengal ushered in by Sri Chaitanya Dev, Sanskrit plays were performed after being translated into Bengali. An important aspect of Gaudiya Vaisnavism – a religious movement initiated by Chaitanya Dev that gained dominance at that time – was the devotional worship of Radha and Krishna via songs called Leela Kirtan. These songs were introduced to the theatre of the time to reflect their devotional narratives. The tradition of songs in Bengali theatre continued, though the nature and content of them evolved over time.

As the East India Company committed atrocities in India – from the Battle of Plassey in 1757 to the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 – paving the way for the British Crown to assume direct control of India, 'enlightenment' came to the Bengali elite through European culture and education. Sanskrit theatre, which largely relied upon the mythical elements of Hinduism, was soon too dated to portray the social realities of the times. Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt, for instance, experimented with European dramaturgy and started writing farces. In 1860 he wrote Ekei ki bale Sabhyata (Is this Civilisation?) and Buro Shaliker Ghare Ro (The Old Fool's Fads), both of which became famous. In the same year, Dinabanadhu Mitra's Nildarpan (The Mirror of Indigo Planting) showed the brutal exploitation of peasants working on indigo plantations by their British employers. With the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century, a sharp divide between the rural and urban cultures arose. The European-inspired proscenium theatre emerged in Calcutta, although rural cultures moved closer to the folk theatre-based Jatra, which even today is mostly staged in the open air with the audience seated on all sides. Jatras continued to thrive, modestly, dwelling mostly on social themes concerning Hindu-Muslim relations, as well as historical and mythological stories.

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