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Star Theatre Company ResearchGrowth and Development of Bengali Theater at Calcutta between1770 and1880
Gauri Neelakantan Mehta
Star Theatre in Kolkata - 1773
(Samachar Chandrika, 1826)
Thus between 1795 to the last quarter of the nineteenth century Bengal witnessed an intellectual revolution whereby the Indian middle classes wanted to regain their won identity. Sympathetic colonialism, sympathy that the middle classes had to English learning and other intellectual pursuits directly or indirectly gave the Bengali intelligentsia a clear and open access to British cultural modes.
Development of British Theater in
The local Englishmen in
The Playhouse, one of the earliest theaters was established as early as 1753. This company was helped by David Garrick. However after the attack of Siraj ud Daula, the ousted Nawab at
However several other theater groups opened with few years of existence. Mrs Emma Bristow started her residential theater at her Cowringhee residence in 1789 and this opened with the production of "The Poor Soldier" on May 1, 1789. Some of the important productions were Julius Caeser, The Sultan, The Padlock. Ladies did male roles as well. When Mrs.
Bristow left for
Another short lived theater company was the
In 1812, the Atheneum theatre was founded and on 30th March with the performance of the Earl of Essex that was followed by the farce, Raising the Wind. However despite its publicity the performance was poor and failing to attract sufficient audiences, the Atheneum withdrew from the theatrical scene of
The best known English theatres in
A few miles north of the city of
With the emergence of the intellectual elite like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Iswar Chandra Vidya Sagar, it was felt by the Indians that they also could form their own theatre companies. To regain a respectful self identity the Bengali middle classes formed their own theatre and the first Bengali theater company to be formed was the Lebedeff's Bengali Theatre in 1795. This theatre was founded by Gerasim Lebedeff, a Russian, 1749-1817, who formed this theatre with the help of his teacher, Goloknath Dass. The players both male and female were Bengali. Box tickets were sold for eight rupees and the gallery at rupees four. Lebedeff translated Paul Jodrell's The Disguise and Love is the Best Doctor that was performed in Bengali.
There seems to have been some kind of distaste for the local forms like Panchali, Kabir Ladai, Tarja and Jatra. In 1826 in an editorial in Samachar Chandrika, a popular Bengali newspaper, the need for a theatre along the lines of the English model emphasized and it pleaded that the rich and the noblemen of the city should be shareholders and paid managers, and that professional actors and singers should be appointed.
Prasan Kumar Tagore came forward and set up the Hindu Theatre, on 28th December, 1831. The inaugural opening was from portions of Julius Caesar ( Act V) and a Sanskrit play, of Bhavabhuti, Uttar Rama Charit (act I) that rendered in English by H.H Wilson, a renowned scholar. The cast included Charan Sen and Ram chandra Mitra of Hindu and
On 6th October 1835, in the house of Nabin Chandra
Nothing really happened after this spectacular event for about two decades. The students of David Hare Acedemy and Gour Mohan Auddy's Oreintal Seminary established a theater. The Oriental theatre, was not an aristocratic one that existed in the past and it was open to the public on sale of tickets. The Aristocrats formed their own theater companies, the Vidyotsahini theatre in 1857 and the Balgatchia theater started with the plays of Micheal Madhusudhan Dutt in 1859.
The first businessperson to invest in was Pratap Chand Johuree who bought off the National theatre in 1880. A true businessperson, Pratap Chand tried to streamline the rather unorganized sectors in theatre and gave it a more professional look. For the first time Bengali Theatre assumed a professional look with its performers made to abide by the regulations as put down by the employer. Pratap Chand Johuree compelled Girish Ghosh, brilliant theatre artists to leave his job as a bookkeeper to join his new enterprise. By roping in Girish Ghosh, Pratap Chand ensured the services of a galaxy of brilliant actors and actresses in his theatre company. As expected the new National theatre made huge profits. Theater hence was now seen as a viable venture.
Star theater was formed at 68,
The first play to inaugurate the theater complex was the Daksha Yagna in which Girish himself played Daksha and Binodini, Sati. It was in the play Dhurna Cahrita that Girsh Chandra used the conventions of Sanskrit drama in a unique way and had the Vidhusak (jester); make appropriate comments and using wit and humor.
At the end of 1883, the star theater was taken over by Amritalal Mitra for sum of 11,000. In 1884, the Chaitanya Leela was performed; Binodini played the role of Chaitanya. The great saint Ramakrisna Paramhansa is said to have witnessed the performance. This visit by the saint made theater popular and Star theatre rose into great prominence and fame. The biddhadeb charit was performed that was translated from the work of Sir Edward Arnold (1832-1904). The newspaper Hindu patriot in 1886 records the words of Sir Arnold,
"I cannot leave
Stiff competition and rivalry exited amongst the many theatre companies of that time. The intense rivalries among the theatre companies can also be discerned from the tremendous acrimony that ensued among them for recognition. There were even instances of mud slinging at each other through caricatures, satires and even direct personal attacks.
The first decade of the twentieth century saw several new playwrights flourishing in
Public theatres in
The system of regular staging of plays with paid performers under the banner of several theatre companies created an atmosphere of intense competition among not only the companies but also among the various categories of people employed in them. The proprietors often lured away the successful actor or actresses to their own group, even at the cost of offering them more incentives. The people recruited in the theatres were bound by a contract that made them follow the injunctions of the new employer, to stay for the stipulated hours of work and abide by the rules and regulations of the organization.
One of the positive impacts of commercialization of theater was that this medium offered specialized jobs to many people. The induction of actresses into stage on a regular basis, hiring various personnel to carry out the various backstage activities created a number of job opportunities for those seeking careers in it. There often ensued a competition among budding playwrights for recognition and work. Hence what actually gave the theatre owners' such an authoritative position were the economic vulnerability of the employees he hired and their craving to prove their histrionic potentials. While collaboration was achieved through persuasion of the employers, the employees retained their sense of agency and autonomy by registering their dissent through non compliance, manipulation, sabotage and sometimes through direct resistance, not in the form of collective action, but by resigning from their present employment and joining a rival theatre company. Binodini recounts in this in her memoirs, The excessive labor that I undertook every day took its toll and I began to fall sick. I applied for a month's leave; after much insistence, he granted me leave for fifteen days….
The early acting style employed in the Bengali Theater was highly influenced by the local folk styles of the region or the Jatra. With no background or scenery to suggest the locations, the Jatra had to rely on the words, music and songs to create the necessary effect among the audiences. In order to be heard and seen the movement and the dialogues of the actors needed to be exaggerated. The acting styles in the public
theatres, highly influenced by the Jatra were loud and bombastic. Often producers of theatre companies also trained their actors. Girish Chandra Ghosh took great pains to train his actors; Girish Chandra had his own acting style described as being exaggerated. The diction and the dialogue delivery were slow and followed a set meter and rhythm style or had Sur (musical melody) in it. Little attention seems to have been paid to team work and individual actors were often the "star" performers who attracted large audiences.
The acting style of the public theatres of
Many women now started acting and giving performances in Calcutta Public theatres. However they did not come from high social status and were often prostitutes. The introduction of these actors did receive criticism however some praised this effort. Bengalee, The newspaper in 1888 reports, It is the only Indian Theatre, in the town where there are no female actresses. No one objects to female actresses provided they come from the respectable classes of society. But in the present circumstances of the Indian society this is not possible; and the result is that women o questionable virtue represent the female characters. Those who have not the smallest pretensions to their purity and their womanly devotion too often represent the noblest characters in Hindu tradition, Sita, Sabitri and Damayanti. It seems to us to be an outrage upon Hindu sentiment that women of the town should represent such exalted characters in the Hindu legends. The Indian stage needs to be reformed and we are glad that the Bina Theatre under the auspices of Babu Rajkrishna Roy, has set up an example which is worthy of all praise and is richly deserving of public patronage received intense training from their teachers.
The National Theater argued that the introduction of the female actors should be seen as viable and of commercial advantage. This can be seen in one famous incident that took place in Classic Theater of Amarendranath Dutta. It was a normal practice those days that the theatre companies maintained one or two carriages. The actresses were brought to the theatre in those carriages. It was Amarendranath's strict instruction that the doors of the coaches would be kept tightly shut till the actresses had reached the theatre. After their arrival at the theatre, the actresses, with their faces veiled would directly head towards the green room. In his opinion the actresses were to be put up on the stage after adequately dressing them up, and if the public happened to see them in their natural self they would refuse to come to the theatre.
Advertisements and Ticketing
A very interesting method that was adopted by the Theatre companies for faster sale of tickets was through advertisements. The various advertisements came out in the newspapers, journals and handbills and vying for attention not only gave details of the time and venue of the plays but also mentioned the special points of attraction. In extreme cases, free passes were given out to important personalities for the opening shows. These thereby heightened the social prestige of the Theatre. Some advertisements ran like this,
Saturday, 29th March, at 9pm
Babu Girish Chunder Ghosh's new drama Kamaley Kamini
Grand, spectacular and romantic play
Scenes, mechanism and scientific appliances
Ship in storm, sun rises at sea
Grand transformation scene
Chandi and Padma in the air without the aid of wire, string,
or any other support.
Magical protean performance,
instantaneous transformation from Chandi to Kali.
The contents of the advertisements changed when a repeat performance of a play was to be staged.
Social Reform and Drama
Many of the Bengali plays that were performed in the public theatres were instrumental for spreading social awareness amongst the people. The plays had immense appeal and many of the audience came from the middle or the lower income groups. These groups welcomed the new theaters that were quite different from the folk forms like the jatra and the kathakata. Social and realistic plays seemed to have had enjoyed wide popularity. Fluent dialogues, long drawn speeches, plenty of songs and dances, sudden shocks and theatrical devices made theatre a drama for the whole family. Mythological plays and historical plays were characterized by deeds of heroism, suffering and sacrifice. The costumes, colorful scenery, thrilling escapes, brave sword play that were incorporated into the shows gave further popularity. Domestic dramas that targeted the English speaking Bengalis made theatre popular amongst the lower income groups and strata of society.
Leaving aside its very brief period of an elitist bias (the English educated youths and the Britishers), Bengali Theatre largely catered to an audience whose tastes and preferences were largely molded by their newly acquired English education and their exposure to a colonial cultural system. While its novelty and superiority as a form of entertainment can be seen theatre came to be looked upon as a platform to deepen the moral fabric of society. Though in its early years theatre was a very potent medium that voiced the need for social reforms
Many of the shows were highly patriotic in content, like Chattrapati Shivaji (life story of an Indian King, Shivaji) and Niladrapan (the story about the exploitation of the Indigo planters by the British plantation owners. This incited the sentiments of the people and the British proclaimed an ordinance against this. The Dramatic Performances Act of 1876, declared,
To empower the government of
The emergence of Bengali Theatre as an enterprise arose stronger as the middle classes strongly resented their derogatory status vis a vis the British. Bengali Theatre was symptomatic of the bhadralok (the elite) to search for 'Indian ' cultural identity. Strongly influenced by the western forms of aesthetics, the Bhadralok began to loathe the prevailing cultural practices. They were on the look out for an alternative cultural ethos and in response to the need for an alternative high culture. It went far beyond colonial parameters and developed its own independent status. Bengali Theatre followed its own uniqueness despite some of its major inputs coming as influences from the west and from the British. The emergence of the Bengali Theatre was hence deeply rooted in the socio-political framework of the society in the 19th century that gave its own characteristics, be it acting style, management, advertisement or penning or production of plays.