Colonial Kolkata's imaginary was permeated at every level by visions of London. Architecturally too, Kolkata was built along the lines of being the centre of the Empire, after the eminence of London itself.
Given this attitude, there were theatres in Kolkata even before the Nawab of Bengal's seizure of the city in 1756. At that time, one of the theatres that the British had built, popularly known as the Old Playhouse, was used as a strategic British military outpost who was overrun by the forces of the Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula, who attacked Kolkata in the same year, coming down from North Bengal.
The Old Playhouse was built with revenue raised from the public. And the actors who graced the stage were all amateurs who were nonetheless serious about practising the art. They were enterprising enough to get in touch with that celebrated English actor of the eighteenth century. The Old Playhouse, thus graced with the blessings of one of the foremost actors on the London stage, was a proud possession of the British community in Kolkata. But there seems to have been a rift in their respective views about theatre between the administrators of the East India Company and the general public. The theatre, however, did not get transformed into a church, even with the prospect of Company funding, but was turned into an auction house.
Though not always of strategic importance, theatre in Kolkata or Bengali Theatre as whole, was for the best part a prime supplier of a compensatory buffet of nostalgia and memories of home for the expatriate English. Plays and visiting the theatres were a way of bringing back or reliving something of London life, despite the incongruous geographic differences. Professional actors from the homeland mixed with the "amateurs", local English civilians living in Kolkata, to form acting companies modelled on London proto-types.
The English amateur actors of Kolkata even dared to imitate their London role models. Evidence of this can be found in the English language newspapers of Kolkata that published drama reviews and commentary on a regular basis. In most cases, they either over looked the uneven quality of the productions to applaud the performances of the colonial amateurs with encouraging notes.
The fact that the colonial British community was far away from home could justify even the "worst defects" and the "originality" of a London actor being "imitated" as a laudable "faithful picture". The motivation for the English theatres of Kolkata was not simply the urge to produce theatre but also to make exile, at the very least, bearable. The English theatre of Kolkata did not need to be "good" so long as it could bridge the gap between the life the Empire-builders had left behind and the life they had submitted themselves to in the colony. Theatre compensated for the anomaly of life in a foreign land that provided a living, a land they ruled, which made it doubly difficult for them to leave. It was, ultimately, a cultural compensation.
But the expatriate British worked hard on their theatrical endeavours. But anomalies of the British theatre in Kolkata did not restrict themselves to the symbolic order alone: the English audience of Kolkata also had to contend with the tropical weather conditions.
However, climate was not the only deterrent for the theatre-lovers among the Kolkata Englishmen: the British East India Company forbade the use of professional actors on stage and, very often, plays would have to be cancelled for want of actors.
This was a serious problem. Consequently, more contemporary plays with smaller casts, mostly farces and comedies, were often chosen for performance. A section of the theatregoing public in British Kolkata protested this trend and it gradually affected the business of the theatres and, hence, the fortunes of theatre companies waxed and waned with the tide of the times.
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