(Last Updated on : 29/05/2012)
Bengal witnessed what was termed even in its own time as a "Renaissance" between 1795 and the last quarter of the nineteenth century. This is one period of Indian history that brought about the most radical changes the subcontinent had seen since the rise and fall of Islamic rule in India through various time periods. The Bengali Renaissance
was the outgrowth of a grafting of British culture onto that of the more-than-willing native culture. This enormously enthusiastic response of the Bengalis to Western culture and its tenets imposed by the British was far greater than the adjustments required to cope with a colonial administration; it was a search for a cultural identity that could at some level set them at par with their European overlords; it was an attempt to beat their masters at their own game; it was a quest for an Indian cultural idiom that would more than cover the ignominy of being ruled and exploited by a foreign power.
It is in the wake of this endeavour to find or regain a respectful self-identity in the 1850s that several theatres were spawned in the native quarters of Kolkata
. The new colonial socio-economic order had engendered a new society. The concentration of wealth in the hands of the babus and the rise of a Western-style educated middle class combined to give rise to the Bengali theatre
. Babu wealth underwrote both leisure and arts patronage.
The growth of the middle class meant surplus creative energy seeking channels of expression. Close contact with the British, inspired both classes to create their own theatre in the European mould. With the coming of economic, political and social stability, with a mean being struck between the traditional Bengali culture and the British cultural imports, a system of patronage was born that was to keep Bengali theatre alive for some time.
It would be a site of pleasure limited to the elite babu circle. The modern Bengali theatre
during 1840s was relatively quiet years as far as theatrical activities in the Bengali language were concerned. That does not mean that the Bengali elite were refraining from theatrical activities altogether. Their energies for this newly found Western-style of entertainment were channelled into producing plays not only in the style of their Anglo-Saxon masters but in their language too. In October 1844, under the active patronage of Babu Radhakanta Deb, two short plays in English were presented in a double bill: Lovers of Salamanca (author unknown) and The Fox and the Wolf (author unknown), directed by one Mr Barry, an Englishman.
A burgeoning new urban middle class was helping the cause tremendously, not simply by coming to see the plays but also by supplying a good number of actors. In 1854, Babu Pyari Mohan Basu founded his Jorasanko Natyashala (Theatre) where Julius Caesar was staged in English by a Bengali cast.
The problem apparently lay not in natives trying to play Shakespearean plays, but in playing him badly. But the problem could/would be resolved at once if the producers moved away from not only Shakespeare but also the English language. The burden of proof was not so much on the Bengali actor as on the Bengali language
. It was a thinly veiled appeal to the community of Bengali babu to produce their plays in their own tongue.
Jayram Basak, another babu, took the appeal seriously and built a theatre in his house at Charakdanga, in the northern part of the city - Kolkata. It was here, in 1857, that the first noteworthy original play in Bengali was staged: the aforementioned Kulinkulasarbaswa by Tarkaratna. Two other plays, namely Kirtibilas and Bhadrarjun by J. C. Gupta and Taracharan Sikdar respectively, following Western tenets, had already been written (possibly in the 1830s). Although of doubtful artistic merit, these plays did not get staged probably for the lack of babu patronage. Kulinkulasarrbaswa, then, though not the first Western-style play to be written in Bengali, was the first to be seen on a Kolkata stage. A scathing social satire on the polygamous practice of the kulin group of Brahmans, it turned out to be a successful production with at least three performances in the course of three months. 1857 marks an important turning point in the history of Bengali theatre. It is interesting to note that from this year onwards, for coming few years, there was a burst of theatrical activity among the babus.
The Sepoy Mutiny
in1857 was also an important year in the context of Indian history, and this got reflected in many of the plays that were staged. Perhaps, also, it was the active nationalist spirit of the Rebellion that indirectly shamed them into trying to reclaim a different kind of nationality through more passive cultural means. At least three new babu theatres had come into being in 1857. Ashutosh Deb's Theatre (1857), the Bidyotsahini Theatre (1857) of Babu Kaliprasanna Sinha and the Belgachhia Theatre (1858) of Raja Pratapchandra Sinha all continued to produce Bengali versions of Sanskrit plays. Ramnarayan Tarkaratna himself returned to translating Sanskrit language
plays with Bhattanarayana's Benisangaham for Bidyotsahini Theatre. Kaliprasanna Sinha translated Kalidasa's Vikramorvasi.