Operatic culture in colonial Calcutta vanishing into the new wave of professional Bengali theatre
Italian Opera was most ardently welcome in colonial Calcutta as an icon of British art and culture. ’Ironically, the cultural supremacy of London and Paris was achieved not through the assertion of a nationalistic culture, but instead through the construction of cosmopolitan identity.’ [Rocha] The bondage between the two, Italian opera and British culture, deems to be a marriage of convenience than of love. The British needed to project an image larger than life in order to institute their cultural supremacy at home and, as enlightened colonialist, to zealously civilize the natives in Italian opera – the queen of all arts. Though in the early 1830s The Englishman lamented the natives being so supine and indifferent in the matter of Italian opera, in the late 1860s, Calcutta turned into a pivot of Italian opera before it faded out finally from the Indian scenario.
To some scholars, one of the root causes of the fade-out was elitism that corrupted Calcutta’s socio-economic and political structures to paralyze the democratization of services and facilities including entertainments. Italian opera was looked upon as the highest form of entertainment and a haut art that necessarily demands a cultivated mind for appreciation, and therefore the opera art aficionados are always fewer in any society, native Indians or the European. The craze for operatic art that ballooned up during the initial phase fizzled out within a decade leaving empty halls with not even fifty enthusiasts in Calcutta to buy opera tickets. One by one all the opera houses in Calcutta turned into picture houses by the end of the nineteenth century.
How one of those institutions of operatic culture, the Grand Opera House, came into existence, performed and lost is the matter of this story narrated based on a limited number of studies and reports including the research of Esmeralda Rocha most extensively used here.
The Town Hall
The present Town Hall, which is, in fact, the Second Town Hall of Calcutta still standing as one of the most elegant elevations in the city of palaces, the first one being the Old Court House of Calcutta that had served the township society generously in accommodating formal meetings and public events of every description until 1791 when its construction weakened beyond repair. To find an alternative venue, on May 31, 1792, a meeting was held at Le Gallai Tavern that unanimously recommended erecting a “public building for the general accommodation of the settlement” by crowdfunding through subscriptions. [Carey]
In March 1814, on completion of the Calcutta Town Hall to function as the central hub of cultural activities, became the new icon of the city. The Hall was declared open to visitors under restrictive conditions — it shall be reserved for authorized general meetings of the inhabitants of Calcutta or for meetings of merchants, or other classes of society, for the transaction of mercantile affairs or other business, and for public entertainments on great occasions, in which the community at large is concerned. The elegance of the Town Hall rests in the simplicity of its doric architecture that consists of only a few parts but quite large to strike a clear view from a distance. Structurally, it exceeds the height of the Government House, the iconic British architecture in India, by several feet. It was planned uniquely for its stated purpose. [Rocha] The edifice still perpetuates the memory of its architect, Major-General John Garstin.
Within a year, however, the Town Hall began to show signs of certain structural snags. When its portico partly collapsed, Captain Richard Blechynden, who was called to investigate, submitted to the Chief Engineer Colonel Alexander Kyd that it was not the poor soil to be blamed, as Garstin suggested. Subsequently he was assigned for the restoration work. [Blechynden] At the close of 1815 plans were put in for several alterations involving a further 40,000 Rs. on top of the initial costs of 7,00000 Rs. [Carey] The working committee wished “to see the interior more durably arranged“, and ”make it as lasting as its appearance will be grand and beautiful“. [Sandeman] Some minor corrections and regular maintenance apart, the Hall had been running its multifunctional hospitality as a central place for committee meetings, public addresses, portrait galleries, a public library and often stage performances as well, although the Chowringhee Theatre already came into existence to stage English theatres for the Calcutta beau monde.
AUGUSTO CAGLI’S OPERATIC DEBUT AT THE TOWN HALL
In April 1866, after a spell of long 16 years since Sans Souci, the last of the theatre houses, charred and closed down, the Calcutta elite received the rumour that an Italian opera company, now touring in Bombay, would be visiting them soon. The news was met with ‘mixed feelings of excitement and embarrassment’ [Rocha]. It was totally unacceptable for the Calcuttans that on the plea of not having a playhouse they should bid adieu to the opera company coming to their city on finishing a grand session in Bombay. A rivalry between the presidencies let the white-towners strive under psychic stress to provide a hospitable and profitable environment for the troupe. Ultimately they were relieved to rediscover the best of the Town Hall, which should be appropriately refurbished to meet all the requirements of staging an Italian opera.
The Company arrived in late April and greeted with enormous public excitement. The Town Hall, freshly painted and polished, looked bright and beautiful, though the paints not fully dried. That was an occasion of great enthusiasm for the European patrons who came to attend the shows in newly prepared dresses. “Wives and daughters were equipped with new gowns, mantles and gloves, often on credit, whilst many of the men outfitted themselves with new dress coats. Despite the audience coming away from the Town Hall with their seat numbers branded across their new clothes, like a convict or a sheep, the concert was deemed a complete success by the press and public alike. [Rocha] The carriages of the opera patrons clogged the streets of Calcutta in such a chaotic manner that the Calcutta Police had to devise a set of road regulations for the first time to deal with the unprecedented volume of traffic. [Englishman, May 5, 1866, cited in Rocha] Like the recital, the full operatic performances attracted crowded houses and effusive applause. Such success encouraged both the Calcutta public and Augusto Cagli. By mid-May 1866 Cagli and the Opera Committee had decided to present a full session of opera in Calcutta on a contractual arrangement. Cagli ‘s Company will perform twice a week for Rs. 60,000 before 300 audiences against membership subscriptions. It was a great challenge for Cagli and the Committee to endorse the agreement being fully aware of the inherent limitations of the Town Hall.
“The Town Hall acoustics, which the media was complaining for a generation, still remained abysmal, and the stage and poor airing made it unbearably hot for the audience and performers alike. Furthermore, the Town Hall was beginning to prove socially inadequate…” Many believed it improper to house opera, the queen of all arts, in such a utilitarian building. In achieving a longstanding opera culture in Calcutta, the most lamentable drawback was that the city had no appropriate opera house in and around. Cagli and the Opera Committee made every effort to construct new opera houses. As many as three playhouses readied within a very short time to entertain the White Town patrons with plentiful plays. Between 1866 and 1872, Augusto Cagli and his troupe presented seven seasons of opera and established a vibrant operatic culture worthy of the prestige and self-conscious privilege of the ‘City of Palaces’. It was more about fulfilling a social, political and ideological need in Calcutta than a sudden inspiration brought along by Cagil’s enchanting performance that demanded its own Opera House.[Rocha] It may be noted that the first purposive opera house, at Tivoli, was built in the city not by any white-town sponsors but by Augusto Cagli of the touring Italian opera company to serve primarily his personal business interests.
The Grand Opera House 1867-1917
Besides the will of the Opera Committee, an association of esteemed men, mostly British, there was a widespread interest in the idea of having a new opera house. While Cagli was away in Italy to hire a grander company, the Committee worked hard for setting up a new opera house. There was a growing concenscious that the opera house should be located somewhere within the white-town of Chowringhee, rather than in the vast open space of the Maidan. As soon as the Committee found a suitable plot on Lindsay Street they acted upon quickly constructing their first opera House. The New Opera House at Lindsay Street was kept reserved for Augusto Cagil’s shows. Cagil’s Tivoli Garden Opera House was henceforth being used by other impresarios, and after a while shifted to 5 Dhurumtollah Street under the banner Corinthian Theatre. There was also a third theatre, the Lyceum, that existed on Maidan.
The Grand Opera House at Lindsay Street was founded in 1867 by the Opera Committee initially composed of all British dignitaries. After a decade Sir Alex Apcar the then Chairman had leased to Mr William B English, an American impresario for the 1875-76 season. There might have been others who owned the house temporarily before or after William B English. The Grand Opera House continued for half a century in its original form until taken over by a Bijou Company Limited of Mr E M D Cohen in 1917. From a High Court correspondence, we gather that it was E H Ducasse, the then owner of the Opera House, who transferred the premises No. 4 Mudge Street, a corner plot at the crossing of Lindsay Street, on the 1st of April 1917 on a five-year lease to Cohen under some partly unclear terms. [High Court] It deems for operational convenience, the new house address no.7 Lindsay Street was registered in lieu of no. 4 Mudge Street. It is not yet clear if Ducasse had purchased ownership right from the Opera Committee or from someone else having the title of the property. Cohen extensively refurbished the house and reopened it as the New Opera House, which was Calcutta’s premier vaudeville venue. Among its new attractions were the roof garden fitted with marble tables around the fountain, and the beautifully appointed bar, There are also luxurious lounge rooms and smoking rooms and comfortable retiring rooms. The body of the house is equipped with comfortable opera chairs and electric fans. The modern ventilating system makes the theatre cool on the hottest nights. One unique feature of the house is that each division, the pit, the dress-circle and the gallery, is separate from the others, with separate box offices and entrances so that the various classes of patrons need not “rub shoulders” with one another – a typical elitist designing disapproved by the Calcutta society at large. Audiences were rigidly divided and separated on socio-economic lines. As a ticket increases in price, the seat becomes more conspicuous and yet more isolated. The house had 1,500 comfortable seats. Prices of admission range were from 8 cents in the gallery to $1 for a seat in the boxes. [Howells] Although the media credited all-new features to Ducasse, in fact, those were the contributions of Cohen instead who took the charge from him a year back. [Rocha]
Life in Calcutta since then was not the same anymore. The political unrest, the famine, and the war crippled the social and personal lives of Calcutta irrespective of their class. During wartime, all the halls of entertainment were closed, barring Roxy cinema (previously The Empire), which screened day and night only one movie, the ‘Kismet’, without break throughout the barren period. In the mid-1940s, the Grand Opera House was converted into the Globe Theatre – the largest cinema hall in India that entertained the new generation of Calcutta people liberally until closed down permanently in recent time.
Italian Operas on Stage
The Grand Opera House established by the Opera Committee for staging Italian Operas by acclaimed artistes hand-picked by the famous impresario Augusto Cagli to entertain Calcutta’s opera aficionados. Besides full-fledged Italian operas, Cagil also presented some Italian ballets as a pleasant surprise. The performances furnished the white-town residents ‘with the sense of pride, accomplishment and cultivation for which they had been so desperate’. Viceroyalty seemed eager to promote opera in Calcutta. Lord Mayo and the Lady Mayo were, particularly, great admirers of the high arts. Quite often they visited the Grand Opera accompanying some foreign dignitaries. When they did, declared a ‘Grand State Opera Night’ as a gesture of patronization.
The hall admitted the audience on seasonal tickets with a price tag of Rs.100, i.e. Rs.6.25 per concert, which was pricey in 1867 but not too high for a white-towner. We may find that determining the admission fee had always been one of the most tricky issues for the survival of the Italian opera in Calcutta because the presentation of the haut art has always been an expensive affair, which could be met either by selling high-priced tickets to the maximum number of heads belonging to the relatively small upper-class community or by selling tickets with discounted price to a much larger working-class community. The first season began with the maximum number of the Calcutta elites occupying the expensive seats letting its hall half-empty – much worrying for Calcutta’s opera aficionados, who soon warned by the press that ‘should the [Italian opera] company slip through Calcutta’s hands the City of Palaces would be guilty of its current reputation for being narrow-minded and mercenary’. Next year, Cagil’s new company represented the single greatest improvement to Calcutta’a operatic culture. The popularity of his new recruit Zenoni and her talent helped Cagli to shape the repertoire and concentrating on modern tragic operas. Cagli knew by experience how fond the Calcutta audiences were sopranos and took care to choose singers more mature than their predecessors from Italy’s best regional opera houses.Repertoires
During his tenure, Cagli feasted Calcutta aficionado with compositions of Bellini, Donizetti, Flotow Gounod, Mercadante, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi. Among the operas presented his time we notice that the following plays were staged often: La Sonnambula, L’Elisir d’Amore, Linda di Chamounix, Lucrezia Borgia, Il Giuramento Don GiovanniMarta, Faust, Barbiere di Siviglia, Barbiere di Siviglia, Un Ballo in Maschera Ernani, Luisa Miller, Macbeth, La Traviata, Il Trovatore.
Italian Opera had its best time when Cagli ruled Calcutta stages and after him, it waned. There was a long spell of uncertainty when the Opera Committee failed to select a new impresario after rejecting the candidature of Giovanni Pompei. Calcutta, after a long while, had to pass the winter of 1871–72 bereft of Italian opera. The city found instead a variety of lesser performative arts on its stages entertaining people in jam-packed playhouses. One such popular performer was Deb Carlson, a stage name of David Nunis Cardozo. He was an American vaudeville player renown for his Blackface roles that demeaned African Americans. [Chattopadhyay] Dalhousie Institute also launched a series of soirées musicales. The black-face minstrel Dave Carson added quite a few new musical numbers like ‘Coolie’, and ‘Bangali Babu’ specially composed for his India tour, rather than ‘Mammy’ and ‘Negro Dandy’. Carlson stayed in Calcutta for three months only, during 1872-1874, performing in Bengali and English stages.
Hindu National Theatre at Grand Opera House
Interestingly, this was the beginning of the most significant phase of the professional Bengali theatrical movement inspired by the birth of the Calcutta National Theatrical Society. The Society was established in November 1872 by a few native gentlemen of Bagh Bazar with the objective to improve the stage, as also to encourage native youths in the compositions of new Bengali dramas from the proceeds of the sales of tickets. [Englishman Nov. 1872] Immediately after, the Society was split into two groups, one being called ‘Hindu National Teatre’ led by Ardhendushekhar Mustafi and Nagendranath Bandyopadhyay, the other called ‘National Theatre’ led by Sishir Bhaduri. None of these two had any permanent stage of their own, and both were eager to negotiate with the professional as well as amateurish stages inside and outside of Calcutta.
At this juncture, Alessandro Massa took over the office of impresario and realised soon enough his inadequacy in meeting the demands of the local aficionado for the quality Italian opera artistes and attractive repertoires. Massa was honest in his efforts. He did his best to present good Italian operas and made few contributions to Calcutta’s orchestra by introducing some enchanting instruments, like the clarinet and the horn. Massa had a small working committee of his own solely for making liaise with the public and to facilitate administration. We are not sure whether it was Massa himself or his committee was responsible for inviting Hindu National Theatre to stage their Bengali dramatic performances at Grand Opera House during April 1873 for three nights.
An advertisement appeared in the Englishman, 5 April 1873 :
Hindu National Theatre, Calcutta
Grand Opening Night This Evening Saturday 5th April, 1873
The plays advertised were pantomimes including Mustafi
Sahbka Pucka Tamasha and the drama Sarmistha, by Michael
Madhusudan Dutt. Tickets, it was said, would be available at
at the Opera House and at the House of the Late Kaliprasanna
Singha, Baranassee Ghose’s St. The signatory at the bottom was
Nagendra Nath Banerjee. Hony. Secretary.
[The Englishman, April 5, 1873]
Hindu National Theatre performed the following items at Grand Opera House:
5 April 1873
- Model School
- Belati Babu
- Title of Honour Distribution
- Aukhil’s Wonderful Feats
- Mustafa Saheb ka Pucca Tamassa
- Sharmistha of Madhusudan Dutta
[With Nagendra Babu (Yayati), Ardhenu Mustafi (Vakasur), Shibchandra (Shukracharya), Bel Babu (Devajani), Kshetra Mohan (Sarmistha)]
12 April 1873
- Tragedy of Vidhova-Vibaha
19 April 1873
- Kinchit Jaloyog
- Ekei-ki Bale Sobhyota
- Charitable Dispensary
- Bharat Sangit
Private Boxes to admit 5 Rs.20 Lower Stage to admit 4 Rs 16
Dress Circle … Rs 4 Stalls Front … Rs 3
Stall Back … Rs 2 Pit … Re 1
Mustafa Saheb Ka Pucca Tamassa
The experience of performing Bengali drama with full house attendance on an exclusive modern stage in the white town was amply rewarding to the young institution that was founded to provide public performances of newly-composed Bengali theatre works and to invigorate Bengalis’ cultural pride, and fan the flame of nationalist sentiment. Among the items performed on April 5, there was one extraordinary piece, Mustafa Saheb Ka Pucca Tamassa (Item No.4) that deserves special attention. It was a highly appreciated satire composed and played by Ardhendushekhar Mustafi in response to Mr Dev Carson’s item, the Bengali Babu, a hot favourite caricature he staged a number of times here at Grand Opera House beside Dalhousie Institute, and Jorasako Public Theatre. He used to draw large crowds, earned a good deal of money and was much applauded when he sang :
“I am a very good Bengalee Babu[Indian Mirror, 22nd, Jan. 1873.]
“I keep my shop at Radhabazar ;
“I live in Calcutta, eat my dalbhat
“And smoke my Hookka.”
Deb Carson stayed only a couple of months in Calcutta and was spoken of with much interest by The Englishman as it appears from the following:
“The inimitable Deb gave his last regular performance on the Bengali stage, however, there was only one man, who was a match for this Saheb and that was Babu Ardhendu Sekhar Mustafi. To give a retort to Debcarson’s above caricature, Ardhendu, dressed as a Saheb with an old hat, torn coat and dirty trousers with Violin (Behala) in hand, used to show Mutafi Sahebka Pucca Tamassa to caricature the so-called Sahebs in the following song, which he used to sing with gestures :
Ham vada sahev hai duniyame[The Englishman Friday, Dec, 20, 1872,200 Pucca Tamasa]
“None can be compared hamara sath ;
“Mister Mustafi” name hamara
“Catgaon me mera Vilat.
“Coat pini, pentaloon pini
“Pini mera trousers;
“Every two years new suit pini
“Direct from Chadney bazar.
Mustafi who was henceforth regarded in the stage as Mustafi Saheb or Saheb by all was a match for Deb Carson and both drew equally crowded houses by their pucca tamassa, though in the opinion of Girish Chandra, Deb Carson’s humour was of a much lower order than that of his Bengali rival. [Dasgupta v.2] The Englishman writes on Dec. 20, 1872, about this show held previously: At the Opera House, on Wednesday night and the attendance was full. Though not such as might have been expected, Deb’s part of the performance was capital and we are glad to hear that he will take a benefit at the Town Hall before leaving Calcutta with his Company. He deserves, and ought to have a bumper house.” The theatre historian Sushil Mukherjee thinks “Ardhendu’s was a fitting retort to Dave Carson’s low comic at the expense of the Bengalis.” He thinks Ardhendu “paid the Englishman back in his own coin through songs and mimicry.” [Mukherjee] We may, however, consider Ardhendu’s mode of paying back a bit differently as will be discussed soon after.
After Massa, Percy Wyndham, an Englishman, volunteered his service in saving Italian opera culture but could do little in improving the quality of the opera performances. Nevertheless, he gave constant efforts to popularise Italian opera in the wider cross-sections of the Calcutta society. For his own survival, Wyndham wanted to reach audiences beyond the white-town. This he attempted to achieve, against the wish of the elite society, by introducing tickets at the discounted price to working-class and free tickets on Wednesdays to soldiers and their accompanying wives. Wyndham was increasingly disliked by the Opera Committee and the British patrons, except a few. Knowing the uncertainty of his position he took care to build an image of himself as ‘Calcutta’s Impresario’. Toward the end of the Italian opera season, he decided to lease the Lindsay Street Opera House to the Great National Opera – a Bengali initiative. Although Wyndham’s idea reflected a strong business potential to back up operatic culture in Calcutta, while the majority of Calcutta’s elite feared an irreversible loss of social and economic prestige that opera patronage represented. They took pride in believing that ‘the opera as a cultural symbol, never to be sullied by association with native culture’. On February 1875, a spokesman of such discriminatory dogmas, under the penname ‘F’ pronounced, Bengali opera would invade and desecrate the ‘pretty, little theatre’, marking and sullying the house with their ‘disagreeable substances’ (ghee and mustard oil). The Editor of the Englishman hand in hand with the high society Britishers, some Europeans and the opera-house proprietors, promptly supported ‘F’. In a hurry, The Englishman’s Editor momentarily forgot his unreserved admiration of the Bengali opera সতী কি কলঙ্কিনী Sati ki Kalangkini performed by the Great National Opera last January at Corinthian Theatre. That time the Editor found that performance ‘a promising development in Indian culture’ and appreciated the Bengali orchestra composed by Madan Mohan Barman as ‘a very good band’. This support, however, evaporated once the Great National Opera, a product of the Bengali intelligentsia, began to compete, and perhaps usurp, Italian Opera, the symbol par excellence of Western cultural superiority. [Rocha] A good thing, there were some liberal Britishers too to challenge the stands of ‘F’ and The Englishman’s editor. One British man, pen-named ‘G’, retorted ‘F’ that ‘far from undermining Italian Opera, Wyndham’s invitation to the GNO would help to make the Italian Opera financially viable, and that the ‘ungenerous avowal’ admitting racial discrimination was simply an expression of private illiberal opinion of ‘F’ and The Englishman.
While racism and nationalism are two different concepts they are inherently related, which can be observed in many agitated nationalist slogans, posters and advertisements released in support of the swadeshi movements. It required renaissance men to go above the dogma of hatred in reacting to racial/ national issues with humanitarian values and understanding. Mr Mustafi’s ‘Pucca Tamassa’ – a retort to Carlson’s ‘Bengali Babu’ – was an example of an empathetic satire addressed to a fellow ‘native saheb’ pranking him for aping the British snobbery, instead of attacking the Britishers directly with a racial vengeance.
The period between the late 1860s and early 1870s was indeed the golden age of the Italian operatic culture in Calcutta. The musical seasons all these years became increasingly meritorious and socially important. The period was also marked glorious for the rise of the Bengali theatre which drew much of its enthusiasm and sparks from the Italian operas and English theatres performed in the white town playhouses and at the Town Hall. More importantly, Bengali stagecraft including architectural designing was initially borrowed from the English stages. The house of the first Bengali theatre, the Bengal Theatre, was built after the wooden architecture of Lewis Lyceum theatre once existed on the maidan. The Bengali professional theatre nevertheless had started with vernacular repertoires freshly created by the contemporary literary giants highly relevant socially and politically to the realities of everyday life in colonial India, Bengal in particular. In comparison, the contents of the Italian and English stage performances in most cases had little relevance to contemporary lifestyle and social issues, and often too sophisticated to be appreciated by an uninitiated audience. This may be the foremost reason why the Bengali stages were being multiplied while the Italian opera houses and the English theatre halls vanished into the ‘picture houses’.
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