Gerasim Lebedev and His Daring Experimental Playhouse

Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev, 1749-1817. Courtesy Beyond Russia


Here, in this essay, I will restrict the scope of my discussions to the experimental playhouse Grasim Lebedev founded in 1795 under the banner “Bengally Theatre”. The playhouse was alive only for two gala nights within a range of three months before it was lost into fragments of historical irrelevance. I intend to restore its image clearing up all the unqualified attributes messing with its identity and redefining ‘Bengally’ Theatre as a playhouse designed for a multilingual community as Lebedev envisaged it daringly with no precedence. This obliged me to acquaint my readers with a little more of Gerasim Lebedev before we talk about his brainchild Bengally Theatre.


A self-taught musician, and an ardent scholar of  Indic languages and Indian traditions, Gerasim Lebedev is remembered in Russia as their first cultural ambassador to India. Lebedev authored voluminous works on Indology that are still being researched under the aegis of the Soviet government. In India, however, Gerasim Lebedev is a long-forgotten name except for a few scholars of theatre history who gratefully think back to Lebedev’s pioneering venture of making ‘Bengally Theatre’ as early as 1795 to stage plays in Bengali dialects enacted by Bengalee actors and actresses. Lebedev is pronounced the Father of Bengali theatre by many illustrious researchers since the beginning of the last century when his unprecedented theatrical adventures were known for the first time.

Lebedev was deemed temperamentally an adventurist with creative talents and unending curiosity that he applied largely in learning the oriental languages and cultures during the twelve years of his sojourn in India during the late 18th century and continued till his death in 1817 researching, writing, and publishing his oriental works in fulfilment of the royal desire of Grand Duke Paul- the future Emperor Paul I. (Gurov 2010) [Vassilkov] Lebedev establishes an important link in the early history of Indological studies in Europe. Admittedly, “the part he played in seeking to bring about an understanding between India on the one hand and Russia and Europe on the other, has so long remained unknown and unappreciated“. [Chatterji]


The range and the versatility of works Lebedev did during his lifetime are mind-blogging. At Moscow, The State Archives and the Archives of Art and Literature preserved the five large volumes of manuscripts, letters, and cuttings from newspapers that Lebedev had carried home. His manuscripts now consist of a manual of Bengali writing, dictionaries and grammars of Bengali and Hindustani, conversation books, notes on the customs of the people of the Eastern Region of India, and rudiments of Indian mathematics. He also translated from books extracts of heroic poetry written by Bharat Chandra Roy. These apart, Lebedev has on his credit two books. In 1801, he published in English, A Grammar of the Pure and Mixed East Indian Dialects. In 1805 on his way back home Lebedev published in Russian, An Impartial Review of the East Indian Brahminical System of Sacred Rites and Customs, at Sanskrit Press he set up in St Petersburg in 1802 – the first printing house in Europe to print Bengali script using Bengali fount he cut himself.

Many of his works are still unavailable outside Russia and remain yet to be translated for a wider readership. There were nevertheless some Indian researchers, like Mahadev Prasad and RK Dasgupta who had the privilege of reading the English versions of Lebedev’s linguistic and Indological writings and found them full of fads and fallacies. The ill-conceived religious and philosophical ideas of the ancient Hindus made his works grossly irrelevant. Lebedev claimed to have studied Indian languages more scientifically and more thoroughly than the English Orientalists of his day. The quality of his Grammar does not seem to justify any such claim. Grierson has said that ‘judging from this grammar his knowledge of Hindustani must have been very elementary — such as might have been picked up from the Calcutta Bazaar’ [Dasgupta, RK]

The doyen of Indian linguists, Sunity Chatterjee stated emphatically in his forwarding notes to A Grammar of Pure and Mixed East Indian Dialects that in this book Lebedev does not show himself to be a good linguist of either Bengali and the Bazaar Hindustani with which he was acquainted like all European sojourners in a North Indian town. [Chatterji] The book is viewed by modern critics as both touching and humorous. Lebedev’s knowledge of India was derived from his Bengali contacts alone. Everything he wrote consequently about India was given through Bengali pronunciation, which emphasises the sound “o”. [Sahani]

For a long time, Lebedev’s work was brushed aside as being unscientific, notwithstanding the fact Lebedev was a real scholar who possessed both the ‘Wanderlust and the desire for knowledge’. He was an inquiring soul who wanted to know things as they were and tell people what he found, in all sincerity. [Chatterji] India has an exalted place for Grasim Lebedev if not for any of his contributions toward Indian grammar and dialects, or behavioural and religious customs of ancient Hindus, it is for his unshaken belief in the unity and equality of mankind, which made Gerasim Lebedev totally free from religious and racial superiority-complexes. His entrepreneurship in founding the ‘Bengally Theatre’ provided us with ample evidence of his impartial judgement that belongs to a scientific mind and of the creative intuition of a genius.


Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev (for Steppanovich Lebedeff) was born in 1749 at Yaroslavl by the river of Volga, in Czarist Russia. The eldest son of a church choirmaster, Lebedev later moved to St Petersburg with his family. At the age of 15 with little education, he left home. Lebedev recollects, “My father’s tyranny prevented me until my fifteenth year from doing more than learning to read and write my own language and to know, by chance, the art of music”.

When in St Petersburg Lebedev became acquainted with Fyodor Volkov, the founder of the first permanent Russian theatre. Lebedev was a singer in the court choir and participated in the performances of Volkov’s theatre as well. Here he began learning European languages and playing the violin. As a violinist, Lebedev joined the music band of Andreas Razumovsky in 1792. Another version of his early life appears in Anne Swartz’s book, Piano Makers in Russia in the Nineteenth Century: Lebedev was born into serfdom owned by Alexei Razumovsky. Part of Lebedev’s household duties included teaching music to the serfs, and possibly entertaining the master’s family and his guests. Lebedev apparently conducted the weekly private concerts held in Razumovsky’s homes. Both versions speak of the dominating influence of Alexei Razumovsky and his nephew Andrey on young Lebedev. Andrey Razumovsky himself was an amateur violinist of note and later a patron of Beethoven. When he moved to Vienna as Russia’s ambassador to the Austro-Hungarian empire, Lebedev was picked to accompany him. After a while, Lebedev threw in his lot with a military band. He travelled with them across Europe till he reached England. [Kumar] “This experience, including, his travels “around Europe for five years, performing at courts and learning French”, helped him in preparing the ground for his visit to India [Chakrabarti]


Before we take our story further, we must ask ourselves the questions, as many researchers did:
1. Why did Gerasim Lebedev go to India of all the places?
2. Where could a young musician with a poor educational background get the idea that made him stubbornly search behind the mythology and ritual of Hinduism?

The only possible answers to these questions have been suggested in the pioneering research of Nikita V. Gurov which discloses some Masonic connections among the patrons of Lebedev, the Grand Duke Paul being the most important one of them. Lebedev was introduced to Paul in Paris in 1782. Certain evidence indicates that it was in 1782 that the Grand Duke Paul while travelling in Europe under the name of “Count of the North”, joined a Masonic lodge. Regardless of whether or not Paul had, as some scholars believe, joined the Brotherhood earlier during the late 1770s, his Masonic interests and contacts in 1782 raise no doubts. [Yasillekov]

Andrei Razumovsky who brought Lebedev to Europe in 1777 was an eminent Mason. Later, during the reign of Emperor Alexander I, he worked to legalize the activities of the Masonic lodges in Russia. A great music lover and a violinist himself, he always had in his entourage musicians who could be used for playing “Masonic music” in particular. Lebedev was at his service as a cellist. Before they parted in Vienna Razumovsky allowed Lebedev to go on a European concert tour, giving him letters of reference intended for the European and Russian nobility. [Yasillekov] Lebedev was able to benefit from the cultural sophistication of Razumovsky’s circle—the latter being a connoisseur of good music and an acquaintance of Haydn, Mozart and, especially, Beethoven—and the Viennese ambience as a whole, and further polish his knowledge and develop his skills and tastes. [Chakrabarti] The Masonic association might have inspired in him a zeal “to create a bond among the human race scattered over the earth, to disseminate in the Universe true knowledge of God, true Faith and Law, to strengthen the mutual desire of peoples for benevolence and to unite peoples’ abilities for the restoration of the universal commonwealth”. [Yasillkov]

Lebedev was the first Russian, three centuries after Afanasy Nikitin’s voyage (1466-1472), to go to India with the clear goals “to learn the Bramgenic (sic.) teachings”, “to comprehend the ways of the people”, and “to acquire knowledge about their languages and wisdom”. [Yasillkov] Throughout the successive centuries various attempts were made to establish trade and other relations between Russia and India in which Indian traders, especially those settled at Astrakhan and Armenians settled in various centres of trade in India played some part. [Prasad] It was an opportune moment for Lebedev to pray for granting the Royal permission to go to India to learn the ‘Bramgenic teachings’ and to acquire knowledge about their languages and wisdom. [Yasillkov] This was the time Russia wanted to establish a trading and goodwill relationship with India for the first time. However, Lebedev apparently left for India with Royal permission but no financial support except a few letters of recommendation apparently from his Masonry well-wishers.

By February 1785 Lebedev was in England from where he boarded the East India Company ship Rodney, which arrived in Madras in August 1785. [ Stapley] Lebedev writes, “The day after our arrival at Madras, I was politely invited on shore by Captain William Sydenham, then Town Mayor of Madras.“. Soon after his ship dropped anchor in the harbour of Madras a boat appeared with a courier bearing an invitation from the Mayor. The latter gave the musician a warm reception, provided him with lodgings, and engaged him for two years on very good terms. In this way, Lebedev enjoyed a comfortable stay in Madras [Lebedeff]. The Town Mayor, Captain Sydenham was the first to engage him as his music teacher at a modest annual salary of £ 200 for two years. He also earned some money from musical programmes. However, the conservative society stifled him and so after living in Madras for a couple of years he left for Bengal. [Stapley] Although Lebedeff passed two years in Madras “pleasingly, and I may add harmonically, yet infatuated by the general report, that Bengal had a more extended theatre for the animated action of the bolder race of exploratory than Madras, and incited also by the emulation of enlarging my scale of knowledge in respect of things as well as men.” He left Fort St. George at the expiration of his contract with Captain Sydenham and proceeded to Calcutta in early August. He reached Calcutta sometime in August 1787, the exact date being not on record.


Gerasim Lebedev reached Calcutta, the capital of British India, in August 1787 wearing hats of many colours. Calcutta turns the cellist Lebedev into a linguist, an orientalist, and an extraordinary theatre entrepreneur during his long stay of about a decade. In Calcutta, he once again enjoyed a hearty welcome as Madras did him. Although Lebedev attributed this to the “shining light of the High Monarch’s blessedness” which accompanied him during his journey [Lebedeff], Gurov thinks it should be more reasonable to assume all it was due to the Masonic connections he had. [Gurov] Modern research testifies to the fact that any foreign traveller arriving in Calcutta or another large colonial centre would first head for the local lodge since it was the surest way to win the sympathies of the local elite. Lebedev was a welcome guest of many Masonic lodges. Those days the practice of musical performances in the lodges became widespread. Lebedev’s great contemporaries, Mozart and Johann Christian Bach wrote “Masonic music” which was performed at the meetings of their lodges.

Calcutta was the home of Lebedeff for the next ten years. He lived at 47 Tiretta Bazar (1787—12th December 1792), 3 Weston’s Lane (13th December 1792—November 1793) and 3, Meerajanny Gully, now Bow Street.  So far we know Lebedev was a bachelor. There was no reference to his family in his correspondence. He kept, however, a house in Calcutta with a number of servants. [Nair]

A group of servants on the verandah of a Colonial bungalow. Watercolour. Originally produced in c.1825.

During the most eventful time in Calcutta, Lebedev befriended many high officials and dignitaries. In some of his writings, Lebedev expresses gratitude to his benefactors and “friends”, usually referring to them by their formal titles and other designations of social status, for example, “Captain William Sydenham, then Town Mayor of Madras”, “Colonel Alexander Kyd. then Town Mayor of Calcutta”, “the late Honourable Justice Hyde”, “the Honourable Company’s Council John Shaw, Esquire”. Many of Lebedev’s Calcutta contacts like Justice John Hyde, John Shore, Governor-general, Baronet, Supreme Council at Fort William; Robert Chambers, Knight, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; Francis Gladwin, Esquire, Collector, were not only state and Company officials but also founders and leading members of the Asiatic Society. While they were probably members of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Bengal, Lebedev could not mention this even in a hand-written document, much less a published work. On joining a lodge, every Mason was made to swear an oath of secrecy concerning the Brotherhood. [Vassilkov] Though Lebedev had a deep connection with the Freemasons of wherever city he travelled, there is no evidence to date that he embraced the Masonry Brotherhood himself.


Gerasim Lebedev before anything was a self-taught versatile musician. He could have made a fine professional singer, cello player or virtuoso violinist. While abroad, he set up a legendary quartet that impressed sophisticated West European music lovers and don’t forget his fluency in dozens of European languages. In Calcutta, Lebedev earned his living by organising musical performances and giving lessons in music to some celebrities and their wards in the city, Francis Gladwin, the Persian scholar and translator of the Ain-i-Akbari and Alexander Kyd’s young son included. [Prasad]

“Mr Lebedev’s great professional merit in the musical walk has long since been admitted by those of his acquaintances at this settlement and at Madras before whom he had frequent opportunities of displaying his performance on the villanelles [a French verse form]. In the dearth of public amusements, we think it will give pleasure by on anticipation of Mr Lebedev’s intention of notifying very shortly a Bill of Fare for one night’s musical repast and which we understand will consist of the united assistance of first vocal and instrumental power in the settlement. It, therefore, cannot fail to provide a bonus bouche to all lovers of harmony and to the promoter of such an elegant amusement.” [Calcutta Gazette.31st July 1788] We understand from the Calcutta Gazette of 21st August 1788, that a ”very numerous audience honoured Mr Lebedev’s benefit on Monday evening. Of the several excellent performances which furnished the entertainment, received a much more flattering compliment in turning ‘the cheek of bounty pale’ by the pathetic sweetness with which it was sung.”[Prasad]

Lebedev next fixed 9th April 1790 for his vocal and instrumental music which was performed at the Old Court House where he respectfully hoped for the patronage and support of the ‘gentry of the settlement. Tickets for Rupees Twelve for each were made available at Lebedev’s residence. Lebedev then lived for some time in the Publishing House of Messrs, Cooper and Upjohn at 47, Tirettabazar before he moved to No. 3 Weston’s Lane, popularly called Bundookwalla-ka-gully that commences at 73, Bentinck Street.

Music for Gerasim Lebedev, nevertheless, was not merely a means of earning fame and living but also a medium enabling him in Calcutta to learn linguistics and Indology from his Gurus whom he taught violins/ cellos in exchange. While in Madras, Lebedev tried in vain “to learn the wisdom of the Brahmins for their rudiments are written in a spiritual language which no Indian was capable of explaining“ to him in English. [Lebedeff] Nevertheless, before leaving Madras he picked up a bit of Tamil which he inadvisedly called a ‘certain language of the Malabar vernacular’. In Calcutta Lebedev attracted a larger crowd of music lovers providing him with a more advantageous position to pursue zealously the knowledge of matters that interest him most.


The little Tamil that Lebedev managed to learn in Madras was no consolation for his unsuccess in learning Sanskrit as no Brahmin was willing to accept a lower caste or a foreigner like him to teach the sacred language. Liberal Calcutta society gave him many surprise opportunities to satisfy his unfulfilled desires and one of them was the privilege of having a versatile teacher like Sri Goloknath Das.

As we come to know from a letter to his friend in Russia, at a critical time when he was nearly at the point of dropping his future plan altogether his sircar (Steward) introduced a ‘Bengallie School Master’, named Shree ‘Golocknath Dash’, who was said to be grammatically skilled both in the Bengali language and the mixed dialects and also understood well enough the Shamscrit (Sanskrit) language. [Lebedeff] Golok was keen to learn violin and Western tunes from Lebedev who readily accepted him as his student on condition that Golok must teach him Sanskrit and Bengali languages for Guru-Dakshina. Hence an extraordinary environment for the acquisition of knowledge and creative experimentation grew out of their relationship. Admittedly, till now we have little or no records about Goloknath Das and less about his school to know for any degree of certainty who he was. [Dasgupta, H] The fragments of information we collect from various sources should help reconstruct an image of Golok – a character next to Lebedev in importance in the making of ‘Bengally Theatre‘.

Golok was deemed a Kayastha by caste as his last name ‘Das’ is commonly held in Bengal, and scarcely a Brahmin, as some scholars suggested [Saha] unless he came from Orissa. It is important to note that ‘Das’ also is a Vaishnav surname and Golok might have been a Vaishnavite instead.

What bothers us most is how come Golok, a schoolteacher by profession, faltered in elementary grammar and spoke Bengali in affected impolite form. His poor language skill substantiates that Golok was not qualified for a teacher in a pathshala or a grammar school, but possibly for a vocational institution. Golok being an earnest musician might have worked as a teacher in a music school. We could have safely settled him as that if we were not informed of Golok’s connections with Bengalee actors and actresses, and it was he who brought them to play for Lebedev. This liaison suggests Golok’s close association with some Calcutta jatra parties, holding a position enough high to deploy members at his will. We presume Golok had been the master or the ‘Adhikari’ of a jatra party. ‘Adhikari Golok’ suits far better contextually than ‘Golok a pathshala pundit’. We may take a step ahead to point out that the name Golok (Variants: Golack, Golaknath, Golak Nath, Golok Nath) happens to be more common in Orissa than in Bengal. And we also know Lebedev had picked some Oriya lessons too, in all probability, from him.

Golak was believed to be a schoolteacher by almost everyone, including some of the most exacting inquirers like Dr RK Dasgupta who approves of his being a teacher associated with a Bengali school ignoring the discoverable pieces of circumstantial evidence. [Dassgupta, RK] In Bengal, as anywhere in India, the poor teacher is respected as the noblest personage – an icon of erudition and moral values. His profession obliges him to lead a simple virtuous life keeping away from the so-called social evils that distract people’s minds. In those days, the musical and theatrical arts were looked down upon as an ignoble profession and, perhaps with some rare exceptions, like Dhrupadias, the artists were treated as outcasts. Under the prevailing social customs, it is unthinkable that Golok, a Pudit of a Pathsala, aspires to be a violinist, that too by taking lessons from Lebedev – an untouchable mleccha. On top of that, Golok besmirched the gentility and the decorum of his school and people’s sentiment as well by keeping an association with female and male stage artists allegedly of uncertain morality. Considering the above anomalies in defining the role of Golok as a venerable schoolmaster, we need to go for reviewing further his position in light of his motivation and the unique services he rendered to Lebedev in building his historic theatre.

Lebedev finds in Golok a friend, philosopher and the best guide he ever had in his persuasion for learning Indic languages and Indian traditions. Golak was introduced to him as a Schoolteacher and Lebedev had no reason to disbelieve him or doubt his language skills. Besides linguistics, the entire world of Lebedev’s Oriental knowledge was admittedly sourced from a single intelligent being, Golok. It is he who tutored Lebedev to learn Sanskrit and Bengali grammar compose dialogues in Bengali and Bazar Hindustani dialects and even study Indian traditions.

Lebedev’s multilingual theatre mirrored his approaches to linguistic studies as well as his understanding of the languages spoken in Bengal. He believed in the Aristotelian idea of a theatre, and that Language is one of its essential components, which can affect thoughts, character relationships, and plot. The general impression that Lebedev obtained with regard to the linguistic situation in Calcutta of his time was that there was a “mixed dialect’’, now called the Bazar Hindustani, which he used in the play, The Disguise by Richard Paul Jodrell (l745- 1531). The purer forms of this ‘mixed dialect’ also existed, but he had no idea of its standard or correct form. Lebedev used a sort of mixed-up Bengali with Sanskrit. His informant, Golok, who was evidently responsible for his sense of grammar, did not seem to have known correct grammatical Hindustani, and he brought in a good deal of false ideas.[Prasad]

Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788) Richard Paul Jodrell, c.1774 oil on canvas

By adding up these little bits of information we may not rule out the possibility of finding a completely new Goloknath Das who comes from Orissa wearing the Vaishnava surname ‘Das’ as a jatraa-dal master or adhikari. Subir Raychoudhury reminds us, “Golak Das on his own accord took the responsibility of recruiting actors and actresses. It took only three months to get ready to stage the drama. It was indeed too short a time to prepare the players and to build the theatre on the rented plot at 25 Doomtullah Street.” [J.U.] He who makes the new recruits ready to stage the new play in the fleeting time of three months ought to be a veteran theatre master, and Golok proved so definitively by preparing the new artists for the stage before Lebedev gave his final directions to them. Lebedev was indeed very much under the influence of his informant, Goloknath Das. [Chatterji] Golok remaining by the side of Lebedev like his shadow is suspected to own greater responsibility for the successes and failures of Gerasim Lebedev.

The other Pundits who gave him help were Jagannath Vidyapanchanan of Matikmura, Kushdah, and Jagannath Tarkopanchanan of Tibeni, Hughly. They all, Lebedev says ‘applauded my zeal in disclosing an object hitherto unknown to Europeans.’ Lebedev claimed to have studied Indian languages more scientifically and more thoroughly than the English Orientalists of his day. Nevertheless, Lebedev’s claim about the quality of his Grammar does not seem to be justified. Grierson has said that judging from his grammar Lebedev’s knowledge of Hindustani must have been very elementary — such as might have been picked up from the Calcutta Bazaar’. [Dasgupta, RK] It was Dr Chatterji’s conviction that in this book Lebedev does not show himself to be a good linguist of either Bengali and the Bazaar Hindustani with which he was acquainted like all European sojourners in a North Indian town. [Chatterji] His actual competence does not appear to have been much in the style of Indian speech, which Lebedev calls, ‘mixed language’.

The reviewers of Lebedev’s Grammar agree that the ‘mixed language’ that made up the dialogues of his play, The Disguise, and the advertisements, was a sort of mixed-up Bengali with Sanskrit, represented very much under the influence of his informant, Golok, who did not seem to have known the polite way of speaking Bengali as any literate Bengali does. It suggests Golok was most likely from a semi-literate non-Bengalee background. In his enthusiasm for studying Indian languages and Indian culture Lebedev seems to have taken for granted whatever his tutor, Golok, told him. He even thought that the Bengali mispronunciation of Sanskrit was the correct thing, and found fault with Sir William Jones whom he did not understand and who was far above the competence of Lebedev as a scientific scholar. [Chatterji]


We shall be never sure in measuring the contributions of Golok toward launching the drama, The Disguise, at Bengally Theatre. Golok advised Lebedeff to learn the “Shamscrit [sic] alphabet, as being the master key to yet unexplored treasures of the Eastern sciences and knowledge”. He got in touch with the most reputed Sanskrit Pundits of his day in Bengal, including Jagomohon Vidyapanchanan and Jagannath Tarkapanchanan. Lebedev learnt Bengali and Hindustani alphabets, vocabulary and sentence construction. Besides theoretical lessons, Lebedev did translation work, which was accepted as the easier means to master a foreign language, instead of by direct methods adopted nowadays. Lebedev observed that the literary vocabulary of superior Bengali at that point was so much similar to Sanskrit that when he spoke what he had learnt he could not communicate with the local people. Golok hence suggested to him that instead of translating the vocabulary he should try writing dialogues. He started with this exercise and decided to translate a couple of plays. [Saha]

One of the plays was the English comedy The Disguise which might have initially served as the text for translation, and later it might have struck the theatre-minded Golok to transform those into the dialogues of the play. It is interesting to find in recent literature that the use of drama in the teaching of foreign languages is not a new approach —its beginnings can be traced back to the 19th century. [Giebert] Here we have a case a century older worthy to be looked into.

We may note that Lebedev, a versatile genius, had given air to all his passions but never to a theatre or scripting a drama. The credit largely goes to Golok, as Dasgupta admits, but there might be Lebedev’s hands as well in finishing the script to suit his target audience best. In that sense, Lebedev may not be wrong to claim authorship of the version of the drama finally staged. Similarly, Lebedev also took part to train the ten Bengalee gentlemen and three Bengalees ladies whom Golok was instrumental in recruiting for the play. Lebedev writes, “In the midst of my numerous cares and anxieties, I managed also to teach the comedy business to Bengalees“. The players of the all-Bengalee cast “were excited at seeing what was till then not seen in India and wanted to make the first Bengali drama a success“. [Lebedeff] The venture of the Russian maestro was praised “with a pure heart all the pleasantries … loudly proclaimed in the air …”.  Lebedev, however, acknowledged time and again the contributions of his teachers toward his wonderful success in making the Bengally Theatre for which he himself was responsible.“ In the course of five years and with the help of my teachers”, Lebedev recalls, “I succeeded in translating two English dramas into Bengali, one of which I had the honour of staging twice under my direction and in a Theatre of my own construction with Bengali actors of both the sexes, thus entertaining the European and Asiatic inhabitants alike. No European had hitherto been able to produce anything of the kind in Calcutta.“ [Lebedeff]

Immediately after the comedy ‘The Disguise’ was staged in one act for the first time, Lebedev reported that there was some murmur for the shortness of the matter which did not give full satisfaction. As a way of explanation, Lebedev added that the play was abridged because very few Europeans understood the Bengali language without difficulty. It was therefore thought that a long act will be boring, but every scene was presented without any confusion. Lebedev claimed in straight language that it was he who succeeded in translating the two English dramas into the Bengali language in the course of five years and that he did it with the help of his teachers.

A few days after staging The Disguise for the first time, Mr John Hyde, one of the Chief Judges, sent a note of hand for the second time to Lebedev to enquire if he had translated the whole comedy. Hyde may or may not have had a satisfactory answer before he fell into eternal blissful sleep on 8th July 1796, the question remains still open before us.“


Having the play ready in hand with the necessary license for its public performance, Lebedev moved around to find the best playhouse in the city to celebrate the launching of ‘The Disguise’. He did not hesitate to approach the management of the Calcutta Theatre knowing fully well the chauvinistic mode of the institution under the East India Company’s care, where even the gatekeepers belonged to the European community. Lebedev was bluntly refused and ridiculed for his ‘supposedly foolish venture’ by the theatre management and returned firmly with a burning resolve in his mind. The resolute Russian took the rebuff in his stride and decided to build his own theatre for which he hired the house of Jagannath Ganguly at 25 Doomtallah (Domtolla-ka-rushtah) which became 37 Ezra Street in course of time.

This is where Lebedev’s Bengally Theatre stood in 1795-56 at 37 Ezra Street

It was a grey area with the Parsis, Armenians, and Greeks around that the theatre stands next to the European township and away from the native Hindus. Here to be found Parsi Agiaree or Fire Temple erected by Rustomjee Cowasjee Banajee in the year 1839. On the whole, it does not appear to be an agreeable place for native Bengalis to visit, whereas it was easily approachable for the Europeans for whom Lebedev launched his theatre primarily. Incidentally, Rustomjee lived at the same premise no. 37 Ezra Street where Lebedev’s Bengally Theatre had been nearly half a century before.

With the little money he had, Lebedev started then and there to build his own theatre at the hired plot big enough to accommodate three hundred seats. He also decided to become his own architect, the commander and manager over carpenters, cabinet-makers, bricklayers and other workers. When the roof was already on the raised wooden and brick pillars, support and frames and the floors were made ready in the hall and the two stones, just like his fellow countryman Volkov of Yaroslav, Lebedev tried in Calcutta, as if in Moscow, to decorate the floor reserved for staging scenes with paintings according to Bengali taste. [Lebedeff]

Fyodor Volkov. Artist: Anton Losenko. 1763. Courtesy Tretyakov Gallery

For the first time in India, a playhouse in the European style, with a stage and painted scenes with Bengali motifs and everything was established, and performed ‘one of the two English comedies, The Disguise, which Lebedev had got translated from English into Bengali for this purpose, with the help of Bengali actors and actresses. [Chatterji]


Lebedev twice staged one and the same English comedy, The Disguise by Richard Paul Jodrell (l745- 1531) in translated versions, on 27 November 1795, and on 21 March 1786. The first time was a short one-act play under the title, কাল্পনিক সং বদল, which he produced in the Bengali language commencing with a vocal and instrumental musical piece called, The Indian Serenade, composed with lyrics by Bharat Chandra Ray. The play was abridged to save the Europeans, who only understood a little Bengali, from boredom. Lebedev did it despite the murmur for the shortness of the matter which did not give full satisfaction to some sections of the audience. This sympathetic consideration Lebedev made especially for the Europeans. It was not the Bengalis, as generally believed, but the Europeans who were the privileged ones as revealed in the newspaper announcement that constitute the target audience of the Bengally Theatre.

The first performance of The Disguise met with roof-raising applause. The theatre was not nearly large enough to accommodate all those who wanted to see the play. [Zabrodina] The artists, for the play, the all-Bengali cast, were excited at seeing what was not seen in India till then and took a vow to make the first Bengali drama a success. The venture of the Russian maestro was praised with a pure heart. All the pleasantries that were earned in Calcutta and its suburbs loudly proclaimed in the air. “Expectation was roused in the city and dust raised by the people coming to learn the news darkened the clouds and I had to fix the date without any postponement”, wrote Lebedeff to his archpriest.

On receiving feedback on the first performance of The Disguise played as a one-act drama in Bengali entitled কাল্পনিক সং বদল, a new idea came to his mind. It was only in its second performance Lebedev presented ingeniously the play in a multilingual format before a mixed audience. The first act was entirely in Bengali. In the second act, the first scene is in Hindustani, the second in Bengali and the third in English. The third act was entirely in Bengali. Dasgupta thinks Hindustani and English were introduced for attracting a large audience. Lebedev took care to see one character may not speak two languages. The bill of fare informs that the scenes of the English play are changed to places in this country, Madrid becoming Calcutta and Seville becoming Lucknow. The names of the characters are also Indianised. We can then guess that the Bengali characters speak Bengali, the men of Lucknow speak Hindustani, and a few others speak English. To make the English play Indianised to the extent possible, Lebedev most pleasantly filled it up with some local characters such as a group of watchmen, chowkidars, subadars, thieves, ghoonia lawyers, gomosta, and amongst the rest a corps of petty plunderers. [Dasgupta, RK]


Lebedev was found an excellent PR manager for his shows in 18th-century Calcutta – putting ads in the only available newspaper, Calcutta Gazette and wall-postering with bright notices in both English and Bengali. We find timely published advance notices, announcements, and acknowledgements in the form of newspaper advertisements that appeared in Calcutta Gazette of 5th and 25th November 1795 and 10th and 17th and 24th March 1796


After performing the drama, The Disguise, with success for two nights, Lebedev recovered only half of my entire expenses. This was again spent with the hope to recover the entire expenses with profit. He made a request to the same Governor-General for permission to present the comedy in Bengali and English languages, so that it may be more pleasing to the public and better for learning the languages. Overwhelmed with new inspiration and new ideas to take his drama to the larger Bengal lying beyond the city of Calcutta Lebedev prepared the text to this effect in the Bengali language for a newspaper insertion:

মে লেবেডেফ অত্যন্ত গৌরবের সহিত/ অদ্যবধি চিষ্টীত আছেন বিজ্ঞ করিতে কিবল/ দেসি এসিয়ার বাসীন্দা সকলকে কলিকাতার এবং/ বাহির গ্রামের উপস্থীত হইতে এক নতুন উপাদয়/কাব্য দেখিবার কারণ-লেখা হইয়াছে বাঙ্গালি/এবং হিন্দুস্থানী জবানেতে-ইহাতে দেখিয়ারদিগের/তুষ্ট করা জাইবেক উত্তম বাঙ্গালী  গান ও বেলাতি/নানন যন্ত্রের সহিত-নাচের ঘরের/পর্দা সকল বিলক্ষণ রূপে চিত্রিত হইয়াছে এবং/সমস্ত সাজান

All his wishes were smashed by a fateful assault on his Bengally Theatre by some desperate members of Calcutta Theatre in an attempt to win back the popularity of the British theatrical enterprises in Calcutta. Lebedev, still an optimist, wondered, “Could they stop me when fortune carried me on her wings?” He declares in his own words that he did not contemplate and remember while taking all these pains, that “in the kingdom ruled by merchants or with the lustre of gold and even blood with silver lustre in theatrical people greedy for riches will inflame hatred, make them nervous and incite them to defame and harm me and bring about the ruin of a praiseworthy venture of a foreigner.” [Lebedeff]

The end was sudden. Lebedev described how it all happened in a letter to A. A. Samborsky, the Archpriest of St. Petersburg. It is, indeed, a horrid story he narrated, perhaps with a bit of exaggeration he did to draw the sympathy of the Archpriest. [Dasgupta, RK] The root cause for Lebedev’s owe was the triumph of his Bengally Theatre which threatened the commercial interest of the British playhouse, Calcutta Theatre, run by the Company’s servants and independent merchants. To destroy Bengally Theatre, Lebedev’s rival party managed their stooge, one Joseph Battle to get employed under Lebedev as a scene painter. Battle in his cunning ways wrecked Bengally Theatre in a short time. False suits were instituted by them in the Supreme Court of Calcutta which finally made Lebedev sell his theatre and leave its premises on 8th June 1797. Since his presence in Calcutta felt unsafe for the English theatricals, the British patrons instituted a spate of suits against Lebedev giving no respite to the genteel Russian. Lebedev wanted to defend himself in these suits as a pauper and petitioned Sir Robert Chambers, Knight, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, on 27th October 1797. Lebedev stated in his petition that the demands against him could be fully met as Colonel Alexander Kyd owed him Rs.4775 and Francis Gladwin, another Rs.1800. We may recall that these two British dignitaries had supported Lebedev generously when he arrived in Calcutta with recommendations from overseas masonries. It seems Kyd and Gladwin in course of time had lost their compassion for Lebedev who was masonic-minded but never a freemason, so far we know. If he were, it would be difficult perhaps for them to shrug off Lebedev. They did it plausibly to punish him for his being a staunch critic of the British policy and administration in India, what Lebedev was.

The Theatre was sold for a song and Lebedev left the premises on 8th June 1797. That did not relieve him, however, from the torments inflicted upon him time and again. The last blow he received was from his erstwhile landlord, Jagannath Gangooly, and consequently, the curtain of the Bengally Theatre fell on December 10, 1797. The ship Lord Thurlow sailed from Calcutta carrying Lebedeff and his baggage full of printed documents and manuscripts carrying for his research to the end of his life.

Lebedev speaks unhesitatingly about the numerous faults and errors that he committed during the course of application and study, which those who had published on these heads had fallen into. He resolved on giving to an impartial public the fruits of his enquiries and pursuits and therefore quit India to come to this country for the purpose of submitting the same to the Public view. [Lebedeff]


Today, the name of Gerasim Lebedev is little known even to the people of Bengal who mistakenly believed that it was for them the Russian musician built his playhouse. Bengally Theatre, where Bengali actors and actresses pioneered performing in the Bengali dialects could have been well defined as a Bengali Language Theatre at its best. Sadly, even the best books in Bengali theatre history accept Bengali theatre because the performing language of the theatre happens to be Bengali, irrespective of its cultural ethos. [Dasgupta, H] [Bandyopadhyay] [Mukherjee] [Choudhury]

An inscription on his tomb erected in the city says: Lie was the first of the sons of Russia who went to India and having studied the habits of the Indian people, he brought their language to Russia. Although he was not highly educated he succeeded in fulfilling this important task and in publishing the knowledge he obtained from Indian philosophy.’

It was a tribute he really deserved, but a Bengali would like to add a line, Dasgupta comments, to this old inscription to say that Lie was ‘the founder of the Bengali theatre’ [Dasgupta, RK]

Gerasim Lebedev has been accepted unquestioningly as the ‘ Founder’ or the ‘Father’ of Bengali theatre almost by all the writers with very few exceptions.  How far those epithets are appropriate can be ascertained only when we can define ‘Bengali theatre’ unambiguously. Bengali theatre meant to most writers a theatre performed in the Bengali language. Therefore the English comedy, ‘The Disguise’ performed in Bengali, is acceptable to them as Bengali theatre. We wonder if we may call a Bengali version of any Shakespearean drama, a ‘Bengali theatre’. Is it not language a medium of communication? The drama The Disguise played in Bengally Theatre is an ‘English comedy’ that speaks of English society, the content of which is essentially English in character and it is to be so when translated into yet another language or even when its original personal names and place names got changed into local ones.

Then again, as we find in the history of Bengali theatre, the term ‘Bengali theatre’ is consistently being used in reference to Bengal’s theatrical movement leading to the establishment of the Bengal National Theatre. It was the sociopolitical issues challenging Bengali identity, the experiences and aspirations of the colonial Bengali people which have named their theatre ‘Bengali theatre’. There must be Englishness in English theatres and Bengaliness in Bengali theatres, and in that sense, The Disguise: an English comedy may not ever be categorised as a Bengali theatre technically.

With few exceptions, scholars, including the veterans, call Lebedev ‘The Father of Bengali Theatre’ without establishing a father-child relationship between the modern Bengali theatre and the ‘Bengally Theatre’ of Lebedev. The word ‘father’ assumes posterity, inheritance, and legacy. The Theatre’s performances in Bengali dialect, by Bengali actors and actresses, ended abruptly in 1796 with the fall of Bengally Theatre, without leaving any lineage to connect the later theatrical advancements. The only Bengali drama কলিরাজের যাত্রা produced later said to have had some influence of Lebedev’s play সং বদল. We shall never know however what the nature and the extent of influence were as that play went out of public memory in no time. His pioneering ventures nonetheless made Lebedev an inevitable point of reference glittered in the history of Bengali theatre.


When Lebedev has hardly any claim that he was the progenitor of Bengali theatre, he deserves a felicitation for his extraordinary idea of a multilingual theatre that he experimented with at his ‘Bengally Theatre’.  It is not so far-fetched an assumption that Lebedev, a linguist, spells the word ‘Bengally’ purposively to mean ‘people residing in Bengal’, speaking Bengali as well as other languages, for whom he created the multilingual theatre, Bengally Theatre. Calcutta is ‘one of the few cities where more than one historically rooted language community lays claim to the territory of the city’ [Simmon]. It is known as a renaissance city of the nineteenth century which brought together people speaking different languages. Actually, the city began to attract outsiders much earlier on its becoming the British capital of India in 1772.

Of the Nations Most Known in Hindoostan, François Balthazar Solvyns c1799. Courtssy U.Texas

The term multilingual is often encompassed by a broader label, multicultural theatre. Lebedev noted the characteristics of the culturally and linguistically divided city and make an experimental model of dramatic presentation before a mixed audience comprising every language segment. He did that by mixing the major languages spoken in Calcutta like Bengali, English and Hindustani, and also added Sanskrit the mother of the Aryan languages. The Bazari Hindustani is a special language mixture he created to serve as the lingua-franca of India. Lebedev presented The Disguise for the second time differently. He divided the drama into parts and sections, each enacted in one particular language, that is, either Bengali, Bazar Hindustani, or English. We can well imagine that his scheme, however novel it was, never served the purpose of reaching his audience by breaking language barriers. His mixed language is found by recent critics as an incidence of ‘mixed-up language. The dialogues he composed of mixed language, inflected with grammatical errors, appear unintelligible, irritating as well as comical to modern critics. Lebedev’s multilingual theatre is considered today a failure like his linguistics and Oriental studies, we can not deny, however, that it is he who visualised a translingual theatre to communicate dramatic content to the audience speaking diverse languages. While his experiments failed, his innovative idea of translingual theatre shall remain a challenge for curious minds to explore.

As a contribution to the study of Bazar Hindustani which, to Suniti Chattopadhyay, is the real Lingua Franca of Aryan-speaking India. Lebedev’s work will have its proper place. We need not try to prove obvious by finding fault in this early attempt to present the facts of a language before the European public. The facts which, we believe, only on the basis of the information he received and his information, Chatterji thinks, was neither full, nor correct, nor again very practical. [Chatterji]


Indians in 1795-1796 were not welcome in Town Calcutta barring a few opulent native bigwigs, such as Omichand and Nabakissen. It is difficult to understand why Lebedeff, ignoring the racial adversity of the Britishers in India, had approached Calcutta Theatre, where none but the Anglo-Europeans were eligible to visit.

Besides, locational disadvantages, there are deeper reasons to doubt how far Lebedev’s ‘Bengally Theatre’ was relevant to his contemporary Bengali public. At the fag end of the 18th century there had been no middle-class Bengali society to appreciate theatricals other than the lowly street performances that were held for entertaining the commons and the nautches in parlours of the aristocrats to amuse the generous hosts and their honourable guests. The kind of performatory arts they enjoyed were more customary than creative, more socially motivated than aesthetically charged ideational expressions as found in the disciplines of fineart, and the theatre that demanded a percipient audience. It is true that Lebedev being aware of the low public taste played a safe game by selecting The Disguise, a drama good for entertaining the common public. While being translated from the English text of Richard Jodrell’s comedy, the dialogues in the Bengali language have been composed with many deviations from the prevalent colloquial style. This might have happened partly because in the pre-Rammohun era there had been practically no useful Bengali dictionary or grammar to standardize words and sentences and vocabularies, but it was so more for the reason that the dialogues were scripted, I fear, by someone with a non-Bengali tongue. Lebedev apart, my guess, Golok too was a non-Bengali, who made a fusion combining little of Bengali, Sanskrit and Hindustani languages that he managed to pick up. As a result, the conversations in so-called Bengali could not be easily followed even by contemporary Bengali audiences, and for the English-speaking majority, the dialogues must have sounded Greek. I borrowed from Raychoudhury the two lines of Bengali dialogue out of সং বদল the translated version of The Disguise, which should serve as good examples of Lebedev’s curious Bengali:

ক.  ‘ভাল ঈস্বর অনুগ্রহ করুন, আমি করিয়া এনেছী একটী বিষয় আমার মনস্তের।সসিমুখী সন্দেহ নাস্তী আমার কথায় প্রত্তয় করিয়াছেন।’
খ. ‘এখনকার দিনে স্ত্রিলোক সকল এমন মত্তা হইয়াছে যে কিঞ্চীত মর্দ্দা আকারের মায়্যা হয়, তাহারাই উপযুক্ত পূরূস হৈতে।’ [J.U.]

Lebedeff’s ‘Bengally Theatre’ apart from its name, had nothing for being considered as a Bengali theatre. It was alive only for three months, from November 1795 to March 1796, and it was not an original Bengali work but a translated version of the English comedy The Disguise authored by Richard Paul Jodrell (1745-1831). It was neither performed entirely but chiefly in the Bengali language with some parts in Bazari Hindustani and a section in original English. Apparently, the target audience of the play was not the Bengali-speaking public. Lebedev‘s tickets were beyond the means of average Bengalis. but the English-speaking theatregoers who did not mind buying tickets for ‘Boxes and Pit at sicca Rupees 8 and Gallery at sicca Rupees four’ [Calcutta Gazette. 26th Nov. 1795] or One Gold Mohur for the repeat show [Calcutta Gazette.10 March 1796]. We have no idea if Lebedev circulated Bengali handbills or engaged drum-beaters announcing his plays to invite Bengali genteel, in absence of any vernacular newspapers, but he did advertise both in English and Bengali in Calcutta Gazette every time. Lebedev had always in his mind the European ‘Ladies and Gentlemen of the Settlement’ who occupied the maximum seats to witness curiously the English drama enacted by native males and females conversing unintelligibly.

No denying, neither Lebedev nor his mentor Golok had adequate language skills. Lebedev, however, “struggled to learn the Bengali and the General mixed language of Hindustan and as far as possible Sanskrit“. He did it because without knowing them for a wanderer like him it would have been difficult to live in the land of Hindustan. He knew his shortcomings and, back in Russia, he acknowledged the plentiful errors he had committed. [Lebedeff]

Not the Grammar book alone, even his Bengally Theatre, which staged drama for the Calcutta audience comprising of multilingual residents, looked upon by the modern writers as a subject of linguistic curiosity. Whatever the scientific value of Lebedev’s grammar, his long personal knowledge of the state of affairs of the Indian society, humble origin and high ideals, humility and patience, and intimacy with Indians fitted him very well. These qualities, so essential in understanding a people, were lacking in most of the Europeans of his time. [Prasad]


In this short essay, I modestly attempted to focus on some of our accumulated misunderstandings about Lebedev’s pioneering venture of founding Bengally Theatre and restate the significance of each weeding out the fads and fallacies swarmed around.

  1. Lebedev did create his Bengally Theatre in 1795 not for Bengalis but primarily for Europeans.
  2. Bengally Theatre never staged any Bengali drama written originally in the Bengali language expressing Bengali sentiments and aspirations. The drama staged on the first night named কাল্পনিক সং বদল was not an original Bengali work but a translation of an abridged version of the English comedy The Disguise by Richard Paul Jodrell.
  3. While the first time Bengally Theatre staged a full Bengali version of an abridged edition of The Disguise, the second time it was an unabridged version of The Disguise divided into parts and scenes each with dialogues in a particular language, either Bengali or Bazari Hindustani or English. It was a multilingual play and not a Bengali language play that might have justified the name Bengally Theatre meaning a Bengali language theatre.
  4. Bengally Theatre lived too short a time to establish its unique identity. The Bengali theatrical movements gradually emerged as a product of the Bengal Renaissance and had nothing in common with Lebedev’s experimentations with theatre architecture, translation, native players of both sex and his fascinating multilingual dramatic model.
  5. In fact, there is not a single evidence of inheritance to establish a father-child relationship between Lebedev’s Bengally Theatre and the later native theatres and without that, the epithet ‘Father of Bengali Theatre’ stands unwarranted.
  6. Until we ascertain the historicity of Goloknath Das, the mentor of Grasim Lebedev, the study of Lebedev’s Calcutta theatre remains inconclusive. There have been already strong suggestions that Golok at least read the dialogues if not himself scripted on behalf of Lebedev, and therefore he cannot escape his responsibility for the silly errors that no one whose mother-tongue Bengali is susceptible to commit. There were more reasons as we discussed above to take Golok for a non-Bengali goofing up the native dialects spoken in Calcutta freeing Lebedev of all charges of writing funny Bengali.

The points I made above are all related to the prevailing thoughts about Gerasim Lebedev and his Bengally Theatre, whereas the following one refers to the least discussed but of highest relevance to researching Lebedev’s theatrical enterprises:

No serious investigation has been made so far about Lebedev’s experiments with the multilingual theatre, which he envisioned in order to present dramatic content transcending the language barriers of a multilingual audience. It was a People’s Theatre he had in his mind, and he strived to make his Bengally Theatre translingual empowering all who lived in Bengal to watch and understand theatres irrespective of language diversities. His efforts, in spite of failures, stay relevant posing a challenge to curious minds.


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