Under the Regulating Act of 1773 Calcutta was established as the seat of the John Company’s government in British India. Sooner than the factors and writers populated Town Calcutta and before the English ladies totalled twenty above, the early settlers established English playhouses to bring about their national amusement – a mainstay of their social life. Theatres were born out of social necessity in the late eighteenth century Calcutta as amateur enterprises. The first one, named Play House, died young leaving little or no memory behind but a rare witness of Daniel’s well-known painting; while the other, Calcutta Theatre, had a long eventful life of amateur theatre that ended in 1808 after a decade of pitiful existence of suffering from utter social neglect [Ajantrik]. Calcutta Theatre apart, a few short-lived English theatre houses came up as private initiatives, each became a part of history but none had become a historic entity, as the Chowringhee Theatre and Sans Souci were regarded in near future.
Chowringhee Theatre was founded in 1813 by the Amateur Dramatic Society and ultimately grew into more like a professional English theatre with the induction of paid artists to play along with the amateurs. There had been no standing theatres in Calcutta for a long while. The theatre-goers were kept waiting in earnest for Chowringhee Theatre to come and celebrate its opening gala night on November 25, 1813. The recently appointed Governors-General, the Earl of Moira graciously inaugurated the opening ceremony and continued his patronage contributing liberally on every occasion. The Theatre, which grew on private donations by shares of Rs 100 each, and was often called a ‘private subscription theatre’, remained unvaryingly under government protection until theatricals were rendered unfashionable under Lord Bentinck’s regime.
The Amateur Dramatic Society, established by Dr Horace Hayman Wilson with a few of his European friends, had been primarily responsible for founding the Theatre. The kindred souls closely associated with its planning and functioning in its different phases were ‘all aristocrat educated Calcutta citizens engaged in business and industry ’ [Ferminger] such as: Dr Horace Hayman Wilson – Eminent British orientalist directly involved in education and research in Sanskrit literature and dramatic art, Captain D. L, Richardson – a Shakespearean scholar of undying fame teaching in Hindu College, Henry Meredith Parker of the Bengal Civil Service – sometimes Secretary and then a Member of the Board of Revenue, J H Stocqueler – the founder-editor of Englishman, Sir J. P. Grant— a Calcutta advocate formerly a judge of the Bombay High Court, William Linton – organist of St- Johns Cathedral and a favourite vocalist of his day, George Chinnery— a painter of worldwide fame, Thomas Alsop— Magistrate of Calcutta, J C Doyle – Military Secretary to Lord Hastings, Captain W. D. Playfair – a favourite comedian, and Captain George Augustus Frederick FitzClarence – aid-de-camp to Marquis of Hastings.
Chowringhee Theatre apart, at least two of its leading personalities had some deep involvement in the making of homegrown theatre in Calcutta. Dr Wilson, by reclaiming Sanskrit drama and patronising in establishing Hindu Theatre, and Captain Richardson, by initiating his spirited Young Bengal pupils at Hindu Colege into theatricals, had made far-reaching and wider contributions than what they did for the success of Chowringhee Theatre.
THE THEATRE HOUSE
The Theatre house was built in much haste compromising its external appearance in terms of aesthetic appeal [Chowdhury]. The house stood on a byroad, anonymously marked on Upjohn’s map (1794). Later, it was named after Chowringhee Theatre as ‘Theatre Road’ lying between Chowringhee Road and Elysium Row or Lord Sinha Road of today. It was indeed a very respectable location, the stretch from the corner of Dhurrumtolla to the Chowringhee Theatre was the first roadway watered by the municipality. [Rainey]
On November 25, 1813, Chowringhee Theatre staged two maiden plays, Castle Spectre, and Sixty-third Letter in its spacious auditorium accommodating 300 spectators. We are fortunate to inherit a painting with photographic details of the Chowringhee Theatre and its environment that William Wood painted some 20 years later in 1833. Wood’s painting, featured atop, does not reveal the ill-fated wooden dome that caught fire first before the entire structure burnt down to ashes. We may guess that the building was crowned with the dome afterwards, most likely around 1835 while renovated under its new management.
THE BEGINNINGS: 1813-1826
After a spectacular fanfare, Chowringhee Theatre commenced its historic journey but not without hitches. Within a year ‘in consequences of a failure in the roof,’ its performances had to be stopped for weeks [Calcutta Gazette 13 Oct. 1814]. Besides the poor construction, it was primarily the amateurish way of its performances that mattered to the waning public excitement about the Theatre. It was observed that ‘the amateur shows were something to be thankful for, but all knew they were not good enough ‘. The customs officials, magistrates, journalists and doctors could scarcely be expected to be taken seriously when they staged ambitious Shakespearean productions without caring much to learn his lines properly. [Shaw] To any serious theatre-goers the shape of plays staged was an apology for a theatre. The next eleven years had been a critical phase for the Theatre pushing on with uncertain resources. Its roof collapsed, lighting failed, players goofed up with their lines, and every now and then financial crisis made the authorities down with frustration. In 1824, when they failed to meet a big shortage of funds, they had no option but to close the Theatre against the will of certain hardcore theatre enthusiasts who believed the sacrifice of Chowringhee Theatre should cause a most detestable face loss for the entire Calcutta society. Seemingly at this juncture many of the old guns including Dr Horace Wilson and George Chinnery parted with the Chowringhee Theatre for good. A desperate few with their zealous endeavour reopened Chowringhee Theatre hoping to provide it with a new life by introducing some star attraction and thus regain its popularity. Instead of hiring some favourite London artists, which should have been more costly and less secure, they must have been looking for some local artists of excellence to engage on long terms basis. It was never an easy task. “There were other actresses on the Calcutta boards, but they were persons of very moderate capacity.“ [Stocqueler] The most obvious place for their hunt was the Garrison Theatre at Dumdum Cantonment. It was then one of the most popular playhouses next to Chowringhee Theatre some 34 km off from the town of Calcutta. The Dumdum Theatre was brought recently into the limelight because of the brilliance of its rising artist, Mrs Esther Leach – a very young Anglo-Indian lady of an extraordinary calibre. The reputation of Mrs Leach travelled to Calcutta in no time. Those well-off Calcutta officials holidaying at their Dumdum retreat brought back reports of the new recruit of Garrison Theatre ‘the girl who acted with all the assurance and talent of a London leading lady’. [Shaw]
ARRIVAL OF MRS ESTHER LEACH
Esther Leach was then in her early teens, ‘singularly gifted’, ‘extremely pretty, very intelligent, modest and amiable, possessing a musical voice and good taste’. [Stocqueler] Born in Meerut in 1809, Esther, the daughter of a minor official of the East India Company named Flatman, was orphaned at seven. [Madge] It is said that almost as soon as she could walk she would be lifted onto the mess-room table to entertain her father’s friends with recitations. She was taught at Berhampur by the regimental schoolmaster Patrick Flinn, a corporal in the 17th Foot, where she had little scope for learning anything besides the mysteries of orthography, calligraphy, and the four first rules of arithmetic. Later, at Ghazeepore regimental school, it was her natural aptitude for getting pieces learnt by heart that attracted the notice of some officers and was picked up to play parts as Tom Thumb, Priscilla Tomboy and Little Pickle at their regimental theatre. Little Esther enchanted the soldiers with her talents and got their Adjutant to present her with a copy of Shakespeare – her life-long companion that marked the beginning of her thespian career. In 1822 Esther married a widower named John Leach at Berhampore before coming to Dumdum.
DUMDUM GARRISON THEATRE
The Dumdum Garrison Theatre opened in 1817 privately without much ado to entertain the local army men and the high-up Calcutta officials visiting their country resort. The theatre took a long time before coming to public attention, primarily with the first appearance of Charles Franklin, a versatile stage artist who on his being posted as a bombardier joined the Thespian Band of the Dum Dum Theatre. His wonderful stage performance apart, Franklin seems to be an exceptionally resourceful theatre director who with the support of his officers and colleagues, upgraded the quality of performances at Dumdum Theatre to a very high standard. On the 25th of August, 1824 Charles Franklin died leaving no clue about his thespian achievement and the significance of his contributions to the reestablishing the local Garrison Theatre as one of the high-standard theatres in the Calcutta neighbourhood. [Carey] After his death, surprisingly a very young actress, Esther Leach, took the directorial responsibilities apart from playing the leading roles there at Dum Dum and wherever she performed later in her life invariably holding her audience spellbound.
GOOD TIME: 1826- 1832
To rescue the Chowringhee Theatre from its deplorable state of losing distinction with no star artists around to draw enough audience, Lord Amherst, one of its most ardent patrons induced Mrs Esther Leach to join Chowringhee Theatre as its leading artist and the theatre director. To secure her stay in Calcutta he graciously got her spouse Sargent John Leach transferred to Fort William. [Dasgupta] “Here Mrs Leach, the ‘Indian Siddons’, made her bow to a Calcutta audience as Lady Teazle on July 27th, 1826. She was then barely seventeen, and for many years she continued to be the idol of the theatre-going public. [Cotton]. John Bull wrote of her as “one of the best female performers we have ever seen on the boards.” In no time Chowringhee Theatre became one of the star theatres in India. Generally, the number of spectators varied from 200 to 300. The tickets were priced as Box Sicca Rs. 12/-, Pit Rs. 8/-, but afterwards reduced to Rs. 8 and Rs. 6 respectively. Performances were at first held on Thursday night and afterwards changed to Friday night. Doors were opened at 6 P.M. The curtain generally used to fall at 11 P.M. and sometimes at half-past Ten. [Dasgupta] Reviews of its stage performances were regularly brought out in the press. It was a new start for the Theatre breaking away from the past impediments. The proceedings of the proprietors’ meeting held in January 1827 at Town Hall, reveals that in the year 1825-1826 the total debt due to the house was Rs. 10122. To discharge the debt it was stipulated with Mr Richardson in the chair that proprietors should be levied Rs. 100/- for each share, and Rs. 50 for each share more than one, and that Mr William Linton who was the lessee to continue his lease and Mr C R Prinsep be requested to take entire management of the pecuniary interest.” Afterwards, the Theatre began to improve by securing the services of well-known artists, and repairs were made to the building. Plays were highly spoken of and they always commanded a crowded house. [Dasgupta] Chowringhee Theatre was in its zenith of fame during the years 1826-1832.
HARD TIME: 1832-1839
Despite its popularity, the theatre was never stable financially, and after two decades it became a liability to the owner. The Theatre experienced a hard time after 1832. The overall economic and political situation in India was suddenly in turmoil in 1833 leaving the social and cultural life to stand still. To escape from its imminent crisis, Chowringhee Theatre in the same year was leased to an Italian Company at a nightly rent of Rs. 100/- and though it showed some signs of improvement in the beginning the Italian Company for want of popular support, was unable to pay the high rent they agreed upon. Consequently, the theatre was leased to the French Company at Us. 50/- per night, which too began to fall in arrears every month. The proprietors, therefore, themselves began to manage the theatre and reduced the prices to six rupees per box and rupees three for the pit. No doubt there was an increase in the audience on the reduction of the prices, but the measure was found inadequate in the long run. The proprietors being unable to clear debts amounting to Rs 20,739 decided to put up the Theatre for sale on the 15th of August 1835. Prince Dwarkanath purchased the Theatre, its wardrobe and appurtenances to promote the interest in the name of former proprietors, paying Rs 30,000/, double the price of shares he became a joint owner with them. At that time no White Towners came forward to save the icon of the British culture, but the native Prince Dwarkanath did so not for speculations but to save the theatrical culture in Calcutta.
FAREWELL TO MRS ESTHER LEACH
Mrs Leach was keeping indifferent health for some time. Meanwhile, her husband died in 1836. Next year, she returned to England on medical advice for a change. Her last appearance at the Chowringhee was on January 12th, 1838. [Dasgupta] When at her farewell she recited a rhymed address embodying the corroding word. ”farewell”, touching everyone in the audience. The grandeur of her farewell benefit, as Shaw reports in detail, was an indication of her overwhelming popularity among her audience. The Oriental Observer reported the next day that Mrs Esther Leach …took her farewell benefits to the fullest house ever seen at the Chowringhee Theatre. Quite apart from the attraction of the play, the simple and much-lamented circumstance of her last appearance was ample incentive for such an assemblage. The house was literally crammed— there was, as the poet says, “no room for standing, miscalled standing room”. Those, however few, that were not present on this interesting occasion have to regret the richest treat ever afforded to our histrionic world of India… Despite the intense crowd the strictest silence was observed… when the beloved Mrs Leach came forward to falter her valedictory address which, couched in the most apposite and affecting terms, was delivered with the tensest pathos [Shaw].
MISSING PORTRAIT OF MRS LEACH
Sad that we have found no portrayal of Easther Leach so far, and in desperation, consoled ourselves by surrogating the widely known portrait of Sara Siddons whom Mrs Leach often compared as to beauty and talent. It is unimaginable how the lady of such a charismatic beauty and talent, reigning over the hearts of her Calcutta audiences as well as patrons, colleagues and friends, was allowed to pass away without leaving a portrait to commemorate, despite there were several painters around, like famous George Chinnery and William Prinsep, Grant Callsworthey and must be many lesser artists too who came in contact with her charming demeanour. Moreover, she had among her intimate friends some worthy connoisseurs of art and beauty, such as Stoqueler, Parker, and Dwarkanath who would have cherished keeping her portraiture done on assignment. If any portrait of Mrs Leach survives without being recognised, it is the responsibility of the art historians to identify it. It is for them to investigate if the portrait I present hereunder can be of Esther Leach sitting for Geoge Chinnery to paint. If so it is, then Chinnery did it when she was still in Dumdum Garrison Theatre already in fame. When Mrs Leach joined Chowringhee Theatre in 1826, Chinnery had left the place.
THE END OF CHOWRINGHEE THEATRE
Unfortunately, the following year, on 31st May 1839, the theatre was destroyed completely by fire. Not an atom of the furniture and other appurtenances of the theatre has been saved from destruction. No one seems to know how the fire originated. The loss to the proprietors was calculated to be Rs. 76,000/~. No persons seemed induced to rebuild the old house, and the ground was accordingly disposed of and the foundation of a handsome private residence forthwith laid. [Bengal] Meanwhile, as nobody seemed disposed to undertake the task of reconstructing the Chowringhee Theatre, the land was sold, and Mr Stocqueler had been busy raising a subscription to erect another in a part of the town more fashionable than that where the temporary theatre was situated. [Madge]
The Chowringhee Theatre remains an unforgettable landmark in the history of the Indian stage for inducting Professional Players and breeding a Theatre-savvy Audience – an indiscriminate brand of colours and classes. Let me linger for a little while on these critical issues before I close.
Looking back over the lengthy intricate success story of Chowringhee Theatre we can see that everything of economic, political and social relevance did revolve around the artist and the audience. It is imperative that these two vital organs of this particular institution of theatre are deliberated further to understand the signification of the theatre in general as a people’s institution from a historical perspective.
Actors are the backbone of any theatre production. It is them who bring a play to life. Notably, ‘almost all the prominent actors and actresses of the time’ joined the Chowringhee Theatre, representing the amateurs and the professionals as well. For a long time, the ‘male characters used to be taken by amateurs, the female by ladies who received monthly salaries and resided on the premises’ [Cotton]. The stalwarts amongst the amateur artists were: Henry Meredith Parker, Joachim Hayward Stocqueler, and Captain W G D Playfair.
The amateur shows were something to be thankful for, of course, But everybody knew they were not good enough. Customs Officials, magistrates, journalists and doctors could scarcely be expected to be taken seriously when they staged ambitious Shakespearean productions in which hardly anybody had taken the trouble to learn his lines properly. [Shaw] While it was an indisputable fact that the majority of the contemporary amateurs were uninitiated artists who took to stage performance out of fun, often becoming the subject of public ridicule as Stocqueler described in his memoirs, we must not forget, however, that those few champions for all time of Calcutta theatres in spite being amateur never indulged in amateurism. Henry Meredith Parker was one of them.
Henry Meredith Parker and Mrs Esther Leach earned fame as great performers. Among others were Singers William Linton, Colonel J C D’Oyly, Captain W G D Playfair, Thomas Alsop, Mr Francis, Mrs Gottlieb, Mrs Bland, Mrs Goodall, Mrs Francis, and Mrs Jones. Besides local artists, a few female professionals joined on contract. From Drury Lane theatre came Mrs Atkinson, and from Theatre Royal came Mrs Chester. These musicians and dancers attracted more audiences. [Chowdhury] Captain D. L. Richardson became renowned as an acclaimed theatre director. Between 1825 and 1838, Esther Leach remained the leading lady and star attraction of the Chowringhee Theatre.
Like every other English theatre, Chowringhee Theatre was set up for the Britishers and run by them with the solitary exception of Joachim Hayward Stocqueler of European origin who was undoubtedly one of the greatest contributors to its development, others being Dr Horace Hayman Wilson, and, Captain David Lester Richardson. Both the Englishmen were primarily responsible for setting the goal of the Chowringhee Theatre at its different stages and none of them had any inclination to limit its audiences to the Anglo-European communities, as was the case in all other English playhouses over the last four decades under imperialist and racist colonial governance.
Those who came to Calcutta during the height of the Raj almost all wanted to be part of or exploit British rule. The imperial purpose, position and attitudes transformed these British civil servants, military leaders and wealthy traders into aristocrats in all but name. These pseudo-aristocrats sought the trappings of cultural authority. [Rocha] Those imperial club members consisting by far the majority of the theatre audience were deprived of the cultural background required for appreciating theatrical art. Nonetheless, most of the Britishers cited cultural differences to justify racial discrimination that they do practice imperiously. No Indians were allowed up till then to promenade around Tank Square in the evenings. [King] Under such regimenting civic scenario, the Amateur Dramatic Society, even though guided by a libertarian scholar of the highest repute, Dr Wilson and his associates, never dreamed of admitting non-whites to the Theatre until it was revamped and the society at large had undergone changes under economic and political compulsions a decade after. The right of admission remains restricted to the dwindling theatre-loving whites, the lessons from the tragic end of the Calcutta Theatre were ignored [Ajantrik], and the public apathy toward histrionics continued to grow concurrently with the increasing demand for popular entertainment reaching a new height after the transfer of governance from the East India Company to the British Crown by the Charter Reform Act of 1833. ”Calcutta had an elite, wealthy and highly-stratified Anglo-European population. This community governed Calcutta, and the rest of British India, as pseudo-aristocrats, assuming cultural, intellectual and ethical superiority to the rightful owners of the land.“ [Rocha]
Such a stance never helped the Government nor the British society in maintaining sociopolitical equilibrium. Going by the factual reports of 1834-35, out of 200 million people of India, including the commissioned and covenanted officers of the services, not more than 20 thousand were capable of reading, understanding and being moved by the press of the country. [Stocqueler] Evidently, the theatre was not their cup of tea. The thespian world of Calcutta Englishmen was sinking abysmally from around that time.
The Financial crash of 1833 had terrible consequences on social and cultural life as well. Chowringhee Theatre was not spared. As discussed before, to clear its hefty debts amounting to Rs 20,739, the proprietors were looking for a buyer. Finding no white towners coming forward to buy and save the icon of the British culture decided on the 15th of August 1835 to sell the Theatre to a native industrialist, Prince Dwarkanath Tagore for Rs 30 thousand. The Calcutta Anglo-Europeans demonstrated the same kind of nonchalance by showing their disinterest in reconstructing Chowringhee Theatre after it was burnt [Madge]. No more a surprise that in the long past when the first-ever Play House in Calcutta was gunned down by the Siraj army, the English found it convenient to convert the abandoned Theatre into a Church. [Rainey] The Chowringhee Theatre with the burden of an apathetic white audience had been gasping for fresh enthusiasts. In early 1835 Asiatic Intelligence (Calcutta) quotes Harkaru with reference to the lamentable condition of the Chowringhee Theatre in want of a responsive audience under the British bureaucracy: “here to contend with a puritanic spirit hostile to all refined and intellectual recreation, without any parallel in any community …” [Asiatic J 1835]
A new chapter of the Theatre opened in its refurbished building (See Wood’s lithograph atop) by welcoming theatre-lovers of all shades of complexions for the first time in the history of English theatre in India. The same year, William Prinsep made his pen and ink drawing of the last scene of ‘Blind Boy’ capturing the interior of the Chowringhee Theatre [ See below]. The image is inscribed, “All the rest rows of benches, Counsellors box and Governor-General’s box”. We also came to know from the inscription that then the renovated Theatre could hold about 800 persons in the boxes and 200 in the pit.
Dwarkanath was delighted in his role of impresario and in the company of those who shared his enchantment with the stage—Henry Meredith Parker, Joachim Hayward Stocqueler, Charles Metcalf Plowden, James Hume, William Prinsep, T.J. Taylor besides Captain Richardson. They all were collectively responsible for presenting the theatre as a setting for social intercourse between the races. [King] The Chowringhee Theatre became a fervent hub where Calcutta elites would gather for chats or drinks. There were regulars like Prof. Richardson who often urged his Hindu College students to attend theatres and even occasionally supplied them with tickets. If any public Theatre can ever boast of its connection with a galaxy of brilliant scholars, artists and men of lead and light, belonging to the west, and having an intimate connection with the Indian people, it was the Chowringee Theatre. [Dasgupta]
As Emma Roberts describes “parties of Hindostannee gentlemen beautifully clad in white muslin …. sitting as near the stage as possible.” Because they preferred tragedy, the management obliged them with frequent performances of Macbeth and Othello. [Roberts] It suggests that by this time the native Bengali audience was sizeable to voice their preferences to the theatre management. The India Gazette adds “It affords us pleasure to observe such a number of respectable natives among the audience every play-night, it indicates a growing taste for the English Drama which is an auspicious sign of the progress of general literature amongst our native friends.” [Dasgupta] That the voices of the new section of the audience were heard and honoured may not be because of their mounting presence alone but it was indeed in appreciation of their refined taste and theatre-mindedness that they had the opportunity to acquire from some noble institutions, most significantly David Drummond’s Dhurrumtollah Academy, Hindu College, and the Hindu Theatre.
Apart from the direct influence of the performing English theatres in nineteenth-century Calcutta, there had been a conscious learning process introduced by some extraordinary schoolmasters for their students to acquire tastes and skills in theatrical arts and stage crafts. In the nineteenth century, Shakespeare was taught in several venerable Calcutta schools before it was accepted as a subject of higher study in Hindu College. English literature was studied there under great teachers like David Lester Richardson, C.H. Tawney, H.M. Percival, and Henry Louis Vivian Derozio. There was another teacher of European origin, Hermann Geoffroy – the adorable Headmaster of the Oriental Seminary, whose influence in acquiring a taste for histrionic art and love of drama amongst the Bengali students was much the same as that of Professor Wilson and Captain Richardson. [Bayly]
In response to the public demands voiced in Samachar Chandrika since 1826 for establishing a theatre on the model of the English theatre, Prasanna Coommar Tagore, himself a product of Hindu College, founded the Hindu Theatre on 28 December 1831, with his college friends imbibed with westernised values and ideas in mind. Tagore did it with the active support of Sir Horace Wilson, the founder of Chowringhee Theatre, who had translated half a dozen Sanskrit dramas into English for the Hindu Theatre to stage. Those masterly translated works of Wilson by their inimitable spirit and its acknowledged fidelity, have secured the ‘Hindu theatre a rightful place in English literature ‘ [Asiatic J 1835]. The theatre, however, had no place in the process of democratization of English theatre in Calcutta. Raja Prasann Coomar despite being a Derozian free thinker designed his theatre for a restricted audience belonging to the Calcutta elites.
Prof. Richardson used to advise his students to go to see Shakespeare on the stage. [Dahiya] The boys were acquainted with the names of the good actors and actresses of Calcutta, and also familiar with the names of David Garrick, Sarah Siddons, and some other famous performers of London theatres [Mukherjee] and themselves learn dramatics by playing a part on stage in their schools where the reading of English dramas and recitation and enacting of scenes were practised and encouraged in such early nineteenth-century educational institutions of Calcutta as Drummond’s School at Dharamtolla, followed by Sherborne’s School at Chitpore, David Hare’s School, and later Gour Mohan Auddy’s Oriental Seminary, and Alexander Duff’s General Assembly’s Institution. [Bandyopadhyay] Dhurramtollah Academy of David Drummond (1785-1843) had staged Home’s tragedy ‘Doglus’ in 1824 – a decade before the establishment of Hindu Theatre, being the earliest attempt in making young minds ready to appreciate modern theatre. [Ajantrik] Chowrighee Theatre brought them up into adulthood.
Chowringhee Theatre, its unparallel performances apart, bred a theatre-savvy audience turning itself into a truly public institution free from racial, political, and economic differences like never before.