The Last of the English Theatres in Colonial Calcutta:

THEATRE ROYAL

This is where Lewis’s Theatre Royal stood at 16 Chowringhee next to today’s Grand Hotel

Backdrop

After a warm farewell at Lyceum Theatre on 31 March 1870 night George Benjamin William Lewis and his wife Rose Edouin Lewis had left for Melbourne with no plan to revisit Calcutta any sooner for renewing the fame and commercial success they achieved during the last two and half a year of their theatrical performance. It was only a chance meeting with J B Howe, a versatile actor, in a Collins Street restaurant, GBW Lewis and his wife Rose were tempted to take Howe to Calcutta, where he could play for them both comedy and tragedy; moreover, he knew the repertoire and could sing. [Colligan] Because of his precommitments, Howe accepted the position of the ‘Leading Actor’ but for a single season. This was the beginning of a new chapter of Lewise’ theatrical adventure in Calcutta that concluded after six annual sessions in 1876 leaving their Theatre Royal behind continuing their legacy for over four decades.

‘Theatre Royal’ Announced

The Burlesque and Dramatic Company led by Lewises with thirteen actors besides Mr and Mrs Howe and Mr and Mrs Edouin reached Calcutta for the second time in early September of 1871. The next day, Howe writes, they had a rehearsal of the play, ‘Not Such a Fool as He Looks’ at the ‘charming’ little opera hall on Lindsey Street. Next Monday the 16th of September, they staged the play to a house crowded in every part, by the elite of Calcutta, Earl Mayo gracing the performance with his presence, and the two grandsons of the ‘notorious Tipoo Sahib’ being among the native princes and potentates present. On this opening night, Mr George Lewis, before the show began made a delightful announcement to the packed house, in presence of the Viceroy, of his plan to build a theatre house in Calcutta. Lewis Company did a grand performance that evening. Calcutta press reviewed the first appearance of Howe and said, “Mr Howe had not been five minutes on the stage, upon which he came with rounds of hearty welcome when we were quite satisfied that he was the right man in the right place. … he would be a most valuable acquisition to our stage.” [Howe] The curtain rose on Brougham’s comedy of – Faces in the Fire. During that short span, they did several revivals, amongst which was Rip Van Winkle. The team played at this ‘charming opera’ at Lindsey Street every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday for no more than four weeks, as an Italian opera company had booked the stage thereafter in advance.

George Benjamin William Lewis 1818-1906. Courtesy: State Library Victoria.

GBW Lewis, the indefatigable proprietor and an exceptionally resourceful and capable manager, was ‘not to be baulked’ under pressure. Without wasting a day, almost miraculously he managed to buy a suitable plot on Chowringhee Road opposite the Maidan, cleared its ground dislodging a ruinous structure and install a new theatre building on it in less than a month’s time. It was the prime location and much sought after for establishing a European centre of entertainment. [Howe] We may recall how earnestly the Calcutta Opera Committee and Augusto Cagli, the Italian Opera Impresario, hunted in vain for a piece of land in Chowringhee / Esplanade area some six years ago for the Grand Opera House before it finally placed at no. 7 Lindsey Street in 1867 where Lewises just inaugurated their current season jubilantly. [Rocha]

The Location and its Surroundings

Calcutta in the south was an obvious centre for new development and by the beginning of the nineteenth century Chowringhee that skirted the open space behind Fort William was described as an ‘entire village of palaces’. The palaces were mostly built as two- or three-storey square and rectangular blocks of Italianate design with pedimented windows and balustraded roof parapets. Their frontages were linked by colonnades, arcades or substantial railings and gateway. The view across the Esplanade open space took in Government House to the right and the Hooghly river ahead to the west. The site of these mansions had been won in a lottery by Colonel Grand, who proceeded to build himself a Sussex-inspired version of the English country house. [Denby]

Five Mansions. nos. 13-17 Chowringhee Forming a nucleus of the present Grand Hotel.

The tract that Carey found in his time covered by the palaces of Chowringhee, about a century before had contained only a few miserable huts thatched with straw; a jungle, abandoned to water-fowl and alligators, covered the site of the present citadel and the course by its side, daily crowded at sunset with the gayest equipages of Calcutta. [Carey] It was indeed an enviable location that Lewises found out within the most dignified stretch opposite the green of the Maidan, a cluster of five stand-alone buildings, that long back Mr Grant had erected with the Lottery money he won, covering nos. 13 to 17 Chowringhee Road, which after two and half a decade were to merge into a classy mega-mansion of the Grand Hotel created by Stephen Arathoon.  Arathoon bought the first three premises from Mrs Annie Monk, an eccentric British lady who stringently managed several ill-maintained boarding houses, including these five at Chowringhee and the other four in the vicinity at no. 11 Middleton Row,  no.13 Theatre Road, no. 26 Camac Street, and no. 8 Harrington Street. One of her formerly lodgers wrote in London Illustrated: ‘the two hardest things in the world are the diamond and a Calcutta board-house keeper’s heart.’ A little barrister while in Calcutta, he managed to get the best side of her for five thousand rupees. [Hobb] It was this lady from whom GBW Lewis had purchased in September 1871 a dilapidated lodge on plot no 16 Chowringhee, and that must have been at a fabulous price to persuade her to sell a property for the first time. At one time, it seems, here stood the Royal Hotel established by Mr Jack Anderson, formerly proprietor of the old Spence’s. Next stood Mitchell & Co.’s shop, and next to Mitchell’s stood the corner plot, no. 17. The last two were once occupied by the ‘Calcutta Club’, an institution set up for the leisure and recreation of the merchants, brokers, public servicemen and sundry. Colonel Abbott managed its affairs until its board split and doors closed. [Massey]  As we understand from Colligan, Lewis founded the Theatre ‘behind the old Calcutta Club’ [Colligan].

Construction and The Interior

The very day after Lewis secured the ground, he engaged over eighty workmen on the spot, with all the ‘plant’ to commence operations, most of them Hindoos, with of course European foremen and architects. The old mansion was down as if by magic, and in four days the foundations were being laid. Huge iron pillars and rafters, arrived by the dozen, and in less than three weeks the roof was on. The decorations and scenery were all being painted at the Opera House so that when the roof was on, they were carted to the theatre, and everything was ready to open on the fourth week. [Howe]

The new theatre, measuring 132 feet long by 60 feet wide, accommodated 800 seats inside. The proscenium, or the space between footlights and the curtain, is occupied by two upper boxes, and by doors leading behind the scenes. It is ornamented with four Corinthian columns one at each corner. Besides these two proscenium boxes, there are … two boxes on each side o the house near the stage and the Viceroy’s box in the middle of the dress circle. The dress circle is supported by iron pillars. It is reached by a double staircase and seated for thee hundred people. The theatre is entirely lighted by one large sun, consisting of gas jets about eight and a half feet in circumference. Architecturally, Lewis’s Theatre Royal can be defined as of later proscenium style of a mid-nineteenth-century theatre and not as of Elizabethan design, as some writers, like Utpal Dutt [Dutt], suggested misleadingly, in all probability due to inaccessibility to faithful documentary sources they needed to verify.

Inauguration of the Theatre Royal

A new chapter in the history of English theatre in Calcutta opened with the inauguration of Lewis’s Theatre Royal on 21 October 1871 with the ‘slight comedy’ by Buckingham, The Silver Lining, with Howe and Rose as leads. This was the beginning of six and a half year-long journey of Lewis’s Burlesque and Dramatic Company performing in the Theatre Royal along with several other global touring operatic and theatrical enterprisers and some local ones. Apart from Mrs Esther Leach, there was however none of the English theatrical performers in Calcutta who enjoyed the ovation of the Calcutta audience so exultantly. Incidentally, due to her untimely death, Mrs Leach reigned Calcutta theatre for a shorter period than Lewises did. Some months before Lewises arrival, the famous English soprano, Anna Bishop had performed in the Town Hall. An opera company led by the Italian impresario, Augusto Cagli toured between Melbourne and Calcutta during the earlier seasons of Lewises. Among others, Mr and Mrs English were the two important English thespians performing at the Corinthian Theatre from 1875. The English born minstrel proprietor Dave Carson arrived before Lewises in the early 1860s and later had occasions to share a stage with them showing signature piece ‘Bengali Baboo’ or some other of his mimes and minstrels. Dave lived in Calcutta until his death on 26 February 1896 and in respect to the departed soul of the artist, the Star Theatre remained closed on the 29th. [Mukherjee]

English Theatre Was For The Englishmen

Unquestionably, it was those downhearted Britishers and Europeans living away from their home who hailed the touring operatic and theatrical companies more to appease their nostalgic sentiments by witnessing the rerun of the family and social life than for appreciation of art and culture. ‘The repertoire of the different companies brought with them should speak more of the crowd-pleasing – popularand fashionable dramas, burlesques, extravaganzas. Shakespearean plays were included because those were fashionable. The elite society of then Calcutta had less care for serious themes, wanted something entertaining on the stage and did not mind a little vulgar or even a racy burlesque if that boosted the audience’ spirit.

ENGLISH Theatre AUDIENCE SAME EVERYWHERE IN MID-19th CENTURY; DEPICTED BY ST GILL, Melbourne, 1853. COURTESY: STATE LIB. VICTORIA

The scenario, however, was changing fast. For the first time in the early nineteenth century, the amateurish Calcutta theatre started transforming into a professional institution with the foundation of Chowringhee Theatre, or ‘The Theatre’ as it was frequently called. The Theatre was a ‘private subscription’ theatre under the patronage of a few liberally educated celebrities like Mr Hares Heman Wilson, David Richardson, C R Princep, J H Stoqueler, Dwarkanath Tagore. Soon it became a fervent hub where Calcutta elites would gather every evening for chats or drinks. “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] In 1826 when Mrs Esther Leach was inducted, The Theatre superbly presented the best English dramas before the Calcutta audience. The audience of Calcutta was never the same after being reshuffled to let in a small but significant section of young Bengalis versed in English dramatic literature. We may say with confidence that one of Mrs Leach’s significant contributions to the Calcutta society must have been its new culturally ‘receptive audience’ with adequate theatrical sense to judge a stage performance critically. In fact, this ‘audience’ was being groomed systematically for a long time in a number of English schools within their classrooms and on their makeshift stages [Ajantrik] To witness the marvel of Mrs Leach’s theatrical feats at Sans Souci was for them a magic touch complementing their learning of theatrical appreciation.

Newborn Bengali Critics

After two decades, the stage Directress Rose Lewis encountered the same small but very different homegrown audience enduringly settled themselves next to the much larger group of the British and European elitists. Rose had to satisfy a wide range of varied interests of the mixed population with a spectacular repertoire she prepared every season and to reproduce those on the stage as best as she can depending on the talents of her hired artists and ultimately on her own virtuosity and charisma. “Although its predominantly London repertoire was primarily aimed at British members of the colonial public service, Lewis’s theatre attracted many educated Bengalis, noted for their critical knowledge of Shakespeare.” [Colligan] The situation can be well understood from a press review quoted in Colligan’s book:

“It is amusing to note some of the criticisms in the native papers on our theatricals.” Times of India, Bombay Edition continues to report on 11 January 1868 “The tone is by no means complimentary to our theatrical troupes, as their performances are very severely handled, and in many respects, I must confess, with a certain degree of justice. Shakespeare has been studied by our Baboos in their educational courses at the universities and colleges, and they regard everything below Shakespeare as something scarcely worth notice. They are themselves paying considerable attention to dramatic literature, several new plays have recently been published, of which the native press speaks highly. They say that if they were translated into English and placed on our London boards they would create a sensation.”

So unlike the British who were prepared to ‘make allowances’ for the provincial standards of the Lewises, this British-educated Bengali audience expected more than ‘the odd pantomime and burlesque interspersed with, for instance, an unevenly acted Hamlet. None of the critics liked the company’s first ‘leading man’, tragedian John H. Allen, an American mediocre artist. Lewises had to depend on Melbourne for finding suitable actors willing to travel to Calcutta. It deems to be the primary reason why there were not many genuinely good actors to benefit the Lewis’s Theatre as did Williamsons or a Howe, other than Rose Lewis herself.

Rose Lewis

Rose Edouin Lewis 1844–1925 Courtesy: State Library Victoria.

Rose  Lewis was veritably a star actress having ‘grace’, versatility, and a ‘good taste’ – regardless of her appearances in restoration plays crossing over into tight breeches. ‘By 1870 her versatility was almost legendary.’ As acknowledged by the English and the Bengali presses, Rose played with equal agility and success literarily in any form of performance ‘from High Tragedy down to Burlesque. As for her male role, there was always some reservations in the reported views. Her Romeo was ‘manifestly’ a buxom lady playing a man’s part. Some ‘babus’ present seemed bewildered by the changes to the text and possibly to the gender of the person playing Romeo.

Rose faced similar adverse comments for her title role in  Azad The Prodigal. There the male role she played should be better-suited for a hideous, bony, muscular woman, rather than for someone like Rose Lewis “essentially feminine and graceful in appearance, voice and manner”. Playing the ‘other’ was, of course, one of the common tasks for an actor playing the part of a villain or a hero. She often played the ethnic ‘other’  in many of the plays available to her from the London or New York stage that demanded expertise. She was almost a ‘slave to her profession’; a most cheerful and willing one certainly; yet there were few players who have worked so hard, otherwise she could never reproduce atypical characters like a ‘Zoe’ or a ‘Monee’ impersonating their subtle expressions and mannerism.

Overall Appraisal

Lewises theatres were unpretentiously mercantile and prosaic in scope as its name defines. GBW Lewis the whiz kid of the company, after all, a hardcore businessman who, in terms of profitability alone, could differentiate a circus, which brought him to Calcutta the first time, from a theatre, his later obsession. He understood the box-office but little stagecraft, and not much of the people on the stage with whom he had some rough times too. Nevertheless, money could hardly ever make him all smile. We find him grudging about his loss in his farewell speech for 1873-74 – the weakest of all the sessions when he had bagged GBP 80,000 to take home.

The burlesque and similar forms of cheap entertainment always have a popular appeal irrespective of age or sex. The box-offices at Calcutta as well as at London and Melbourne favoured plays like Jack and the beanstalk, Cinderella, Robinson Crusoe and Aladdin, the political satire, the amazonian leggy chorus girls, the pantomimes such as Lalla Rookh; or The Princess, The Peri, and the Troubadour, and Jack the Giant Killer; or The Harlequin King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. All these pantomimes were part of general nineteenth-century interest by Europeans ‘in the spectacular and exotic otherness of the East’. In the late nineteenth century, the ‘Principal boys’ and ‘chorus girls’ of pantomime and English burlesque evolve in America into an entertainment of ‘less good’ taste featuring ‘bump and grind’ and strip-tease. There were, however, many of those racial items in Lewis’s production. One of the most significant ‘other’ characters Rose enacted was that of ‘Monee’, a Bengali ayah, or a lady’s maid, in Tom Taylor’s comedy-drama, Up at the Hills. The often racist Calcutta anglophone press dismissed the plot that depicted a British Major’s engagement to Monee, as highly improbable. Similarly, they reviewed apathetically Rose’s performance as ‘Zoe’ where a white gentleman contemplating such an alliance with an octoroon was repeated. Interestingly, In the USA the critics commented on the failure of The Octoroon there because of the race question.

There was above all the uncomplimentary histrionics of British dominance, where Indians found themselves barbarously portrayed to humour the white elitists. In pantomime tradition localization of a playscript was not uncommon for making stories colourful and realistic. Colligan mentioned a crude sketch of a babu, which Mrs Edouin Bryer enacted in male attire, delivering a welcoming address to the representative of the Duke of Edinburgh on a tour in India accentuating babu’s servile obedience and his horrible English. In another event, one of the most respectable Bengali, Dr SG Chuckerbutty – the first Medical professional educated in London – was ‘sent-up’ to be heckled in a pantomime show only to please the larger sections of the arrogant fun-loving audience, and perhaps a smaller section who were critical of the over-anglicization of Dr Soorja Coomar Goodeve Chuckerbutty, née Surjo Kumar Chakraborty (c.1826 –1874) better known as Dr Goodeve Chuckerbutty as he himself preferred to be called. Colligan took it for a case of cruel joke that the respectable London-trained Doctor was wrongfully caricatured by twisting his name in a funny manner. We may recall that the contemporary Bengali bards never spared an overzealous anglicizing act of fellow countrymen. Plenty of examples of such mocking and mimicking one may find in loud-mouthed Kolkatar Song as well asin the polite Hansir Gan of DL Roy. Practising this kind of self-criticism publicly was one of the reasons why the ‘Young Bengal’ put off their pro-English lifestyle. Rose Lewis understood this Bengali sentiment well and took the liberty to stage Dr Goodeve’s show with no remorse. She was intelligent and had adequate resources for learning the equations between the British Raj and progressive Bengali minds.

She might have developed a stand of her own as reflected from the episode of staging the controversial play, The Happy Land, a burlesque by WS Gilbert. The play was a notable example of political banning that satirized Gladstone in London, Graham Berry in Melbourne, and in India when it was staged in 1874 in Theatre Royal the Viceroy Lord Northbrook walked out insulted by the localised ’satire’. To save the situation, Rose Lewis wrote the next day admitting her approval of the words spoken in the rehearsal, all about Bengal famine and relief fund, which she quoted for the public to read. The text which appeared to her not so brilliant but nothing was there that may suggest insulting to His Excellency but rather ‘a rub against the selfishness of the natives’ whose duty it is to succour such distress while on the part of the European community it is charity. For Rose, who witnessed political assassins during her stay, the staging of this controversial play was a bold decision, and that she must have taken voluntarily.

Lewis’S FAREWELL TO Calcutta

The Lewis’s company returned to a different Calcutta theatre scene from that which they had left in 1874. Then main rivals for audiences were Cagli’s opera. and touring circuses on the Maidan. After the Lewises seeming retirement, a  ‘Theatrical committee’ was formed in a meeting at the Town Hall to raise funds for theatre season. Others, led by a former ‘utility player’ of Lewis’s company, George Anderson, built a new theatre, Corinthian, on Dhurrumtollah Street. There was also a London based company led by Mr and Mrs English that arrived in Calcutta for the 1874-75 season. Lewises this time promised in their advance advertising to Calcutta public two American actors, James Cassius Williamson and Maggie Moore, who proved themselves the most successful stars in their Australian tours. GBW spared no expense in producing the newest and most successful pieces of the as well as some established favourites of the Calcutta modern stage. The Indian Daily News, Bengal Hurkaru advertised the day before covering the front page the varied programmes of three theatres at English’s Theatre, directed by  Mrs E. English; Lewis Theatre Royal, directed by Mrs Rose Lewis; and Corinthian, directed by GB Allen. The reviews of all the three performances reported full houses, but the Williamsons and their play Struck Oil received the most glowing report. Struck Oil Apart, in their five-week season the Williamsons presented Kerry, Little Nell, and Rip van, Winkle.

The Lewis Burlesque and Dramatic Company gave their last performance on 29 January 1876. The programme consisted of WS Gilbert’s charming mythological comedy Pygmalion and Galatea a quite satire upon social life and human nature generally. The naive simplicity and innocence of Rose playing in her part of Galatea made the character so amusing and real, and her artful skill was creditably acknowledged by the Indian Daily News and Hurkaru on 31 January 1876 that also reported GBW Lewis’s farewell speech. The speech was largely rambling and self-justifying. He declared that he had not made a profit from the season. Indeed, he had lost a little, some Rupees 2000 per week, until the arrival of the Williamsons. He also focused emphatically that ‘He had tried to do his best for his patrons and friends, and had always made it a duty to bring a respectable company and to keep it so, as he studied respectability as well as talent. It was however an undeniable fact that Lewises made sufficient financial gain from Lyceum and Theatre Royal phases. he had evidently had made sufficient profits to finance the building of investment properties on Melbourne land he had bought in 1865. The Lewis Dramatic and Buffesque company gave their last performance on 29 January 1876. The day after, on 31 January 1876, GBW Lewis sold his interest in the Theatre Royal , the Parsee Operatic and Dramatic Troupe open at Lewis’s Theatre in the ‘Ever fresh, Ever New Opera of Indur Sabha. [Colligan]

END OF THE THEATRE ROYAL

At the fag end of the eighteenth century, Aaracoon Stephan, a Bagdadi Armenian boy arrived at Calcutta in 1894 to paddle jewellery but soon took more interest in Calcutta’s fast developing real estate. He bought three mansions at nos. 13, 14, and 15 Chowringhee from Mrs Monk and added no.16 from its present owner. The mansion at no. 16 accommodated a Royal Hotel forming a part of the Theatre Royal.  Stephen developed these properties integrated into a dream Hotel the Grand Dame of Calcutta that remains an icon of the city of palaces. During the first part of the twentieth century, when the Theatre Royal under new management was in function there were a billiard saloon, a bar and a lounge on the Grand Hotel’s ground floor for the convenience of the people attending the Theatre Royal. A little away at its northern side, where the dining hall of the Grand Hotel stands, an open-air skating rink ran as a private club. [Massey]}

The Theatre Royal was burnt down shortly after midnight on January 2, 1919, finally ending the history of the English Theatre of Colonial Calcutta. The Humphrey-Bishop Company, showing there at the time lost everything including music and manuscripts. As the premises including tumbled-down edifice with a worm-eaten stage were fully insured Stephen suffered no loss. The last establishment that entertained Calcutta standing on the plot was the cosy cinema hall, Tiger, screening little offbeat English movies till the early 1990s. The memory of the Tiger Cinema with its small bar and smoking lounge, I believe, may not be completely wiped out from the minds of the Calcutta movie fans. [BalaBenoy]

END OF ENGLISH THEATRE

The tradition of English theatre in Calcutta had its best time between the late 1860s and mid-1870s when after a long interval the London repertoires were being regularly presented on the Calcutta stage to the heart’s content of the culturally deprived homesick British population. Other than the nostalgic reasons, the white people had also immense pleasures seeing the native Indians ridiculed in burlesque and pantomime shows. Viewed from the twenty-first century, the content of Lewis’s repertoire seems often ‘racist, imperialist, orientalist and melodramatic’ but undeniably the company went for the items in response to the popular taste and largely noncommittal attitudes of London and Melbourne. This kind of ‘popular theatre’ can be seen as a transition phase between the formal stage play of the mid-century and the realist drama of the late nineteenth century. The end of the English theatre in Calcutta was not abrupt but a consequence of a long process of cultural transfer under its colonial socio-political environment.

The English theatre never vanished in the blue of Calcutta sky but was emptied for the Bengali theatre to capture with the ‘new audience’ and with the most recent socially and politically relevant vernacular dramas penned by leading essayists, novelists and poets for the first time.  The contributions of these ‘new dramatists’ that won over the English stage were enough powerful and influential to scare the government. The Vernacular Press Act of 1878 did suppress the theatrical and literary movement for a while but took a new turn to flare up. “After Mrs Lewis left, there was no permanent English theatrical party, although there were Opera House, Theatre Royal and Corinthian Theatre they were meant for casual performances or musical entertainments only. Except [for] a few solitary instances, dramatic pieces too were either light comedies or farces which could not approach the high standard of comic representations where Ardhendu Sekhar or Bel Babu, Khetromoni or Binodini were the rival artists”. [Dasgupta. v.4]. Before long those remaining English theatres and operas were transformed into movie houses or closed their shutters forever.

The new audience, which is to my mind a direct product of Mrs Esther Leach’s theatrical presentations to the young Bengali theatre-goers, is indirectly responsible for the emergence of the ‘new dramatists’. In addition to what we already discussed on this issue, I would like to emphasize here the fact that ‘critiquing the theatre’ is a necessary forte not only for theatre appreciation but for theatre production and theatrical enactment as well. Theatre, being a performing art, needs close personal and group interactions and a platform, which was available with Rose Lewis for the theatre enthusiasts like those Bagbazar boys. Rose Lewis as the Directress of the stage, felt sufficiently attracted toward the argumentative young theatre-loving Bengalis, which was revealed in the course of interactions between Rose Lewis and the Bagbazarian youths who set the modern Bengali theatre on a national platform. It was never possible without the research work of Mimi Colligan which I have extensively used, to feel the momentums of journeying through the theatrical movement in colonial Calcutta ultimately blooming into the National Theatre. The relationship between the Bengali enthusiasts and Rose Lewis and her troupe members grew into a professional camaraderie with a far-reaching impact on the history of Bengali drama on the English stage. which we would like to take up separately.

REFERENCE

Ajantrik. 2021. Lewis’s Royal Lyceum: In the Making of Homegrown Professional Theatres and Theatricals of Calcutta. puronokolkata.com. https://puronokolkata.com/2021/07/10/lewiss-royal-lyceum/

Carey, William. 1964. Good Old Days of Honorable John Company from 1800 to 1858; vol.1. Calcutta: Quins. https://archive.org/details/goodolddaysofhon00careuoft/page/n4/mode/1up?view=theater

Chowdury, Darshan. 1995. বাংলা থিয়েটারের ইতিহাস. Calcutta: Pustak Bipani. https://granthagara.com/boi/331880-bangla-theatrer-itihas-by-darshan-chowdhury/.

Colligan, Mimi. 2013. Circus and Stage: The Theatrical Adventures of Rose Edouin and GBW Lewis. Mellbourne: State Library Victoria.https://trove.nla.gov.au/work/177161657

Dasgupta, Hemendranath. 1944. The Indian Stage; v.4. Calcutta: Das Gupta. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.21261.

Dutt, Utpal. 1992. Girish Chandra Ghosh. Calcutta: Sahitya Akademi. https://www.google.com.Au/books/edition/Girish_Chandra_Ghosh/oCARY9BKjT4C?hl=en&gbpv=1dq=Theatre+Royal.+Dharmadas+Sur,+Girish%E2%8%99s+designer,+often+went+with+him+and+between+scenes+of+the+play+they+would+make+mental+calculations+of+the+proportions+of+the+auditorium,+which+was+a+replica+of+the+Elizabethan+design+of+Richard+Burbage.&pg=PA13&printsec=frontcover

Denby, Elaine. Grand Hotels, Reality & Illusion: An architectural and social history. London: Reaktion Books, 1998. https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/G/bo3536413.html

Hobbs, Harry. 1944. John Barleycorn Bahadur: Old-time taverns in India. Calcutta: Thacker. 15.53429.John-Barleycorn-Bahadur_text.pdf

Howe, J Burdett. 1888. Cosmopolitan Actor. London: Bedford. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101066164185&view=1up&seq=7.

Massey, Montague. 1918. Recollections of Calcutta for Over Half a Century. Calcutta: Thacker. a&usg=AOvVaw3uvydXqyjqB3xbkOOZe4jp

Mukherjee, Sushil. 1980. Story of Calcutta Theatres: 1753-1980. Calcutta: KP Bagchi. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.100095.

Rocha, Esmeralda. 2012. Imperial Opera : The Nexus between Opera and Imperialism in Victorian, 1833–1901. https://research-repository.uwa.edu.au/en/publications/imperial-opera-the-nexus-between-opera-and-imperialism-in-victori

This hand-coloured etching by Edward Gurk depicts the inside view of a proscenium theatre, Théatre I.R. de la cour, prés le palais, and not of Lewis’s Theatre Royal, Calcutta. Image Courtesy British Museum.

LEWIS’S ROYAL LYCEUM

In the Making of Homegrown Professional Theatres and Theatricals of Calcutta

View of Calcutta Maidan By Charles D’Oyly. Courtesy: BL. Lewis’ Royal Lyceum Theatre was situated near Ochterlony Monument.

Backdrop

When the English came to Calcutta they brought with them the plays of William Shakespeare. When Lewises arrived in 1864, English theatre made a century dating from Calcutta’s second playhouse: the Calcutta Theatre. The first one, named ‘Play House‘, already destroyed in the Battle of Lalldighi, had left its little but precious history untraceable. It was, however, the collective experience contributed by a number of small private playhouses that shaped the minds of the Calcutta audience of the 1840s to appreciate Augusto Cagli’s Italian operas and the English theatres of Mrs Esther Leach. The immense goodness she brought about in developing Calcutta’s theatrical culture through her two unlucky establishments, the Chowringhee Theatre and the Sans Souci together with her liberal-minded friend circle paving the inroad toward making modern vernacular theatre, which had to wait for a decade more to begin. Lewises entered the scene in that opportune moment and did their best to inspire and facilitate instituting the Bengali theatre on the English model.

For a long time, Calcutta had no permanent home to stage an opera or a theatre after the Sans Souci collapsed in the 1840s. That is why in 1866 it was a challenge for the haut society of the City of the Palace to accommodate in the Town Hall the debut performance of Augustus Cagli – though it was one of his orchestra-less chorus-less semi-staged concerts played by a small band of 12 artists. In spite of the serious limitations of the utilitarian structure of the public Town Hall, the event proved to be a grand success. [Rocha] It was a time when both the media and the townfolk argued that what was missing from Calcutta was an opera house, for the city already boasted a fine opera company and an enthusiastic audience. They genuinely believed, ‘were a suitable building erected, an opera could be maintained here’ [Rocha]. Happily, not even a year went by, as many as three new theatres founded in Calcutta: Cagli’s ‘Opera House’ later rechristened The Corinthian, the Lindsay Street Opera House reserved for Cagli, and the Lyceum on the Maidan set up by Lewis couple. [Rocha]

Rose Edouin Lewis (1844-1925) Courtesy: Mimi Colligan
George Bejamin William Lewis (1818-1906). Courtesy: Mimi Colligan. State Library of Victoria Collection

Lewises in Calcutta

Six years before establishing the Lyceum theatre, George Benjamin William Lewis had toured Calcutta in early October 1860 with his Australian Hippodrome and Mammoth Amphitheatre. He opened here a circus on the 16th of October in a huge tent in the Maidan with the special permission of the British authority. After many gainful years of running the circus business in China and India Lewis had sensed an upcoming market for a British theatre in two colonial cities – Calcutta and Shanghai. Lewis moved from circus to stage in 1864 while in China with lady Rose – a 23-year-old English actress of rare talent and beauty whom he married on their boat sailing to Shanghai. Lewis’s Dramatic and Burlesque and Ballet Company arrived in Calcutta in early September 1867. Acquiring access to a rent-free land on the Maidan, he had erected a prefabricated corrugated iron theatre close to the Ochterlony monument. Lewises inaugurated their first theatre in Calcutta under the banner, ‘Lewis’s Royal Lyceum’ in mid-September 1867. Sadly, in less than two months a disastrous cyclone lashed about Calcutta on the first day of November, tearing down some old buildings and parks including the newborn Lyceum flattened to the ground. It took, however, only eight days for Lewis to erect the structure anew, which he did without taking any help offered by the Calcutta sympathizers.

Programme for the School of Scandal at Lyceum, Calcutta Feb. 1869. Courtesy: Mimi Colligan. State Library of Victoria Collection

Lyceum Royal Theatre

The theatre was impressive and well-equipped, approached by a broad flight of steps. The hall measured about 40 by 100 feet claimed to hold 800 people. With an interior decorated with guilt plaster walls and red velvet seats, ‘ample and imposing stage’, a proscenium, pit, boxes, and a gallery it had a look of an English provincial theatre. While the overall management of the theatre was the responsibility of Mr George Lewis, his wife Edouin Rose Lewis as the ‘Directress and Star’ dominated the acting and the choice of plays, stage managing, and rehearsing. As an actress, her versatility was legendary. She had the ability to play ‘from High Tragedy to Burlesque with equal skill and success ‘. She also appeared in a male role but, as Englishman reviewed on 19 Jan. 1874, with limited success being ‘essentially feminine and graceful in appearance, voice and manner’ [Colligan]. The first dramatic company Lewises had engaged in Calcutta consisted of 21 artists. Except for Austin Shanghai – the young acrobat from China, all others were from Melbourne. Lewises had produced at the Lyceum mainly Elizabethan and Victorian tragedies and comedies besides burlesque and pantomime. Their repertoire reflected the ‘popular taste and largely unquestioned attitudes of London and Melbourne’ an admixture of British and orientalist, melodramatic and burlesque, even sometimes with imperialist and racist appeals. During the two and half years, a transition from the formal stage play of the mid-century to the more natural acting style and realist drama of the late nineteenth century took place representing the theatre of Sydney Grundy, H.A. Jones, Pinero, Ibsen, Wilde, and Shaw. Lewises developed Lyceum to be an audience-oriented professional theatrical enterprise. Both George and Rose Lewises were English by birth, and it was an English theatre of predominantly London repertoire they staged for the Calcutta audience comprising the British and European members of the civil and military services and their families, not discounting, however, the British educated natives of Bengal. Lewises welcomed all theatre lovers irrespective of racial differences, yet their pricing policy restricted admission of the disadvantaged ones. The price-tags of the admission tickets were on the high side: two to five rupees at the beginning, afterwards revised to one to five – which were, in fact, more expensive than at London where the highest being of about seven shillings. Later, they discarded the one-rupee ticket because of the ‘bad behaviour of audience’ at the lower gallery [Colligan]. From the very beginning, Lewises took all care to keep their theatre high in professional standard and in respectability. Lewises took pride in keeping up that will to the last, as revealed from the farewell address of Rose Lewis delivered in 1876 before leaving Calcutta finally [Dasgupta].

Winding-up of Lyceum

In early 1870, after more than two and half years in India and their third season in Calcutta, Lewis decided to end his connection with the sub-continent and return to Australia. He advertised on March 10 1870 his Lyceum Theatre for sale. Lewises wished continuity of the English theatre in Calcutta, and perhaps they were also reluctant to cut off Calcutta link in haste that was what prompted them to encourage Willie Gill, a ‘low’ comedian in their team, to take a venture to start a theatre anew on the site of Lyceum. After a farewell performance at Lewis’s Lyceum on 31 March 1870 night Lewises left Calcutta without any plan to coming back soon. Willie Gill was true to his promise to provide a theatre on the old Lewis site. Together with a Calcutta businessman, named Sultana, Gill opened a theatre on the Maidan in October 1870. He opened their theatre under the banner, ‘Olympic Theatre’, in early October. But although some critics liked the ‘capital actors’ the venture failed. p.95 [Colligan]The Lewis company was only one of many entertainment troupes that visited Calcutta in the mid to late nineteenth century, but they were the first to stay for a length of time of seven years. They influenced Calcutta theatre in the form of their public purpose-built proscenium theatre itself and by their repertoire and production values [Colligan]. The story of Lewis’ Royal Lyceum ends here but not before it lights up the first Modern Bengali Stage.

II A STEP TOWARD BENGALI PUBLIC 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 of theatrical arts and stage crafts. In the nineteenth century, Shakespeare was taught in several venerable Calcutta schools before it was 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. Prof. Richardson used to advise his students to go to see Shakespeare on the stage. [Dahiya] The boys knew 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]

Theatre In Schools

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, Sherborne’s School at Chitpore, David Hare’s School, Gour Mohan Auddy’s Oriental Seminary, and Alexander Duff’s General Assembly’s Institution. [Bandyopadhyay]

The boys of David Hare Academy staged ‘The Merchant of Venice’ on 16 and 24 February 1853 under the direction of Mr David Clinger, a teacher of English in Calcutta Madrassa. Mr Clinger was also associated with the Sans Souci Theatre. Sambad Pravakar reported on 10 February 1853 that it was the first such performance by students in an educational institution [Mukherjee]. The credit, however, as we understand, should go instead to the Dharmatalla Academy of David Drummond (1785-1843) for staging 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.[Dasgupta]

Bengali Private Theatres Before Lyceum

Before Lewises’ Dramatic company landed with its collapsible theatre, Calcutta had experimented with the realities of establishing a few short-lived indigenous private theatres:

HINDU THEATRE (1831) In response to the public demands voiced in Samachar Chandrika since 1826 for establishing a theatre on the model of the English theatre, Prasanna Kumar 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. This was the first theatre founded by a Bengali, housed in his garden-house in Narkeldanga, a Bengali quarter, for a Bengali audience, but had no place for Bengali drama, and therefore it was never considered as the first English modelled native theatre. The Hindu Theatre was an aristocrat theatre and its audience comprised Indians and Europeans admitted by private invitation only. Hindu Theatre, in spite of its excellent performances, was short-lived. It might have failed to appeal Bengali audience at large because of the sophisticated and exotic content and form of the plays it staged.

SHYAMBAZAR THEATRE (1835) After Hindu Theatre closed, the Shyambazar Theatre came next, again as a private theatre, to stage Bengali plays. The theatre was housed at the residence of Babu Nabin Chandra Basu in North Calcutta. On 6 October 1835, the theatre was inaugurated playing ‘Vidya Sundar’ – a long play that continued from 12 midnight to 6.30 in the morning having its different scenes enacted at separate locations with appropriate makeover within the sprawling mansion. The female roles in Vidya Sundar were played by female artists: Radhamoni, Jaidurga and Rajkumari. The theatre died a premature death like its immediate predecessor. After Nabin Chandra Basu’s Shambazar Theatre there was a lull in the world of Bengali theatre for about two decades. Nothing happened except the handful performances of English dramas at Calcutta schools between-whiles as mentioned before.

ORIENTAL THEATRE (1853-1857)  Bengal Harkaru of 7 April 1853 reported that the students and ex-students of the Oriental Seminary raised a sum of Rs. 800/- to set up the theatre at Garanhata, Chitpore for staging Shakespeare’s plays. The pioneers included Priyanath Dutt, Dinanath Ghosh, Sitaram Ghose, Keshab Chandra Ganguly and others. It took some five months to get ready under the drilling of Mr David Clinger, an English teacher at Madrassa and an associate of Sans Souci, and Mr Roberts and a lady named Miss Ellis. There were also some European actresses who took part in Shakespearean plays, as we find Mrs Greig appeared as Portia in their play Merchant of Venice on 2 March 1854 and then on 17 March. Oriental Theatre was open to the public against admission tickets of Rs. 2 each, which to be had of Messrs F W Brown & Co. and Baboo Woomesh Chunder Banerjee, Cashier, Spences Hotel.

JORASANKO NATYASALA (1854) This was again a short-lived English theatre, contemporaneous with its neighbouring Oriental Theatre at Baranasi Ghose Street. Jorasanko Natyasla was a privately-owned theatre of Babu Parry Mohan Bose but not a ‘private theatre’ since it practised admission by tickets sold publicly. On 3 May 1854, it staged Julius Caesar in English. At the end of the year, Jorasanko Natyasala staged some plays in Bengali in response to the appeal of The Hindu Patriot (11 May 1854).

OTHER PRIVATE  DESHI THEATRES Besides these four theatres, there were some more short-lived private theatres of great historical importance that had performed vernacular dramas with local talents, like the Belgachia Theatre (1858-1861), Pathuriaghata Theatre (1859-1872), Sobhabazar Theatre (1865-1867), Jorasanko Theatre (of Tagores) (1865-1867). All the theatre houses were local initiatives that ceased to exist little before the coming of Lewises in mid-September 1867 to establish Lyceum Royal Theatre at Maidan. Two other such vernacular private theatres, Bowbazar Theatre (1868-1874) and Baghbazar Amateur Theatre (1868-72) were contemporaneous to Lyceum. It was the latter, which had its history intertwined with the Lewis’ Lyceum affairs.

BENGALI AUDIENCE & ESTHER LEACH

Lewises’ theatres had gained a mighty advantage of having a ready Bengali audience receptive and appreciative of theatrical entertainments and artistry, backed by their elementary learnings of the English dramas and theatrical arts at schools, besides their exposures to the stage performances of the English and vernacular plays. An earnest Bengali spectator was born to be tuned to the English theatre of the latter half of the nineteenth century Calcutta and for that largely responsible were Mrs Leach’s theatres, particularly the Sans Souci, which is overstated sometimes by historians as “the last important English theatre in Calcutta” [Dasgupta?] belittling the seven years Lewises contributed to Calcutta’s English theatre. On the other hand, some of them, like Colligan, preferred to overlook the deep imprints of the ‘actress-manager Mrs Esther Leach’ who had achieved, to their mind, only ‘a moderate success’ [Colligan].

LYCEUM: A BOON TO YOUNG BENGALI THEATRE

Advantaged with the new research findings on Lewis’ theatres in Calcutta, which remained unavailable to the veteran theatre historians, one can identify today more confidently the eventualities bearing on the emergence of the professional Bengali theatre – modernistic, realistic and democratic – that outlasted the English theatres of the English in Calcutta. For the sake of convenience, I may be allowed to tag the period of Olympic Theatre (popularly called ‘Sultan’s Theatre’) [Binodini], which followed next, to the history of Lewises’ Lyceum Royal Theatre, on the plea of Olympic Theatre being merely an extension of the former without adding anything new for its identity other than the name. The special significance of the Olympic Theatre was that, in absence of the Lyceum, it facilitated the Baghbazar amateurs to inspect the specimens of Lyceum’s building, auditorium, stage, scenes and screens.

Since this paper is restricted to the phase of Lewis’ Royal Lyceum Theatre most of the contributive issues involved with the Lewis’ Theatre Royal will remain untold. I will concentrate here on only two relevant issues:

  • A historic friendship between the two great thespians: Mrs Lewis and Girish
  • Adaptation of English model by Dharmadas in building early Bengali theatres

CAMARADERIE BETWEEN GIRISH AND MRS LEWIS

The most critical event in the history of professional theatre in Bengal deems to be the chance friendship between Girish Chandra Ghosh, the father of the Bengali theatre, and Mrs Rose Edouin Lewis, the queen of the English theatre of then Calcutta. The two versatile thespians were exactly of the same age, born in 1844, Girish on 28 February, Rose 29 January. Their bonhomie served as the foundation for the generous cooperation and support the young Bengali theatricals received in transforming their traditional resources and styles into the professional theatre of the modern time that should happen in course of the next five years.

Girishchandra Ghosh (1844-1812) Source: Girish-rachanabali. V.4

Amritalal Basu, a doyen of Indian theatre, revealed in his memoir how Girish came in touch with the famous English actress Rose Edouin Lewis. Girish, it looks like, often visited Lyceum theatres even before he met Mrs Lewis in his office. He was then in the employment of the John Atkison & Co. at no. 6 New China Town Street. Mrs Lewis had occasions to visit Atkinson’s as the company was looking after her business account. Incidentally, it was Girish who was keeping her books. Mrs Lewis, already a celebrity – a star actress, unapproachable ordinarily by commoners like young Girish. It is interesting to note here that once Amritalal before he ever met Girish, had refused to believe that mere an office clerk, what Girish was, could ever recite or play a Shakespeare. For Girish, however, theatre came naturally, and his job title did hardly matter. On the contrary, Girish had a sore point with ‘acting as a profession ’ that was looked down on in respectable Bengali society. This was why Girish had been much reluctant to print his name on theatre bills unless a qualifier ’amateur’ was annexed to guard his honour. This again might be the primary reason for his disapproval of ticket selling, which was considered lowly in the middle-class mindset. [Basu]

As mentioned earlier, Girish had frequented Lyceum theatre before he met Rose Edouin Lewis at Atkinson’s. [Gangopadhyay] He had times to talk about the plays he witnessed and frankly exchange views on points of strength and weakness insightfully. Mrs Lewis was supposedly very pleasantly surprised seeing in her bookkeeper a critical mind of a matured artist. She used to take him for an evening ride on her phaeton for prolonging discussions on various aspects of western dramas and their enactments.

Their friendship, Amritalal and other theatre historians think, had helped Girish in flourishing his theatrical genius. The kind of discussions he had with Mrs Lewis and the exposures he had to English plays at Lyceum, helped Girish enacting a ‘Nimchand’ in the play ‘Sadhabar Ekadashi’ so bewitchingly. Amritalal Basu, in his reminiscences, spoke of Girish playing the role of Nimchand in verse:”মদে মত্ত পদ টলে নিমে দত্ত রঙ্গস্থলে । প্রথম দেখিল বঙ্গ নব নট গুরু তার ।।” [Girishchandra] Mrs Lewis must have been present in one of the repeat shows of Sadhabar Ekadashi to witness Girish in acting, which as we understand from Utpal Dutt, she considered a masterpiece. [Dutt]

BAGHBAZAR AMATURE THEATRE

When the Bagbazar Amature Theatre (1868- 11 May 1872) created by a few local theatre enthusiasts who wanted to do their theatre in a modern way as did the English theatres at Lyceum, Opera House, and Corinthian in then Calcutta. They also wanted to make their theatre open to all, that is, not restricted to the few rich elites, but to the commoners as well. In spirit and actions, the Bagbazar Amateur Theatre was the precursor of the Great National Theatre initiated by the same aspirant theatricals: Nagendra Nath Banerjee, Dr Radha Madhab Kar, and Ardhendu Shekhar Mustafi. Girish was then working at Atkinson‘s. The group rehearsed under Ardhendu, and on the day of ‘Experimental Play’ (dress rehearsal), Girish joined the initiative as their undeclared leader. He, however, refused their plan for selling tickets, instead, he advised collecting donations to meet expenses that Madhusudan Dutta had recommended earlier.

The play ‘Sadhabar Ekadasi’ was first staged in October 1868 by Bagbazar Amateur, after a year their theatre founded and repeated four times within a fortnight under the directorship of Girish on different dates in different places. Two more plays of Dinabandhu: ‘Biye-pagla buroh’ and ‘Leelabati’ were staged with overwhelming success. ‘Without Dinabandhu’s simple and socially relevant plays the young thespians would have been nowhere.’ [Mukherjee] They felt now more desperately than ever for a permanent theatre to stage their enactment in a natural style as done in the contemporary world of English theatres.

National Theatre was not born yet. The members of the new Bagbazar Amateur Theatre were then drifting aimlessly without a home. The attention of a few energetic young was drawn to a collapsible theatre building in the maidan belonging to the Lewis’ Lyceum Theatre. Unfortunately, before they reached, the Lyceum sold out. On 10 Mar 1870, George Lewis advertised for the sale of Lyceum building and accessories including the extended stage scenes, dresses, and machinery. Before leaving Calcutta Lewises had encouraged Wille Gill, a funnyman in their team, to take a venture to keep up the presence of the British theatre in Calcutta. Gill took the challenge and reinstalled the theatre on the same site with a new name, ‘Olympic Theatre’ in early October 1870. Gill did it in collaboration with some A.G. Sultana, the proprietor of Liberty Hotel – a small bar at 85 Bentinck Street [Bengal Directory, 1876]. Sultana worked for Gill as the contractor for erecting the theatre building, and perhaps it was he who did the same job two and half years ago for Lewises. Those days, as we may find in Binodini’s ‘আমার কথা’, the theatregoers often referred to the new ‘Olympic’ as ‘Sultana’s Theatre’ after the name of Sultana – a flamboyant who sported earrings [Binodini].

Hunt For A Model Theatre

Apparently, when the three Baghbazarian youth, Amritalal, Dharmadas Sur, and Nagendra Banerjee, at last, reached the English theatre at Maidan, Lewises had left and in place of their Lyceum Theatre, the Olympic Theatre, nicknamed Sultana’s theatre, was in operation. The zealous theatricals bought three ‘pit’ tickets and watched intently the performance of English theatre, and at the same time, sitting on their chairs, they gathered the details of the auditorium and stage-related objects, including an estimated size of the stage screen upon calculating the number of the folds. It was the idea of acquiring building materials cheap and affordable that brought them to the door of Sultana who lived in a lane off Bentick Street. In an adjacent plot, he had dumped the old pieces of dislodged materials of the Lyceum Theatre. They did not succeed in getting those as Sultana demanded an absurdly large amount for the lot. Moreover, some experienced well-wishers advised the youngmen against buying spoiled materials with holes. They spent more justifiably around Rs 3,000 on some good teak logs purchased from the Guillinders company, which were eventually reused in constructing the Star Theatre and remained there in sound condition even in 1927 [Basu].

First Bengali Theatre after the model of Lyceum Theatre

The visit to Sultana, however, was not altogether futile since that had allowed Dharmadas Sur a singular opportunity to steal a look with his penetrating eyes at a wooden miniature of the Lyceum Theatre that served as the model for building the first homegrown theatre. [Amritalal] Lewis theatre had its walls and the roof made of corrugated sheets. Dharmadas made the walls of wooden planks, which were cheaper than corrugated sheets because those were not saleable at the old railway market. Dharmadas finished the building flawlessly proving his extraordinary talent in stagecraft, equipped with his discerning eyes and nimble fingers. He had no engineering background but was fortunate to have someone like Jogendranath Mitra, a civil engineer by his side to provide expert advice whenever needed.

Dharmadas Sur was also generally recognized as the first scene painter of the public theatre. He got his ideas from the scenes used in contemporary local English theatres, the Lewes Theatre at Chowtinghee and Opera House at Lindsay Street. These theatres used portable ‘rolling’ canvas scenes. The style of the English scenes was at first imitated, then modified with a few local touches, to recreate the Bengali play being performed. Scenes of Nildarpan, the first public theatre play, were painted in this manner. [Mukherjee] Dharmadas apart, we understand from the narration of Radha Madhab Kar that he was no less involved in making the first modern stage. It was Girish who told his young colleagues that the use of drop-scene was no good to give effect all kinds of stage events, and we must try to install the sliding scenes as could be found in operation in the Olympia Theatre (Sultana’s) at Maidan. Radha Madhav,
then a student of Engineering College, was surveying the Maidan area living in a camp. He with a few others (names not mentioned) bought tickets to witness ‘Macbeth’ played by one American among mostly Australian artists. The show won their heart. Radha Madhab felt an urge to learn how to reproduce similar theatre scenes. He wrote a personal letter requesting permission to go and study the interior of the Olympic Theatre, which was readily granted. He took full advantage of their friendly cooperation in learning several stage-art techniques like how on the stage the boats float, the man vanishes while flying in the sky, or how to recreate raining and thundering effects on the stage. All these techniques were translated into realities while erecting their own stage in the house of Rajendra Pal. Although Radha Madhab Kar’s episode was not corroborated by the contemporaries, his contributions may not be ignored altogether unless proved otherwise. [Gupta] It is, however, a well-established fact that the Great National requisitioned the service of David Garrick, originally principal of an art school and then an independent painter and photographer, to paint few representative flat scenes: a garden, a forest with mountains, and the interior of a room. He also painted a drop-scene depicting a view of Varanasi on the Ganges. They paid the painter a remuneration to the tune of Rs. 600/-. The next development was the introduction of carpenter or shutter scenes which were painted on flat boards and fixed on two wooden frames in two halves which were to be pushed from two sides to join up in the middle of the stage to form one whole scene. Dharmadas Sur also painted a panoramic scene. As early as 1875, that is. within three years of the beginning of the public theatre, the ‘audience saw a railway train on stage. Dharmadas was regarded as the man who taught the Bengali in making stage, while Girish Ghosh and Ardhendu Mustafi taught them stage-acting. [Mukherjee] All credit of having the permanent stage of the first theatre must go to Babu Bhuban Mohan Neogy who borne the entire expense amounting to Rs. 13,000.00 and kept it under his protection. [Dasgupta v.2]  Such theatres as George Lewis installed at Maidan and served as a model for the National Theatre were said to be available from English iron foundries like Bellhouse and co. of Manchester at a substantially high cost.

End Notes

When the audience of the modern theatre of Calcutta was a product of the 1840s, particularly under the spell of Esther Leach’s English theatres, it is undoubtedly the Lewis’ theatres: the Royal Lyceum and Theatre Royal, that directly contributed to the making of modern Bengali theatre and theatricals. The special significance of Lewis’ first phase, centred around Lyceum Theatre and the contemporary Bengali theatrical movement, remained so far unheeded in the history of theatres because the episodes of the Lewis’ enterprises were never accessible until some credible researchers, like Colligan, published their findings, which have been extensively used in this essay. The second inning of the Lewises coincided with the birth of the first homegrown professional public theatre in Calcutta – a topic for the next post.

REFERENCE

Bandyopadhyay, Brajendranath. 1939. বঙ্গীয় নাট্যশালার ইতিহাসঃ ১৭৯৫-১৮৭৬. Calcutta: Bangiya Sahitya Parishad. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.477805/page/n5/mode/2up.

Basu, Amritalal. 1982. স্মৃতি ও আত্মস্মৃতি. Edited by Arunkumar Mitra. Calcutta: Sahityalok. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.298801.

Binodini Dasi. 1959. আমার কথা ও অন্যান্য রচনা. Edited by Nirmalya Sanyal. Calcutta: Subarnarekha. http://boibaree.blogspot.com/2018/09/blog-post_19.html.

Chowdury, Darshan. 1995. বাংলা থিয়েটারের ইতিহাস. Calcutta: Pustak Bipani. https://granthagara.com/boi/331880-bangla-theatrer-itihas-by-darshan-chowdhury/.

Colligan, Mimi. 2013. Circus and Stage: The Theatrical Adventures of Rose Edouin and GBW Lewis. Melbourne: State Library Victoria.

Dahiya, Hema. 2011. “Shakespeare Studies in Colonial Bengal: The Early Phase.” Sheffield Hallam University. https://www.mendeley.com/catalogue/00799a00-c799-3b67-838c-fe0a08050943/?utm_source=desktop&utm_medium=1.19.8&utm_campaign=open_catalog&userDocumentId=%7B2bde07bb-1bbe-42c0-be71-f1cf8300a110%7D.

Dasgupta, Hemendranath. 1938. The Indian Stage; v.2. Calcutta: M K Das Gupta. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.228124/mode/2up.

Gangopadhyay, Abinashchandra. 1927. গিরিশচন্দ্র. Calcutta: Nath Brothers. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.302236/page/n1/mode/2up.

Gupta, Bipinbihari. 1952. পুরাতন প্রসঙ্গ. 2nd ed. Calcutta: Bidyabharati. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.299309/page/n5/mode/1up?q=রাধা+.

Mukherjee, Sushil. 1980. Story of Calcutta Theatres: 1753-1980. Calcutta: KP Bagchi. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.100095.

Rocha, Esmeralda. 2012. “Imperial Opera : The Nexus between Opera and Imperialism in Victorian,” 1833–1901. https://research-repository.uwa.edu.au/en/publications/imperial-opera-the-nexus-between-opera-and-imperialism-in-victori.

Calcutta’s Grand Opera House

Operatic culture in colonial Calcutta vanishing into the new wave of professional Bengali theatre

Emperor Napoleon III, Queen Victoria, Empress Eugénie, Prince Albert seated in Opera Box at Italian Opera. 1855
Lithograph on chinecollé. Print made by: Marie Alexandre Alophe. Courtesy: Commons

PRELUDE

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

A view of the Town Hall. Artist: James Baillie Fraser. 1826. Courtesy: British Library

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.

Augusto Cagli. Courtesy: Victoria State Library

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

Grand Opera House. 7 Lindsay Street, Calcutta ( Later Globe Theatre). Photographer: DBH Ker. Courtesy: Flickr

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 anothera 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 Audience

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

The Repertoire

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 :

OPERA HOUSE

Lindsay Street
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

Admission Tickets

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

[Dasgupta vol.2]

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
“I keep my shop at Radhabazar ;
“I live in Calcutta, eat my dalbhat
“And smoke my Hookka.”
   

[Indian Mirror, 22nd, Jan. 1873.]

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
“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.


[The Englishman Friday, Dec, 20, 1872,200 Pucca Tamasa]

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.

ENDNOTES

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’.

REFERENCE

Bandyopadhyay, Brajendranath. 2002. “বাংলা পেশাদারী রঙ্গালয়i.Pdf.” In বাংলা পেশাদারী থিয়েটারঃ একটি ইতিহাস. Calcutta: Natyachinta Foundation.https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwiErKSe8vzvAhUE4jgGHR2wDbAQFjAAegQIAxAF&url=https%3A%2F%2Fia801603.us.archive.org%2F25%2Fitems%2Fin.ernet.dli.2015.265707%2F2015.265707.Bangla-Peshadari.pdf&usg=AOvVaw2_FBQzhFO9b8w3XEMVrEQf

Bandyopadhyay, Brajendranath. n.d. বঙ্গীয় নাট্ট্যোশালার ইতিহাস. 1st ed. Calcutta: Bangiya Sahitya Parishad.https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwjWyYPY8_zvAhVMxTgGHZovD3YQFjADegQIBBAE&url=https%3A%2F%2Fgranthagara.com%2Fboi%2F322562-bangiyo-natyashalar-itihas-ed-1%2F&usg=AOvVaw2dUzi3Nyvbw5N4YEvinhE9

Bandyopadhyay, Brajendranath. n.d. সংবাদপত্রে সেকালের কথা; ২য় খণ্ড. Calcutta: Sahitya Parishat. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.354540/page/n39/mode/2up.

Blechynden, Richard. 2011. Richard Blechynden’s Calcutta Diaries, 1791-1822. Sentiment and Self. Edited by Peter Robb. Kindle. New Delhi: OUP. https://www.amazon.com.au/Sentiment-Self-Blechyndens-Calcutta-1791-1822-ebook/dp/B0746LK6H6.

Chattopadhyay, Devasis. 2020. “British India’s Racist Theatre.” The Quint, no. Aug12,2020. https://flipboard.com/article/british-india-s-racist-theatre-how-blackface-took-centre-stage/a-VQ9gSCafRTCwSnXsr4c_5A%3Aa%3A433591375-01f3630c84%2Fthequint.com.

Carey, William Henry. 1907. The Good Old Days of Honorable John Company from 1800 to 1858; Compiled from Newspapers and Other Publications; Vol.2. Calcutta: Cambray. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.39169/page/n421.

Dasgupta, Hemendranath. 1938. Indian Stage; v.2. Calcutta: M K Das Gupta. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.228124/mode/2up.

Dasgupta, Hemendranath. 1934. Indian Stage. Calcutta: Metropolitan. https://archive.org/details/indianstage029370mbp/page/n21/mode/2up.

High Court, Calcutta. 1920. EH Ducasse Versus EMD Cohen: The Judgement of the Calcutta High Court. https://www.casemine.com/judgement/in/56e13a0b607dba3896625d5a#

Howells, David P. 1918. “Bijou Grand Opera House, Calcutta: Among the Picture Theaters.” The Moving Picture World 35 (Feb. 23). https://archive.org/details/movingpicturewor35newy/page/1100/mode/2up.

Massey, Montague. 1918. Recollections of Calcutta for Over Half a Century. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink. https://www.google.co.in/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjRr_WylsPXAhUDV7wKHTWJAXcQFggxMAI&url=https%3A%2F%2Farchive.org%2Fdetails%2Frecollectionsofc00massiala&usg=AOvVaw3uvydXqyjqB3xbkOOZe4jp.

Mukherjee, Sushil. n.d. Story of Calcutta Theatres: 1753-1980. Calcutta: KP Bagchi. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.100095.

Rocha, Esmeralda. 2012. “Imperial Opera : The Nexus between Opera and Imperialism in Victorian,” 1833–1901. https://research-repository.uwa.edu.au/en/publications/imperial-opera-the-nexus-between-opera-and-imperialism-in-victori.

Sandeman, Hugh David. 1868. Selections From Calcutta Gazettes: 1806-1815. Vol. XXX. Calcutta: GOI. https://doi.org/10.1016/0003-6870(73)90259-7

Sans Souci Theatre, Park Street, Calcutta, 1841

সাঁ সুসি রঙ্গমঞ্চ, পার্ক স্ট্রিট, কলকাতা, ১৮৪১
The Sans Souci Theatre and Its immediate predecessor, Chowringhee Theatre, were greatly instrumental to the Bengali enterprise in the theatrical line, culminating afterwards in the establishment of the Belgachia permanent stage. The Sans Souci Theatre was opened in 1839 i.e. after the Hindu Theatre and Nabin Babu’s theatre at the house of Babu Nabeen Chandra Bose.
After the destruction of the Chowringhee Theatre, a temporary theatre under the title of Sans-Souci was initiated by Mrs. Esther Leach at the corner of the Government Place East, Waterloo Street. The upper flat of the Building was occupied by St. Andrew’s Library and the lower flat that looked more like a godown was converted by Mrs. Leach into an elegant theatre large enough to accommodate 400 audiences. Sans Souci performances continued here for about a year till the larger house was being reared on her account’ at No. 10 Park Street where the St. Xavier’s College now stands.
The Sans Souci theatre was an enormous building resembling the Greek Parthenon with six Doric columns. The structure of the theatre measuring 200 feet in length and 50 feet breadth was built with a handsome portico in front. The stage occupied 28 feet in breadth, 50 feet depth, the space concealed from the audience above and below being appropriated to the green rooms etc. The theatre building, elegantly designed by the architect, Mr. J. W. Collins, was completed in May 1840.
To meet its funding requirements, subscriptions came in liberal response, the last being headed by Lord Auckland and Prince Dwarakanath Tagore who contributed Rupees one thousand each and the total amount of the subscription rose to Rs. 16000. This also included some money contributed by Mrs. Leach herself. Mr. Stocqueler, Editor, Englishman also offered his services to help her in her noble enterprise. The construction and the interior fittings including scenery and wardrobe cost Rs. 80,000/- the rest being raised by the mortgage of the property.
The formal opening took place on March 8, 1841 with Sheridan Knowless’s “The Wife” under the patronage and immediate presence of the Governor General Lord Auckland. (Asiatic Journal 1841, May.)
Mrs. Leach, the queen of the Indian stage, as she was called, appeared as Mrs. Wyindham in the farce ‘The Handsome Husband,” an after-piece of Merchant of Venice, where Mr. James Vining an actor of London-fame, appeared as Shylock. The house was full, all was in cheerful mood. In the midst of all these, Mrs. Leach, while waiting by the stage for her cue, caught fire from an oil-lamp and in an instant was in flames. She could not survive the fatal burning. She passed away on Nov. 22, 1843 at 34, and was buried in the Military Cemetery at Bhowanipore. “The catastrophe which cost Mrs. Leach her life also brought to a close the last English theatre in which the Bengalees took a keen interest After that, English Companies have no doubt given performances now and then, but the Bengalees had little concern for any of them.” See more Dasgupta. Indian Stage

St James Theatre, Circular Road, Calcutta, 1871

stJamesTheatre(1871)
সেন্ট জেমস থিয়েটার, সার্কুলার রোড, কলকাতা, c১৮৬০
Before the Saturday Club came into existence in 1875, the members of European communities depend for their dancing on the fornightly assembly balls at the Town Hall, or private dance parties. The Town Hall also used to hold concerts mainly given by amateurs, occasionally assisted by professionals, but there were no professional theatricals. The demand for this kind of entertainment was filled by the Calcutta Amateur Theatrical Society (CATS), which used to give about six productions during the cold weather season. In their amateur performances there were no actresses. All the ladies’ parts were taken by young boys. At first for their performances, CATS were given on the ground floor of where the Saturday Club now is, but after a time this was not found satisfactory. Then one of its most enthusiastic members, “Jimmy” Brown, who was a partner in a firm of jewelers, carried through a scheme for building CATS’ own theatre – the St James Theatre. The St James Theatre was erected, presumably around 1860, in Circular Road at the corner of Hungerford Street by Jimmy Brown, who at a cost of Rs. 30,000. Here CATS carried on until in the great cyclone of 1864 the roof was blown off and the building seriously damaged.StJamesTheatre-remains
Montague Massey in his Recollections wrote the end story after the St James Theatre was destroyed. “We had, therefore, to move again, and went to where Peliti’s is now, which was then occupied as a shop. After one season there, we were temporarily located in a theatre built in the old Tivoli Gardens, opposite La Martinière. The “CATS,” as we used to be designated, was a very old institution, and had been in existence some time before I joined up. They were very ably and energetically managed by Mr. G.H. Cable, assisted by Mrs. Cable, the father and mother of the present Sir Ernest Cable. They were affectionately and familiarly known among us all as the “Old Party and the Mem Sahib.” He used to cast all the characters and coach us up in our parts, attend rehearsals, and on the nights of the performance was always on the spot to give us confidence and encouragement when we went on the stage, while Mrs. Cable was invaluable, more particularly to the “ladies” of the company. She chose the material for the gowns, designed the style and cut, tried them on, and saw that we were properly and immaculately turned out to the smallest detail”.
English Opera Rose Of Castile at St James’s Theatre. Calcutta, 1871. Artist unknown. Published in Grapghic: an illustrated newspaper, [1871]

Calcutta Theatre, Clive Row, Calcutta, 1776

allahabadBankক্যালকাটা থিয়েটার, অধুনা এলাহাবাদ ব্যাঙ্ক গৃহ, ক্লাইভ রো, লালদিঘী, কলকাতা, ১০০৮
The most important English theatre that inspired foundation of the Bengali Stage – was the Calcutta Theatre, or the New Play House, as it was called to distinguish it from the Old Fort Play House – the first English theatre the city had. The land for it was granted in June 1775 and the construction cost of one lakh Rupee was collected through public subscription. The site had been previously occupied by Mr. Eyre who perished in the siege of Calcutta in 1756, and the new theatre opened sometime in autumn 1776 or little earlier. The maps of Wood 1785-86 and of 1792 by Upjohn spotted this Theatre at the north western corner of Lyon’s Range behind the Writers’ Buildings. The other theatre, the old Play House disappeared by this time.
Between 1776 and 1808, Calcutta Theatre performed many popular farces of its time like, Neck or Nothing; and the musical Entertainment of The Waterman, Barnaby Brittle, with a new musical entertainment called Rule Britannia. Tickets are sold for different sitting types, as for instance, pit and box, sixteen rupees; upper boxes, twelve rupees; gallery, eight rupees. The European community found it a favourite venue for socialization. The theatrical shows apart, they gathered here to dance on its imposing ballroom floor, enjoy excellent drinks and foods served in foyer, or meeting people on business in cordial ambiance as the government officials often did. The theatre hall was as spacious as London’s Bath Theatre, and the standard of shows performed here was comparable to any European stage. To look after the business of Calcutta Theatre, Mr. Barnard Messink was summoned from England to take charge. The Theatre was generally manned by Europeans for works like gate-keeping. The theatre was used for performances until 1808, when the house and adjoining buildings were purchased by a member of the Pathuriaghata Tagore family, Gopimohun Tagore, who added to the buildings and formed the whole of the premises into a bazar, which he called the New China Bazar —subsequently renamed Royal Exchange Place in 1913. See more
Memoirs and travelogues present conflicting descriptions about the location of the Calcutta Theatre. This is mostly because of mixing up details of the Calcutta Theatre and of the Old Fort Play House. Based on reports published in government gazettes scholars however convincingly show that the Calcutta Theatre was situated in 15 Clive Row where the James Finlay, Muir & Co. stayed for a number of years before moving to 21 Canning Street, and thereafter to their own handsome block of buildings erected on the site of old Thieves Bazaar. Presently, the grand building at no.15 Clive Row, previously known as Theatre Street, is occupied by Allahabad Bank as seen in the photograph taken by DBH Ker in November 2008.
Image Source

Empire Theatre, Calutta, 1908

empiretheatre

এমপায়ার থিয়েটার, ১৯০৮
In 1908, Maurice Bandman built the Empire Theatre in Calcutta, which does not exist anymore. Possibly, this is the one, which was also known as the Fist Empire, as I gathered from my father long back. Accordingly, the theatre was situated in the same place where the Roxy Cinema hall stands now. In fact, the Roxy Cinema started as an Opera House. In early 1940s the house was converted into a cinema. The hall had high banisters but during this conversion stage height was removed. See Roxy Cinema History

Chowringhee Theatre, Theatre Road, Lower Chowringhee, 1833

থিয়েটার রোডের অধুনালুপ্ত রঙ্গালয়, ‘চৌরঙ্গি থিয়েটার’, ১৮৩৩
This image shows the imposing theatre on the corner of Theatre Street and Lower Chowringhee Road. The whole site between Chowringee Road and Elysiam Row (Now Lord Sinha Road) was occupied by the Chowringee Theatre. The adjacent house to the north was known as Ballards’ Place. The expenses of the construction and the cost of the materials for the stage were borne by a number of gentlemen subscribing amongst themselves the shares of Rs. 100 each. It was beautifully crowned with a dome. The Chowringhee Theatre (1813 to 1839) was the principal theatrical venue in the city.  Some affluent British theatre-lovers along with a few Bengali elites founded Chowringhee Theatre. Accordingly, this also came to be known as the ‘Subscription Theatre’ Among the illustrious patrons who donated generously for this Theatre, the names of Mr. Hares Heman Wilson, D.L. Richardson, Dwarakanath Thakur etc. deserve mention. It was inaugurated on 25th November, 1813 and the maiden play held here was a remarkable tragedy named ‘Castle Spectre’. Several dramas were performed here in course of time. The actors in the initial days were amateurs. Later, some renowned professional actors joined this troupe breaking away from the big banners. But, the Theatre was staggering due to acute financial stringency. In 1835, Prince Dwarakanath Thakur purchased it and made some drastic renovations. Unfortunately, in 1839, this Theatre was completely incinerated. After that it was never revamped and play acting was never resumed here. – Interestingly, the female roles at the theatre were played by professional actresses but male roles were taken by amateurs, such as William Princep, whose memoirs describe his theatre work in detail, both as actor and set designer, and give us insights into the running of the building.
This lithograph of painting dated 1833 is taken from plate 22 from ‘Views of Calcutta’ an album of paintings by William Wood.