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.

Holy Street Dhurrumtollah

 

Dhurrumtollah ka Rustah

উদারপন্থী ধর্মতলা জনপথ

Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart in Calcutta on Dhurrumtollah Street: Col Lithograph. Artist: Charles D’Oyly. c1833. Courtesy: BL

Preliminaries

This is a sequel of the story ‘Finding Dhurrumtollah’ I posted last June 4. It was an attempt to trace back the situation of Dhurrumtollah within the province of huge marshy land of Colimba-Talpukur, populated with very different varieties of flora and fauna, and people of different cultural orientation and faith.

The aboriginal Dhurrumtollah continued to exist till the old city of Calcutta stretched across Govindpore and Chowringhee villages amidst forest of sundari trees. Around 1764 the beaten jungle path toward the east was made over by the East India Company as ‘Dhurrumtollah ki Rustah’. But the place ‘Dhurrumtollah’ where to the muddy dusty street supposed to lead remains curiously unspecified in historical records since Mark Wood’s map of 1784-85 sited its name and location.

Should this ‘Dhurrumtollah’ necessarily be an outstanding devotional edifice like temple, mosque or a church? If so, how far realistically we can think of such construction in a forlorn marshland? An answer to this should conceivably help to resolve at least one of the two old theories. The one advocated in 1859 by James Long, that the name ‘Dhurrumtollah’ was originated from an ancient Mosque; the other initiated by Augustus Frederic Rudolf Hoernlé in 1888, that it was originated from a Buddhist adda in the neighborhood of Jaunbazar.

Before we come closer to look into these theories, often restated by later writers, we must get prepared to free our mind of all sorts of ethnic bias that prevented native communities to accept some other’s faith likewise divine. Calcutta has had a relatively short history of communal living but a long torturous memory of bloody relationship between Hindus and Muslims because of sheer religious predisposition politically instigated time and again. In spite of its many ugly episodes, Calcutta has been regarded a glorious seat of divine cultural heritage of Hindu-Muslim creative alliance in the form of Hindustani music, for instance.

Dhurrumtollah Street has too many religious institutions of diverse faiths standing peacefully side by side. We will see in course of our ongoing discussions that this street was a playground for experimenting with liberal principles in social, economic, educational, and spiritual orders as well.

 

Ghulam Muhammad’s Mosque on the left and the spire of the Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart on the right taken by Frederick Fiebig in 1851. Courtesy: BL

View along Dhurrumtollah Street with Ghulam Muhammad’s Mosque on the left and the spire of the Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart on the right taken by Frederick Fiebig in 1851. Courtesy: BL

At the very beginning of the Street stand an elegant mosque and a Catholic Church. The view set a blessed disposition, which quickly disappears journeying further into the crowded thoroughfare passing by bazars and commercial houses, public and private institutions and residences of European, Eurasian and native families. There have been also a number of religious houses in close proximity of each other attended by Islamic, Christian and Hindu devotees.

In this ‘street are the Union Chapel, the American Mission Home – the small old and the new large Methodist Churches, the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and besides the good looking Tipu Sultan Masjid at least 5 more mosques, and 2 minor temples. We can add few more to Rev Cesary’s list, and make the aggregate more impressive, but that would hardly improve our understanding of the historicity of holy Dhurrumtollah, which this article aims to establish.  [Cesary]

 

Ancient Mosque in Dhurrumtollah

Rev. James Long says there had been an ancient mosque, since demolished, on the very site of Cook’s stables, where tens of thousands Musalman devotees assembled to observe the Kerbaladay. The ground of mosque and its neighboring land were owned by a zealous Musalman, Zaffir, who happened to be a Zamadar employed under Warren Hastings. Though Long specifies no direct source, he subscribes to the idea that the ‘local sanctity’ due to the mosque’s presence lent it the name ‘Street of Dharamtolah’, or the holy street.[Long].

Before 1888, when Frederic Hoernlé talked about his theory about the presence of Buddhism in Bengal, there had been no other theory available except what Rev. Long had proposed and many accepted him unquestioningly. Rangalal Bandyopadhyay was one of them.

“ধর্ম্মতলার পূর্ব নাম এভেন্যু অর্থাৎ বারাসৎ, কারণ তাহার উভয় পার্শ্বে বৃক্ষ শ্রেণী ছিল। ধর্ম্মতলা নাম হইবার কারন এই যে হেষ্টিংশ সাহেবের জমাদার জাফের নামক এক মুসলমান, যেখানে এখন কুকের আড়গোড়া রহিয়াছে সেখানে এক মসজিদ নির্ম্মাণ করে। পরে সে স্থানে বর্ষে বর্ষে কার্বালার সময় সহস্র সহস্র মুসলমান একত্র হইতে থাকিলে ধর্ম্মতলা নাম হয়।“[Bandyapadhyay]

 After Rangalal, writers like William Carey, A K Ray, Evan Cotton, Harisadhan Mukhopadhyay, keep both the ideas alive by repeating Rev. Long and Dr. Frederic Hoernlé without making attempt to check their veracity.

Dhurrumtollah Street Scene. Calcutta Ladder, Cook &. Calcutta. (Old Picture Postcard) Courtesy: Ebay

The alleged Mosque was told to be built on Zamadar Zaffir’s land and that should have happened during the tenure of Warren Hastings who employed Zaffir. The Mosque was worn out before Cook’s livery stables occupy the plots at nos. 182 and 183 Dhurrumtollah Street. It was originally an enterprise of Chevalier Antoine de L’Etang who came to Calcutta in 1796 and opened a riding school on Park Street and a horse repository on Dhurrumtollah Street to conduct weekly auction sales of horses. [Roberdeau] Most likely, the alleged mosque was built after Plassey and disappeared at the end of 18th century. During its existence the Musalman population in Calcutta had never been so high to let us imagine tens of thousands Musalman devotees at Karbala, as Long says. The Census reports that the Musalman population In Calcutta grew from 37848 in 1752 to 48162 in 1821. It is also interesting to note that the ancient mosque, as Long indicated, was situated close to the entry point of the Street and needed no approach-road or a ‘Dhurrumtollah ka Rastah‘.

Lastly, the scope of general acceptance of an Islamic shrine by other religious sects, Hindus in particular, sounds unrealistic in the historical context of socio-cultural relationships primarily based on religious practices, rites and ceremonies. What Alexander Hamilton writes in early 18th century remains still relevant that “In Calcutta all religions are freely tolerated”, but there have been polemics, as always, to shatter the harmony in living together instigated by vested interest in gaining power and glory. The extract from East India Chronicle published in 1801 shows a short and sharp picture of the conflicting situation, and the social and political attitude to buy quick solution rather than any permanent gain.

“The Mussulman Mohurrum, and Hindu festival in honour of Doorga, happened to occur at the same time from the former being regulated by Lunal Calculate, disputes between the two sects took place in many parts of India, and their contests were attended with bloodshed. During the Government of Ally Verdi Khan, the Hidoos were publicly prohibited from celebrating their festival, whenever it happened to interfere with that of the Mahomedans. – An event proof of the bigotry and intolerant spirit of them and their arbitrary government of the Hindoos.” [Hawksworth] The kind of 1801 reportage discourages us to admit Rev. Long’s view as plausible theses that presupposes acceptance of non-idyllic Musalmans are equally virtuous and Masjid a holy (ধর্মীয়) institution. Thus the presence of the Ancient Mosque and its association with the naming of Dhurrumtollah Street may remain a mere myth until researchers bring to light sufficient supportive evidence.

 

Jaunbazar Buddhist Adda and Dharmaraj Temple

We have come to know from Evan Cotton that Dr Hoernlé discerns in the name ‘Dharamtala’ a reference to Dharma, one of the units in the Buddhist Trinity, and he also points to the ‘Buddhist Temple in Jaun Bazar hard by’, in confirmation of his theory. Cotton, however, left no citation for the readers to reach Hoernlé’s exact version in context. [Cotton]

Augustus Frederic Rudolf Hoernlé (1841-1918), the India born British Indologist of German origin, is better known as philologist. He spent nearly his entire working life studying Indo-Aryan languages, editing and translating manuscripts. His work, ‘Manuscript remains of Buddhist Literature from Eastern Turkestan’, was brought out in 1916. [Grieson] . Those interested may find a complete list of his works in OCLC WorldCat Identities. http://worldcat.org/identities/lccn-n83172870/

Jataka. Turkish version. Courtesy: Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities

Hoernlé was associated with the Asiatic Society of Bengal since long and presumably had occasions to share views with MM Haraprasad Shashtri (1851-1931) working then as the Director of Operations in Search of Sanskrit Manuscripts. Haraprasad became famous for discovering the Charyapada, the earliest known examples of Bengali literature. One of his most important scholarly contributions is ‘Living Buddhism in Bangal’ where he elaborates his theses of Dharma Cult and its relationship with Bengal Buddhist trends in plain language. In an attempt to substantiate his ideas Haraprasad introduces us to a Dharma-Thakoorbari in Jaunbazar, which seems most likely  the one Hoernlé had in mind.

Charyapada. 12th Cetury. Pre-modern Bengali

Haraprasad suggested that the imagery, symbolism and worship of Dharmaraj bore very close resemblance to Buddhist notions of the sacred. He dedicated his entire career to pursue his ideas that resulted in numerous publications. His basic tenet that the worship of Dharmaraj was nothing more than a remnant of decaying Buddhism in Bengal stayed vir­tually unchallenged for almost half a century. It was Khitish Prasad Chattopadhyay who, based on his anthropological field studies, first questioned his hypothesis in 1942. Khitish Prasad noticed “a preponderance of tortoise-shaped stones” and inferred a tortoise cult that was later absorbed into Buddhism.  He thus intro­duced the novel idea of pushing the origin of Dharmaraj back even farther into the past by equating Dharmaraj with the Vedic deity Varuna. [Korom] Soon after Sukumar Sen suggested in an article that it was Dharma worship that influenced Buddhism and not otherwise. The antiquity of Dharmaraj, he believed, predated the Vedas, and the cult in its most primitive form was brought in by the Austric immigrants. This view got a support from grammarian Suniti Kumar Chatterji who independently proposed the Austric origin of Dharmaraj based on philological evidence.

The most cautious review of Haraprasad was brought out in 1946 by Shashibhusan Dasgupta in his book, Obscure Religious Cults. Having critically examined archival resources he comes to a conclusion that proves to be most significant for our discussion. As he perceives, Dharma cult can be said to be a crypto-Buddhist only so far as it bears faint relation to that form of later Buddhism, more than 90% of which belong to religious systems other than Buddhism – including the beliefs and practices of the Hindus, Muslims, and even of the non-Aryan aborigines. This might be the kind of reasons why Nihar Ranjan Ray in his book, বাঙ্গালীর ইতিহাস (Bangalir Itihas), pronounces ধর্মঠাকুর বৌদ্ধধর্ম থেকে উৎপন্ন নয়’ (Bouddhism not the origin of Dharma cult) [Ray]

As we have already noticed, the researchers involved in the discovery, identification and interpretation of Dharmaraj are generally coming either with literary or anthropological background. Asutosh Bhattachayya belongs to both the camps. Like every other scholars in this field he acknowledged the pioneering works of Haraprasad and other veterans but at the same time felt that the various opinions put forth by them might apply to a specific location without producing a gen­erative model for the whole area in which Dharmaraj is worshipped. [Korom] I fear, our story of Jaunbazar temple, to be told in a moment, might contribute some more issues to clear up before looking for such a generative model.

 

Dharma Cult and Jaunbazar Dharmalay

Old Jaunbazar Native Shops. Chromolithograph  By William Simpson. 1867. Courtesy: BL

We learnt from Haraprasad that the Calcutta temple of Dharma, situated at the premises no. 45 Jaun Bazar Street contains six prominent images namely Dharma on a simhaśana, with his conspicuous eyes and his tapering head representing the light of the Adi Buddha. This is a miniature of the chaitya. Below the simhaśana are big images of Ganeça and Pancánand as a form of Mahádeva. Below these is a stone with eruptions representing small-pox. This is çitalá. There are Sasthi, the goddess of procreation, and Jvarásura, the demon of fever, also to be found in the room. According to him,“çitalá or Háriti is a constant companion of Dharma in Nepal. Ganeça and Mahákála are regarded as Dváradevas, the gods at the door of Dharma.”

Haraprasad then draws our attention to ‘something very curious in the Calcutta temple’. He found there three regular shaped stones forming one object, the middle one being smaller than the other two. They are decked with brass or silver nail-heads fastened on the stones with wax. One is led to suspect that ‘this is the ancient representation of Dharma, Samgha and Buddha in one piece of stone. This representation is very ancient, – much older than the present form of Budhism in Nepal’ (my emphasis). To his estimate, ‘the Calcutta temple is a very old one and represents a very ancient state of religion in this part of the country”. [Shastri]  This is an extraordinary view in the context of the findings of Shashibhusan that the Dharma cult originated and spread only in some parts of Western Bengal, which is proved beyond doubt by the local references found in the ritualistic works and the semi-epical Dharmamangal works. The stone-images of Dharmathakur, as exists in Jaunbazar Temple, are still being worshipped in West Bengal. He believes, “Dharma cult, developed in Bengal out of the admixture of some relics of decaying Buddhism, popular Hindu ideas and practices, a large number of indigenous beliefs and ceremonies, and ingredients derived also from Islam” as well.

Shashibhusan endorses fully the insightful statement of Haraprasad that “no religious movement of long-standing cultural influence can be eradicated all at once from a land by any other religious movement or political or religious causes. Buddhism, even in its Tantric from, was pushed aside and was gradually assimilated into the cognate religious systems among Hindus and the Muslims, and the Dharma cult is the outcome of such a popular assimilation.” It may not be difficult for us to appreciate that the followers of Dharma cult with their monotheistic belief in the formless God could easily have responsive terms with the Muslims who had the same monotheistic belief in the formless God and who were particularly antagonistic to the polytheistic belief of popular Hinduism. Hindus, like Dharmites themselves, regard Dharmathakur either as a form of Vishnu or of Shiva. They do not have anything to oppose until Dharmathakur is claimed to be the supreme deity – the creator of Hindu Trinity.

  Dharmaraj in Differnet Forms

Dharmathakur is also called Dharma Thakur, Dharma Raja or Dharma Ráya. Dharmathakur is known in different places by different names, such as, Chand Rai, Kalu Rai, Dolu Rai, Bankurha Rai, Banka Rai. Dharma cult is a far more popular among common folks – unsophisticated and the less advantaged populations forming a huge body of devotees to frequent Dharamtala – to worship Dharmathakur presumably at the foot of a tree, as the suffix ‘tala’ (তলা) indicates [Beverley. Census, 1876], A temple has been built there only toward the end of the 19th century, in 1300 BS at premise no. 45 Jaunbazar Street, [Shastri]

Of late, we come to know from the locals, including a sevayet and a purohit, that immediately before, it was only a small shrine next to the pond, talpukur, within the same Taltala area, where Dharma Raja had his home under the patronage of Rani Rashmani. As before Gajan is being held every year two days before Chaitra Sankranti – an occasion of great festivity for the locals – no matter Hindus and Muslims.

Dharmatala

Dharmatala. In a unique celebration of Buddha Purnima. Courtesy: Anandabazar

The findings of Haraprasad should have been well-known in the academic world of his time and thereafter. Yet the existence of Jaunbazar Thakurbari is sadly overlooked by all but a few. Pranotosh Ghatak, a 20th century journalist, is one of them. He narrates the story of Dhurrumtollah Street justly pointing to the hallowed seat of Dharmathakur on Jaunbazar Street as the origin of the name of Dhurrumtollah Street.  Pranotosh provides whereabouts of the few other Dharma Thakurbaris around Dhurrumtollah. A Banka Rai Street, goes behind the Wellington Square connecting Dhurrumtollah Street, and a temple of Banka Rai remains there. In Bengal & Agra Annual Gazetteer for 1841 he also finds citations of places of Dharma worship in the localities of Dinga-Bhanga Lane and Doomtala Street.

Until very lately, we were unsure about the exact address of the Jaunbazar Street Thakurbari that Haraprasad had visited and referred to as premise no. 45 and not no. 51 as found in the Bengal & Agra Alamanacfor1841.

Temple Foundation Stone

Another directory, namely, the Bengal Directory for 1876 shows it at premise no. 48, instead. As one may find today, the ‘Thakoorbari’ now known as Sitalamandir, though inscribed ‘Dharmalay’ on a stone-slab dated 1300 BS when the temple was built by Harish Chandra De (referred to by Haraprasad as ‘Hari Mohan De’ whom he met personally), stands on number 45 Surendranath Banerjee Road (formerly Jaunbazar Street).

During the last hundred years the temple ‘Dharmalay’ and its ambience have considerably been changed and more so the situation inside the holy chamber of gods and goddesses. While many of the idols Haraprasad described still show up, some seemingly go missing or misplaced. Unfortunately, the single-piece stone with three regular shaped figures, which Haraprasad belived to be ‘an ancient representation of Dharma, Samgha and Buddha’ was not found by recent visitors.

 

Dharmaraj Sila wth metallic Eyes. Taltala Dharmalay Temple. 2018. Photo.: Author

The most important among the available ones is the Dharmaraj sila – with two metallic eyes set on the uncut primeval stone placed above three separate stone tablets bearing symbols of Kurmo avatar, matsya aavatar and a pada-padma of exqusite minimalistic style of ancient Indian art. Besides the idol of Dharmaraj with two metallic eyes fitted on black granite in primeval form, there are idols of kurmo avatar and matsya(?) avatar and a padma-pada made of stone..

 

More uncertainties like this may remain for the future researchers to settle, but it is, I believe, the facts discussed here should be convincing enough to accept that ‘Dharmatala’ or Dhurrumtollah, where ‘Dhurrumtollah Ki Rasta’ originally destined for, was actually the seat of Dharmathakur discovered on Jaunbazar Street in recent past. The entire region remained for few centuries predominantly under the spell of the pre-Aryan religious sect of Dharma cult, supposed to be ‘much older than the present form of Buddhism in Nepal’. This is not a hasty conclusion but actually conceived long back by Haraprasad, Shashibhushan redefined it, and since then generally accepted and retained by informed people. [See:  অগমকুয়া http://sisirbiswas.blogspot.in/2016/01/blog-post.html%5D

 

 Origin of the Dharmaraj Shalgram and the Missing Chaurangiswar

 A question, which never been asked ever before, is being put forward here for understanding how and where from the ancient cult of Dharma worshipping came and settled at Jaunbazar  Dharamtala, in the neighborhood of Dinga-Bhanga, Talpukur. How and when this non-Aryan religious sect, outwardly Buddhistic, propagated? Who inspired this faith in this part of the country? The subject sure enough goes far beyond the colonial Calcutta but not unrelated to the topics we discuss in puronokolkata. The issues need handling with sophistication and perhaps a different platform. However, I intend to address the questions summarily to share with you my perceptions and also to encourage researchers to undertake intensive studies to reveal an obscure ethnic cultural link with ancient Calcutta.

In Paschimbanger Sangskriti, Benoy Ghosh suggests that it was the migrated fishmongers from Ghatal/Arambagh settled in the locality of Jeleparha who initially started worshipping Dharma-Thakur. Sadhus from the riverside go to Dharmatala to pay homage, take part in Gajan and Mela organized by the fishermen under the patronage of Rani Rashmoni. The Dom-pandits played the role of ministers in performing rites and ceremonies of Dharma-Thakur. Those apart there has been a well-established  community of Nath-Pandits, who also act as ministers to Dharma-Thakur. [Ghosh] There are some Dharmamangal narratives that contain regular mixture of the legends of the Nath literature and the Dharma literature, where prominent Nath siddhas along with gods, goddesses and demigods are worshipped in line with some Dharma-puja-vidhana. [Shashibhushan] Most significant poets of Dharmamangal are Rupram Chakrabarty (17th century) and Ghanaram Chakrabarty (17th-18th century). Manikram completes his work in circa 1725 (4th Jayistha 1703 Saka era). The recency of Dharmamangal kavyas and the era of Rani Rashmoni dispute the theory that Dharma-cult was introduced in Calcutta by the Jelepara fishing community.  Moreover, the primeval shalgram of Dharma-Thakur found in Jaunbazar-Dhurrumtollah Sitala-temple differs radically from the depictions of Dharmamangal kavya, being more akin to the pseudo-Buddhist notion of Nath-cult. The most prominent among the Nath-siddhas are Minanath (or Matsyendranath), Goraksanath, Jalandhari and Chauranginath – all included in the list of the Buddhist Siddhacaryas. Since the last mentioned Nath-siddha ‘Chauranginath’ happens to be our focal point, I may be allowed to dwell upon the legend of Chauranginath without delving into the history of Nath-cult which appears to Shashibhushan as a ‘hotchpotch of esoteric Buddhism and yogic Saivism’ representing a particular phase of the Siddha cult of India.

Chauranginath, or Chaurangi Swami, is regarded as one of the apostles of Bengal. Dinesh Sen writes “The Aryans who came to Bengal and settled here had distinctly a high religious object in view. From Silabhadra, Dipahkara and Mahavira to Minanath, Gorakjanath. Hadipa. Kalupa, Chaurangi and even Ramai Pandit — the apostles of Bengal all proclaimed to the people the transitori­ness of this world and the glory of a religious life. [Sen]

Nath_Siddha Lineage

Vajradhara surrounded by smaller figures of Telopa, Naropa, Marpa and Milarapa Hanging scroll (mounted on panel). Courtesy of the Freer Sackler Gallery.

Chauranginath (c1400), a contemporary of Kabir(1398-1518), lived few generations behind Śīlabhadra (529AD-645AD), Atīśa-Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna(980AD_1054AD), and Gorakshanath (11th- to 12th-century). He is one of the nine nathgurus and according to some traditions a direct disciple of Minanath. We know little of Chauringhi but some unverified stories like the ones retold by Harisadhan in his book.

  1. Legend has it that the sacred granite bearing the face of Kali the Goddess was discovered by Chauringi swami or his disciple Jangalgiri, and thereafter the jungle covering the area between Lal Dighi and Southern end of Govindpore was named Chowringhee after his name. Though we get this from flimsy source, it may be worth exploring since, other than hearsay, there is no clue as yet how and where from the vigraha of Kali was brought into the Kalighat temple. We learnt from Kalikshetradipika that it was found in the wilds by a wandering sanyasi: “যাহা হউক ইহা অবশ্য স্বীকার করিতে হইবে যে কালীঘাটে কালীমূর্ত্তীর প্রথম প্রকাশ অবশ্য অরণ্যবাসী বা গৃহত্যাগী ভ্রমণ তৎপর কোন না কোন সন্ন্যাসী বা ব্রহ্মচারী দ্বারা হইয়া থাকিবে। কোন সময়ে এবং কাহা দ্বারা কি প্রকারে প্রকাশিত হয় তাহা স্থির করা বড় দুরূহ।“
  2. Harisadhan gathered from an octogenarian that long back there were four Shivalingas being worshipped by sanyasis within the jungle of Chouringhee and its neibourhood. Nakuleswar discovered and reestablished in Kalighat by one Tarachand Sikh; Jangaleswar Mahadeva, said to be relocated somewhere in Bhowanipore Kansaripara by Jangalgiri – a disciple of Chauringinath; Nangareswar Mahadev exists near Burrabazar Pan-posta; Chouringiswara Mahadeva is said to have been unearthed while the Asiatic Society building was being constructed and removed afterwards to some unknown destination. We may recall that the land upon which the Society’s building constructed had been occupied previously by Antoine de L’Etang’s riding school.

A K  Ray, however, rejects Chauringinath as there is “no tangible evidence that Chauranga Swami ever came to Calcutta and lived in its jungle”. The original name of “Chowringhee”, he believes, is “Cherangi”, and suggests that the goddess Kali herself, called Cherangi from the legend of her origin that they trace back the name of ‘Chowringhee’”.

AK Ray is right so far as there is no hard evidence that Chauranga Swami ever came here. But there is no evidence either that he never did, especially being an acknowledged apostle of Bengal. The interpretation that the jungle was called after the Goddess Kali who herself called ‘Cherangi’ may not be readily acceptable.

Map of Calcutta Before the English. 1680

As we experience, a place name evolves from what it is being frequently called by. The name ‘Cherangi’ is little known and does not appear in the 1001 names of Kali. It is therefore very unlikely to be a valid ground for accepting the name ‘Cherangi’ as an alias of Kali the Goddess.

We know from Dinesh Sen that one of the Bengal apostles is Chaurangi swami. He and his disciples are known as Chaurangis in the sense that their religious life was to stand the fourfold test of ascetics, viz., parama-tapssita(great privation), parama-lukhata (great austerity), paramajegucchita (great loathness to wrong-doing), and parama-pavivittata ( great aloofness from the world). No wonder Chauringi swami and his disciples find the jungle adjacent to river Ganges an ideal retreat for them, and the jungle becomes then known by the name of Chaurangis.  The jungle Chaurangi had been in existence long before the English occupation. The earliest map of Calcutta made in the 16th Century shows its topography covering the entire region between the Creek and Kalighat opposite Govindpore. It was for the first time, the map Mark Wood prepared in 1784-85 charted the chunk of land separated from Chowringhee as Colinga. Colinga includes two subareas: Talpooker and Jala Colinga where Jaunbazar-Dhurrumtollah belongs to. It is the site of Dharma-Thakur Temple very much within the domain of Chaurangi. Here the Nath devotees of Dharma put their obscure religion into practice and made it adored by people of all sects. In course of time Dharmatala turns into a holy place for all, and a landmark of Calcutta then and now.

 

 

CITATIONS

Bandyopadhyay, Rangalal. 1850. Kalikata Kalpalata (কলিকাতা কল্পলতা). Calcutta: n.p. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/KolikataKolpalata/page/n0)

Carey, William. 1882. Good Old Days of Honorable John Company; Vol.1. Calcutta: Quins Book. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/goodolddaysofhon00careuoft)

Cesry, Rev. C. 1881. Indian Gods Sages And Cities. Calcutta: Catholic Orphan Press. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.128152).

Chattopadhyay, Suryakumar. 1891. The Antiquities of Kalighat; or, কালীক্ষেত্র দীপিকা. Calcutta: Bhowanipore Parthib Yantra. Retrieved (https://ia801904.us.archive.org/23/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.354023/2015.354023.Kalikhetra-Dipika.pdf)

Cones. 1874. Calcutta Directory, 1874. Calcutta: Cones. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.94126).

Cotton, Evan. 1907. Calcutta, Old and New: A Historical and Descriptive Handbook to the City. Calcutta: Newman. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/calcuttaoldandn00cottgoog)

Dasgupta, Shashibhusan. Obscure Religious Cults as Background of Bengali Literature. Calcutta: C.U., 1946. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.31035/page/n3)

Ghatak, Pranotosh. n.d. Kolikatar Pathghat (কলিকাতার পথ ঘাট). Calcutta: Indian Associated Publishing. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.355340/page/n7).

Ghosh, Benoy. Paschim Banger Sanskriti (পশ্চিম বঙ্গের সংস্কৃতি). Kalikata: Pustak Prakash, 1950. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.354330/page/n7

Grierson, G A. Augustus Frederic Rudolf Hoernlé. In: The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.(Jan., 1919), pp. 114-124. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25209477

Hawksworth. East indian Chronologist. Calcutta: Hircurrah Press, 1801. https://archive.org/stream/eastindianchrono00hawkuoft#page/70

Korom, Frank J.” Editing Dharmaraj: Academic Genealogies of a Bengali Folk Deity. In: Western Folklore Vol. 56. No. 1 (Winter. 1997). pp. 51-77. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1500386?read-now=1&loggedin=true&seq=27#page_scan_tab_contents

Long, James. 1852. “Calcutta in the Olden Time – Its Localities.” The Calcutta Review 18:275-. Retrieved (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/002715346)

Mukhopadhyay, Harisadhan. 1915. “Kalikata: Sekaler O Ekaler (কলিকাতা একালের ও সেকালের).” Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/Kalikata-Sekaler-O-Ekaler-Harisadhan-Mukhopadhyay/Kalikata%20Sekaler%20O%20Ekaler%20-%20Harisadhan%20Mukhopadhyay#mode/2up)

Ray, A. K. 1902. Calcutta: Town and Suburbs; Pt.1 A Short History of Calcutta. Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat. Retrieved (https://books.google.co.in/books?id=-Lo5AQAAMAAJ&q=calcutta+town+and+suburbs+ak+Ray&dq=calcutta+town+and+suburbs+ak+Ray&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjDnrz11MnXAhUCN48KHdgEDQUQ6AEIJzAA).

Ray, Niharranjan. Bangalir itihas (বাঙ্গালীর ইতিহাস); Adi Parba. Calcutta: Dey’s, 1356 BS. https://archive.org/details/BangalirItihasAdiparbaByNiharranjanRoy/page/n3

Roberdeau, Henry.’Accounts of life in Calcutta in 1805. (Editorial Notes)” In: Bengal Past And Present Vol.29, 1825. https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.32669/2015.32669.Bengal-Past-And-Present–Vol29#page/n139/mode/2up.

Sen, Dinesh. History of Bengali language and literature. Calcutta: C.U., 1911

https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.47773/2015.47773.History-Of-Bengali-Language-And-Literature#page/n439/mode/2up/search/chaur

Shastri, Haraprasad. 1897. Discovery of Living Buddhism in Bengal. Calcutta: Sanskrit Press. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.47680/2015.47680.Discovery-Of-Living-Buddhism-In-Bengal#page/n3/mode/2up).

Shastri, Haraprasad. Remnants of Buddhism in Bengal. Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal December. Calcutta: The Society, 1894. https://archive.org/details/proceedingsofasi94asia/page/134

Thacker Spink. 1876. Bengal Directory, 1876. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.68578)

Wilson, Horace Hayman. 1846. Sketch of the Religious Sects of the Hindus. Calcutta: Bishop’s College. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/sketchofreligiou00wils/page/n5)

 

 

Fort-City Calcutta, A Faded Legacy

Calcutta on Hooghly c1750s by unknown artist. From: Journal of a Resident by Maria Graham. 1812

 

দুর্গ-নগর কলকাতা : ১৭০০-১৭৫৬

 

FOREWORD

This article aims to distinguish some of the myths and realities concerning early township of Calcutta grown around the English factory – ‘the Fort William’, as designated afterwards.

Calcutta chronology tells a tale of two cities. The Fort-city of Calcutta was lost in 1756 Battle of Lalbagh. How the New Calcutta resurrects on the ashes of war under the governance of Warren Hastings and his successors with generous support of public contributions has been elaborated in archival records, books and journals, paintings and photographs. In contrast, our knowledge of the fort-city remained next to nothing. Calcutta during the first half of the eighteenth century belongs to the ‘dark age of British India’. Little was apparent about happenings of that time. There was no newspaper to print local news, no Government Gazette for public notifications, no historical maps to indicate growth. There were few fascinating travel accounts to speak of Calcutta and its people, besides some faithfully depicted original paintings representing Calcutta in pre-camera days.

Between the fag end of the 18th century and early 19th century plentiful authentic resources were made available to scholars. Henry Yule researched the Diary of Robert Bruce, enlightening us of the early English settlers until 1707. Henry Barry Hyde’s compilations of the India Office records of the 17th and 18th centuries proved to be an indispensable resource of learning Calcutta’s past. We learnt from James Long the socio-political conditions of Calcutta 1748 onwards. Later, the works of Lord Curzon, and Professor Charles Robert Wilson, bridged up the remaining gap of four decades (1707 to 1748) – the focal point of our current discussion.

BACKDROP

Emperor Shah Alam hands a ‘Sanad’ granting Trading Right to Robert Clive. Artist: Benjamin West

The English merchants had a tough time in their first forty years for securing commercial opportunities in India. After 1640s, English industrialism compromised that plain and simple target with militarism. They wasted next two decades, from 1661 to 1685, in war, either with native powers, or with interloping adversaries, besides intra-group rivalry. The phase ended up in a state of flux. The English traders wondered from one trade station to other following wavering Company directives. A nishan was received from Prince Azim-ush-shan for a settlement of the Company’s rights at Sutanuti. Charnock left Hughli for Sutanuti on the 23rd December , and on the basis of nishan, rented the three adjoining towns, on 29 Dec. 1686. The name, ‘Calcutta’ was first mentioned on June 22 1688 in a letter of Charles Eyre and Roger Braddyll from Dacca to Agent Job Charnock. The Court of Directors had sanctioned the construction of a factory, as far back as February 1689, that took few years to implement. Interestingly, over a year before Charnock paid his second visit in November 1687, the English settlers had built a factory in Sutanuti, without waiting for formal approval. We learnt from Hyde –“Heath on the 8th of November embarked Charnock and all his Council and subordinates on board his vessels, and so abandoned the Sutanuti factory buildings [my emphasis] to be pillaged by the natives.” [See Hyde] Therefore it seems historically wrong to accept the old Fort William as the first English factory of Sutanuti / Calcutta.

THE BEGINNING

REMAINS OF OLD FORT WILLIAM. Source: Old Fort William / CR Wilson

The year 1690 started with a new beginning for settlers. Job Charnock made foundation of the Company’s future in India. The English established trade in Bengal with the consent of the native government. Finally, the English left Hughli – their first foothold in Lower Bengal since 1651, and reached Sutanuti on August 25, 1690 in a stormy day. ‘They live in a wild unsettled condition at Chuttanuttee [sic]. As reported on May 1891, there had been neither fortified houses nor Goedowns [sic], but ‘tents, huts and boats’ for the settlers. It was ‘partly through the good-will of the inhabitants’, the English succeeded in settling at Sutanuti against so many odds. The next nine years had been relatively a dull period. Charnock died. Sir John Goldsborough, the Commissary-General and Chief Governor of the Company’s settlements, arrived at Calcutta on August 12, 1693. He was quick to find that Charnock and his Council had never marked out any site for building the factory, which the Court of Directors had sanctioned as far back as February 1689. Instead he was shocked that people building houses wherever they pleased, even on the most suitable locations for a factory. He ordered for enclosing a piece of land with a mud wall where a factory to be set up on receiving the royal parwana for fortification. The long delayed permission to build a fort was virtually conceded by the Nabob, owing to the insurrection of Rajah Subah Sing in 1696. [ See Ray] The plot might not be an empty ‘piece of land’ but having a structure within. More likely it was the same house which Sir John acquired from certain Mr. Walshes for the Company, ‘intended to bring in the Accomptant [sic] and Secretarie [sic] and the books and papers in their charge within the brick house’. We are yet to know who Mr. Walshes was, and how and when he owned this brick house. So far we gather, the only conspicuous masonry building Charnock acquired was the Cutcherry of Jagirdar. C R Wilson in a footnote conveyed his doubt of its verity. He writes, “It is said that the nucleus of the Calcutta factory was the zamindari kachalirl [sic], or office of the Mazumdars, near the great tank, which they gave up to the English.” This story however rests on tradition. There was nothing to support it in Sir John Goldsborough’s letter, or elsewhere in records, so far we know. He added another note saying: “As for the story that the agent of the Mazumdars, a Portuguese named Antony, was whipped out of the enclosure by Job Charnock, this, I should think, was contradicted by the fact that the enclosure was made by Sir John Goldsborough after Job Charnock’s death. If anyone whipped Portuguese Antony out of the place, it was Sir John Goldsborough.” [ See Wilson 1906] As time went by, the number of masonry buildings increased. [See Ray] No wonder, Walshes’ might be one of those constructed later.

Curzon, conversely, made the story simpler for us to follow: “Goldsborough purchased a house for the Company, which was a poor structure of brick and mud, and ordered it to be surrounded by a wall, i.e. to be converted into a fort, as soon as permission could be obtained. Charles Eyre, whom he had appointed agent in place of the incompetent Ellis, moved into this abode, which may therefore I suppose be regarded as the first Government House of Calcutta. Its site is said to have been the strip of land, north of the present Custom House, where the ‘Long Row‘ stood in the later Fort.” [See Curzon] Nabob’s parwana for building fortified factory finally arrived in 1696. Goldsborough died mean time, and his dream house remained ignored while constructing the Fort. Yet, as it appears from Curzon’s description, that was the edifice, which should be called ‘nucleus of the Calcutta factory’ and not the zamindari kachalirl [sic]’ [Footnote.Wilson OldFort] which was spotted at the present location of Lalbazar Police Station, outside the boundary of the Old Court House.

THE OLD FORT LOCALE

View of Fort Calcutta. Details not known. Courtesy: Gettyimaages

In 1696, Nabob’s parwana in hand, Charles Eyre and John Beard, Junior, proceeded to build the fortified factory with great circumspection as the Board wished. Gradually the walls and bastions were raised. The position of the erection was the space between Fairlie Place and Koila Ghat Street in modem Calcutta. The ground was subsequently occupied by the Custom House, the Calcutta Collectorate, the Opium Godowns, and the General Post Office. On its Eastern side was Lal Dighi, then known as the Park or Tank Square. The name of the Park was originally ‘The Green before the Fort’, and afforded the residents of the fort a place for recreation and amusement. [See Carey] On the West the River Hugli, which laved the walls of the Fort, was at least 250 yards further inland than its present channel. [ See puronokolkat.com/old fortwilliam for more]

When the construction completed in 1706, it was called the Factory or the Governor’s House. To Captain Alexander Hamilton, who visited Calcutta three years later, the Governor’s House in the Fort was ‘the best and most regular piece of architecture’. [See Hamilton] We also know from Hamilton that the Governor had ‘a handsome house in the Fort’, and the Company kept up ‘a pretty good garden’ for furnishing the Governor herbage and fruits at table, and some fish ponds to serve his kitchen with good carp, callops and mullet’. Perhaps the tank was one of the fish ponds, and the garden may have formed the Park or Tank Square.

With the construction of the fort at its site, and the reclamation of the tank, the Portuguese and Armenian inhabitants, together with the few Dutch and Danes clustered round the factory, and its adjacent native market place, Burrabazar [sic]. Apart from this small area round the fort and park, none of these deserved the name of town. Yet it was commonly referred to the component mauzas of the settlement and its environs. [See Ray] Surrounding this small town lay 1,470 bighas of land in Dhee Calcutta, or Dihi Calcutta.

On its north was Sutanuti, already containing 134 bighas of inhabited land, with 1,558 bighas under jungle and cultivation. ’To its south stood Govindapur high on the river bank, with only 57 bighas, out of a total area of 1,178 bighas, covered by human habitations, most of the rest being dense jungle. The total amount of inhabited land was about 840 bighas only in the whole of the 5,076 bighas covered by the Sanad of 1698 granted by Azim-ul-Shan.

WHITE-TOWN BLACK-TOWN

Old Court House Street. Thomas Daniell

European Buildings at Calcutta. Etching by François Balthazar Solvyns

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A request was sent on March 11 1694-5 for readying half a dozen Chambers of brick and mud be built on the North side of the Compound for the factors and writers who were so far having their lodging in thatched rooms within Company’s Factory compound. The Town Calcutta grew around the fort with residential and institutional quarters, roads, parks and tanks, without any master plan. As late as June 1768 Jemima Kindersley writes that the town “is as awkward a place as can be conceived; and so irregular, that it looks as if all the houses had been thrown up in the air, and fallen down again by accident as they now stand” [See her Travel Letters]. What she said was hilarious but hardly an overstatement. Calcutta grew freely at will of the individual inhabitants – the blacks and the whites, happily ignoring the law against illegal construction. Calcutta, being an unplanned city cannot be said to be grown as a Dual City separating the Anglo-Europeans and the natives by design. Neither of them had a permanent physical jurisdiction excluding each other. “The critical aspect of colonial Calcutta”, as it is said in a study on Calcutta architecture, “did not lie in such divisions, but in the blurring of boundaries between the two.”[Swati Chattopadhyay. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Vol. 59, No. 2. Jun 2000]

Market Place for Nationalities and Races. Frans Balthazar Solvyns c1790s

]

Gentoo Pagoda and House. Etching with aquatint by Thomas Daniell c1787

 

The localities in Calcutta might crowded together following natural law of selections – guided by their sense of security, sociability, convenience, and economic considerations. We may find the same reasons worked behind breaking down of the so called white communities into smaller cohesive groups. The Whites of different shades, had their own localities, each shifted from one place to other in the process of urbanization. The English left their Perrin’s Garden neighborhood to build home around Fort, and then gradually moved southward toward newly-built Esplanade, Alipore, and Garden Reach, and northward to Dum-Dum and Barrackpore. Armenians and Portuguese were old inhabitants of fringe area of Lalbagh and also had their respective neighbourhoods in the North and Eastern Calcutta. These floating communities came together to develop township around the Fort at the time of Anglo French War. It is odd to think of this culturally and economically incompatible population forms an inclusive township for the ‘Whites’.

FENCED-CITY

The dual-city model, however, could have been little more meaningfully defined in terms of Christian non-Christian dichotomy, particularly in context of the fenced city that Calcutta was ‘at least for a short time’ where the Christians — English, Armenian, Portuguese, and others — lived within the safety of palisades during the Marhatta scare. The native population was settled in the Great Bazar or Black Town, and at Sutanuti and Govindapur, beyond the Christian boundaries.

Newly Arrived Young Officer Tom Raw. By Charles D’Oyly. 1828

“Fancy lane is the entrance to the bailey that ran round the whole town within the palisades. A short distance up this passage the enceinte turned again westwards parallel to the creek. It crossed the present Wellesley place, and in doing so skirted Chaplain Bellamy’s garden, thence it ran up Larkin’s lane and its continuation, where some Queen among huckstresses so waged her trade that the place took on her name and fame. Thence Barrotto’s lane, once called Cross street, opens on the left; this is the bailey beginning its long northward course and keeping, as it does so, at pretty even distance all along from the pilgrim road to Kalighat. The town was a settlement reserved exclusively for the three Christian nations, that is, for English, Portuguese and Armenians, with their immediate dependents, and was so laid out as to keep well clear of the busy heathen highway.” [Hyde 1899]

PLAN OF CALCUTTA WITH THE PALISADES. Source: Old Fort William / CR Wilson

 

The natives were left outside palisade ring guarded against Marhatta threat by the Ditch dug out to stop imminent raid. Marhattas, however, never came back. The fencing of palisade around the fort-centric settlement remained in position for about a decade between 1742 when Chaplain Robert Wynch was in office and the Battle of Lalbagh in 1756. This short-lived history of the fenced-township had left a bemused notion of the character of the young Calcutta.

CALCUTTA UNBOUND

As we see, the early township was populated solely by the White Christians. The natives had no place inside. They had no reason either to live in the new town away from their families and friends. The natives lacking skills in masonry and carpentry had no much prospect of regular employment in construction of the fort or the township, other than menial jobs. They however used to come over to the town to do all sorts of domestic helps attending members of white families, and returned home at sundown. Natives were also engaged in respectable professionsl like Munshis, Banians and Traders. Omichand and Setts, who had customary business relations with the Company men, happily lived in the so-called White Town. Omichand had his house along with those of Eyres, Coates, and Knox at the back of the present-day Writers’ Buildings. Rasbihari Sett and Ramkissen Sett had their houses on the west of the burying-ground, back of St John Church. [See Hyde 1901]

Before the Mahratta invasion Calcutta had become a town, ‘not merely in name, but also in appearance’. The fort was an imposing structure, and the church of St. Anne right in front of it was a notable and picturesque building. The Fort, the Church, all went to dust during siege of Calcutta in 1756. The town resurrected with collective effort through public subscriptions. Maharaja Nabo Krishna, a Hindu resident of Black Town, donated land and money for founding St John Church. His heathenness never stood in the way of gracious acceptance of his gift by the Christian community. The gift represents the whole of St. John’s compound east of the church together with the public footway beyond the compound valued at 30,000 rupee.

This illustrates that the divisions created by the palisades had been only a physical conditions that might not have significant social impact. The fencing was installed essentially as a security measures for the politically advantaged Christian communities alone. They remained doubly secured by inner barricades and the moat surrounding the three towns populated by natives. When the Marhatta never returned to plunder Calcutta, the need of fencing the city disappeared for good.

Half-sisters. Painted by Johann Zoffany

Barring these handful of years, the three-century old Colonial Calcutta had never experienced cordoning of areas dividing the Whites and the Blacks. The separate neighbourhoods were evolved following natural social code. Law enforced by overzealous whites rarely worked in colonial Calcutta. The British Raj never entertained the missionary dreams of a Christian Calcutta. Christian enthusiasm faded out with rising new wave of education reform. Calcutta always retains a heterogeneous and secular character. Its environment helped developing a liberal mindset that could have never produced in walled-city surroundings. Walled-cities, keeping the outside world shut off, turn citizens into traditionalist, regimented and cautious – the qualities are conspicuously absent in native Calcuttan.

BLEND OF WHITE & BLACK

The Anglo-Indian lineage set off in 17th century in India and Britain as well. Those days the Company bureaucrats, petty officers, factors and clerks were encouraged to marry native women. It was felt by some writers that no shame was attached to their offspring who had their English, Armenian, Dutch, Portuguese patrilineal parentage. The White-Indians in Britain were, in contrast, matrilineal, born of Lascar seamen and white women. Marriage is a civil contract – a sacrament to those who believe it. In early colonial Calcutta the institution of marriage was respected by the whites and the natives consistent with their customs. [For more see: Margaret Deefholts] That does not imply nonexistence of racial tensions. It was very much there in strong or mild form depending on one’s frame of mind to appreciate alien culture. The white wives were generally more apprehensive than their male counterparts of the dark-skinned half-naked domestic attendants for their heathen faith and bizarre mannerism. Characteristically, the native helpers, unlike the Afro-American maids and servants, were less submissive and more demanding. There must be some genuine cases of wrongdoing by native servants, and even by respectable native citizens to excite racial feelings against them. But this may not be a good reason for banishing all the local natives on the other side of the fence. There were also instances of large scale forgery and misappropriations committed by the White officials. “The English in Bengal were equally notorious for their quarrels, the natural outcome of the prevailing eagerness to make money and the spirit of espionage fostered by their masters” [See Wilson 1895]. Immorality cannot be considered as a valid ground for dividing the city. And the city was not divided. Otherwise how could we explain making of a whole new race through interracial marriage in colonial Calcutta? Unquestionably there had been lots of willing Whites who accepted native maidens as wives notwithstanding the native ethos. The greatest example of white liberal happens to be no other than the first English settler, Job Charnock.

Job Charnock Mausoleum. St John’s Church, Calcutta. Courtesy: Manors of Charnock Richard

JOB CHARNOCK. We understand from Bruce, a large number of the servants of the factory and Charnock himself had contracted interracial matrimonial [Bruce 1810] Carey called Job Charnock ‘an old Anglo-Indian patriarch’. Charnock married an Indian wife, adopted many of the local manners and customs; adopted some of the local superstitions. ‘It was at Patna that Charnock learned to understand the Indian ways of thought and action’. [Wilson 1895] Their marriage was not however recorded in any Church Register. Most likely, Charnock married his Hindu wife Maria following Hindu rites, while all his three daughters, Mary, Catherine, and Elizabeth were married in Christian Churches. [Curzon] Charnock Mausoleum was erected at St. John’s Church graveyard in 1695,  three years after his death. The Mausoleum was installed by his son-in-law, Sir Charles Eyre, the President and Governor of Fort William in Bengal, who must have taken his best care to complete the edifice timely and justly. There must have been some reasons, good or bad, for the holdup, and also for the final shape of the things. Without going into detail, we may point out here that in the Mausoleum “Charnock and his wife are said to have been buried, but the inscription on the original tombstone only mentions Job”. [Yule 1887] This might suggest some unspoken reservation at work against interracial marriage; or more likely, it was a social taboo against marriage between unequal classes. It seems Charnock was robbed of his wife’s identity by his own fellows who never dared to interfere with Charnock‘s wishes so long he was alive. Lying in his grave Charnock paid an exorbitant cost for defying social canons.

WILLIAM PALMER joined the East India Company in 1766 and rose to the position of military secretary to Governor General Warren Hastings. Like Charnock, William Palmer was a romantic, but not a social nonconformist. It was probably in 1781, under Muslim law Palmer married Bibi Faiz Baksh, a princess of the Delhi royal house. Later she received the honorific title, Begum from Delhi Badsha. She bore Palmer six children. One of them was John Palmer the ‘prince of Calcutta merchants’.

Major William Palmer with his second wife, Bibi Faiz Bakhsh by Johann Zoffany, 1785

William Palmer happily lived with Bibi Faiz Baksh until his death in 1816. In his will, Palmer admitted that Bibi Sahiba has been his ‘affectionate friend and companion’ for more than thirty-five years. Their marriage was most honourably acknowledged in the native as well as European societies. The secret behind the generous acceptance of the Black and White marriage by both the communities was seemingly the equitable socio-economic status they held.

CLAUDE MARTIN served the British East India Company’s Bengal Army as Major General. He was before in French Army. Martin loved Tipu Sahib as a hero, loved India as his second motherland. He had a colourful personality, and an innovative mind. He was perhaps the first balloonist on Indian sky, and a self-styled surgeon. A map of the neighbourhood of Calcutta, dated 1760 or 1764, credited to Claude Martin. He accumulated huge fortune, and ensured that people were not cheated ‘who have passively succumbed to the yolk of corruption.’ The major portions of his assets were left for founding three institutions, in Lucknow Calcutta, and Lyon, his birthplace. Above all, he was a highly sensitive human being. It is not so easy, however, to assess the private life of this middle-aged childless Frenchman. It might be too subtle and intricate for us to interpret the kind of relationship he had thoughtfully built up with three girls nearly 30 year junior to him. Martin had acquired Boulone and two other native girls. He intended to give them protection and best possible education. The girls learnt to read and write in Persian, studied principle of religion, modesty and decency. When ‘at age of reason’ these girls were prepared to choose any one they pleased for either husband or companion. Not Boulone, but the two other girls preferred to chose native husbands. Boulone a Lakhnavi girl lived with Martin in Lucknow. But their story may be found significant and in context.

General Claude Martin. Details not known. Courtesy: La Martiniere College, Lucknow

Boulone Lise and her adopted son James Martin. Oil by Johann Zoffany

Martin loved Boulone as the most ‘virtuous wife’, yet she was not Martin’s married wife. Martin argued that if from the social point of view, ‘the essence of the marriage tie is its indissolubility during life then these women should amply justify their status as rightful wives’. But they could also merely play a role of virtuosity under social compulsion, instead of acting spontaneously and willfully. Martin also maintained that ‘the curse and misery of the unacknowledged half-cast was the European blood in their veins and the accompanying inexplicable longings’. Such cases were commonly dealt in line with conventional morality. Martin had two alternatives: either to drive the native girls into marriage with native boys whom they despised, or drive them into connections with Europeans whom Martin himself despised.
The only workable solution for Martin was to place the girls in his own house in a position obviously respectable in native eyes. To a native, mistress was only a wife of lower rank. Their consideration rested upon the inferior status a girl held prior to marriage. There is an element of truth in their argumentation which was present indiscernibly in both halves of Calcutta society – Blacks and Whites.

END NOTE

Calcutta has been largely a multi-ethnic city, then and now. The native Calcuttan inherited their liberal ethnic characters from the historicity of free living conditions and of their being in constant interactions with surroundings, which a divided Calcutta could never have delivered.

 

 

REFERENCE

 [Anonymous]. 1831. Historical and Ecclesiastical Sketches of Bengal, from the Earliest Settlement, until the Virtual Conquest of the Country by the English in 1757. Calcutta: Oriental Press [prin]. (https://ia600300.us.archive.org/5/items/historicalandec00unkngoog/historicalandec00unkngoog.pdf).
 Bruce, John. 1810. Annals of the Honorable East India Company; 1600 – 1708; Vol. 3. London: Black, Perry, Kingsbury. (http://books.googleusercontent.com/books/content?req=AKW5Qaf3EbT8p-rkz1AyNbBEbEWTuh_RoQm38FdPOaGc0aH9QwvuA1z-aLMG8sOqglSS0BKUbn4lZWLYwDScXtVifsV48qJawP8wG1PLbuYYGPvfUzT-2Ru1mBUZ_gtcDTGI-sh4g5yLQ8JpGQaIBWeI8C02zrby_0J0fneMowU4-9NdUUj_y-m12XmlH_HDrdi4j_ZpB_).
 Carey, William H. 1882. Good Old Days of Honorable John Company: Being the Curious Experinces during the Rules of the East India Company; from 1600 to 1858; vol.1. Calcutta: Quins. (https://ia601904.us.archive.org/33/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.116085/2015.116085.The-Good-Old-Days-Of-Honorable-John-Company-Vol-I.pdf).
 Curzon, Murquis of Keddleston. 1905. British Government in India: The Story of the Viceroys and Government Houses; Vol. 1. (https://dl.wdl.org/16800/service/16800_1.pdf)
 Hamilton, [Captain] Alexander. 1995. A New Account of the East Indies; Vol. 2. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services. Retrieved (https://ia601605.us.archive.org/22/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.39275/2015.39275.A-New-Account-Of-The-East-indies–Vol2.pdf).
 Hill, S. C. 1901. Major-General Claude Martin. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink. Retrieved (https://ia601406.us.archive.org/2/items/lifeofclaudmarti00hill/lifeofclaudmarti00hill.pdf).
 Hyde, Henry Barry. 1899. Parish of Bengal: 1678-1788. Calcutta: Thacker Spink. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.6226).
 Hyde, Henry Barry. 1901. Parochial Annals of Bengal: History of the Bengal Ecclesiastical Establishment of the Honorable East India Company in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Bengal Secretarial. (https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.180504/2015.180504.Parochial-Annals-Of-Bengal#page/n7/mode/2up).
 Long, Rev.James. 1852. “Calcutta in the Olden Time – Its Localities.” Calcutta Review 18(Jul-Dec):2275–2320.
 Long, Rev.James. 1860. “Calcutta in the Olden Time – Its People.” Calcutta Review 35(Sep-Dec):164–227.
 Ray, A. K. 1902. Calcutta, Towns and Suburbs: Part 1: Short History of Calcutta (India. Census. v. 8. 1901). Calcutta: Bengal Secretarial. Retrieved (https://ia600200.us.archive.org/16/items/cu31924071145449/cu31924071145449.pdf).
 Wilson, Charles R. 1906. Old Fort William in Bengal; vol.1. London: Murray for GOI. Retrieved (https://ia601904.us.archive.org/9/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.39722/2015.39722.Old-Fort-William-In-Bengal–Vol-1.pdf).
 Wilson, Charles R. 1906. Old Fort William in Bengal; Vol. 2. edited by C. R. Wilson. London: Murray for GOI. (https://ia601607.us.archive.org/35/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.70029/2015.70029.Old-Fort-William-In-Bengal-Vol2.pdf).
 Wilson, Charles R. 1895. The Early Annals of the English in Bangal, Being the Bengal Public Consultations for the First Half of the Eighteenth Century [1704-1710] … Vol. 1. London: Thacker. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.63176).
 Wilson, Charles R. 1900. The Early Annals of the English in Bengal, Being the Bengal Public for the First Half of the Eighteenth Century [1711-1717]; Vol.2a. London: Thacker. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.63287/2015.63287.The-Early-Annals-Of-The-English-In-Bengal-Volii#page/n1/mode/2up).
 Yule, Henry ed. 1887. “Diary of William Hedges during His Agency in Bengal (1681 – 1700; with Introductory Note by R. Burlow. Vol. 1.” Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.69608).
 Yule, Henry ed. 1887. “Diary of William Hedges during His Agency in Bengal (1681 – 1700; with Introductory Note by R. Burlow. Vol. 2.” Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.69611).
 Yule, Henry ed. 1889. Diary of William Hedges during His Agency in Bengal (1681 – 1700; with Introductory Note by R. Burlow. Vol. 3. London: Hakluyt Society. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.69606).

Bazaar on the Chitpore Road, Calcutta, 1826

fraser-calcuttaBazarচিৎপুর রাস্তায় দোকান-বাজার, কলকাতা, ১৮২৬
Chitpur Road was Kolkata’s oldest road. It has existed for at least 400 years. It was known as Pilgrim Road and started from the North-end of the city stretched up to Kalighat Temple on Adi Ganga. Apart from the aristocracy, there have been common folks engaged in various trades. The distinctive Bengali panjika almanac and Battala books were brought out from this place. So many things on Chitpore Road have been an integral part of Bengal’s life and culture being the centre of supplies for jatra, magic shows and musical instruments, including English brass bands. It might have received its name from the goddess Chiteswari, who had a splendid temple here erected by Gobindram Mitter, or one Gobinda Ghosh, in 1610. At the temple, Chitey dakat, the notorious bandit of the region, offered human sacrifices. The area could also have acquired its name from him. The lofty dome of the temple, which was known as Nabarutna or the shrine of nine jewels, fell during the earthquake of 1737, and it is now in ruins.
This Aquatint, coloured painting dated 1826 is the last plate from James Baillie Fraser’s ‘Views of Calcutta and its Environs’. Fraser wrote: “At the east end of Esplanade Row, the European quarter continued if one turned at right angles southwards down the Chowringhee Road. However, if one turned left up Cossitollah Street (named from its being the butcher’s quarter originally), one began to enter the Indian city, and especially so when this road crossed the Lall Bazaar and became the Chitpore Road. The Street exhibits a bewildering mix of Indian and decaying Palladian architecture, but is very obviously a bazaar. Cossitollah Street had in it a large number of purely European businesses.”

Churrack Pooja, Calcutta, 1896

ChurrackPuja-HindooHolidayচড়ক পূজা, গঙ্গাতীরবর্তী অঞ্চল, কলকাতা, ১৮০৬
View on the Banks of the Ganges with representation of the Churruck Poojah, a Hindoo holiday. Charak Puja is a very delightful folk festival, also known as Nil Puja celebrated in Bengal on Chaitra Songkranti, the last day of the month Chaitra. Charak Puja, a colourful festival was celebrated all over Bengal with much pomp and show on the eve of the Bengali New Year. As described in হুতুম প্যাঁচার নকশা by Kalipranna Singha, the famous mid 19th century Bengali satire “The city of Calcutta is rocking at the sound of drums, the devotees are warming up, the blacksmiths are making all kinds of hooks”. The festival was known to the English in Calcutta as “hook swinging festival”. See more
Aquatint with etching by and after James Moffat (1775-1815), published at Calcutta in c1806

Charak Puja, Calcutta, 1848

ChrrackPuja-d'Oylyচড়ক পূজা,কলকাতা, ১৮৪৮
Charak Puja is a very delightful folk festival, also known as Nil Puja, celebrated in Bengal on Chaitra Songkranti, the last day of the month Chaitra. This is a view of a large procession in Calcutta during Charak Puja. The painting reminds us of the lively version of Charak festival given by Bishop Heber of Calcutta: “All the persons who walked in the procession, and a large majority of spectators, had their faces, bodies, and white cotton clothes daubed all over with vermilion, the latter to a degree which gave them the appearance of actually being dyed rose-colour. They were also crowned with splendid garlands of flowers … many trophies and pageants of different kinds were paraded up and down, on stages drawn by horses, or bullocks.” Charak Puja, a colourful festival was celebrated all over Bengal with much pomp and show on the eve of the Bengali New Year. As described in হুতুম প্যাঁচার নকশা by Kalipranna Singha, the famous mid 19th century Bengali satire “The city of Calcutta is rocking at the sound of drums, the devotees are warming up, the blacksmiths are making all kinds of hooks”. The festival was known to the English in Calcutta as “hook swinging festival”.
This coloured lithograph is taken from plate 9 of Sir Charles D’Oyly’s ‘Views of Calcutta and its environs’ in 1848.

Suttee : Preparing for the Immolation of a Hindoo Widow, 1826

সতী সহমরণ প্রথা, ১৮২৬
Preparing a Hindu widow for immolation as seen in this painting is a realistic depiction of the rite of Sati as was practiced in Hindu society. The practice was formally banned in 1798, but continued in the surrounding areas. From 1812 onwards, it was Raja Rammohun Roy who started his own campaign against Sati. His petition against Sati also took place in 1829. The practice finally was banned by The Bengal Sati Regulation of 1829 – a legal act promulgated in British India under East India Company rule, by the then Governor-General Lord William Bentinck. This made the practice of the immolation of a Hindu widow on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband—illegal in all jurisdictions of British India and subject to prosecution.
This painting is made by Robert Melville Grindlay (1786-1877), a self-taught amateur artist, who served with the East India Company’s military service from 1804-20 and during this period made a large number of sketches and drawings recording the life and landscape of India.

Mutty Lall Seal (1792-1854)

Mutty_Lal_Seal-x2
মতিলাল শীল (১৭৯২-১৮৫৪)

Mutty Lall Seal (1792 – 20 May 1854), also spelt Mutty Loll Seal or Mati Lall Seal or Motilal Seal, was an Indian businessman and philanthropist. Mutty Lall Seal and Ramdulal Sarkar, another renowned shipping magnate, have become part of Bengali folklore as great merchant princes.
Mutty Lall started his business career humbly by selling bottles and corks. He was the founder and promoter of the first indigo mart which was established under the name of M/s. Moore, Hickey & Co. He got appointed as “Banian” to around twenty first class agency houses out of around fifty or sixty such houses in Calcutta. He got into exporting of indigo, silk, sugar, rice, saltpetre to Europe and importing of iron and cotton-piece goods from England. He got up a number of cargo boats which were then a new speculation in the market. He worked the old Flour Mills, and shipped whole cargoes of biscuits to Australia for the first emigrants. Later he put up a mill to refine sugar on the centrifugal principle. He was the first to use steamships for internal trade in Calcutta. In due course he amassed around thirteen trade ships including a steam tug named ‘Banian’.
He was among the founders of Bank Of India. He was on the board of Agricultural And Horticultural Society Of India. In the course of time he amassed as much wealth as Dwarkanath Tagore and Rustomjee Cowasjee. In 1878 Kissori Chand Mitra delivered a lecture on the life of Mutty Lall Seal calling him the “Rothschild of Calcutta”.[9] About him, Sivanath Sastri writes – “He never adopted unfair means for earning money. He was well-behaved, polite and helpful to others.”
Mutty Lall Seal carried out his ambition of establishing a national institution. The formal opening of the Mutty Lall Seal’s Free College took place in March 1842 at his house. Among those present were Baboo Dwarkanath Tagore; Baboo Ramcomul Sen; Baboo Russomoy Dutt and Revd. Krishna Mohan Banerjee besides many other top officials and dignitaries. There were eloquent speeches in testimony to his noble generosity and liberal mindset with Mr. George Thompson complimenting him as “a Hindu gentleman, who had nobly resolved to consecrate a large portion of the substances he had acquired by honorable exertion, to the intellectual improvement of the youth of his own nation to transmute his money into mind”. Mutty Lall Seal’s Free College (later renamed as Mutty Lall Seal’s Free School and College) was to provide for the education of the Hindus to enable them to occupy posts of trust and emolument in their own country. The institute was initially under the management of the Directors of the parent college of St. F. Xavier, Chowringhee, Calcutta. The college stood in high estimation of the public and competed successfully with the Government and Missionary Colleges in the University examinations (Suniti Kumar Chatterji and Swami Prabhupada were some illustrious students of this college).
A net yearly income of Rs. 36,000 derived from those properties were spent for various charitable purposes. About Rs. 4,000 was spent on poor widows and orphans every year and rest on running and maintaining two alms houses for the poor and underprivileged. He extended financial support and cooperation for the establishment of Hindu Charitable Institution and Hindu Metropolitan College all calculated to offset the ‘ill effects’ of the liberal education offered at the Hindu College.[
Although Mutty Lall Seal was a conservative, he was in favour of Raja Rammohun Roy’s efforts of banning sati, women’s education as well as remarriage of widows. He made a public offer for a dowry of 1000 rupees to the person who should have the courage to marry a widow. When Mutty Lal Seal died on 20 May 1854 his obituary in the Hindu Intelligence described him as the “richest and most virtuous Baboo of Calcutta”.
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Radhakanta Deb (1784-1867)

RadhakantaDeb-1783-1867-x
রাধাকান্ত দেব বাহাদুর, মহারাজা (১৭৮৩-১৮৬৭)

Radhakanta Deb (1784-1867), a scholar and a leader of the Calcutta conservative Hindu society, was the son of Gopimohan Deb, the adopted son and heir of Maharaja Nabakrishna Deb. Nabakrishna served under Robert Clive and Warren Hastings and for his loyal services was honoured with the title of Maharaja. Nabakrishna’s adopted son Gopimohan Deb was able, through wealth and fortune, to establish himself as the foremost leader of Calcutta Hindu society.
An accomplished scholar, Radhakanta was proficient in Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic – and wasps. He also acquired a fairly good knowledge in English. He published Shabda Kalpadruma, a dictionary of Sanskrit language, in eight volumes, the first of which appeared in 1822 and the last in 1856. This was the publication which earned him international recognition as a scholar. He received honours from the Royal Asiatic Society, London, and other learned societies in Europe.
Radhakanta Deb always showed marked interest in promoting education, particularly English education among the Hindus. He played a leading part in the establishment of the Calcutta Hindu College in 1817 and was an active director of the college for over thirty years. He also took keen interest in promoting the cause of elementary education in Bengal. Radhakanta Deb was actively involved in the establishment and activities of the Calcutta School-Book Society (1817) and the Calcutta School Society (1818). Radhakanta also advocated female education. Radhakanta was an active member of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India since its establishment in 1818. On the establishment of the British Indian Association in 1851 Radhakanta Deb was elected its president, a position he held till his death.
Despite his contribution to the cause of educational improvement, Radhakanta Deb was a strong upholder of social conservatism. He became the leader of a party of orthodox Hindus who were bitterly opposed to the liberal-minded Hindus like Rammohun Roy (1774-1833) who advocated social and religious reforms. Although a loyal supporter of the British Government, Radhakanta was opposed to any interference by the Government in the social and religious life of the people. Thus although sati was not practised in his own family, he came forward to defend the custom when the Government contemplated its abolition. When Lord William Bentinck’s government had finally abolished sati by a regulation in December, 1829. Radhakanta Deb, along with his conservative Hindu friends, was the leader a society called Dharma Sabha (founded by his father Gopi Mohun Deb), protested against this measure by presenting a petition to the Governor General on behalf of the orthodox section of the Hindu community.
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