In the Making of Homegrown Professional Theatres and Theatricals of Calcutta
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]
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.
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.
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].
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.
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.
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