ORIGINS OF THE INDIGENOUS BENGALI DRAMA AND THEATER.

Theatre – as a historical tool – is not only important in the analysis of the nature of
resistance against the British rule, but also for the study of the socio-political scenario of colonial
India. Even though, being such an immensely vital topic of discussion, the theme related to
Theatres are generally neglected and tends to get much less recognition compared to what it
should obtain. However, some of the scholarly works like that of Nandi Bhatia’s ‘Acts of
Authority/Acts of Resistance: theatre and politics in colonial and post-colonial India’ and
Sudipto Chatterjee’s ‘The Colonial Staged: Theatre in colonial Calcutta’ have contributed
handsomely to the subject. Lata Singh in her, ‘Theatre in colonial India – play house of power’
has argued that Theatre in India is very significant because in a largely non-literate culture, while
the printing materials reached only amongst the educated elite, the subaltern voices can be
retrieved through these sort of oral cultural forms. In upholding the importance of theatre, Bhatia
while drawing a connection between the art of dramatical performances and politics of everyday
lives, has argued that Indian Theatre could often intervene in political debates and even could
change the course of politics.


The origin and development of Bengali Theatre has often been directly linked to the
growth of the Proscenium Theatres of the British by scholars, who argue that the Bengal theatre
was the result of colonial intervention in the early nineteenth century. But, a thorough scrutiny of
events that happened in Bengal, suggests that The Bengal Theatres have evolved over several
centuries, even before the advent of the British, and these Theatres were not created by any urban
court elite rather were developed by the people themselves. Amulya Charan Vidya Bhusan
opined that British Theatres evolved from the traditional ‘Jatra’, coining the term ‘Bilati Jatra’;
Furthermore, Sushil kumar Dey has argued that there is no doubt in the theory that Bengali
theatre and drama had utmost contribution from the western learned Bengalis but one should
remember that the traditional ‘Jatra’ also had a very important role to play. Most of the
historians agree that the admixture of both the western and traditional ‘Jatra’ basically by the
western educated Bengali elites, had contributed to the growth of Bengali Theatres in the
nineteenth century. Thus in order to understand the origin and development of Bengali Theatre
and Drama, it is important to trace its evolution right from the Indigenous Theatre heritage of
Bengal, which gradually started to follow the footsteps of the colonial Proscenium frame.


According to Bharat Muni, the author of ‘Natyashastra’, Bengal never followed the
main-stream Aryanised Sanskrit Theatre tradition, rather followed the ‘Odhra Magadhi’ style,
characterized by full dialogues and rhetoric. The different forms of traditional styles were:
Sanskrit Natyakala (for example, Gitagovinda by Jaidev), Katha Natya (a form of
performance where a single performer known as ‘Gayen’ or ‘Kathak’ narrates a verse or prose
with vocal and musical accompaniment of a group of four), Nat Geet (a form of performance
that makes use of character enactment and were accompanied by chorus/orchestra), Peoples
Humor or Farce (a form of comical tradition extended from the greater India to Bengal; for
example, Padmapuran by Narayan Dev and Chandimangal by Mukundulal), Hybrid Form (a
typical type of genre which did not incorporate role playing by performers but demanded attention; for example ‘Kabigaan’ or ‘Patuagaan’) and Puppetry (tales of gods and goddesses
were presented in this form; String Puppetry, Rod Puppetry, Glove Puppetry and Shadow
Puppetry are the different forms of Puppetry). According to Sukumar Sen, Bengal had ‘Shong’
where a stock character like the fool satirized various social oddities and oppressions, especially
during public festivals, which gradually lost its value and was replaced by the ‘Panchali’.


The traditional Jatras were mainly taken out of myths and one of the distinctive features
of these Jatra was their use of drums as an important instrument, so that it could reach the people
in a great distance. One of the most leading proponents of Jatrapala, Gopal Uday, introduced
‘Khemta’- a dance form where characters of both the gender danced together holding hands.
Later Sanskrit literary and dramatic commentators like Biswanath and Saradatanaya had cited
the existence of various minor types of plays known as the ‘Uparupakas’. The different forms of
‘Uparupakas’ were: Kavya (a type of imitative dance having an interplay of dance and songs),
Chitra Ranga Kavya (a composition involving several ragas; for example, ‘Gitagovinda’ by
Jaidev), Bhani (a kind of instrumental musical and dance performance) and Rasaka (a kind of
drama with a song and dance as in Nritya Natya). The Bengal Drama experienced a setback with
the Turkish conquest of Bengal in the early thirteenth century, which with the Vaishnava
Movement of Sri Chaitanya in the sixteenth century took a different course and inaugurated a
new and distinctive form of dance and drama.


The British Theatres formed a part of the cultural life of Bengal as early as 1757, when
Bengal came under the British control from Siraj-ud-daullah, the Nawab of Bengal. This was
mainly introduced because the British officials wanted to feel like home away from home. The
British theatre, ‘Old Play House’ was one such Theatre for Europeans which was destroyed by
Siraj in 1756. According to Sudipto Chatterjee, Theatre became a ritual in the late eighteenth
century, when the Europeans became wealthy and started contributing to the Theatres for their
entertainment in a foreign land. Some of the prominent playhouses included the New Playhouse
or the Calcutta theatre, the Sans Souci Theatre and the Chowringhee theatre.


The Calcutta theatre (1775-1808) was patronized by leading members of Calcutta society
and was exclusively arranged for the British. The Chowringhee theatre (1813-1839), initially
known as Private Subscription Theatre was based on private donations and was supported by
Governor General Warren Hastings. At the time when the Sans Souci Theatre was
established, in 1839, with the patronage of Governor General Auckland, many affluent Indians
like Dwarakanath Tagore, Motilal Seal and Radhamadhav Banerjee, could enter these
Theatres. By the nineteenth century, European Theatres consolidated their position as a popular
activity and a number of Theatres had been established by that time. Among the smaller theatres
were the Wheeler Place Theatre (1797), Chandannagore Theatre (1808), Kidderpore
Theatre (1815) and DumDum Theatre (1817), which were all European in their approach and
outlook, made exclusively for the elite officials and the well off western educated natives.