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Desolate and derelict playhouses line the erstwhile theatre district of north Calcutta. Photographs: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Desolate and derelict playhouses line the erstwhile theatre district of north Calcutta. Photographs: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Kolkata’s decadent theatre

A surreal night in 1835 in Babu Nabin Chandra's mansion to cabaret in the 1980s; the flowering and wilting of the city's great tradition of commercial theatre

Back in 1835, what did it take to spend 2 lakh in a single night in Calcutta?

Babu Nabin Chandra Basu, a wealthy member of the landed gentry from Shyambazar in north Calcutta (now Kolkata), once spent that sum on a play. His 1835 production of Bidyasunder, by the 18th century poet Bharatchandra Ray, was such a carnival that it threatened the very meaning of theatre, creating a phenomenon to which the expression “staged" barely does justice.

Running through the entire night, the production eschewed the European import of the proscenium to let the drama take its course across the gilded expanse of Basu’s palatial mansion. The 300-strong audience of invited guests moved from the bedroom to the garden to the pool, where the different scenes were set, during the course of a sumptuous meal and the endless flow of fine imported alcohol. A maze of tunnels was dug under the rooms; the audience followed the meandering course of the story through these. Four high-priced prostitutes, dressed in gold jewellery, were brought in to play the female roles. The single night’s festivities forced Basu to sell off another of his mansions.

By doing away with the proscenium, such a production also essentially dissolved the fourth wall that divides the audience from the stage, the invisible barrier between fiction and reality. The audience was in the theatre itself. The presence of prostitutes—the only women available at that time to act on stage—enhanced the experience of dwelling in a kind of carnival.

The prostitute-patron relation had much in common with the theatre-patron relation in 19th century Calcutta. It went beyond the well-documented artistic lives of prostitutes on stage (most famously, that of Binodini Dasi), and the triangulated magnetism between sex, art and business that powered the involvement of wealthy patrons and their concubines in the theatre. Something of a refined aesthetic performance defined the very atmosphere of the legendary red-light district, Sonagachi, itself adjacent to several of the playhouses in colonial Calcutta. The best and the brightest of Sonagachi kept alive the tradition of Vasantasena, the legendary exponent of the Kama Sutra, trained in all 64 of the arts, which included just about everything from painting, singing and carpentry to conversation, gambling and lexicography.

Basu’s production of Bidyasunder remains something of a forgotten aberration not merely because of the extravagance of its scale, but perhaps, more importantly, because it supplies the ancestry of a theatrical tradition that has been overshadowed by the key narratives of Bengali theatre in academic and archival memory.

Since the founding of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (Ipta), a cultural wing of the (then undivided) Communist Party of India in 1942, theatre has been imagined predominantly as the resonant echo chamber of the nation’s social conscience—very much so in Calcutta, where Ipta’s famous inaugural play, Nabanna, was produced in 1944 under the direction of the legendary Sombhu Mitra. A different tradition of theatre in Calcutta was effectively pushed into oblivion by the theatre of revolutionary aesthetic and progressive conscience.

If the theatre of revolution was embodied by group theatre, this now forgotten tradition is that of the theatre of pleasure and mass entertainment, whose explosive popularity through early and mid-20th century Calcutta is today matched only by the desolation and dereliction of the abandoned playhouses that line the erstwhile theatre district of north Calcutta. Much of this district still remains close to Sonagachi, which bears a very different character from the 19th century, when it offered key female actors for the stage.

Group theatre viewed profit-seeking theatre as a form of decadent entertainment that thrived on sensational and sentimental stories. Over the course of history, Calcutta’s commercial theatre encountered disapproval from a wide range of social and political groups, many of which were—indeed ironically—divergent from each other in radical ways. For the responsible middle-class Hindu Bengali householder in colonial Calcutta, spending a night watching plays was a sin from which, thankfully, purgation was available in the form of a Ganga river bath before returning home in the morning. When an actor died, it was hard to find a place to cremate the body, for much of society considered actors “unclean". The appearance of prostitutes on stage shocked even social reformers like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar.

In independent India, group theatre, which emerged as a dissenting movement from mainstream commercial theatre, declared its opposition to the latter’s profiteering motives, and what it perceived as its pandering to the vulgarities of popular taste. What is intriguing is that commercial theatre, concentrated in the playhouses of north Calcutta, could never really shake off the moral suspicion that clouded it from the time of its colonial origin in the red-light districts, to the shabbily choreographed, titillating “cabaret" dances with which it desperately sought to woo its vanishing audience in the last decades of the 20th century.

Left-leaning intellectuals and artistes who spearheaded group theatre had a disdain for commercial theatre not only because of its aesthetic conservatism but also, from time to time, what they saw as its exploitation of the tawdry and the obscene. When Barbadhu, the melancholy story of a female escort, became a runaway sensation on the commercial stage in the 1970s, it was universally panned by Calcutta’s leftist intelligentsia as obscene. And in the 1980s and 1990s, the moral police of the Communist Party—sensitive to “apasanskriti" or vulgar culture—was understandably suspicious of the nexus between prostitution and “cabaret".

Growing out of the babu theatre sponsored by the landed gentry, commercial theatre had developed into a genre powered by the profit motive through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, under the artistic and entrepreneurial stewardship of thespians like Girish Chandra Ghosh, Amrita Lal Basu and Sisir Bhaduri.

In the post-independence era, when group theatre staked a polemical distance from this tradition, commercial theatre, under the guidance of directors like Rashbehari Sarkar (who dramatized popular novels by Bimal Mitra and Shankar), had come a very long way from its colonial origins. It had spread its audience base to include the mofussil petite bourgeoisie, who crowded local trains to north Calcutta to watch plays.

In a sense, however, the commercial genre popular with the petite bourgeoisie in the mid-20th century never cut its umbilical cord from the aesthetics of the decadent. It remained the theatre of furti—of fun and frivolity, shallow and middlebrow at best in the eyes of the practitioners and theorists of group theatre and the leftist intelligentsia in general. That it was a well-deserved perception is evident from the genre and texture of dramas produced on the commercial stage, and the gimmicks that often accompanied them, from trapeze acts and horseback rides to derailed trains, speeding cars set on fire, and flooding rivers.

That theatre of furti is now dead in Kolkata. Good riddance, many would say. But the idea of the theatre of furti still gives us a bit of pause. Shakespeare, too, was theatre of furti. He was not driven by the proprietorial consciousness of artistic originality that was to characterize the print literature of industrial capitalism. It was the European Enlightenment, and specifically, the German Romanticists, who effectively created the idea of the unique genius of Shakespeare that was eventually universalized. As a shareholder of the Globe Theatre, the Bard was likelier to think of himself as the Renaissance equivalent of a popular Hollywood studio.

Like the primitive origins of theatre itself, the simple act of going to watch the theatre of furti was something of a ritual. For a large section of the Bengali middle class in mid-20th century Calcutta, it was a cherished family custom, a much awaited weekend luxury, a special treat that accompanied wedding festivities.

The medium that ended up replacing it, television, is now consumed in the quotidian indifference of the home. It is not coincidental that the gradual erosion of family and community—the local fabric of the home and the para or neighbourhood—has formed the backdrop of the demise of theatre as a form of mass entertainment in Kolkata.

And since it has little or no place in the archives of academia or the intellectual public sphere, the residual communal memory of the theatre of furti will soon wither away, just like the dead and derelict playhouses of north Calcutta.

Saikat Majumdar is the author of the novel The Firebird. This essay is based on his research for The Firebird.

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