The First Anti British Play

Abstain now from that unjust conduct through which you are raising immense sums as

your profits; and then the poor people, with their families, will be able to spend their days in ease. You are now-a-days purchasing things worth a hundred rupees by expending only ten;—and you well know what great trouble the ryots are suffering from that. Still you are not willing to make that known, being entirely given up to the acquisition of money.

(Deenabandhu Mitra, Preface of Neeldarpan)

Many of the Bengali plays after the 1857 revolt that were performed in the public

theatres around Calcutta were instrumental for spreading social awareness amongst the

people. The plays had immense appeal and many of the audience came from the middle or

from the folk forms like the jatra and the kathakata. Social and realistic plays seemed to have had enjoyed wide popularity. Fluent dialogues, long drawn speeches, plenty of songs and dances, sudden shocks and theatrical devices made theatre a drama for the whole

family. Mythological plays and historical plays were characterized by deeds of heroism, suffering and sacrifice. The costumes, colourful scenery, thrilling escapes, brave sword play that were incorporated into the shows gave further popularity. Domestic dramas that

targeted the English speaking Bengali made theatre popular amongst the lower income

groups and strata of society.

Leaving aside its very brief period of an elitist bias (the English educated youths and

the Britishers), Bengali Theatre largely catered to an audience whose tastes and preferences

were largely moulded by their newly acquired English education and their exposure to a

colonial cultural system. While its novelty and superiority as a form of entertainment can be

seen theatre came to be looked upon as a platform to deepen the moral fabric of society.

Though in its early years theatre was a very potent medium that voiced the need for social reforms many of the shows were highly patriotic in content, like Chattrapati Shivaji (life story of an Indian King, Shivaji) and Niladrapan (the story about the exploitation of the Indigo planters by the British plantation owners. This incited the sentiments of the people and the British proclaimed an ordinance against this.

The Dramatic Performances Act of 1876, declared to empower the government of Bengal to prohibit certain dramatic performances… the primary object of this bill is to empower the government to prohibit native plays that are scandalous, defamatory, seditious or obscene. The necessity of some such measure has been established by the recent performance in Calcutta of a scurrilous Bengali drama, to prevent which the existing law was found to be insufficient.

The emergence of Bengali Theatre as an enterprise arose stronger as the middle classes strongly resented their derogatory status viz a viz the British. Bengali Theatre was symptomatic of the bhadralok (the elite) to search for Indian cultural identity. Strongly influenced by the western forms of aesthetics, the Bhadralok began to loathe the prevailing cultural practices. They were on the look- out for an alternative cultural ethos and in response to the need for an alternative high culture. It went far beyond colonial parameters and developed its own independent status. Bengali Theatre, thus followed its own uniqueness despite some of its major inputs coming as influences from the west and from the British. The emergence of the Bengali Theatre was hence deeply rooted in the socio-political framework of the society in the 19th century that gave its own characteristics, be it acting style, management, advertisement or penning or production of plays.

With the emergence of the intellectual elite like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Iswar Chandra Vidya Sagar, it was felt by the Indians that they also could form their own theatre companies. To regain a respectful self- identity the Bengali middle classes formed their own theatre and the first Bengali theatre company to be formed was the Lebedeff Bengali Theatre in 1795. This theatre was founded by Gerasim Lebedeff, a Russian, 1749-1817, who formed this theatre with the help of his teacher, Goloknath Dass. The players both male and female were Bengali. Box tickets were sold for eight rupees and the gallery at rupees four. Lebedeff translated Paul Jodrell. The Disguise and Love is the Best Doctor that was performed in Bengali.

The Aristocrats formed their own theater companies, the Vidyotsahini theatre in 1857 and the Balgatchia theater started with the plays of Micheal Madhusudhan Dutt in 1859. Nil Darpan is about the plight of the indigo farmers.

The indigo revolt (1858) in Bengali was the revolt of the indigo farmers against the indigo planters. It was one year after the first war of Independence in 1857, Bengal saw one more important revolt in its history. The play was published from Dhaka and soon after its publication it ignited a major

controversy in the newspapers. Mitra had first- hand experience with the indigo cultivators, while on his job as the postmaster in rural Orissa and Bengal. This was reflected in the drama. Micheal Dutt the play into English immediately after it was published. [4] and Rever and James hall published it. The play got wide publicity in Europe where it was translated into other languages. No other Bengali book at that time got so wide publicity at such large scale. It was so emotionally motivating that when the play was staged, the notable educator and reformer. This play is recognized as the first play that is anti-colonial and pro the Indian farmers and is considered ground breaking for its content, popularity and style of writing.



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