The history of Bengali theatre is intertwined with the history and heritage of the state. The beginning of Bengali theatre can be traced back to the construction of the Kolkata theatre, in the year 1779. However, nothing remarkable happened until the end of 1794. The year was 1795 and for the very first time Kolkata witnessed Bengali theatre as Russian musician turned playwright Gerasim Lebedeff along with language teacher and theatre connoisseur Goloknath Das staged the Bengali translation of an English comedy, Disguise in Kolkata where he incorporated the song of Vidyasundar by Bharat Chandra Roy, the 18th Century poet of Bengal.
This was the time since when Bengali theatre began its long and illustrious journey. With few unstable steps and later with long strides, Bengali theatre gained a distinct dimension. By the year 1831 Bengali theatre became a whole new art form to mirror the society of the day. It was with the establishment of 'Hindu Theatre' in Kolkata by Prasanna Kumar Thakur that further nurtured Bengali theatre to take steady steps towards maturity. Henceforth the 'Babu' culture of the time adopted theatre activities among other practices. Prasanna Kumar staged Wilson's English translation of Bhavabhuti's Sanskrit language drama Uttar Ramacharitam while laying the foundation for modern theatre in India. The history of Bengali theatre then gained a new diction.
Other important attempts in developing Bengali theatre in then Bengal include Nabin Basu's Shyambazar Theatre, the private stages of Ashutosh Deb and Ramjay Basak, Belgachia Theatre, Vidyotsahini Mancha, Metropolitan Theatre, Shobhabazar Private Theatrical Society, Jorasanko Natyashala and most importantly the Bagbazar Amateur Theatre which later evolved into the National Theatre. This was the first time that theatre tickets became accessible to the masses.
One such play of that time was the 1872 Nildarpan (which depicted the misery of the indigo cultivators). Dinabandhu Mitra, with his refined creations such as Sadhabhar Ekadasi and Lilabati, added to the maturity of Bengali theatre while carrying it to the next paradigm of excellence.
Bengali theatre again in the 19th century witnessed a colossal change as the rich, young Bengalis of Kolkata started to write plays while ideally weaving into them Indian songs, classical dance and music. Rabindranath Tagore's Bisarjan and Raja O Rani became an important part of this effort. At that time the works of William Shakespeare were also widely translated and adapted in Bengali theatre while redesigning it to befit the tastes of urban India. The history of Bengali theatre is thus the saga of changing tradition. Bengali theatre soon became a strong medium of expression to mirror the contemporary sociopolitical common to the Indian masses. The main aim was then to make the mass aware of the prevailing sociopolitical scenario. The playwrights, directors and even the actors in Bengali theatre, with their unparalleled contribution, illustrated the colonial fragrance in perhaps the right way.
Earlier, Marathi, Parsi and the theatre of South India also struck roots in 19th century as did folk theatre, with a heavy dependence on songs. Women gradually started coming onto the stage, but they were usually women of disrepute. The fact goes that Sri Ramakrishna once went to see a play by the Prima Dona of the stage, 'Natee Binodini' and blessed her.
Theatre continued to flourish in Bengal. Madhusudan Dutt, Jyotirindranath Tagore, Dwijendra Lal Roy, Girish Chandra Ghosh, Amritalal Bose, Khirodprasad Bidyainod added new dimensions to a nascent Bengali theatre.
It was much later that the very concept of Bengali Theatre as the representation of the age-old British colonialism gradually faded away and theatre became a lot more naturalistic. However, right before independence the very demand of realistic theatre was so vibrant that two famous theatre personalities like Bijon Bhattacharya and Sambhu Mitra designed a whole new concept – realistic theatre in Bengal.
Earlier though, Bengali theatre was actor-centric, courtesy Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, Nirmalendu Bhaduri, Aparesh Chandra Mukherjee, Ahindra Choudhury, Durgadas Bandopadhyay, Nihar Bala, Prabha devi, Saraju Bala, Tara Sundari, Kankabati and Rani Bala. Theatre also became entwined with music, where Rabindranath Tagore, Krishna Chandra Dey, Kazi Nazrul Islam, and even Sachin Dev Burman made musical contributions to Bengali theatre.
With the establishment of Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), the history of Bengali theatre took a new turn. Theatre then became even closer to the people. The audience witnessed a sea of change where the aura of the classical dance drama ceased and on the contrary there emerged a whole new concept of theatre – People's Theatre, which was "for the people and by the people". At this time, one landmark play was Nabanna, which derived from the devastating Bengal famine of 1943.
That was just the beginning of history. The trend then was to reflect the daily life, social issues, political turmoil and indeed the economic scenario of India realistically. The post-Independence period ushered a marked change in Bengali theatre by making it rather stylistic in its approach. With the arrival of playwrights like Badal Sircar, Utpal Dutt, Mohit Chattopadhyay, Manoj Mitra along with adaptations by Ajitesh Bandopadhyay, Sombhu Mitra and others, theatre again took on a new meaning. Even Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad, Habib Tanvir, Indian custodians of theatre, stayed with Bengali theatre apart from Raindranath's plays like Raktakarabi and Raja.
The trend of contemporary Bengali theatre which started in early '40s, '50s and '60s of the 20th century has been since persisting with its
(As told to Nandini Guha)