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Binodini: A Woman Artist in 19th Century Bengali Theatre

 

Introduction

 

The year was 1884 in colonial Calcutta, the theatre goers were astounded by the performance of a young actor and so were the critics. The play was Chaitanya Lila and the performer was Binodini. The actress played the role of young Chaitanya and it happened to be her most phenomenal performance, as well as of any actress in the history of nineteenth-century popular Bengal theatre. The last statement might seem assertive, but the reasons behind it aren’t scanty. The entire staging of the Chaitanya Lila, in retrospect, can be observed as a phenomenon—a fallen woman,  playing the role of Chaitanya, the latter being the Vaishnava cult figure; Ramkrishna, one of the renowned proponents of Vaishnavism, himself was present during the staging of the play and blessed the actress. It is a matter of happy chance (and thus establishes itself as a fact, later) that when Binodini left the stage she was of the same age—twenty-three or twenty four—as Chaitanya when he renounced sansar (Bhattacharya 1995–96). 

 

By the end of the nineteenth century, Calcutta was torn between the colonial culture and a heavily middle-class generated nationalist culture, as a counter to the former. This newly emerging nationalist current was a largely masculine construct, based on the Hindu scriptures. This rising ideology was inscribed around the figure of the middle class or middle/upper caste women. If one looks back at the repertoire texts produced and performed in Bengal during the time discussed, especially by the end of the nineteenth century, focussing on Girish Chandra Ghosh, one of the celebrated theatre personalities of the time and in history, Hindu mythological and religious texts became the norm for mainstream plays. Theatre thus became a means for Hindu revivalism. As author Rimli Bhattacharya has observed, Chaitanya Lila was produced in an existing backdrop of Hindu religiosity which had already been tapped by what has subsequently come to be termed as ‘religious plays’ (dharmiya natak) in Girish’s repertoire. Girish Chandra himself has dwelt at length on his own concern with an audience who needed explaining to and the consequent advantage of a religious play with a Puranic theme, which takes as a starting point an intimate familiarity with the plot. Though a number of historical plays failed to gain popular appreciation, for example, Ananda Raho (1881), Puran-based plays, such as the seven plays based on Ram—Ravan Badh, Laxsman Barjan, Sitar Bibha, Sitaharan, Ramer Banabas—produced between 1881 and 1882 had been a great success (Bhattacharya 1995–96). 

 

The early English actresses and the emergence of the native women artists

 

The appearance of the native actresses on stage became the practice only from the latter half of the eighteenth century; earlier men would enact the female characters. However, the presence of actresses was not unknown to the native crowd, especially to the newly emerging educated middle class, i.e. the bhadralok community in Calcutta. Though a steep contrast between the social life of the Europeans and the Indians valorised post the Revolt of 1857, the theatre space, however became one of the major grounds where these two strands—the coloniser and the colonised— would come together. The vital aim of these theatrical performances was to entertain these men during their evening rendezvous and leisure pursuits. In Historicizing Actresses Stories: English Actresses in India (1789-1842), author Bishnupriya Dutt describes Lord Byron’s poetry to give a vivid imagery of the ‘idealistic colonial society’—meekly structured at the playhouses,—the brainchild of the rigid and oppressive male colonial community:

 

Byron’s poetry presented as a picturesque tableaux, enacting fragments of an Orientalist tale. The venue is an English style palatial house of colonial Calcutta. The magnificent interiors done up in regency and Bourbon style; the ideal backdrop. The languorous odalisque in the centre of the picture remains static and complaint, in the short episode enacted through poetry recitation and song. Company officers, in full military regalia, enter the picture as guests or a marginal performer, wooing the actress, claiming the companion for the evening. A representative picture of British colonial imagery, a life devoted to the pursuit of pleasure within a real though in reality an imaginative Orientalist environment. (Singh 2009:313)

 

The playhouses became the site of fabricated reality where the actresses who existed without any kin or background occupied the centre-stage of the constructed colonial narrative The socially and economically marginalized actresses would become the protagonists of the colonial fantasy, staged at these playhouses. This fantasy narrative provided an ironic reflection on the structural oppression meted out to them by the colonial male community.

 

Nineteenth-century Bengali theatre, starting in 1871, modelled itself on the English performances. It was fashioned around the Madame Vetris’ genre of the popular musical traditions, specially the burlesque. One of the major ‘spectacles’ or point of attraction, apart from the onstage mise-en-scene grandeur, was the actress. In line with the English actresses, the Indian actress became a ‘consumerist product’ for the male gaze in the colonial theatre space. The actress became thecentrifugal force of the ‘commercial-professional system’ prevailing in commercial Bengali theatre. In the Calcutta public theatre scene, the coming of the actresses was sorted out right at the time of its inception. If the inspiration for theatre performance came from the English theatre in the adjoining white neighbourhood, then the predominance of actresses was the starting point and not an alien concept (Singh 2009:49). In the earlier days the ideal roles that these actresses would portray was that of the ‘seductive victim protagonists of the scandalous plays’ (Singh 2009:51). Most of the (Indian) actresses were recruited from the red-light district of the city, and being the only visible women in public entertainment spaces, were regarded as ‘public women’. These actresses, however, negotiated their place in theatre through their ‘performance, persona, stability, popularity’ (Singh 2009:51), thus constructing a ‘new social identity’.

 

The coming of actresses on the native stage: Realism and Bengali theatre

 

 

In the pages of Bengal’s professional theatre history, the emergence of ‘actresses’  had been the most debatable, discussed and one of the pivotal points in the structuring of modern theatre on the native stage. The coming of the actresses on the native stage happened simultaneously with the coming of Realism in Bengali Theatre. These goals were attempted by configuring theatre-making as the chief practice of middle class cultural production, by bringing in remarkable changes in the theatre economy. Until the late eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century, impersonation of female characters by male actors was the norm. With the rise of the ‘bhadralok’ community, this impersonation of female characters by the male actors gave rise to a steep binary between effeminacy and masculinity, the latter being the driving force of the newly emerging spirit of nationalism.

 

 

This happened because the bhadralok’s imagination of nationalism was a derivative discourse, borrowing heavily from the patriarchal nationalism practiced by the colonizers. Thus, in the quest for building a new nation, theatre being a crucial site for the same, the inclusion of female actors became the need of the hour. Firstly, to establish theatre as an ‘art’ and, secondly, to keep alive the ticketed staging of theatre for mass consumption. By the 1870s the practice of the boy-artist enacting the female roles faced discontinuity on the native Bengali theatre stage. Historical records reveal that actresses acquired a presence on the modern Bengali stage through Lebedeff’s production in 1795 and, professionally, with the staging of Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s Sharmishtha in 1873 by the Bengal theatre (Singh 2009:197). These actresses, who frequented the Bengali native stage as artists, by the end of the nineteenth century, were majorly from the ‘ill-reputed’ strata of society—from the unspoken world of fallen women, present in the newly formed and educated Bengali middle class society.

 

The theatre that developed in the late nineteenth century India, especially in Bengal (and Maharashtra), catered to an audience that was much wider than the new educated middle-class males who introduced the European stage form in Kolkata, (Mumbai and Pune) (Chatterjee 2016:202). The new  theatre also absorbed the merchant community, thus turning theatre into a site of private capital parallel to being a field of cultural production. The newly educated Bengali middle class men, the babus, formed the major chunks of the audience, apart from their White Town friends in Calcutta.

 

In the course of time, the leisure ground for these men turned to be one of the most influencing factors for the birth of the new proscenium form of theatre. Recalling the history of spaces, the proscenium is often the marker of the colonial theatre space. The discourse of spaces, worked out in isolation at certain historical junctures, finds it imperative to include the star actresses as the occupant of the space (Dutt and Sarkar 2010:53). As Tracy Davis opines, ‘it is significant that the theatre did not function as a back drop, but was a very particular milieu wherein illusion enhanced attractiveness and provided a readymade imaginative context for erotic fantasy...Sexual adventure was significant and crucial to enjoyment’ (Dutt and Sarkar 2010).  The bhadraloks countered this western fantasy of eroticism with the portrayal of the ideal woman on the native stage.

 

Binodini belonged to the second wave of native actresses performing on the new form of proscenium theatre in Bengal. The first wave of native actresses acquainted through Binodini’s autobiography were Elokeshi, Ganga Baiji, Golapshundari, Khetramoni, Lakkhimoni and Rajkumari.

 

The early theatre life of Binodini

 

Binodini Dasi, born in Calcutta in 1862, lived her life as an actress on the colonial public stage of Calcutta from 1874 to 1886. She joined theatre at the age of twelve and prior to that received her training in music from Ganga Baiji, a tenant of her family home and also a performer in the theatres. In her autobiography, titled  Amar Katha (1913),  Binodini shares a vivid account of her childhood and her life before she started dominating the popular theatrical scene with her artistic presence. She spent her childhood at house No. 145, Cornwallis Street, Calcutta, with her grandmother, mother and a younger brother. This house, which the artist inherited from her maternal kin, remained in her possession till her last days. Binodini lived in utmost poverty and trauma (especially after the death of her brother) throughout her growing up years. Their house was given out on rent to several tenants and the money incurred from the same sustained her family. In her autobiography Binodini describes these tenants in so many words:  

 

I was a bit distant, because since childhood I had quite despised the behaviour of our tenants, the ones who lived in the thatched rooms. They were not husband and wife, but lived together as a couple. They lived off their daily earnings and from time to time fought so fiercely that it seemed that they would never again exchange a single word. But then I would find that the very next moment they would be eating together, laughing and joking all the while. (Bhattacharya 1998:64)

 

When Binodini was nine, she was encouraged by her mother to learn music from Ganga Baiji, a famous singer and a professional theatre artist who was staying with them at that time. Gangamoni, as Binodini would call her, would take  young Binodini along to her practice sessions and rehearsals. During her days spent observing Ganga and her theatre companions, Binodini was exposed to theatrical forms like geetinatya (opera) and plays like Sitar Bonobas (The Exile of Sita). Binodini recalls the existence of two major theatres in Calcutta during the early 1870s—Sri Bhubanmohan Neogi’s Great National Theatre and Saratchandra Ghosh’s Bengal Theatre. Binodini’s first appearance on stage was a small role of a sakhi (handmaid) in a play titled Beni Sanhar (The Binding of the Braid) by  the National Theatre. However, Binodini’s first ever important role was as Hemlata in a play of the same name by Haralal Ray. In her autobiography, Binodini has spoken at length about play rehearsals, as well as dress rehearsals, which would be held at natya mandir.

 

A critical turn in the  theatre history of India: The staging of Neel Darpan

 

Since one of the aims of this module is to trace the history of nineteenth-century popular theatre in Calcutta with reference to the lives of actresses, especially Binodini, at this juncture a little focus on the Dramatic Performances Act of 1876, which was a turning point in the pages  of modern  theatre in India, is necessary. Thus, the discussion on Neel Darpan becomes unavoidable.

 

One of the major experiences of Binodini’s life was the performance of Neel Darpan (The Indigo Mirror). Binodini with her National Theatre group performed the play at Chhatramandi, Lucknow, in 1875. Bhattacharya writes:

 

Almost all the sahebs of Lucknow city came that evening to see our play. At the point where Rogue Saheb attempts to assault Khetramoni, Torap beats him with a door he has broken down and then Nabimadhab takes Khetramoni away. The play was being performed quite brilliantly; in addition, Babu Motilal Sur played Torap and Abinash Kar saheb played Rogue Saheb with unusual competence. The Sahebs were extremely upset at this particular scene. A commotion arose and one of the sahebs actually climbed up the stage intending to beat up Torap. We were in tears, our instructors were frightened and our manager, Dharamdas Sur all a tremble. We stopped the performance and somehow putting together our costumes and the sets, fled the scene. Only after we left Lucknow, early the following day, could we breathe normally. (Bhattacharya 1998:69)

 

The play which Binodini and her theatre co-workers went to perform at Lucknow became one of the most controversial plays in Indian theatre history.

 

Neel Darpan (The Indigo Mirror) — written in the year 1859 by under Dinabandhu Mitra, an inspecter of the Post Office department under British colonial rule — was published under a pseudonym from Dhaka in 1860 and was in circulation thereafter. A vehemently critical account of the indigo trade, Neel Darpan has become one of the foremost plays which reflects on the  inclusion of realism in form and content in the theatre history of India.

 

In the nineteenth century, almost 20 million sq. km land was engaged in indigo cultivation, a large portion of which was in India. Like most plantation crops, the farming of indigo was a history of brutality, forced cultivation and violation of farmer’s rights (Gupta 2015). Revolts against indigo trade oppression and injustice started taking place from the late 1850s and took violent turns by 1559, originating in the Nadia district of Bengal, around the same time when Neel Darpan was first published. The play, once published, travelled through the intellectual circle of Bengal and galvanised the farmers’ revolt on to the proscenium stage. The play was translated in English by Michael Madhusudan Dutt, titled The Indigo Planting Mirror, published by Rev. James Long, and printed by C.H. Manuel at the Calcutta Printing and Publishing Press. The National Theatre’s first commercial production was Neel Darpan, staged in the year 1872. The reaction to this play was extreme (as it has been believed) from both sections—the colonisers and the colonised—of theatre-going masses. The play particularly had a huge impact on the middle class, given the period saw a considerable rise in nationalistic sentiments of the newly educated bhadralok community. The effect of staging the play, which was a critical commentary on the real events of the time, on the native stage lingered throughout the suceeding years as a momentous occasion, in turn leading to one of the major historical turns in theatre history—the Dramatic Performances Act of 1876.

 

It was only after the staging of Neel Darpan (Binodini’s performance with the National Theatre) in Lucknow that the British passed the Dramatic Performances Act in March 1876, banning the staging of anti-British seditious plays, scandalous plays or plays desiminating social values. At this point, with the restriction of their expression, these middle class men overcome with the spirit of nationalism turned towards Hindu mythological texts in order to generate and establish a new value system. The mythological theme was already prevalent in the Jatra, a domimant form of performance or mass entertainment prevailing in the contours of rural Bengal. With the aid of transportation and development of new locomotive means, especially the train, a heavy migration pattern could be observed in the nineteenth-century cityscape of Calcutta. As a result of this rural to urban migration, a cultural transportation of traditional forms started taking place during this period. As a result, the theatre of the nineteenth century, especially after the imposition of the Dramatic Act, started relying on the Hindu texts. Not only mythological texts, but a rich literature around that time also encompassed the themes of social and family values, of the domestic ideal. While the bhadralok community was constructing an image of themselves as the progressive and the modern under the light of Western education, the burden of representing the traditional fell on the ‘bhadramohila’ of the andarmahal (interior).  In the hands of male playwrights, directors and actor-trainers, theatre became one of the major sites of reproducing the values of the ‘ideal woman’.

 

The newly built nation and the actresses

 

In the process, the popular traditional theatre forms in the metropolises and their immediate areas of influence gave way to the evolution of actor-managerial tradition as an institution. The ‘new theatre’ that came up in the last decades of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century absorbed local idioms of ‘musical and spectacle’ to create its popular base. What this new form constituted, apart from songs and spectacles, was a touch of magic, a loose structure of narrative and the major turn was its newly found dependence on mythology, saint-lore (Bandopadhyay 1998:417) and historical narratives.

 

While  the traditional Victorian-modelled actress was nothing but a spectacle, site of consumption and the convincingly infamous seductress, the nationalists attempted to upturn the dualism that was in play among the prostitute-turned-actresses—‘it was unspeakably dangerous to allow the home breaker prostitute actress whose social role was to entertain the babus and lure them out of their homes, to portray the homemakers on stage (Dutt and Sarkar 2010:52)’. The nationalists turned towards the ‘conjugality project’, where these fallen women, from their role in domestic social drama, shifted towards role of conjugality and that of mythological characters. The mythical and historical narratives got domesticated to re-enhance the domestic conjugality project and the ideal patriarchal imagination (Dutt and Sarkar 2010:52).

 

Melodramatic in form, exaggerated in action, these plays were far off from reality and so were the roles assigned to the actresses. Partha Chatterjee claims that the colonial middle class started accepting the actress in the role of ‘romantic Goddesses’ as it was far away from reality (Dutt and Sarkar 2010:52-53). Within the tropes of melodramatic sacrifices, self-immolations or portraying the ideal wife, these women were giving voice to the apotheosis of ‘Indian woman’, constructed in the crux of nationalism. The public woman, the actress, set the role model for the same through character portrayals  of Sita (Ram’s wife in Valmiki’s epic poem Ramayanaor Kapalkundala, the sacrificing and ever-submissive wife of Bankim Chandra’s novel of the same name). Nationalism was spreading from two directions—Bankim’s classic female roles and Girish Chandra Ghosh’s mythological and historical women. These actresses belonging mostly to the courtesan culture were designated second-grade citizen status. Thus, until the 1940s, till the coming of the new wave of IPTA actresses, these women, in spite of their star status quo, were  perceived as entertainers.

 

Binodini’s form of acting:

 

The contribution of Binodini to the professional theatre of Bengal cannot be undermined in discussing (as well as critiquing) the dominance of the male members of the theatre family. Starting her professional career as an actor from a very early age, Binodini mastered the art of enactment through informal trainings and self-taught methods, but her rigorous training phase in acting happened only under Girish Chandra Ghosh during her years at the National Theatre. The acting methodology that evolved, especially in the late nineteenth century, was nurtured under the light of both traditional and Western forms of acting—a milieu of the art of acting prevailing in the Black Town—as well as in the White Town of Calcutta. The traditional methods of acting followed the norms of the rasa theory as explained in the Natyashastra. The Western method of acting was loosely based on Stanislavskyian methods of acting, as one could have observed from the performances by the English and French actors. Thus, combining the gestural and the real (semi) the actors of the era adopted a combination of bhava-anubhava and naturalistic style of acting. As Binodini has described in her autobiography, the English actresses were considered the role model for the newly evolving native actresses. Other than acting, costume and make-up became integral parts of the new theatre. Binodini introduced her own style of both make-up and costume, which have been claimed as one of the important contributions made by the actress.

 
Actors as labourers: Binodini and Star Theatre

 

In her autobiography, Binodini reflects on the fact that actors are treated as labourers. She is known to have denied performance without remuneration. The actresses of this time were mostly salaried in the permanent theatre houses. As Tracy Davis has identified Victorian actresses as working women, one can claim the same for the native ones. For Binodini, it was not only her professional acting career, but also her contributions in founding the Star Theatre that should be looked into while  speaking of the actress, the theatre and of the theatre capital. . The Star Theatre was established in 1883 at 68, Beadon Street, Calcutta. Girish Chandra Ghosh after a dispute at Minerva, decided to form his own theatre company and Binodini also wanted an unconditional space for her artistic expansion and exposure. To  incur funds for the theatre, Binodini became mistress to Gurmukh Ray, a businessman, who agreed to sponsor the making of the Star Theatre. In her autobiography, Binodini has described her excitement during the building days of the Star. She was also promised by her co-workers, who ventured with her to form the new theatre space, that the theatre would be named after her—B Theatre. But it was ultimately named Star Theatre, an act screeching of hypocrisy and politics practiced by the middle class; after all, how could a theatre be named after a public woman.

 

The first play staged at the Star in 1883 was Daksha Yagna, with both Binodini and Girish Chandra in leading roles. The following year,  Chaitanya Lila was performed. Soon after, Binodini once and for all quit the professional stage at the age of twenty-three. In the course of time, in her autobiography Amar Katha, published in 1913, Binodini reveals her feelings about the betrayal that she faced from her mentor and co-workers. She is one (or perhaps the only one) of the native actresses in nineteenth-century Bengal who created a body of literature in the form of an autobiography and poems, thus giving  her readers an insight into an alternative history of colonial Calcutta. Her work has been a gateway to the unknown terrains of life prevailing in middle-class Bengali community and the conditions of a marginalised section of the society—the women artists.

 

Endnotes

Chaitanya Lila - Girishchandra’s Chaitanya Lila is based on Brindavan Das’s Chaitanya Bhagavat, which depicts the early life of Chaitanya (Nimai) ending with his renunciation of home. Binodini’s performance as Bengal’s most charismatic saint was to determine subsequent readings of her life. The 1884 production at the Star Theatre was a great success and set the trend for the ‘biographical devotional’ on the public stage.

Elokeshi, the actress is considered to be amongst the first four actresses of the public theatre in Calcutta, beginning her career as Debjani in the Bengal Theatre in Madhusudan Dutta’s Shormistha.
 

Gangabaiji, the singer-actress, referred to as Gangamoni in Binodini’s autobiography, was one of the foremost theatre personality to influence and encourage little Binodini’s skills in theatre. Gangamoni worked at the National Theatre at the Beadon Street from 1881-1882. From 1883-87, she acted as Murala in Girish Ghosh’s Kalapahar (1896) where she excelled in dhrupad singing and Pagilini (the mad woman) in Bilwamangal (1886).

 

Golapshundori, also known as Sukumari Dutta was among the founder members of the Hindoo Female Theatre. In 1875, she wrote the play Apurba Sati. Among the famous roles played by the actress are Bimala in Durgeshnandini (1873, Motibibi in Kapalkundala, Girijaya in Mrinalini (1877), Sarojini in Sarojini (1875), Shanti in Anadamath (1898). 
 

Khetramoni, affectionately referred to as Khetu didi (elder sister) by Binodini, is considered to be one of the most outstanding, but highly ignored talents of the first phase of Calcutta public theatre. She was one of the first five women performers at the Great National Theatre. She worked for over two decades in theatre, starting her career as Brinda in Sati ki Kalankini at the Great National Theatre (1874), then played Moh in Chaitanya Lila at the Star Theatre (1884) and continued working at the Minerva Theatre till 1896. She died in the year 1903.

 

Lakkhimoni, also referred to as Lakhi, was one of the earliest actresses performing for the Great National Theatre. She has played the roles of Khetramoni in Neeldarpan (Indigo Mirror) and Lakshmibai in Hirak Churno Natak, among others in 1875.
 

Rajkumari, also known as Raja, was amongst the first five actresses to be employed by the Great National Theatre for the play Sati ki Kalankini, in 1874. One of the best parts enacted by the actress is considered to be that of Kobita in Ansnso Kanon.

 

IPTA - The Indian People’s Theatres Association was founded in 1942,as the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India.

 

Indigo trade - The colonial rulers set up the commercial production of Indigo (an important source of natural blue-dye on fibres) in India by 1777. Bengal was the prime site of plantation of this crop. The ‘blue gold’ became one of the major demands in Europe, during the textile industry boom due to Industrial Revolution.

 

References

 

Bandhopadhyay, Samik. 1998. ‘Theatre: From Metropolis to Wasteland.’ In Independent India: The First Fifty Years, edited by Hiranmay Karlekar, 417–28. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

 

Bhattacharya, Rimli, ed. and trans. 1998. Binodini Dasi: My Story and My Life as an Actress. New Delhi. Kali for Women.

 

Bhattacharya, Rimli. 1995–96. ‘Benediction in Performance: Reverberations in Chaitanya Lila from the 1880s.’ Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature 3.

 

Dutt, Bishnupriya, and Urmimala Sarkar Munsi, eds. 2010. Engendering Performance: Indian Women Performers in Search of an Identity. New Delhi: Sage Publication.

 

Dutt, Bishnupriya. 2009. ‘Historicizing Actresses Stories: English Actresses in India (1789-1842)’. In Playhouse of Power: Theatre in Colonial India, edited by Lata Singh, 313–39. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

 

Gupta, Abhijit. 2015. ‘The heat of indigo.’ Online at https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/kIprYdow50f1BQeMDMZBjL/The-heat-of-indigo.html (viewed on March 6, 2018).

 

Singh, Lata, ed. 2009. Playhouse of Power: Theatre in Colonial India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.