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Colonial Modernism and Actor Training in the Late Nineteenth-Century Bengali Stage


The drunkard who immerses himself in drunkenness by drinking will not be able to act, even as a drunkard. An actor seems to divide his mind into two while acting—while one part is immersed in his role, the other watches as a witness, whether the immersion is adequate, the lines are being spoken correctly, the co-actor is moving correctly…the audience is hearing him till the last limit of the auditorium or not. The actor has to keep an eye on all these things while acting at the same time, by the merit of his technique.

— Binodini Dasi (Allana 15)


I am gradually inching towards final bell in this stage of life. Decimated, hopeless, every single day is passing in the same mundane fashion; despair has limited the flow of my life. You had repeatedly assured me that God doesn’t create any being without a purpose, everyone is born to fulfill a divinely ordained plan and once that’s accomplished, they have to leave behind this human form. I have discussed this so many times with you, but looking back on my life, I fail to grasp what purpose God has fulfilled through me, what part of it have I accomplished and what is left to be done? Isn’t my task over yet?

—Letter from Binodini Dasi to Girish Chandra Ghosh (Dasi)


The aforementioned excerpts bring out two important facets about the identity of an actor in the late nineteenth-century Bengali professional theatre. While the first excerpt reflects on an actor’s confident assertion of the double-consciousness underlying naturalistic acting[i], the second one comes from an identity crisis, where the female actor is seeking validation for her life’s journey from the male actor-manager. Before we jump into exploring the problematic nature of this shift in tone, let’s contextualize the characters of Binodini Dasi (1862–1941) and Girish Chandra Ghosh (1844–1912).


In her essay The Birth of Realism and the Training of the Actor, Amal Allana proposes that we comprehend this theorization around acting through the lens of colonial modernity, which determined the birth of proscenium theatre as the ‘culturally appropriate’ form of entertainment for the Indians. She traces this back to the moment of Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s Minute on Education (1835), which called for training/civilizing a new class of Indians who would ease the process of colonial governance. It can be argued that Girish Chandra Ghosh was one such intermediary agent who determined the development of a new nationalism in the arts, and who wrote extensively on the training of the actor, vis-à-vis training in other popular modes of performance. 


If one were to break down the term actor-training into its component parts, we would observe that in the context of late nineteenth century, the overwhelmingly historicized actor is the prostitute actress whose presence on stage created new circuits of desire in the cosmopolitan space of Calcutta. Sumanta Banerjee’s analysis of the popular modes of entertainment of this particular spatio-temporal juncture alerts us to the birth of this new professional class, existing in tandem with the courtesan, the jatra actor, the nautch girl, the female impersonator and the singer of folk forms like thumri and kirtanas. All these art forms had their own models of training the performer, pedagogic models which remain largely undocumented or scattered sporadically in testimonials like Binodini Dasi’s autobiographical writings, Amar Katha (My Story) and Amar Abhinetri Jibon (My Life as an Actress).  Recent scholarship by Amit Maitra has broadened our understanding from the account of one actress to others like Jagattarini, Golap Sundari, Elokeshi; hagiographic narratives which share a set of overlapping features.


The prostitute actress is recounted in terms of her physical appearance, her ‘god-gifted’ voice, her constant battle for respectability in the professional theatre and, finally, her ignorant self-doubting existence as a student of acting. This writing of history becomes circumspect when we grasp the fact that the memoirs of actresses from that period were heavily edited and re-written by the self-appointed pedagogues of the theatre like Saratchandra Ghosh, Amritalal Mitra, Amritalal Basu, Biharilal Chattopadhay, Ardhendu Shekhar Mustafi and, lastly, Girish Chandra Ghosh. This editorial intervention stems from an internalized logic of the Bengali stage—the intellectual advancement of the masses was tied to the dialogues uttered by the actor whereas the sensorial entertainment could be obtained from the body of the actor.


Following Tracy Davis’ model of looking at the Victorian actress as working women, one can summarise that the actor-manager figure symbolized the voice, and the prostitute actress figure was the site of the body. We see this hierarchy emerge in the relationship between Girish Chandra Ghosh and Binodini Dasi, through their respective writings available in the late nineteenth-century public sphere. As part of this essay, I would focus my attention on ‘Acting and Actors’ (Obhinoy o Obhineta) and ‘The Education of Impersonators’ (Bohurupee Vidya) by Girish Chandra Ghosh and excerpts from Binodini Dasi’s My Story and My Life as an Actress (a English compilation of Amar Katha and Amar Abhinetri Jibon, edited by Rimli Bhattacharya) to foreground the classical guru-shishya tradition or mimetic model at the heart of the actor-training pedagogies. What remains to be seen is that when does the prostitute actress break out of the discipline imposed by the patriarchal actor-director and what does it do to her self-identification as an actor?


In The Colonial Staged, Sudipto Chatterjee alerts us to the project of colonial modernity that swamped the definitions of theatre held by Girish Chandra Ghosh. While on the one hand, Girish Ghosh is remembered to be influenced by the traditional performing arts (like jatra[ii], kheur[iii], khemta[iv]) of what was known as ‘Black Town’ of Calcutta, on the other hand, he was in contact with the British culture through the personages of Mrs George Benjamin Lewis and G.B.W. Lewis and through British newspapers and magazines, which published stories of British actors and new happenings on the European stage. We find proof of this practice in the international section of two important Bengali magazines of this period, Natya Mandir and Roop o Rango[v]. These would include the serialized biography of Edmund Kean as ‘Obhineta Kean’ (The Actor Kean), or reviews of performances of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth or Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet or Ellen Terry as Ophelia.


While looking at Girish Ghosh’s writings on acting, we find an overarching influence of these models. For instance, while taking about the aspect of physical appearance and casting in a play, he would take recourse to examples from British theatre reviews[vi]. Girish Ghosh would cite Miss Budet of the Bandman Group to stress the point that if the actor internalizes the image of the actor as the writer/poet as imagined him, she or he would be able to essay it out on stage. Not resting with highlighting this development of imagination of the actor, he adds a Sarah Bernhardt anecdote to didactically lay down the need for sincere effort, not ego or arrogance. While observing these dictums by Girish Ghosh, one must not forget that he constantly cites British actresses to create role models for the moral behavior of a new class of professional actors being born on the Bengali stage. Uncannily enough, we find Binodini Dasi creating her framework of aspirations, through the stories narrated by the actor-manager:


I did not care very much for conversation and stories. But I liked very much the stories narrated by Girish-babu about famous British actors and actresses and whatever else he read out to us from books. He explained to us the various kinds of critical opinions expressed about Mrs. Siddons when she had rejoined the theatre after being married for ten years…I did not merely listen to these stories, but absorbed from them whatever I could of their bhava and then constantly meditated on it…In order to experience as many bhavas as possible, I kept my mind constantly occupied, living in the world of imagination.   (Allana 31)


We are able to observe that Girish Ghosh exerted considerable influence on the minds of actors who lacked formal education to engage with these magazines themselves, with his criticism and borrowings from the bhava-anubhava model of affective utterance in Natyashastra merging with a proto-Stanislavskian[vii] approach to building a character. The vibhava-anubhava-vyabichari model of rasa-nishpatti[viii] is something that finds photographic validation in a legendary series of nine photographs of Girish Ghosh. In this series of monochrome images, he is seen to be depicting the nava-rasas[ix] in their ideal facial manifestation, so that his students and successive generation of actors can derive inspiration from it. Inspiration becomes a much debated word in the late nineteenth-century Victorian or French stage, as actors started wondering whether acting is something born out of divine inspiration in a genius-like artist or through the efforts of an actor in designing the external manifestation of a character. This latter trend is identified as proto-Stanislavksi, as it represents one of the earliest moves in formalizing methodologies of actor training. Girish Ghosh, inspired by his British contemporaries, tried to replicate this model in context of the Bengali stage.


While this methodology might be seen as empowering the prostitute-actress to transcend from her dreary conditions of existence by escaping to a world of imagination, it also reflects an attitude of prioritizing one’s mental existence over the physical one.


Girish Ghosh does talk about developing the physical dimensions of an actor, focusing on the importance of stage make-up and costuming, but they constantly betray a reliance on the aesthetics of the Victorian stage. Even in this discussion he is deliberately gendered. When Girish Ghosh has to talk about how an actor’s imagination of the character improved upon the conceptions of the playwright, his examples are exclusively of male actors like Nagendranath Bandopadhyay as Birendra Singha or Ardhendu Shekhar Mustafi in Meghnadh Badh Kabya. In these examples, we see Ghosh contrasting his ideas of training the actor with that of these male actors/pedagogues on the principle of intonation and diction:


I have come to know a new thing about Ardhendu Shekhar from a critic which I could never share with Ardhendu myself although I stayed so long with him. He explained that the syllables “e” or “ee” when used by actors can make their craft superior. My personal opinion is different. (Obhinoy o Obhineta)


This insistence upon voice training seems to dominate as the parameter for judging the merit of acting on the late nineteenth-century stage. Girish Ghosh points out the intonation and pronunciation of the people of East Bengal as the hurdle for any aspirant to the stage. This observation by the foremost actor-manager of the early phase of professional theatre in Calcutta  alerts us to the fact that the literary renaissance tied to Bengali nationalism was not inclusive of all communities and regions. In light of such a development, we are able to see how Girish Ghosh was convinced that in his role as Natya-Adhyaksha (Theatre Pedagogue), he was being an agent of emancipation for the middle-class Hindu prostitute:


Through your life, a lot of important tasks have been achieved. Your work in the Rangalay has given pleasure to countless audience members. Onstage, your miraculous force of personality has given shape to such vivid and diverse characters, that one can’t but laud your efforts. In my production of  Chaitanya Lila (1884), your impersonation of Chaitanya has inspired spiritual raptures in so many people, that these Vaishnav’s have blessed you immensely. You are not a person of ordinary luck, by means of a divinely gifted power of concentration had you been able to comprehend these characters. If you have not been able to appreciate the fruits of this labour, its not your fault- while bad days have pulled you down, your sense of empathy reveals that you will soon be amply rewarded. (Girish Ghosh’s reply to the aforementioned letter by Binodini Dasi)


The above passage can be taken as example of the Vaishnav value system within which Girish Ghosh would always configure the identity and work of an actor. This value system finds mention in a lot of women’s autobiographies emerging at this hour of cultural nationalism. Tanika Sarkar would identify that in the imaginary lives of Bengali middle/upper caste women, subversive circuits of desire would open up in a Gopi-like desire for the divine figure of Krishna. This was achievable through an expression of bhakta rasa, which allowed an individual to challenge patriarchal prescriptions of everyday life by finding validation on a transcendental plane. Girish Chandra would actively promote this value system to the point that one finds it hard to ascertain whether the bhakta rasa[x] is directed towards the deity of Lord Krishna or towards himself, the confident assertive cultural impresario of the nationalist stage.




[i] In the Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts and Analysis, Patrice Pavis says there is no such thing as 'natural kind of acting that can do without conventions and be received as self-evident and universal. Any acting is based on a codified system (even if the audience does not see it as such) of behaviour and actions that are considered to be believable and realistic or artificial and theatrical.' From Binodini’s own writings, naturalistic acting seems to suggest a form of acting in which an actor is able to express the gestures and emotions of a character, as it would be in real life. But Girish Chandra Ghosh, in an obituary of the actor-trainer Ardhendu Shekhar Mustafi, proposes a very different definition. Ghosh suggests that Ardhendu Shekhar Mustafi wouldn’t exactly replicate the behaviour of the character but embellish it with gestures that would communicate the affect of the dramatic sequence more effectively.


[ii] Jatra a form of folk drama combining acting, songs, music, dance, characterised by stylised delivery and exaggerated gestures and orations. Jatra is believed to have developed from ceremonial functions held before starting on a journey. Other explanations are that it developed from processions brought out in honour of different gods and goddesses. These processions often included songs and dances. Rathajatra , for example, is a festival of this kind. The jatra may be traced back to at least the 16th century. In Chaitanyabhagavad (1548), Brindavan Das describes a dramatic performance during which Sri Chaitanya himself performed the role of Rukmini.


[iii] Kheur is a form of Kavigaan, a Bengali folk performance tradition where poets sing about gods and goddesses. What separates Kheur from other kinds of Kavigaan is its derogatory vocabulary where the vagaries of the Hindu pantheon are called out.


[iv] Khemta dance accompanies khemta songs, which are based on the story of Radha and Krishna. Drums and cymbals form the musical instruments. Khemta dances may be performed on any occasion, and, at one time, were popular at weddings and pujas. Basically, this is a women’s dance, but in some areas eunuchs are associated with it and it is they who are still keeping this art alive. Khemta dances are characterised by complex foot movements and meaningful expressions of the eyes and the face. This entertaining dance may be called the rural version of the urban dance of baijis or professional women dancers.


[v] The publication details for the same are hard to find. From Kathryn Hansen’s Stages of Life: Indian Theatre Autobiographies, we get to know that Binodini Dasi’s autobiography came out in two editions. The first edition was published in  Natya Mandir in 1910 and the second edition, titled Amar Abhinetri Jiban or My Life as an Actress was serialized in Roop O Rongo between 1924 and 1925.


[vi] Girish Ghosh writes,

Mrs. Siddons played the role of Lady Macbeth and it was perhaps the best presentation an actor had ever made of the character. Although petite, she encompassed the stature of Lady Macbeth and captured the violent streak of the character in her acting most convincingly…[in the character of Lady Macbeth] she seemed to be a tall and splendid-looking lady. It was often mistakenly assumed that only an ambitious or high-headed woman could play this. On the contrary, Mrs. Siddons, who played the role of a lover in a play called Fatal Marriage, rose to fame in a role that did not resemble that of an ambitious person at all. (Allana 25)


[vii] Konstantin Stanislavksi’s  An Actor Prepares (1936) has gone on to become the de-facto textbook for psychophysical acting techniques necessary to understand the characterizations necessary in the plays of Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, George Bernard Shaw. Psychophysical acting is roughly understood as a system of acting where the inner psyche of the character will be revealed through a reliance on emotional memory. This emotional memory is born out of a set of canonized exercises, like Imagination, Magic If, Sense/Affective/Emotion Memory.


[viii] Bharat Muni says 'Vibhaavaanubhaav vyabhichaari samyogat ras nishpatti', meaning, out of the combination (samayoga), of the determinants (vibhava), the consequents (anubhava) and the transitory mental status (vyabhichari), the birth of emotion (rasa) takes place. The means by which an emotion is activated are termed vibhava. The outward manifestations brought forth as a result of the vibhavas are known as the anubhavas. These are divisible into vacika – those which can be expressed by words (vac– 'speech') and the angika which are expressed by bodily expressions. The sthayibhava ('permanent mood') is a major emotion which is developed by a number of minor feelings referred to as vyabicaribhavas. There are thirty-three vyabicaribhavas such as nirveda (disinterest), glani (tiredness), sanka (apprehension), asuya (insecurity), mada (intoxication), srama (exhaustion), alasya (lethargy), dainya (pity), cinta (anxiety), etc.


[ix] According to Bharata’s Natyashastra there are eight fundamental feelings or mental states referred to as sthayibhavas which can be experienced by human beings. These are: delight (rati), laughter (hasya), sorrow (soka), anger (krodha), heroism (utsaha), fear (bhaya), disgust (jugupsa), and wonder (vismaya). Corresponding to these mental states are eight rasas: the erotic (srngara), the comic (hasya) the pathetic (karuna), the furious (raudra), the heroic (vira), the terrible (bhayanaka), the odious (bibhatasa), and the marvelous (adbhuta). A ninth rasa, the peaceful (shanta) was later added.


[x] This rasa is not listed in Bharata’s Natyashastra. In David L. Halberman’s Acting as a Way of Salvation: A Study of Raganuga Bhakti Sadhana, we find an elaboration of this concept:

To experience bhakta rasa, the bhakta moves onto the stage of drama which transforms the world. In Rupa’s religious system, Krishna becomes the bhakta’s dramatic partner: he is the hero (nayaka) of the ultimate play. The individual bhakta  relates to him personally by taking part in that play. The whole world or atleast all of Vraja (which from the correct spiritual perspective, amounts to the same thing), becomes a stage on which to act out one’s part; thus religion becomes drama and acting becomes a way of salvation. (32)




Chatterjee, Sudipto. The Colonial Staged: Theatre in Colonial Calcutta.  Kolkata: Seagull Books. 2007.


Dasi, Binodini. Amar Katha o Anyanya Rachana (My Life and Other Writings). Kolkata: Subarnarekha. 2012.


Davis, Tracy. Actresses as Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Culture. London: Routledge. 1991.


Debi, Rashsundari and Tanika Sarkar. Words to Win: The Making Of Amar Jiban: A Modern Autobiography. Delhi: Kali for Women. 2000.


Girish Chandra Ghosh: Collection of Articles on Theatre. Ed. By Rathin Chakraborty. Kolkata: Natyachinta Foundation. 2004.


Haberman, David L. Acting as a way of salvation: a study of rāgānugā bhakti sādhana. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. 2001


Hansen, Kathryn. Stages of Life: Indian Theatre Autobiographies. London: Anthem Press. 2011.


Rangalay Banga Nati (The Actress on the Bengali Stage). Ed. By Amit Maitra. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers. 2012.


The Act of Becoming: Actors Talk. Ed. By Amal Allana. New Delhi: Niyogi Books. 2013