How the curtains came down on Calcutta’s professional theatre

01 September 2014

MY MEMORY OF THAT EVENING IS FUZZY, and strangely cinematic, the way childhood memories often are. The play was over and we were in the lobby of the theatre, which throbbed with light and the familiar bustle of people at the end of a show. I’m not sure exactly how old I was. But I distinctly remember the chill that went through me as I stepped out of the lobby and saw, looming before me, a sandwich board of the kind restaurants place outside their entrances. On it was a strange sort of menu:

Bombaywalli: Rupees 900

Dilliwalli: Rupees 800

And so on. My memory of the rest is imprecise, but the first two items—the Bombay girl and the Delhi girl, and their respective prices—are etched into my brain.

The sign was clearly aimed at the crowd streaming out of the theatre and into Sonagachi, the legendary red-light district of Calcutta that inspired fear and awe in the children of middle-class homes. It was the stretch of Central Avenue that was to be avoided like a fatal disease; the sidewalk you just had to stare at from the passing bus because you were supposed to look away.

The physical boundaries of Sonagachi were not strongly demarcated: the neighbourhood snaked around petrol pumps, sweetshops and family homes. The Minerva theatre was right in its heart, but nobody thought its location odd. In the mid 1980s, good middle-class Bengalis, whose sweat turned cold while walking those streets, thought nothing of going there to watch spectacular, operatic plays about corrupt landlords and star-crossed lovers.

And yet, there was a connection between the playhouse and its neighbourhood, and a reason why the menu of girls was thrust before exiting theatre-goers. Men who watched actresses on stage, it winked, may need a bit more fun after the curtains fell, and would gladly shell out the cash for it.

Minerva theatre, which was renovated several times after being built in 1893, is located in the heart of Calcutta’s red-light district.

THE 1980S WERE A BLEAK TIME in the Communist-ruled state of West Bengal, with the economy a strangled mess of unemployment and industrial lock-outs. Being an intellectual in Bengal very much overlapped with being on the left, if not in fact being a Marxist. And theatre had been a touchstone for leftist politics ever since the Indian People’s Theatre Association was set up in 1942, under the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India. A revolutionary politics called for a revolutionary aesthetic. For example, third theatre, a radical, experimental movement pioneered by the visionary playwright and director Badal Sircar in the late 1960s, completely eschewed the proscenium in favour of the street. By the 1980s, theatre was closely allied with the protest marches that choked Calcutta’s roads every other day. It was a vehicle to advance the political conscience of the nation-state, and of radical, left-leaning groups within it.

It is this story of twentieth-century Bengali theatre that is most prominently archived in academic and public memory. Indeed, the story of left-leaning, experimental theatre is the one most often told about the pan-Indian stage. Minerva, however, was one of several venues for a kind of theatre that, in the 1980s, had just about another decade of flickering life left in the city of labour unrest and street demonstrations. This was the commercial theatre of pleasure and entertainment, also known as “professional” or “board” theatre, which was confined to a cluster of north-Calcutta playhouses, none of them very far from Sonagachi. This riveting art form flourished for over a century before eventually slipping out of the popular, intellectual and artistic consciousness of the city, and losing its place to the theatre of the left.

In colonial Calcutta, theatre was a whirlpool of conflicting influences. Professional theatre emerged as a distinct entity during the last decades of the nineteenth century, from its earlier incarnation as “babu” theatre, which was sponsored and organised by Bengal’s hedonistic, if aesthetically refined, landed gentry. The proscenium stage was imported from Europe earlier, in the late eighteenth century; in that sense, it was one of the vehicles of colonial modernity that drove the Bengal Renaissance. In a pamphlet titled “Company Theatre,” Bratya Basu, an influential theatre personality who is currently a minister in the state cabinet, argued that commercial theatre was a response to the call of modernity. (It was the same modernising impulse, Basu claimed, that eventually caused left-leaning “group theatre” to splinter from professional theatre in the mid twentieth century.)

Professional theatre quickly became popular with the middle and upper classes, and became a regular, mainstream cultural form funded by commercial capital. But even though babu society partly funded this world, it never really decided its character, which was formed by contemporary literary and theatrical minds such as Girish Chandra Ghosh, the eminent social satirist and actor Amrita Lal Basu, and the poet and occasional rival of Rabindranath Tagore, Dwijendralal Roy. These men often came from privilege, but their imagination extended beyond the values of their class. Their plays included family dramas, epic intergenerational sagas, adventure stories, historical romances, thrillers and robust comedies.

If the early patrons of this theatre were babus, with homes in north Calcutta’s Bagbazar and Shyambazar, its early actresses were women from the adjacent red-light district. In 1873, when Girish Chandra Ghosh, widely known as the “father” of Bengali theatre, sought to stage his plays, he did not dare to fill the female roles with middle-class or upper-class women; no grihalakshmi—literally, the goddess of the home—could possibly appear on a public stage. In his 2007 book The Colonial Staged, the theatre historian Sudipto Chatterjee describes how, for a staging of the mythological drama Sarmistha in 1873, Ghosh cast four women—Jagattarini, Golapsundari, Elokeshi and Shyama—from the red-light district. For these women, donning the mantle of an actress was not a radical transition. As Sudip Ghosh, a journalist with the Bengali newspaper Ei Shomoy and a theatre enthusiast, pointed out to me, in the late nineteenth century, Sonagachi offered something of an artistic atmosphere—a place where upper-class patrons went to be charmed not only by female company, but also by music, poetry and conversation.

In the decades following independence, commercial theatre continued to prosper in Shyambazar and Hatibagan, the Bengali neighborhoods of the colonial city. Despite its restriction to north Calcutta, this was a period of great popularity, and a time when its actresses enjoyed significant prestige and popularity. Some of the best-loved stars of Bengali cinema—Sabitri Chattopadhyay, Madhabi Mukhopadhyay and Lilly Chakrabarty—participated. And some of the best-loved novelists—Samaresh Basu, Bimal Mitra and Shankar—lent their stories to the commercial stage.

There was no doubt that the primary goal was entertainment. Plays enjoyed great commercial success, with some running to packed houses for years and achieving, like Bombay movies, silver and golden jubilees. This popularity was fed by the scale of the directors’ ambitions, the nature of the stories, and the elaborate stages and sets. The gimmicky naturalism of the productions involved everything from trapeze acts and horseback rides to derailed trains, speeding cars set on fire and flooding rivers. There were revolving stages and cabaret singers and dancers, some from the luxury hotels and lounges of the former British quarters of Chowringhee and Park Street.

Today, if you walk through Hatibagan, along the crowded thoroughfares packed with street vendors and sari shops, or the narrow alleys that meander off them, you can find semi-derelict mansions that were once playhouses, now perhaps rented out for weddings and other social functions. At the main crossing of Grey Street (now Sri Aurobindo Sarani) is the famous Star Theatre, transported from its original location at 68 Beadon Street. Star staged popular plays for over a hundred years. Gutted a couple of times by mysterious “accidental” fires, it is now a boutique movie theatre, with popular snack shops at a terrace upstairs, and a restaurant serving gourmet Bengali cuisine below. Star is still a cultural hub of sorts for the area, but it no longer has anything to do with theatre.

ON A LATE SUMMER MORNING IN 2012, a friend and I went looking for Circarina, one of the few remaining relics of the era of professional theatre. One of the most sensational halls of its time, Circarina quite literally put a whole new spin on the notion of spectacle when it opened in the mid 1970s. The city’s only round theatre, it featured a gallery circling around the stage, which sank into a pit under the auditorium at the end of each scene and emerged redecorated, with actors already onstage, for the next. For people of my parents’ generation, Circarina was completely unforgettable, and a little bit crazy.

My friend and I walked east along Beadon Street, off Hatibagan’s main avenue. After some scouting, Circarina appeared on the left—a crumbling, toy-like yellow mansion. Inside, a small lobby snaked past little cages that were once ticket counters. The lobby narrowed into a dark, circuitous passage that felt like the murky interior of a factory. The air was thick with the odours of glue and fresh paper, metal and machine oil.

We followed the meandering passage to a set of stairs. There was a family residence on the level above the auditorium. Gaudy framed posters of old plays shone on the walls. A veined iron gate, which looked like it had shielded the passage from the world for decades, lay in a crumpled heap of rust to one side. It was guarded by an old maidservant, and a pair of cats who started at the sight of strangers.

The old woman called for Amar Ghosh, Circarina’s owner—a tall, mild-mannered man who appeared younger than his 83 years. Though he spoke haltingly, Ghosh was eager to talk about the theatre he had carved out of the ground floor of his family mansion. Built in 1975, Circarina was not an old hall like Star, Minerva, or the neighbouring Rang Mahal; it caught the tail end of the century-long carnival that was north-Calcutta theatre. But between the 1970s and the 1990s, Circarina was something of a sensation, a landmark of the neighbourhood and the theatre scene. Ghosh, a former professor of physics and an amateur architect, had his soul in the theatre, and this playhouse was his labour of love. Theatre for him was a spectacular kind of showmanship. He wrote plays that could only be performed on his magical stage.

Amar Ghosh built Circarina, a theatre with an innovative stage that sank and rose between scenes, inside his family’s mansion.

When Ghosh took us downstairs, the auditorium felt diminutive, more like a venue for puppetry than theatre. We entered through the gallery, and walked past seats covered with a silver mesh of cobwebs to the round wooden slab at the centre. Ghosh rustled up the theatre’s sole remaining attendant, a roguish, middle-aged man with liquor on his breath. We climbed down a set of winding stairs crammed with broken furniture, wickerwork, sackcloth and mangled billboards, all under a film of dust; past a set of greenrooms with dust-caked mirrors and tiny speakers that used to broadcast the plays in progress; and into a dark basement.

The basement was filled with fragments of old sets: a dressing table, a wheelchair, and bits of broken furniture. In one corner was a switchboard that operated the stage lights. The magic was contained there: a red lever in a cylindrical glass box. At Ghosh’s instruction, his assistant pulled the lever, and almost soundlessly the massive stage came down, casting a shadow over the room’s yellow light.

That’s how it worked. After every scene, a technician lowered the stage, which came down on a hydraulic piston that floated on oil. The actors slipped into the greenrooms to change while stagehands swapped the set. Then the characters got onstage, and the entire thing floated back up to the audience above. Though it looked small now, Circarina was imagined on the scale of a circus.

During its heyday, the stage went up and down before a packed house three nights a week, on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays—the days professional theatre shows were staged. Goutam Mukherjee, an actor who worked with Ghosh, vividly recounted Circarina’s glory days to me, describing Ghosh’s innovations in writing, direction and stage design in plays such as Tusharjug Ashche, Hello Chumki and Karitkarma. But that summer afternoon, sitting in a small, windowless room next to the ticket counter that used to be the office, Ghosh told us he no longer had money even for his cataract surgery, and that his entire pension went to the building’s maintenance. Circarina had been all but dead for over a decade, barring the rare song-and-dance event put on by a local club or an occasional meeting of the Hatibagan market merchants’ association. Ghosh said he made about ten thousand rupees a month renting the lobby and downstairs hallway out to bookbinders and welders. These tiny factories were responsible for the glue and oil we had smelled on our way up.

With the sleepy desolation of the playhouse as a backdrop, Ghosh told us stories of the Hatibagan theatre scene’s slow slide into oblivion. He blamed television, which started gaining popularity in the early 1980s, for the onset of the decline, and also the videocassette player, which brought entertainment right into people’s bedrooms. While those technologies stole away audiences, Ghosh said that yatra, the melodramatic open-air folk theatre popular in the villages of Bengal steadily bled north-Calcutta theatre of actors, who were lured away by the promise of better pay.

Ghosh had held on to Circarina as if it were a dying child, but he was somewhat of an exception. Other playhouses passed into the hands of businessmen who were less interested in theatre than in the value of property. Many of these playhouses caught fire, usually in the dead of night. Insurance claims were settled, and apartment complexes and department stores came up in their place. The vultures were circling Circarina too, Ghosh told us, adding that his son loathed the burden the playhouse put on the family. Ghosh had received death threats, he said, though he didn’t think anyone would dare touch him—he was still a popular neighbourhood figure. Yet he worried for the safety of his son.

Ghosh died this past January, at the age of 85. But his time was gone long before he was. So were the theatre halls of Hatibagan.

THEATRE AND FIRE go back a long way together, and north Calcutta has seen its share of burnt-down playhouses over the years. But since the 1990s, the fires in these halls have had a strange odor about them. On a Saturday night in October 1991, fire devastated Star Theatre just hours after it staged a popular comedy starring the famous actor Soumitra Chattopadhyay before a full house. Star returned 13 years later, renovated as a movie theatre and shopping complex.

A little more than a decade ago, on 30 August 2001, Rang Mahal, a playhouse a few minutes from Ghosh’s own, caught fire, allegedly due to a short circuit. The stage and almost the entire auditorium were reduced to ashes; nothing but the superstructure was left. The fire was something like a cremation—with no one left to finance its plays, Rang Mahal had already been closed for several years.

Less than three months later, the fire crept even closer to Ghosh’s beloved theatre. Biswarupa, in the same lane as Circarina, burned down that Diwali. Accidental fires are common during the festival, and also deflect attention from suspicious ones. The police found possible signs of arson, and of people, who could not be traced, living on the theatre’s premises. According to an article in Outlook magazine that December, the owner had been in talks with a realtor about building an entertainment, commercial and residential complex on the spot. After its partial destruction, Biswarupa continued to be rented out for wedding ceremonies for a time, but is now in a state of limbo, embroiled in a legal squabble over the development of the proposed complex.

Like aging, wrinkled queens past their prime, the semi-derelict mansions sat in knotted darkness, along busy thoroughfares and bustling side streets where developers were itching to develop new projects. Now that Amar Ghosh is gone, nothing stands in the way of an accidental or deliberate fire—or, for that matter, a planned demolition—erasing Circarina as well.

But if fires and real-estate interests obliterated the physical relics of professional theatre, the art form’s demise in the popular consciousness is a fascinating example of high-minded art pushing out low-brow competition: in this case the theatre of political conscience pushing out the theatre of decadent entertainment. This process was helped by the ruling political party and the indifference of left-wing intellectuals, and by a twist of fate in which the socially controversial origins of north-Calcutta theatre came back to haunt it in the late twentieth century.

IN COLONIAL CALCUTTA, the line between prostitutes and actresses was hazy. Some of the most compelling narratives of theatre history from nineteenth-century Bengal are born of the fusion of the wealth of the theatre patron, the sexuality of the concubine-actress, and her dedication to the stage. Binodini Dasi, who was recruited to the stage at the age of 11 from the red-light district, is the most famous example. She lived her celebrated acting life under the artistic patronage of Girish Ghosh, and the “conjugal” protection of several wealthy men, most notably Gurmukh Rao, who built the Star Theatre in exchange for the right to have Binodini as his mistress. Binodini’s colleagues proposed that the theatre be named after her, and many, including Binodini herself, expected it would be. But when it was christened in 1883, the theatre’s actual name was a stunning betrayal, and remains an ironic tribute to the first true star of the Bengali stage, a “fallen” woman who drew thousands to the theatre and gave the art form a popular life, but was denied the honour of a landmark bearing her name.

Binodini Dasi, the most famous concubine-actress of Calcutta’s professional theatre, acting in Bankim Chandra’s Durgeshnandini in 1876.

The division between the prostitute and the housewife shadowed the life of the women on stage, and the roles they were allowed to play. Actresses could appear as goddesses or mythical heroines, even as the spirit of the motherland, but one particular role was off-limits. “It was unspeakably dangerous,” Sudipto Chatterjee argues persuasively in The Colonial Staged, “to allow the ‘homebreaker’ prostitute-actress, whose social role was to entertain the babus and lure them out of their homes, to portray the ‘homemaker’ on stage.” It is no wonder, then, that a large proportion of the productions were either mythological or historical, and only a small number were social realist plays. Mythical and historical heroines—such as in Girish Ghosh’s plays on episodes of Indian history or stories from The Mahabharata—transcended the lives of ordinary women, and of the housewives the audience did not wish to see played by prostitutes.

Vestiges of this attitude lasted well into the twentieth century. Goutam Mukherjee, who excelled in performing women’s roles, is now in his mid sixties. When I spoke to him this July, he dreamily recalled his performances as Jahanara in DL Roy’s Shah Jahan, as Punti in Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s Buro Shaliker Ghare Ro, and as Pasha in Anton Chekov’s The Chorus Girl, a play that captures the pathos of the lives of women in show business. A number of actors specialised in female roles, he told me, rattling off names such as Babli Rani, Chhobi Rani, Nondo Rani and Rakhal Rani. He assured me that any man could not help but lose his heart to Kanchon Rani if he saw him opposite Swapan Kumar in the play Kar Dosh, only to be bewildered at seeing the heroine transformed into a sharp young man in sunglasses smoking a cigarette the next morning. However, women who played women, Mukherjee said, bore the stigma of public performance. A famous but bitter actress, he recalled, once said that every playhouse should also have a birthing room, where actresses could bring into the world the endless stream of illegitimate babies they conceived as a price for being in the business.

Some men, for example the theatre veteran Goutam Mukherjee, specialised in playing women’s roles.

No doubt partly because they lacked the political and intellectual confidence of their counterparts in group theatre, professional actresses in commercial theatre never fully cast off the aura of scandal that surrounded their earliest predecessors—the women from the red-light districts who dared appear on the public stage. Ketaki Dutta’s reminiscences, published in 2006 as Ketaki Dutta: Nijer Kathay, Tukro Lekhay, chronicled the fears, vagaries, desperation and social derision faced by an actress on the professional stage in the mid and late twentieth century. These overshadowed the moments of genuine joy experienced by a fairly successful artist who was pledged to the theatre from childhood by virtue of being born to an actress, and endured the precarious poverty of life on the stage. Ironically, Dutta’s most famous part was in Barbadhu—a poetic coinage that translates roughly as “the outside wife”—a dramatisation of Subodh Ghosh’s eponymous short story in which an escort acts as a wife for men who need to appear married on social occasions. Barbadhu, which opened on 15 August 1972 and ran for 1,800 nights at a stretch despite being deemed obscene by many and panned by leftist intellectuals, was at once a comedy of errors, and a melancholy story of its female protagonist’s self-destructiveness.

Ketaki Dutta and Ashim Chakrabarty in Barbadhu, or “the outside wife.”

Particularly after the emergence of the group theatre movement, professional theatre came to be seen as a decadent, sleazy form of entertainment. Group theatre defined itself in opposition to the older tradition, and disavowed its profiteering. From its very beginning, the experimental methods of group theatre contrasted with the spectacular naturalism of professional theatre. Nabanna—or “the rice of the first harvest”—staged the suffering of millions during the 1943 Bengal famine and was the Indian People’s Theatre Association’s inaugural play, debuting in Calcutta in October 1944. With its articulation of a vigilant social conscience, sharp indictment of oppression and austere but lyrical aesthetic, the play anticipated the IPTA’s future trajectory to perfection. In Bengal, the tradition of “people’s” theatre began with three pioneering groups—Bohurupee, People’s Little Theatre and Nandikar—that championed the socialist ideal of artists as a group, as opposed to the cult of personality and star power that drove professional theatre.

Sources of money, support and livelihood varied widely between the two traditions. The men and women who made up group theatre often had day jobs and occasionally sponsored theatrical productions themselves. Most of the actors and actresses in the commercial playhouses of north Calcutta, however, made their living primarily from the theatre. Unlike the famous film stars who were paid handsomely to act on professional stages from the 1960s onward, many lesser-known professionals, who depended on the vagaries of the market and wavering popular tastes, had dark stories to tell. Especially intriguing were the lives of the actresses in professional theatre, which always veered between the artistic, the mercenary and the morally suspect.

In some ways, the relationship between group theatre and professional theatre paralleled the relationship between mainstream film and art-house cinema. But that is only part of the story. Group theatre started as an alternative and experimental form, with all the boldness and uncertainty that characterises underground genres. But it quickly found a hospitable nest in Calcutta’s left-leaning intellectual and artistic community, especially after the Communist-led Left Front came to power in 1977. Sitting in his cobwebbed playhouse, Amar Ghosh had lamented the government’s lack of support for Circarina. Yet theatre flourished under public patronage; it just wasn’t Ghosh’s kind of theatre. Neither the leftist intelligentsia nor the Left Front-led government had any interest in the professional theatre, which was ideologically, aesthetically and economically at odds with the principles behind the group theatre movement. It was the theatre of pleasure, not revolution.

Generous government grants for group theatre helped pay salaries, bear production costs, and subsidise tickets to the point that the genre was practically independent of market forces. In the decades following Independence, a number of architecturally innovative halls were built with

government support, commemorating the literary and theatrical figures of Bengal: Rabindra Sadan on Theatre Road, Sisir Mancha next to it, Madhusudhan Mancha in Dhakuria, and Girish Mancha in Bagbazar are among the best-known. These all became venues for the theatre of the left-leaning intellectual elite of Bengal. Simultaneously, the lights started to go out in an older set of playhouses—Rang Mahal, Minerva, Star, Rangana, Kashi Bishwanath, Biswarupa and Circarina—as professional theatre degenerated into seedy, poorly crafted commercial entertainment, from which middle-class audiences started turning away.

A 1933 production of the play Ashoka in Rang Mahal, a theatre that went defunct before it finally burned down in August 2001.

The suspicion of professional theatre also squared with the Communist government’s crusade against apasanskriti—cultural patterns variously considered lowbrow, vulgar or even obscene—enforced through moral and aesthetic policing by leftist parties in the 1980s. And, as the theatre archivist Kamal Saha pointed out to me, radical Marxism also inadvertantly dealt an earlier blow to the popularity of commercial playhouses during the Naxalite years, when the fear of street violence kept people away from the theatre.

Ultimately, the impossible expenses of north-Calcutta theatre—the costs of its spectacular naturalist sets, and the astronomical fees rumoured to be paid to the film stars recruited to draw in crowds—made it unsustainable even before television dealt the final blow. Theatre was no longer a profitable entertainment business; that role had passed on to other forms of media. As theatre owners tried ever more desperate tactics to win back audiences, the genre became even more suspect in the eyes of the government and middle-class people, who now began to stare at the old playhouses with the same fear and curiosity they reserved for the red-light district.

One example was the Pratap Mancha hall near Sealdah, south-east of the main theatre district of Hatibagan. Well into the 1990s, the billboards outside Pratap Mancha featured giant cut-outs of plump, aging dancers in glittering undergarments. My middle-class sensibilities were shamed at the very thought of entering such a place, but I remember my more adventurous high-school and college seniors laughing about the fat “mashis” who wove their way through the flimsy storylines, and the truckers and rickshaw-pullers who whistled and flung paise coins at them.

The decline into sordidness of once-innovative song and dance sequences encapsulates the fall of professional theatre. These sequences were introduced into professional theatre in the 1950s and 1960s, the heyday of cabaret in the old British quarters (a world evoked unforgettably in Shankar’s novel Chowringhee, which was adapted as a play for the professional stage with great success). Over the decades, many cabaret icons appeared on professional theatre stages in striking sequences. But the Left Front clamped down on cabarets in the 1970s, wiping out the essence of Calcutta’s nightlife. There were still some memorable sequences in the professional productions—Sudip Ghosh recalled the dramatisation of Shankar’s novel Samrat O Sundari at Circarina, where the revolving stage rose to open one scene with the cabaret dancer Miss Shefali swaying to music. The tradition continued even as late as 1991, when plays such as Ijjat, Ora KaraSudhu Ekti Raat and Sangam titillated audiences with bump-and-grind dances set to Bollywood music, performed by Miss Shefali, Miss Rinki, Miss Protima and Miss Romi. But by the late 1990s, these shabbily choreographed sequences became little more than sad bids for the attention of a disinterested audience.

Song and dance sequences, which once featured iconic cabaret dancers such as Miss J, became increasingly sordid.

Except for rare bouts of nostalgia, few mourned the loss of professional theatre. With it went some of the defining hues of the character of north Calcutta, and one of the most compelling chapters of the city’s decadent past—a past that failed, indeed did not even try, to adhere to the aesthetic vision of social progress imagined by leftist culture. After more than a hundred years in the limelight, Calcutta’s professional theatre became shadowed by scandal and suspicion. Finally the lights went out for good.

Saikat Majumdar is the author, most recently, of the novel, The Firebird (2015). He has also published a book of criticism, Prose of the World (2013), and an earlier novel, Silverfish (2007). He teaches world literature at Stanford University and is a visiting professor at Ashoka University.

Keywords: Calcutta IPTA professional theatre