It’s the 58th World Theatre Day today. On this day, the patrons of this art form honour the stage and celebrate the connection between actors and the audience. On this day, we cannot forget the rich heritage of ‘natok’ or theatre in Bengal. While theatre, in the broad sense of the word, is an art that has existed in India for a long time, the modern Bengali theatre – or, theatre in India, on the whole – has a British origin, with Shakespeare’s impact being undeniable.
Gerasim Steppanovich Lebedeff, a Russian adventurer, was the pioneer of theatre in Bengal. He established the Bengalee Theatre in 1795 at Dompara, Ezra Street. The actual theatre does not exist anymore. He was the first to make use of Bengali actors in his plays. His translated version of The Disguise was the first theatre to be staged here, followed by his second translation, Love is the Best Doctor.
World Theatre Day: Shakespearean Magic on Bengal’s Stage
But the first dramatist to present Shakespeare’s work on the stage in Bengal was Dinabandhu Mitra, with the adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor as Navin Tapaswini, in 1866. This was a result of the culture prevalent in the erstwhile Hindu College, where Shakespeare was studied extensively. This was before even the Englishmen themselves had begun staging Shakespeare’s plays in the local theatres.
Shakespeare’s works have been frequently adapted in Bengali. Rudrapal (1874) based on Macbeth; Bhanumati Chhitavilash (1853) and Durlabh Bandhu (1880) based on Merchant of Venice; Bhimshingha (1874) based on Othello; Shushila Virshingh (1867) and Charumukha Chittahara (1864), based on Romeo and Juliet, and Raja Lear (2010) based on King Lear are some of the most famous adaptations of Shakespeare.
Even the songs of Shakespeare’s plays have repeatedly inspired some of the best dramatists and their works. At the “Songs from Shakespeare” event of the Shakespeare Birthday Festivals, co-founder of the only Shakespeare society in India and co-editor of Theatre International Dattareya Dutt performed such Shakespeare-inspired music, translating the Bard’s songs following the original tunes.
Over the decades, the works of Michael Madhusudan Dutta, Jyotirindranath Tagore, Girish Ghosh, Sombhu Mitra, Sisir Bhaduri, Utpal Dutt, and a host of other theatre-patrons continued to carry the legacy of love for Shakespeare on the stages of Bengal. The repertoire of plays performed at this theatre included Hamlet, Richard III, The School for Scandal, The Comedy of Beaux Stratagem, She Would and Would Not, etc., were repeatedly performed with excellence. Eventually, the art that was brought by the English to Bengal spread to the other corners of India.
Today, on World Theatre Day, as luminaries like Soumitra Chatterjee, Rudraprasad Sengupta and Shaoli Mitra have passed the baton to Goutam Halder, Debshankar Halder, Sohini Sengupta, and the like, it is safe to say that the legacy of Shakespeare and Lebedeff is in good hands in Bengal, thriving with its very own, distinct flavour.