The year 1860 holds great significance for Dhaka’s cultural history. It saw the first printing press—Bangla Mudran Jantra—being set up in Dhaka, the publication of the first ever Bangla novel Nil Darpan, and also the introduction of Dhaka’s first periodical Kabita Kusumabali. It is assumed that the advent of drama and theatre in Dhaka took place in 1860 as well.
There is no hard evidence of the commencement of theatric performances in Dhaka in 1860; but in 1861, news of the drama performance of Nil Darpan appeared in the English newspaper The Bengal Hurkaru and Chronicle. The news read: “The Dacca Correspondent writes…‘our native friends entertain themselves with occasional theatric performances, and the performance of Nil Darpan was one of these occasions.’”
This excerpt implies that theatrical performances were in practice in Dhaka even before Nil Darpan’s staging in 1861. It can be assumed that the youth’s enthusiasm caused the initiation of theatrical performances in the city in 1860. On the basis of this information, writer and historian Muntassir Mamoon believes that, “1860 was the year that the journey of theatre in Dhaka began.”
The city’s journey with drama and theatre began with the inauguration of Dhaka’s first theatre group, Purbabanga Rangabhumi, possibly established in the year 1865.
Shishir Kumar Basak, in an article, makes the assumption that the East Bengal Dramatic Hall was established in Dhaka in 1865 (Bangla year 1272). Muntassir Mamoon deems this information inaccurate. Given that there is no proof of any other theatre performance being staged there before Manmohan Bose’s play Ramabhishek in 1872, Mamoon suggests that a permanent theatre may have been built in Dhaka sometime between 1870-72.
Purbabanga Rangabhumi was situated right where Jagannath University stands today. On one side of the theatre was Mondi Shahib er Kuthi (residence of Mondi Shahib) and on the other side was Purbabanga Brahma Shomaj, both of whom would later play a pivotal role in the theatre’s existence. Rangabhumi’s founders included Mohoni Mohon Das, Abhay Das, Durgacharan Bandyopadhyay, Motilal Chakraborty, Mahesh Ganguly, and Ram Chakraborty.
According to the memoir of Kolkata playwright and stage actor Amrita Lal Basu, Purbabanga Rangabhumi had a fixed stage. Basu had arrived with his theatre crew in Dhaka between May and June 1873 to perform Nil Darpan on the ornate platform. An artist from Kolkata had done a splendid job in painting its backdrop. No other information exists about the appearance of the stage, except that it could presumably hold at least 1,000 people. According to a news excerpt from Amrita Bazar Patrika dated September 30, 1875, the Bikrampur Hitshadhini Shobha had organised a conference to honour the renowned Wrangler barrister Ananda Mohan Bose; the event was held at Rangabhumi and hosted nearly 1,000 people.
On March 18, 1872 Amrita Bazar Patrika publicised a theatre performance: “…Dhaka’s youth is quite enthusiastic. They are pouring their heart and soul into the theatre performance, and so there is a possibility of the performance being great. We attended one of their performances and believe that their work is amazing…The theatre crew consists of some distinguished individuals of Dhaka. Since it might affect their moral upbringing, students were not allowed to attend the performance.”
I would argue that the play in question is Nil Darpan—note that the news excerpt does not mention the play’s name. It may have been omitted in light of writer and missionary James Long being fined for publishing Nil Darpan in English, which prohibited the play from being openly publicised in the news. It could also be because Nil Darpan was considered inappropriate for school-going children, especially in comparison to Ramabhishek, which students had to pay only half price to watch.
Ramabhishek was performed at Purbabanga Rangabhumi on March 30, 1872. The April 4, 1872 issue of Amrita Bazar Patrika read: “A large number of people gathered to watch the performance. A large number of prominent Muslims, Dhaka’s District Superintendent, Mr. Pogoj, and a few other Christians were in attendance and were greatly satisfied with the performance. The Superintendent was so pleased that he said he would invite his wife to attend future performances.”
Dhaka Prakash newspaper also covered this performance extensively. In the first sentence of the coverage (excerpt below), the use of the word “again” is of particular significance—it implies the prior existence of a drama culture in the country.
“Instead of distasteful jatra performances, the country has again introduced pure entertainment in the form of drama. There is no doubt that everyone enjoyed the performance. The play Ramabhishek was first performed on stage at Purbabanga Rangabhumi on Chaitra 18. The play itself is intriguing, and when acted out by skilled performers, it was bound to satisfy all audiences. King Dasharatha and his Queen’s childbirth and lamentation, Ram’s devotion towards his father and his grave attitude, Lakshman’s heroism and devotion towards his brother, Sita’s devotion towards her husband and request to journey to the woods with her husband, Manthara’s dishonest advice to Kaikeyi and this ill advice causing Kaikeyi to have second thoughts etc. were all scenes that were played out well. In the past, many used to compare theatre performances to jatra. Perhaps, everyone has changed their minds now.
Secondly, the sets are beautiful. They make you feel as though you have been transported back to the time of the play. The scenes feel so realistic that you might forget you are watching a performance. The locations in the play, such as the shore of a river in Dhaka, are portrayed in such a way that the audience feels as though they can see the real places in front of their eyes.
Thirdly, the assembled musical was also pleasing to the ears. Since the first performance has been so wonderful, it can be expected that future performances will live up to the same standards. We thank those who took initiative for this theatre performance.”
(Dhaka Prakash, 26 Chaitra, 1278, 6 April, 1871)”
Ramabhishek was performed every Saturday for four weeks consecutively at Purbabanga Rangabhumi. On April 21, 1872, the Dhaka Prakash read:
“Yesterday, the play Ramabhishek was performed at Rangabhumi for the fourth time. This will be the last performance for the public.”
The play, however, proved to be widely popular, and so returned to the stage a few weeks later. The Dhaka Prakash on May 12, 1872 announced: “Ramabhishek was performed again at Purbabanga Rangabhumi yesterday. Due to the comedy Jamai Barik being performed right after, the last part of Ramabhishek was scrapped. As always, the performance was amazing. The fight between Bagi and Brindi over their husbands, and the thief’s comedic answers made Jamai Barik quite entertaining. Bagi’s character was portrayed so perfectly as a quarrelsome wife, that a querulous woman in reality would have been embarrassed to witness the scenes. Ramayan and Gaji’s songs were hilarious. One particular comic character in the play had attracted the utmost attention of the audience. This time, students of grades two and three were allowed entry for half the price.”
The play was doubly special because, during its performance, the ticket sales system was first introduced. Prior to this, money was raised in order to organise these performances, and only friends, family and important guests were invited to watch. This meant that many people interested in drama were denied the opportunity of watching theatre performances. That is exactly why Dhaka’s theatre organisers introduced the ticket sales system.
Tickets worth one taka, two taka, four taka, and five taka were sold for the Ramabhishek play. Even distinguished individuals were not exempt from purchasing tickets. The District Superintendent Mr Pogoj purchased a five taka ticket. At the end of the play, he said, “The five taka that was spent on buying the tickets was put to good use.”
This system was also encouraged in the newspaper: “Advertising for theatre performances in our country is only done among friends. Not everyone can go and watch performances when they please. However, Dhaka’s performances will not remain this way. The organisers will sell tickets for the performances...They will use the money raised from tickets to organise more performances in the country. This system will do good for the country. This will also increase the incomes of people without hurting their pride.”
The ticket sales system was a breakthrough for Bangla theatre history. In 1795, Kolkata’s first Bangla drama was performed through the personal efforts of Russian writer and theatre personality Gerasim Lebedev, but it was not an isolated incident in Bangla theatre history. Theatre performances had begun mainly in 1833. Before the National Theatre was built in Kolkata in December 1872, the era before it was labelled “the era of non-professional theatre.” During this period, theatre performances were mainly executed by the enthusiasm and support of modern, inherently rich individuals. Anyone who was not invited could not attend the performance. The general public was denied of theatre performances, among so many other things in life. After the establishment of the National Theatre in 1872, the general public finally became a part of the theatre scene.
The ticket sales system introduced during Ramabhishek performances at Purbabanga Rangabhumi inspired the National Theatre to adopt it too. Purbabanga Rangabhumi was therefore a pioneer of this system.
The sale of tickets, however, was not profit-driven. The main objective was to break away from the shackles of trying to impress rich people and listening to their requests regarding content. This also led to the formation of various theatre societies and groups, and inspired playwrights to write more screenplays.
The golden age of Bangla drama began after the establishment of the general theatre. The works of playwrights Amrita Lal Basu, Kshirode Prasad Vidyavinode, Atulkrishna Mitra, Girish Chandra Ghosh, and Dwijendralal Ray were developed surrounding the general theatre.
In 1871, a drama society named Pride of Bengal Theatre was formed. This group rented Purbabanga Rangabhumi to begin their theatre endeavours. Bayyambir (Bodybuilder) Pareshnath Ghosh, Bayyambir (Bodybuilder) Shaymkanto Babu, Radhamadhob Chakraborty, Dr Rajeshwar Chakraborty, Dwarkanath Chakraborty, Gyanendra Shankar Ray, Akomol Khan, Yusuf Khan were all part of this society. Sarat Sarojini by Upendra Nath Das, Sarojini by Jyotirindranath Tagore, and Meghnad Badh by Madhusudan Dutta were some of the plays performed by the Pride of Bengal Theatre.
Another notable aspect of Rangabhumi’s history was the many different drama performances by Kolkata’s National Theatre Company. At the beginning of May 1873, Amrita Lal Basu, along with his Hindu National Theatre Company, arrived in Dhaka and stayed there for nearly a month to perform a few plays. They were particularly praised for their performances of Nil Darpan and Nobo Natok.
In his memoir, Amrita Lal Basu talked about the performance of Nil Darpan in the following way: “Dhaka city had a fixed stage. Without wasting much time, we went and performed Nil Darpan on that stage. Nawab Bari’s band and Mohini Babu’s concert provided us with assistance. People from all walks of life from the city came to watch our performance—Kali Prasanna Ghosh, Abhoy Das, Dr Kedarnath Ghosh, Joint Magistrate Rampini, Police Superintendent Wetheral, and many others attended. We were done in just one night.”
One member of audience of the performance wrote a positive review about it in the Amrita Bazar Patrika: “I cannot put into words how wonderful the acting was. The four hours we spent watching the performance made us feel so much better.”
Following Hindu National Theatre, the National Theatre of Girish Chandra Ghosh also came to perform in Dhaka. Ardhendu Sekar managed the group in Ghosh’s absence. However, due to some of the performers falling ill with fever, the National Theatre’s performance in Dhaka did not gain much traction.
Possibly around 1882, the three sisters, Gunnubai, Annubai and Nobaron decided to initiate Hindi drama performances at Purbabanga Rangabhumi. Their efforts led to the plays Indra Shobha and Jadu Nagar being performed there. This was the first time that women would perform in theatre in Dhaka, and tickets were sold for their performance as well.
Alas, the historic theatre would soon go out of use. Some non-professional theatre groups had been formed in Dhaka in 1881, such as Nawabpur Amateur Theatre Company and Tatibazar Theatre Company, and a competition was held between drama societies of different regions. Each society built stages in its own area to show support for its respective region, performing various plays there. This took work out of the Rangabhumi’s hands. The theatre, by then, was also in dire need of renovation, which finally began in 1884.
The Dhaka Prakash published two news reports about this. The first said:
“The ruling committee of Purbabanga Rangabhumi said in a meeting last Wednesday that Tk 8,000 has been raised for renovations to allow performances to resume. The play Uttar Charit has been nominated to be performed. Purbabanga Rangabhumi is the town hall of Dhaka and most of the meetings are held here. Therefore, it must be preserved.”
The second report stated: “Many respectable and wealthy individuals of Dhaka are trying to return to performing at Purbabanga Rangabhumi. It has been decided that the play Uttar Ramcharit will be performed next. Dhaka’s general committee meetings are usually held at Purbabanga Rangabhumi. The negligence of the founders has caused many complaints. If renovations take place in order to restart performances, it will forge a way for Rangabhumi to remain standing for a long time, and this will greatly benefit both the drama scene and Dhaka city in general.”
A 19th century professional drama society named Crown Theatre tore down the old hall of Purbabanga Rangabhumi and constructed a new one. This hall was named Natokghor. When a provincial committee was formed in 1898, its conference was held at Natokghor, and the venue was decorated grandly for the occasion.
Dhaka Prakash described the event as follows: “Natokghor has been selected as the venue for the provincial committee conference. A few days later, panelling was done to extend the venue. The place was adorned with colourful paper flower decorations. The decorations inside represented the artistic glory of Dhaka, but unfortunately, the entryway outside did not reflect this.”
Crown Theatre first started performing with a local actress; then they brought in actresses from Kolkata. Plays engaging both male and female actors gained much popularity. However, these performances lasted all night, and so the upper-class citizens of Dhaka spoke out in criticism. At the south of Rangabhumi was Purbabanga Brahma Shomaj, and on the east lived an official of Dhaka Bank and principal of Dhaka College, Mondi Shahib. He filed complaints against the theatre claiming disruption of health and peace. The Dhaka Magistrate, as a result, set a curfew of 11pm for theatre performances. This adversely affected the Crown Theatre and forced them to shift locations to Islampur. Thus, the existence of Purbabanga Rangabhumi came to an end.
All this while, as the Crown Theatre’s business was booming, another theatre company in Dhaka called the Diamond Jubilee Theatre had been formed. Both Crown and Diamond Jubilee Theatre were professional groups, and they competed with each other. This encouraged both companies to bring in new performers and introduce exquisite dances. Both the companies lasted for the first few decades of the 20th century.
The purpose of this article wasn’t to state the history of theatre in Dhaka. We wanted, instead, to shed light on how Purbabanga Rangabhumi gave rise to the drama and theatre scene of Dhaka. Both professional and non-professional theatre groups performed on the permanent stage of Rangabhumi and on other temporary stages, and this development was crucial to Dhaka’s cultural history. The fact that other playwrights of East Bengal were inspired by Dhaka’s playwrights to delve into the world of theatre performances is a valuable feat. The influence of Dhaka Prakash in this journey is also notable. Dhaka Prakash used to believe that the plays of the people of East Bengal should be performed in the theatres of Dhaka. On this, the newspaper wrote: “Plays written by the people of East Bengal are performed at Dhaka’s Crown Theatre, but the same cannot be said for Diamond. We do not believe in unnecessary flattery, however, we give credit where it is due… The people of East Bengal funded the theatres of East Bengal, therefore, if the theatre performances have no moral value for the people, then the educated society will not be interested in watching them.”
Dr Muhammad Abdul Quayyum is a leading researcher of Bengali language and literature in Bangladesh. He is the former head of Department of Bangla at Jahangirnagar University.
The article first appeared in a book titled Unish Shatake Dhakar Sahitya o Samskriti [Dhaka Nagar Jadughar: 1990]