Anti-Colonial Bengali Theater
Street theatre of colonial India was largely rebellious, depicting through satire and mythology, their dissent towards the colonial powers, and their hypocrisy. Particularly famed were Bengali and Marathi plays which spread like a secret wildfire in the 1870s, under the radar of the government which sought to extinguish them.
Jatra Being Performed By Women. Jatra Is A Form Of Folk-Theater. Source: Feminism In India

Instruments of India's Freedom Struggle

At a time of oppression, artistic freedom of expression falls in danger; literature and drama become more than just ways to pass the time or learn something. In India, they became ways to protest British rule. During the last part of British jurisdiction, politics couldn't be openly questioned, so writers and theater used tricks to get around the political rules of the time.

Theater helped build cultural nationalism by using mythology, classical literature, songs, and satires to talk about India's past glory. At the same time, by protesting against the way things were, it awoke people's consciences, especially in Bengal and Maharashtra, but also in other parts of India. The performances held a lot of power to change people's minds and spark their imaginations.

As British rule became more stable in the early 1800s, they built playhouses for their own entertainment. The educated and wealthy Indians in the Presidency towns, especially the Bengalis of Calcutta, emulated the British plays, though most of the early Bangla performances were in private. A new kind of inspiration bred among the new wave of writers as demand for theaters grew. "Kulin Kulascirvaswa" by Ram Narayan Tarkaratna was the first original Bangla play that could be called a protest play. It was written in 1853 and put on for the first time in 1857. It talked about poor social practices like polygamy among the Kulin Brahmans of Bengal, marrying very young girls to very old men so that they don't end up as spinsters, and men using dowries from multiple marriages to get rich. It was the first play to question indirectly the power of the Brahman caste system.

After 1870, both the benefits and drawbacks of British rule became clear to Indians. Education and exposure to new political ideas in the West, along with political repression in a worsening economic climate, led to a rise in political awareness, especially in Bengal, where the effects were felt most often. Up until 1870, the government did not seem to care at all about Indian drama, but after that, it attempted to regulate the ideas that began to take the main stage; mainly colonial oppression. On December 25, 1870, a clause against sedition was added to the Indian Penal Code. Actors in some of the plays were arrested because of this clause.

Scholars and intellectuals' research into India's past led to a new sense of pride in the country's history and a return of the self-confidence that had been broken by British rule. The cultural renaissance, which led to a lot of great literature, theater, and art, both helped and was helped by the political awakening. Both this discontent and the cultural growth were reflected in the Indian theater of the time.

The Great National Theatre of Calcutta put on an improvised play called "The Police of Pig and Sheep," which made clear references to police commissioner Hogg and superintendent of police Lamb. This led to the arrest of the theater's producers, Upendranath Das and others. However, the high court later found them not guilty. The Dramatic Performance Bill, which became a law after it was introduced in 1876, was the government's response. Even though obscenity was a big part of the Act, it is clear that it meant anything "anti-British." The Vernacular Press Act was passed two years later. It shut down the local press and made it illegal to print "politically seditious writing." Indian residents who were concerned about the situation protested. Playwrights used metaphor and mythology to convey the independence struggle's undercurrent.

When the satire "Gajadananda O Yubaraj" (Gajadananda and the Prince), which makes fun of the Prince of Wales's visit to the home of a famous Bengali lawyer and government loyalist, got the attention of the Government. Police warned against its staging, so it was put on under the name "Hanuman Charitra." In response, the government passed a law that banned plays that were scandalous, defamatory, seditious, obscene, or otherwise "prejudicial to the public interest."

A wide range of ideas and words, put together through the performative tools, were used to try to make people feel homogenous. Intellectuals got around the problem of the different identities clashing, or jati, by changing the source of self-identification from ethnicity to collective identity. The word for one's own people was atmiya svajan. People were given a 'jatiya bhab', or an emotional connection to their jati, which made it possible for them to imagine a political-territorial identity. So, jati became a social and cultural identity in which people saw themselves as part of a community because of the atmiya svajan connections that linked them. They linked how someone felt about their jati to how they felt about the social ties they shared. What seemed to be two very different ideas were actually used in a way that built on each other to form the basis of an indigenous self-knowledge. The word "svadesh" meant "one's own land or region" or "one's country" in a broad sense. Officials say that these performances used terms and references in a deliberate manner that only the audience could understand, excluding their oppressors in this manner.

Songs, theater, and jatra were all interwoven into the culture of the nation. They were altered to reflect the nationalist viewpoint. According to nationalist thought, Swadeshi-era media were idiomatic means of conveying political ideals through the arts. Therefore, performances were seen as a byproduct of the Great Bengali Revolution that enhanced Bengali culture. The "liminoid" genre of Swadeshi performances created a gap between the potentiality of what the future may look like and the present. It went against the laws and standards that were in place at the time. It enabled individuals to operate independently of the paradigms and ways of thinking that they had been socialized to accept. The artists and the audience were both active participants and not merely objects in this setting, which was controlled by the Bengali people rather than the loyalist government.

Ritika Komal Author
Ritika is a spiritual seeker who feels raising consciousness is a collective duty. She advocates authentic expression and self-actualization. Her roots are in Indian culture and she is on a journey to reconnect with the ancient wisdom.

You might be interested in reading more from

Colonialism

Fetching next story