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  • The Colonial Staged: Theatre in Colonial Calcutta by Sudipto Chatterjee
  • Kristen Rudisill
THE COLONIAL STAGED: THEATRE IN COLONIAL CALCUTTA. By Sudipto Chatterjee. London: Seagull Books, 2007. xiii + 318 pp. Paper, $26.96.

Chatterjee’s The Colonial Staged takes a comprehensive and critical look at theatre in colonial Calcutta combined with a thoughtful theoretical approach to colonialism in general. He brings the historical material to life with engaging anecdotes and auto/biographical material from actors, playwrights, directors, [End Page 683] and producers of the time combined with the voices of many reviewers and writers of editorials. These include Michael Madhusudan Datta, Girish Chandra Ghosh, Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedeff, James Barry, Amrita Lal Basu, Binodini Dasi, Sourindramohan Thakur, and many others. One of the real strengths of the book is Chatterjee’s gift for storytelling, which he supplements with his precision and care as a historian. He is able to take the information he uncovers through his research and place it in the larger context of colonialism while simultaneously pulling figures out of the nineteenth century and making them real to readers by including bits of their autobiographies and interviews and sharing details about such things as their family circumstances, religious and political affiliations, and financial situations. The book includes a number of anecdotes that reveal personalities as well as notes from performances that together provide a thorough and engaging narrative of Bengali theatre in that era.

The book does feel long at times, and this is partly because Chatter-jee is trying to do the work of what could easily be two books in a single volume. Chronologically, The Colonial Staged covers approximately two hundred years of material spanning from the mid-eighteenth century, when theatre in Calcutta was either British or folk, through the Bengali renaissance (which he dates from 1795 until the last quarter of the nineteenth century), to the mid-twentieth century, when India gained its independence. He discusses everything from Sanskrit and English plays and imitations of them to Bengali plays, social problem plays, nationalist political plays, farces, jatra (Bengali folk theatre), pantomimes, and pancharanga (literally, “five colors,” referring to short, satirical, solo improvised pantomimes embellished with music and dance). Additionally, because much of the history of colonial Calcutta theatre had not previously been collected in one place, Chatterjee’s text is dense, including specific historical details then connecting them to the larger issues of colonialism, class, nationalism, hybridity in performance, and intercultural performance with which he is concerned.

Much of the theatre in colonial Calcutta was produced by the intelligentsia, or babu, class. Chatterjee states that he has “examined and dissected the ‘biography’ of a class of people who lived interculturally … often with little agency to choose and more often without a conscious awareness of making those choices and their consequences in the pursuit of modernist clarity” (p. 285). This community struggled to negotiate its complex position, situated between the colonial rulers and other native Indians. Eventually, a hybrid theatre developed, but that took many years, attempts, and missteps, all of which are detailed in this volume. Each stage of this journey played out the power dynamics of colonial rule, mimicking the historical stages of colonialism with all its inherent contradictions. The babus tried to speak for all Indians against their colonial rulers, but they were complicit and directly involved in the oppression of the lower classes. They attempted to not only please their colonial rulers, but also to break free from them. Chatterjee is quite sensitive to the many contradictions experienced by this class during this time and astutely identifies these dislocations where they emerge through [End Page 684] performance. He relates stories from specific performances, but also gives lengthy analyses of particular plays, quoting dialogue and summarizing plot lines from both better-known (such as Bilwamangal Thakur by Girish Chandra Ghosh, which tells of the eponymous and sensuous saint [1886], the 1872 anti-colonial play Neel Darpan [Mirror of Indigo], and the love story Bidya-Sundar [1835]) and lesser-known (such as Kulinkulasarbaswa [Tarkaratna’s 1857 social satire on the polygamous practices of the kulin Brahmins] and Dinabadhu’s Lilabati [1871]) plays.

The journey from Bengali folk theatre and British plays to...