In Search of Binodini…. A story of positive displacement


Kolkata recently paid tribute to the great actresses of the Kolkata stage who rose from their ashes of their inglorious past to carve a niche for themselves in Bengali theatre. Shoma A. Chatterji reports on the contribution of these ostracised women to the evolution of Bengali theatre and their story of positive displacement.

Displacement” is not necessarily a word that has negative connotations of tragedy, poverty, unemployment, etc. In 19th century Bengal, when women began to play female roles on the public proscenium, they were all drawn from the red light areas of the city such as Sonagachi. Many among them rose, like Phoenix, from the ashes of their inglorious past to carve their names in the history of Bengali theatre. The red light area formed the resource base because performing in public space was taboo for women of bhadralok (civilised and respectable) society.

This created a displacement of girls and women like Binodini Dasi, who is today, considered to be a legend in Bengali theatre. But she was not the only one. Before her, there were other actresses like Nori Sundari Dasi, Rajkumari, Lakshmi, Narayani, Kusum Kumari, Sukumari Dutta, Kshetramoni and after her, there is a long list of actresses like Tarasundari, Angoorbala, Indubala, Teencowrie Sushilabala, Kanakbala (Chhaya Debi) who became a noted character actress in Bengali and Hindi films later on, Kanan Devi, the most famous among them all.

The practice continued even when the form and content of proscenium performances changed and mainstream women entered spaces of public performance with actresses Ketaki Dutta and Keya Chakraborty, a theatre actress and English professor who died tragically in a drowning accident during the shooting of a film. They too came from the ostracised pockets of the city of Calcutta. They became outstanding performers and singers of different styles of music and occasionally, played multiple roles in the same play.

From the oppressed, marginalised and ghettoised position of sex workers living in the red light neighbourhood of Kolkata, these venerable women became stars of the Bengali stage.

Their contribution to the evolution of Bengali theatre beginning after mid- 19th century to well into the 20th century is a story of positive displacement. Their performances drew good crowds and wonderful press reviews. But they remained socially ostracised because of their roots which spilled over into their new professions also. But the best thing about them is that not one of them was ashamed of her roots. Some were quite vocal about the pride they felt about the roots they came from and prouder when they had a different kind of clientele in the shape of their fans, audience members and ‘Babus’ who ‘kept’ them as mistresses. Time, change and history have wiped out the social ostracism and have bestowed their contribution with the honour and the prestige they deserve.

Resurrection of a past era

‘In Search of Binodini’ was a resurrection of this past era, flush with women in theatre who belonged to the oldest profession in the world. ‘Binodini’r Khonje – The Songstress’ was presented as a well-orchestrated and beautifully conceived entertainment programme initiated and presented by noted music historian and singer Riddhi Bandopadhyay. “Our aim was to bring alive a bygone era veiled in mystery and debauchery. The Songstress is a harmonious and aesthetic blend of song, dance, recitation and commentary,” said Riddhi, adding, “The songs will be sung by me and Mita Mandal, a girl rescued from the red light areas and trained in music by Sonagachi Komol Gandhar, the cultural wing of Durbar Mahila Samanway Committee, one of the biggest organisations of sex workers in the East. Durbar is a collective of 65,000 sex workers. It was founded in 1992 in Sonagachi, the largest red-light neighbourhood in Kolkata where an estimated 11,000 sex workers practice their trade.”

The recitation and the commentary were presented by noted recitation artists Bijoylakshmi Burman and Anindita Kaji along with Sarashi Chakraborty. But the USP were the group dance performances presented by 15 girls and boys of Komol Gandhar who are practically born into the sex trade and are trying to gain a life of respect and dignity. This was a unique example of a young generation of ostracised young men and women paying a live, cultural tribute to women who rose in the same trade ages ago. “It is both inspirational as well as a celebration of their predecessors who rose from the dredges of their lives to bring respect to theatre as an art form.

The dances were embellished with beautiful, aesthetically designed costumes and good choreography and good execution. Bijoylakshmi Burman and her peers in commentary went back to days of revolution in Bengal – widow remarriage, the Blue revolt, the abolition of Sati and also quoted from Kaliprasanna Singha’s famous Hutum Panchaar Naksha satirically, going to trace the various styles of music the actresses were skilled in – dhop, toppa, kheud, khemta and many more and later also trained in modern Bengali music of renowned poets such as Michael Madhusudan Dutta and so on.

A tribute to the great actresses of the Kolkata stage

Their personal tragedies remained the same because they continued to be sexually exploited by men within the theatre groups from financiers to directors to theatre owners. They tolerated it because by then, they were so dedicated to theatre that they were prepared to pay any price for the theatre performances to continue. The treatment of mainstream society towards them as social outcasts did not change. In retrospect however, we have realised the true essence of these women. Says Riddhi: “These children from Sonagachi born into the trade face the same stigma their mothers and grandmothers encountered in their lifetime as they too belong to the red light areas of the city. This is a humble attempt to bring these girls and boys within the cultural mainstream of Bengal. It is also a tribute to the great actresses of the Kolkata stage whose roots were in the red light areas but rose from the ashes of their humiliation and oppression to gain recognition and fame for their acting and in music.”

The presentation was like a journey moving between and among songs, commentary and dance performances. The commentary was flush with the history of these great stalwarts and their contribution to Bengali theatre. Anindita Kaji recited her grandfather Nazrul’s famous poem dedicated to sex workers called Barangana (prostitute) investing it with the emotional nuance it demanded. Critical comments such as Binodini’s struggle to resurrect star theatre through the good offices of her Babu but forgotten to being renamed as “B” theatre or, the intriguing questions around Keya Chakraborty’s untimely death by drowning were interwoven into the programme.

Who is Binodini?

Binodini Dasi (1863-1941) became a phenomenal star of the Bengali stage during the era of the famous Girish Ghosh. But like many of her peers in theatre, she was forced to depend on patrons and protectors as her benefactors. Even her mentor and guru Girish Ghosh persuaded her to become the mistress of a rich Marwari businessman, Gurmukh Rai when the theatre fell into bad days and the owner wanted to pull down the shutters. As a way of expressing her gratitude to
her guru on the one hand and to save the theatre on the other, she agreed. The businessman kept his promise of building a theatre house for the company. His only condition was that the theatre house should be called B-Theatre. But his wish was sacrificed in favour of the name Star Theatre because a theatre named after a fallen woman would draw neither audience nor prestige. Ironically, this theatre was bulldozed many years later for widening Beadon Street, where it stood. The Star Theatre that exists today is a different one.

BINODINI RACHANA SANGRAHA, a book edited by Debjit Bandopadhyay, one of the most outstanding theatre researchers in the country and specialising in Bengali theatre music, edited this collection of writings by Binodini. He founded Academy Theatre in Kolkata which is one of the greatest theatre libraries of books, documents, letters, records, DVDs, CDs, old gramophone records, song booklets, and the works. Binodini Rachana Samagra was released in Kolkata a week before In Search of Binodini was presented. The book is complimented with an audio CD of around 20 songs titled Binodini Gatha which were sung by Binodini for her various stage performances. Academy Theatre managed to record the songs in the voices of Hemanta Mukherjee, Ramkumar Chattopadhyay, Lopamudra Mitra and many others. Published by Patrabharati, this 300 page book in Bengali is a veritable treasure house of the history of Bengali theatre during Binodini’s time and after also and is a collector’s item for music lovers, theatre-astes, theatre practitioners, academic researchers and so on. Besides the entire texts of the two books Binodini authored, the prologue if filled with reproductions of advertisement posters, photographs and sketches of Binodini in her varied costumes for different plays, and even an advertisement and beautiful photograph of Suchitra Sen of a film on Binodini with Sen playing the title role that was never made. News reports, reviews of plays Binodini acted in, reports, anecdotes make for a multilayered book that offers much more than the life of Binodini. But what takes one’s breath away is the fluent language and style of Binodini herself. And she never stepped within the four walls of a formal school. It is not for nothing that Debojit Bandopadhyay has chosen to label her as a ‘legend.’

She became more famous than the others because she charted a great stage history by packing in around 90 characters across 80 plays within the short span of 12 years. In Meghnad Badh, authored by Michael Madhusudan Dutta, she played six roles. Her performance in the title role in Chaitanya Leela became so spiritually rich that intellectuals like Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Edwin Arnold, author of Light of Asia, theosophist Col. Olcott appreciated it and Ramkrishna Paramhamsa blessed her after a show he attended.

But the greatest reason that her name is now associated with academic research, books, films and biographical plays on her life is that she taught herself to read and write Bengali and has left behind a treasury of memories of her theatre days in two autobiographies, Amar Katha (My Story) and the unfinished Amar Abhinetri Jeebon (My Life as an Actress). These works have been translated into English and provide a rich framework of reference on Bengali theatre and on Binodini’s life. She also taught herself English later and read books on make-up in English to get her make-up right. She also wrote two books of poems. “From her own writing, one gets the picture of a highly sensitive, determined and emotional woman,” writes theatre critic Kironmoy Raha (Bengali Theatre, National Book Trust, 1978.) Binodini has recorded in her works how she often fainted while performing, so great was the emotional strain of depicting sustained ecstasy.

While Binodini, considered to be god-gifted in music, learnt the rudiments of classical music under Gangabai who came to live in her neighbourhood, Tarasundari and Angoorbala trained themselves in Nazrul Geeti performing rigorous riyaaz every day at the break of dawn. Tincowrie Dasi was illiterate. But when she essayed the role of Lady Macbeth in Girish Ghosh’s production of Macbeth, her performance was outstanding. Though the play was a commercial flop, Tincowrie had arrived on the Calcutta stage. She kept changing from one theatre group to another but proved her worth as an actor in demanding roles of Jana, Hamida and Lachmania. Tara Sundari, younger than Tincowrie, appeared as a child in Chaitanya Leela. She became a much-in-demand actress and continued to work for 30 long years. She achieved the top place by her hard work, determination and willingness to learn. Her name became synonymous with Rezia and nationalist leader Bipin Chandra Pal said, “he had not seen Tara Sundari’s equal as an actress in the theatres of Europe and America,” wrote theatre scholar Aparesh Mukherjee.

The journey from Kanan Bala (1916 – 1992) to Kanan Devi was not just in the change of name but was a real symbol of Kanan Devi’s rise from the infamous bylanes and ghettoes of Kolkata to recognition and respectability both as star-actress-singer as well as a respectable citizen of the city. The only star and actress who reigned supreme in Bengali cinema before Suchitra Sen was Kanan Bala who later became Kanan Devi. Kanan Devi created her own banner Shreemati Pictures in 1949 and produced around a dozen films between 1949 and 1965.

From the oppressed, marginalised and ghettoised position of sex workers living in the red light neighbourhood of Kolkata, these venerable women became stars of the Bengali stage. Though this did not change the social status quo of their personal lives, this definitely found them a place in the annals of cultural evolution in theatre in Bengal. This is a unique example of positive displacement if not in terms of social acceptance in their time, then in terms of historical recognition and cultural acknowledgement for infinity.


Shoma Chatterji

The writer is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards. She is currently Senior Research Fellow, ICSSR, Delhi researching the politics of presentation of working women in post-colonial Bengali cinema 1950 to 2003.