Sajano Baghan: A spectacular celebration of Bengali theatre heritage in Australia

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By Indranil Halder

After a sumptuous Saturday breakfast at Luke’s Kitchen in an exquisite and luxurious Art Deco Kimpton Margot Sydney hotel, Rini Halder Chakravarty and I enjoyed a morning walk at Elizabeth Bay. Rini invited me to Sajano Baghan, a Bengali theatre which was to be performed at the 20 hectares Bella Vista Farm in New South Wales, Australia.

Development of Bengali Opera/Theatre Culture:

The history of Indian theatre goes back to the mythological or the Vedic culture but it is in 1694, the port city of Calcutta ( also known as Kolkata), had British East India Company (EIC) exporting materials such as silk, opium and indigo while importing modern Opera and theatres. The first theatre in Calcutta, is said to be The Playhouse. Built in 1753. Then in 1775, near the Northern section of Clive Street, stood Calcutta Theatre. Founded by the auctioneer George Williamson. There were 132 performances which included Hamlet in 1784. The Calcutta theatre movement saw the establishment of the Great National Theater in 1873. It stood at the site of Minerva Theatre. The first play held was Macbeth. Owned initially by Nagendra Bhusan Mukhopaddhaya. In 1813, the Chowringhee Theater in Calcutta became a hub of social activities ‘for Calcutta’s elite would gather here every evening for gossip and drinks, whether there was a performance on the bills or not,’ according to Dr Dhrubajyoti Banerjea, author of European Calcutta , Images and Recollections of A Bygone Era.

‘Calcutta’s changing economy and demographic is no mere coincidence, for it was the changing attitude to empire, and the consequent shifts in politics and society that made the theatre a viable business venture for the first time in Calcutta,’ said Esmeralda Monique Antonia Rocha in her thesis Imperial Opera: The nexus between opera and imperialism in Victorian Calcutta and Melbourne, 1833–1901.

In 1873, Calcutta opera culture took a different form too. Work such as Sati ki Kalankini, mixed traditional Bengali music- theatrical traditions (such as the jatra) with Western music-theatrical influences. Amongst the Western influences saw a greater employment of mechanic scenes and sets, the use of a conductor and a larger band, were also included. Great National Opera was supported by Calcutta’s Bengali babu class extensively too.

Calcutta Opera scene became diverse and inclusive. Provided broader base of patronage and secure opera’s future. Colonel Wyndham benevolently extended operatic culture to native Bengalis. In 1874–75, the Great National Opera was established by illustrious Bengali Nagendranath Banerjee. Aimed to provide public performances of newly-composed Bengali music- theatre works, exposed Bengali art to a much wider audience and to invigorate Bengal’s cultural pride.

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Ghari Bari’ in 279 Rabindra Sarani,North Kolkata was an important milestone for National Theatre in India. It was Madhusudan Sanyal’s home. On December, 1872, legendary playwright Dinabandhu Mitra ‘Nil Darpan’ (‘Indigo Mirror’). The play highlighted the plight oppressed workers in British indigo planters in India. According to Mathures Paul from Kolkata, “On November 20, 1872, ‘The Englishman’ newspaper carried a report on ‘A Native Theatrical Society’: “A few native gentlemen of Baghbazar have established a Theatrical Society, named The Calcutta National Theatrical Society. Dinabandhu Mitra’s comic play ‘Jamai Barik’ was also staged here. Before monsoon set in, ‘Biye Pagla Buro’ and ‘Krishna Kumari’ found an audience here. “

In 21st century, many Calcutta theatres such as Star Theatre, The Minerva, The Classic Theatre and Girish Mancha are staging excellent performances. Many theatres such as Theatre Royal, Grand Opera House or Empire Theatre are history. Calcutta also never had London’s theatre district or West End or New York’s Theater District due to lack of vision, understanding and partition of financial rich Bengal. Even then the Bengali sentiment of enjoying theatre remains constant in West Bengal, India and Bangladesh. Today, Bengali theatre genre includes Calcutta or city based theatre, folk theatre and ‘Jatra’. Notable Bengali theatre personalities in both India and Bangladesh such as Abdullah Al Mamun, Binodini Dasi, Debshankar Halder, Girish Chandra Ghosh, Tripti Mitra, Manoj Mitra and Utpal Dutt.

In Australia, Bengali communities across different states annually organise both individual theatre and theatre festivals. Bengali Association of NSW also celebrates annual theatre festival. In NSW, three popular theatre directors are Neel Banerjee, Tito Ray and Rahul Ganguli.

Sajano Bagan in Australia

In 2022, after a long pandemic gap, Bengali theatre is back in NSW. Sajano Bagan was the first performance . It was written by celebrated Bengali theatre personality Manoj Mitra (President of the Paschim Banga Natya Akademi). In 1976, first staged in Calcutta, India, followed by thousands of shows and adoption for an award winning Bengali drama film Banchharamer Bagan( Directed by Tapan Sihna and produced by Dhiresh Kumar Chakraborty). The storyline highlights the universal love of owning a piece of land and it’s protection against all odds like the Australian movie The Castle, where the fight is for their beloved home. The theatre had three excellent deliverables: location, direction and acting.

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Bella Vista Farm was the perfect heritage location for this acclaimed theatre. The complex has both historic and cultural significance in Australia, establishing a link between modern and late 1700s first European settlers. Now a perfect location for Bengali theatre in Australia but cancelled later due to heavy rain. The new venue was Pennant Hills Community Centre. I was not looking a set from Bell Shakespeare company’s iconic tragedy of HAMLET at Sydney Opera House( I recently attended) but we need more elaborate set for a benefitting tribute to Bengali theatre heritage.

Heavy rain for weeks did not dampen regular Sajano Bagan rehearsals under the direction of Rahul Ganguli. Rahul has been impressing Sydneysiders with his directed theatres such as Hemlate: The Prince of Garahata , Debi Sarpamasta and Ballabhpurer Rupkatha. Name of his theatre group is Aangik Theatre Sydney. Sydney’s Snighadeb Basak( Deloitte Consultant & short film maker) said,” Rahul is extraordinarily talented and could achieved even more in Calcutta cultural circuit than in Sydney.” He impressed us again. Cast and crew included Amrita Pal Chaudhuri, Arijit Sen , Asim Das, Dr Debashis Karanji, Prof P Mukhopadhaya, P RoyChowdhury, Rini Halder Chakraborty, RN Dhali , Swagata Chatterjee, Sandip Kanjilal, S Mitra , S Paul, Sandip Bhattacharjee, Sagnik Dutta, Poet Soumik Ghosh.

Banchha was superbly played by Sondip Bhattacharya while Rini Halder Chakraborty(dressed typical like a Bengali zamindar’s wife just like Satyajit Ray’s movie GaraBhira)took the stage with gravity and class. Speechless we were.

She definitely explored her artistic talent as an actress other than being a corporate woman, mother and wife. Attendee and Sydney sider Sudipta Kumar Bej said, “Well done Rini.. it’s really good… it doesn’t seem like i it’s your first attempt..” We definitely witnessed the enthusiastic celebration of Bengali theatre heritage in Sydney. It was definitely time for me to celebrate the Bengali theatre heritage with a cold glass of mango flavoured Bondi Beach Seltzer (Aussie) and Lobong Latika sweets(Bengali).