On 7 December 1872, the Bengali public (as opposed to amateur private) stage was born, when a theatre-mad group of young men in north Calcutta enacted Dinabandhu Mitra’s classic political protest drama, Nil-darpan, in a temporary hall without wings in the courtyard outhouse of Madhusudan Sanyal’s mansion (later famous as “Ghariwālā Bāri” or “House with a Clock”, because its front façade sports a large clock) at 33 Upper Chitpore Road (now 279 Rabindra Sarani). Although Gerasim Lebedeff had introduced tickets for his Bengali-language theatre way back in 1795, that one-off venture had not created a tradition of professional shows for common citizens.

In November 1872, the newly named “National Theatre” advertised in the newspapers, sold tickets through a window of Sanyal’s house at one rupee for First Class and eight annas for Second Class, and popular enthusiasm ran so high that tickets were exhausted. The audience sat on chairs, benches and the steps of the courtyard, heard the opening concert, watched the performance proceed under gaslight till midnight, and according to the great actor Amritalal Basu who played a woman’s role, the building reverberated to applause. The event excited the city press for days, the daily The Englishman even wanting it censored for anti-British content, if not stopped.

To celebrate its sesquicentenary, the umbrella group Natya Samhati have launched a year of festivities, starting off on December 6 with a procession from Girish Chandra Ghosh’s house at 2 p.m., and on December 7 at Tapan Theatre with a Bangladeshi production of Nil-darpan directed by Mamunur Rashid. Subsequently, every month in 2023, a Bengali group will present a famous drama of the commercial stage. The list includes Nur Jāhān, Apurba Sati, Byāpikā Bidāy, Rajanigandhā, Mānmayi Girls’ School, Jamidār Darpan, Ekei ki Bale Sabhyatā? and Buro Shāliker Ghāre Ron, Alik-bābu, Kārāgār, Ābu Hosen, Nāmjiban and Chirakumār Sabhā. Kolkatatheatre.com will of course announce the dates in advance.

Further commemorations of this historic moment take place at our premier theatre archives, Natya Shodh Sansthan in Bidhannagar, which will feature a rolling exhibit, changing every month, of rare clippings, playbills, posters, advertisements and photos of selected plays from the professional repertoire. The exhibition begins this month with Nil-darpan, naturally.