A Separate Stage

Heart-tugging memoirs of a 'fallen' turn-of-the-century actress
Binodini Dasi: My Story, My Life As An Actress
By Rimli Bhattacharya
Kali for Women Rs 300, Pages: 275
BINODINI Dasi belongs to the first generation of actresses of the Bengali public theatre. She made her debut, at the age of 11, in a one-line part as Draupadi's handmaiden at the Great National Theatre in Calcutta in 1874. Like her peers, Binodini was recruited from the prostitute quarters of Calcutta, had affairs with several men, many of whom became her "protectors" for long periods. She makes no attempt to disguise this reality in her twin autobiographies, which read together present a comprehensive account of not merely the state of the theatre, but also prevailing social and political conditions during the latter part of the 19th century, particularly the status of women.

Within a year Binodini's natural talent made her a star. The Statesman called her the Flower of the Native Stage. In theatre she was addressed as 'signora'. Binodini left the stage at the height of her fame in 1887, when still in her early twenties. She came an uneducated waif and left a cultured, refined, highly articulate and literate lady—'almost bhadramahila'! The Atma Kathas were written at the behest of her Prof Higgins, the great actor/director and trailblazer of Bengali theatre, Girish Chandra Ghosh, after Binodini had retired. They were serialised in theatre journals. Binodini also left behind letters on theatre and two collections of poems.

However she was neither then, nor is today, recognised as a writer by either scholars or the Sahitya Akademi. Rimli Bhattacharya's translation, carefully researched theatre history of the period, informed notes on Binodini's life and times, make this publication essential reading for anyone who likes a stimulating book.

Binodini calls her stories bednagathas, narratives of pain. The form was not only influenced by the style in vogue but also by the writer's low opinion of herself, as also a fear of failure with words. Supremely confi-dent of her ability to control the language of theatre, Binodini lacked belief in herself and constantly appealed to a sympathetic reader. "The talented, the wise and learned write in order to educate people and to do good to others. I have written for my own consolation, perhaps for some unfortunate woman who taken in by deception has stumbled on the path to hell."

This lack of faith stemmed from her perception of herself as fallen, despicable, a sinner and a lowly woman. She repeatedly refers to herself as a prostitute or barnari. She knows she is a social outcast. As an actress, motherhood had no social sanction. Her daughter was denied admission to a school because she was the illegitimate child of a prostitute. Binodini's problem was that she wanted more than society could give.

The patrons, producers, actors with whom Binodini spent most of her working life came from zamindar families or from the educated upper middle class. They were in theatre for the love of it. With them Binod-ini was an equal. Girish Ghosh, though not able to quite overcome the set 'sanatan dharam' attitude towards women, spent many hours in the education of Binodini; more for the sake of theatre than the woman herself. She describes in great detail how Ghosh, whom she called the Garrick of Bengal, would explain bhava, or emotion, to her, place it in the socio-cultural context of the role she was to play, provide insights into the subtext of the situation. He would speak to her about plays by Shakespeare, read out poems and texts by important English poets and dramatists. Binodini was familiar with Ellen Terry, aware that Sarah Bernhardt had a theatre named after her.

The most eventful years of Binodini's life were spent in the Star Theatre, in the creation of which she played a key role. In 1883, a rich businessman, Gurmukh Rai, offered to build a theatre for the company if Binodini agreed to become his mistress. Under pressure from her colleagues, and flattered that the new theatre would bear her name, Binodini agreed. However the theatre was registered as Star, because it was felt that naming it after a prostitute would be bad for business.

Binodini's passion for theatre came in the way of several chances of happiness. A young man, to whom she was bound "by the power of his sincere love for me... felt I should not continue on the stage, but when I would not agree to this on any account, he said, 'Well then, work as an AMATEUR (emphasis hers) without pay. My carriage will take you to the theatre and bring you back.'" Of course, her mentor Girish Babu found a way around this by sending the money to her mother. On return from his travels, which included a marriage, when the young man learnt that a griefstricken Binodini had gone to Gurmukh (but for the builder of Star, all her 'protectors' are anonymous X or Y Babus; Binodini confesses that she did not want to dishonour them or their families by revealing their association with a fallen woman), he threatened to kill her.

Binodini dedicates her story to her 'hridoyadata' (the lord of my life), the man who gave her 'protection' for 25 years and for whom she left the stage content to share him with his lawful wife. After he died she returned to her own house in the prostitute quarters.

Though she never went back on stage, she continued to see plays and keep in touch with theatre. The other person who precipitated the departure of an already disillusioned Binodini (she was cut to the quick by the betrayal of her colleagues when they refused to name the theatre after her) was Ramakrishna Paramahansa. He came to see her enact the role of young Chaitanya. At the end of the play he blessed her: "Ma, may you have chaitanya (consciousness)." This meeting of 'saint' and 'sinner' was both benediction and transformation

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