Babu Kolkatar Manchagaan, a programme on theatre music of Calcutta — beginning from the late 18th century and covering two centuries — was held at Rabindra Sadan as part of a four-day festival by Academy Theatre. Stage activities in colonial Calcutta increased with the rise of the Bengali “Babu” in the 18th century. This phenomenon was used innovatively as a backdrop and reference point in Academy Theatre’s production. Babu culture dominated the city’s entertainment world, and a rich legacy of theatre and music was thus created.
Through a novel and well-researched selection of Bengali manchageeti or theatre songs, Devajit Bandyopadhyay and Riddhi Bandyopadhyay demonstrated the life of the times through a colourful repertoire. Readings from 18th and 19th century Bengali literary works by Soumitra Chatterjee threw light on the minute details of the Babu’s lifestyle. According to the novelist, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, a true-blue Babu is one who drinks plain water at home and liquor at his friend’s place, survives on gaali or abuses at the courtesan’s house (“Nijo grihe jol khan, bondhu grihe mod khan, beshyalaye gaali khan”), and whose pilgrimage spot is the National Theatre. In his stage adaptation of Chattopadhyay’s novel, Bishbriksha, the playwright, Girish Ghosh, had given a vivid description of the Babu who contributed substantially to the evolution of the Bengali stage and to its actors. The latter often thrived on the Babu’s patronage.
The frivolity demanded by songs in the khemta style, such as Devajit Bandyopadhyay’s Kantaboney tultey gelam kalankeri phool (play: Bishbriksha) or Riddhi Bandyopadhyay’s Kancha boyosh dekhe (play: Jadukari), enhanced the entertainment value as well as the authenticity of the production. The grand opera style of Devajit’s Shunlem naki nidarun maaney and Koto kaal robey — a parody of Wajid Ali Shah’s Jab chhod chaley Lukhnow nagari from Tagore’s Chirakumar Sabha — with appropriate musical accompaniment, provided variety, as did numbers like Aami jeno chhabiti (from Amritalal Basu’s Khasdakhal) and an excellent rendition of the popular Chhi chhi etta janjaal (from Khirodeprasad Bidyabinode’s adaptation of Ali Baba), both sung by Riddhi Bandyopadhyay.
The movement from Indubala’s evergreen number, Mor ghuma ghorey ele, to the duet, Maanush tobey baanchey kishey, from Ajitesh Bandyopadhyay’s 1970s’ production, Teen Paysar Pala, was suavely achieved. Riddhi Bandyopadhyay’s lilting and rhythmic Ami chaina re tor from Subodh Ghosh’s Barbadhu (staged in 1972 by Ajitesh Bandyopadhyay) and Aami jokhon meye thaki from his 1974 production, Bhalomanush, and Devajit’s Aarey sachha buli from Utpal Dutt’s 1971 production of Tiner Talowar were captivating by virtue of their dramatic qualities as well as rendition. Soumitra Chatterjee read excerpts from the writings of Priyanath Palit, who attributed eight qualities to the authentic Babu. All the plays dwell on the theme of the Babu and his mistress. With excellent stage decor and skilled accompaniment, the event went well beyond the commonplace.