Gerasim Lebedev

While discussing about the history of Bengali theatre, the first name that comes to mind is not of any Bengali or even Indian theatre personality. Those were the period when India was ruled by the British. The theatre presentations that happened in the city were mainly performed by European troupes and noblemen. And it was the Russian gentleman, Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev, also known as Herasim Steppanovich Lebedeff, who took the initiative to stage a Bengali play.

A pioneer of Indology, Lebedev was born in 1749 in Russia. He had come to stay in India and spent almost 10 years of his life in Kolkata, the then capital of British India. He established himself as a successful musician in the city. During his stay, he learnt Bengali and Sanskrit under Goloknath Das.

Theatre in Kolkata

Lebedev had a deep penchant for theatre, which was a major reason why he, with the help of a few local intellectuals, introduced the form of proscenium theatre, which was then practiced in Europe. Lebedev’s theatre hall, located at 25 Doomtullah (Ezra) Street, became operational from 1795. It was here that he first staged a Bengali play, in which the whole cast comprised native actors.

Staging First Bengali Theatre

Lebedev translated European plays in Bengali. Love is the Best Doctor and The Disguise, both translated by him, were the first plays to be staged in Bengali. The music used in these plays was composed primarily by Lebedev himself and were imposed on the lyrics written by the famous Bengali poet Bharatchandra Ray. Despite the high ticket prices, the plays were staged in full houses – an event that bears testimony to the popularity of Bengali theatre since its earliest days.

Other Contributions

Lebedev also took interest in Bengali grammar and wrote a book on arithmetic in Bengali, compiled a dictionary of the language and so on. However, his sympathetic attitude towards the natives did not gel well with the British administration. He suffered a lot and left India for his home country, almost a penniless man. Lebedev passed away on July 27, 1817.

When looking from the present-day perspective, Lebedev’s efforts can be said to be amateurish. However, it was his initial steps that paved the way for a journey of centuries, which is still on, and is known as Bengali theatre.

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