In its early days, Bengali theatre was a man’s world. No woman was allowed to participate in it. Men used to perform the female roles in the plays. However, things changed. And Kolkata theatre introduced female artists on stage, even before the English theatre had done it. One of the stalwarts among the first generation of actresses on the Kolkata stage was undoubtedly Binodini Dasi, popular in the later years as Noti Binodini (also spelled as Nati Binodini).
Binodini Dasi was born in 1862 and was initially a prostitute in Kolkata’s red light area. As the ladies from the upper-caste families were not allowed to act on stage, theatre directors used to cast women from the brothels. This was a legacy to the Indian performing arts as a whole, where, since ages, the only theatre artists used to be the prostitutes. Binodini was one among many such actresses. However, her exceptional talent helped her stand out among all and be one of the major Bengali thespians of her time. Binodini Dasi had started her career as a performed at the tender age of 12 and by the time she retired when she was 23 years old, Noti Binodini had already become a name to be remembered by the Bengali theatre lovers for the ages to come.
After starting her career as a courtesan, Noti Binodini was handpicked by the Bengali theatre legend, Girish Chandra Ghosh, to be a major actress in the National Theatre at Kolkata. She had also acted in the Star Theatre. Her career spanned for twelve years, through which she played more than eighty roles in different plays, most of them mythological or historical. Some of the most well known characters played by Binodini include Sita, Pramila, Draupadi, Kaikeyi, Kapalkundala, Motibibi and so on. Her excellent performances earned her titles, such as ‘Moon of the Star Theatre’, ‘Flower of the Native Stage’ and so on. Binodini had also played the role of Sri Chaitanya, which won her the praise of Shri Ramakrishna, who was there among the audience.
Nati Binodini’s career coincided with a major phase of Indian theatre. It was the time when the Indian art form was transforming from its open air pattern and was adapting the proscenium form of theatre of the European style. Besides, Nati Binodini also blended the Indian indigenous type of make up with the European form to give a new shape to stage make up for theatre.
AAMAR KATHA – Nati Binodini’s Autobiography
Nati Binodini, in her later years, revealed her talents as a poet and writer. She was one of the first actresses in Asia to pen her autobiography, AAMAR KATHA (My Story). In it, she reveals the contemporary world of Bengali theatre and, at the same time, touches upon the contemporary Bengali society. The work is appreciated for its historical value and for the lucid style of writing that the actress followed. She also started another autobiographical piece, AAMAR OBHINETRI JIBON (My Life as an Actress), but left it unfinished.
Later Years and Death
The later years of Nati Binodini is veiled in obscurity. She suffered bereavement when her only daughter died in 1904 at the age of 13. She used to live in the shelter of a friend, Ranga Babu, who passed away in 1912. Nothing much is known of Binodini’s whereabouts after this period. She probably returned to the area that she hated most – where the prostitutes lived and where she had spent a major part of her childhood.
Noti Binodini passed away in 1941, aged 79 years, leaving behind a legacy of outstanding stage performance in which her acting and singing talent enthralled the audience for over a decade.