In 1795, Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev (or Herasim Lebedeff), a Russian musician and newly turned linguistic translator did something unique in Calcutta. For the first time, a play written in English, Richard Paul Jodrell’s The Disguise, a comedy in three acts, was translated into Bengali and performed on a proscenium stage – a new innovation that came with scene settings and arches, as seen in European theatres of the time.

The music that served as accompaniment, and played on western instruments, was composed by Lebedev himself. The verses were written by Bharatchandra Ray, who had also written Annadamangal in the early 1750s. The stage was decorated in traditional ways and not the least unusual thing was the presence of female actors.

Sherry Simon’s Cities in Translation describes Calcutta as a renaissance city of the nineteenth century, which brought together different languages, and cultures, with mediators or go-betweens to facilitate interaction, all in a creative amalgam. But Lebedev’s attitudes as a linguist and translator were interesting. He had a keen ear for language, and was particularly interested in “contact forms” – mediation in language and performance that brought people together.

Calcutta’s linguistic pastiche

The book he wrote after his return in humiliating circumstances from Calcutta, A Grammar of the Pure and Mixed East Indian Dialects (1801), is an engaging, dialogic account with examples of the hybrid language then spoken on Calcutta’s streets. This was called “bazaar Hindustani” or even “Moors”/”Moorish”, a mixed form that had resulted, Simon writes, from the contact between European and Indian languages. Both terms, as the late anthropologist Bernard Cohn also wrote, actually had pretty vague connotations, referring largely to “the language of those the British were called upon to command.”

Early grammars published about bazaar Hindustani mainly had dialogue summarising the kinds of commands handed out by masters to servants. Lebedev, in his book, however, made up “dialogues for a range of cordial exchanges on daily subjects such as the education of children, geography, buying and selling, going for a walk or taking a journey.”

Not only that, he ambitiously envisaged his plays (The Disguise was followed by Moliere’s Love is the Best Doctor) as containing in them all the languages then spoken in Calcutta, to make for a truly people’s theatre. The first act in The Disguise was written in Bengali and the first scene in the second act was in bazaar Hindustani. Lebedev wrote later that his intention was to write scenes of the third act in English to truly reflect the multi-lingual city Calcutta was then.

From Russia and beyond

Lebedev wasn’t the first Russian to visit India. There had been a few others, the most famous being Afanasi Nikitin who in the fifteenth century travelled as horse merchant and trader to the Deccani kingdoms. Nikitin’s account, Journey Beyond the Three Seas, describes the rivalry between the Bahamani and Vijaynagar kingdoms that the traveller was witness to.

Lebedev was born in 1749 the ancient Russian city of Yaroslavl, by the river Volga (now a World Heritage site and some 250 kms northeast of Moscow). There are conflicting versions of his early life. One has it that Lebedev’s father led the church choir, but the family left soon afterwards to settle in the capital of Tsarist Russia, St Petersburg. Fyodor Volkov, who apparently had once operated a theatre in Yaroslavl, had by then set up a permanent theatre in St Petersburg, and Lebedev found a mentor of sorts in him.

Another version of his early life appears in Anne Swartz’s book, Piano Makers in Russia in the Nineteenth Century: Lebedev was born into serfdom into the Razumovsky estate, owned by Alexei Razumovsky, who was called “Night Emperor” for being the lover of then Tsarina Elizabeth I. Part of Lebedev’s household duties included teaching music to the serfs; their duties obviously included entertaining the master’s family and his guests. Lebedev apparently conducted the weekly private concerts held in Razumovsky’s home; the estate’s orchestra was indeed made up largely of serfs

When the Russian diplomat Andrey Razumovsky, (Alexei’s nephew), himself an amateur violinist of note and later a patron of Beethoven, moved to Vienna as Russia's ambassador to the Austro-Hungarian empire, Lebedev was picked to accompany him. But Lebedev was soon to strike out on his own – for reasons not really clear. It took some years for the younger Razumovsky to take up his position, and Lebedev threw in his lot with a military band. He travelled with them across Europe till he reached England.

Theatre experiments in Calcutta

A ship brought him to Madras six months later in August 1785. Lebedev would remain here for the next two years; he earned a living giving musical performances. His flair for languages meant he picked up local languages quickly. But it was Calcutta, the chief city of British India, that drew him and he travelled there in 1787.

In that city, he struck up an unusual partnership with another maverick scholar, Golaknath Das. The two men agreed that while Das would teach him Bengali and the other local dialects, Lebedev would teach him the violin in return. A collaboration of sorts soon developed between Lebedev and Das for the plays that Lebedev wanted to stage for his very own Bengali theatre.

A collaboration and an idea, radical all the same: for theatre, as a necessary cultural space, ran on rigid separate lines. The English had their own theatre, and for a long time, actors and even equipment, were shipped from England. And among the local populace, the jatra remained a popular source of entertainment.

Lebedev spent considerable time figuring out the kind of plays he thought would draw in local audiences. As he wrote later, the Indian audiences preferred “mimicry” and “drollery”, more than expressions of humour, even if this was of a “grave solid sense”. In his grammar, he reproduced a page illustrating his actual translation process, one which involved lining up the text in three parallel columns using three different scripts – Russian, Bengali and English.

For The Disguise – performed in Bengali as Chhodobes – Lebedev rewrote much of the script, adding in several bits of slapstick humour and funny dialogue. The geographical location moved from Spain to India, and the stock characters became recognisably Indian versions: watchmen, disreputable characters, thieves and lawyers.

Mysterious failure

The play also had a defiant heroine who challenges stereotypes: the daughter of a wealthy Lucknowi family who followed her love to the city, disguised herself as a man and in the end won him over from another woman. Such a portrayal of women was new for Bengali audiences, as was the presence of female actors (apparently Golaknath Das offered himself as casting agent). Female actors on stage would become a more regular feature from the late 1830s onward.

Chhodobes was staged in November 1795. It was followed up in March 1796 with Love is the Best Doctor. Lebedev's theatre – located on Ezra Street, then called Dum Tollah – sadly did not last long. It was razed in a fire; it is believed this was deliberate arson on the part of two Englishmen whose envy he had aroused. He had also run into trouble with creditors. A case was slapped against him by his set decorator, Joseph Battle, and with debts piling up, Lebedev was almost hounded out of India in 1797.

Those were the years when the Russian intent towards British India also came under suspicion. Tsar Paul I, who ruled Russia after his mother Elizabeth I’s death, had plans to invade India. These were developed along with the French emperor Napoleon. An army was even sent, after a joint communiqué issued by Napoleon and Paul spoke for the need to alleviate the sufferings the British had inflicted on Indians. But the army, comprising nearly 22,000 horsemen, perished in central Asia; Paul was assassinated soon after.

Renewed interest in Lebedev

On his return journey, Lebedev stopped at Cape Town. Evidently he had quarrelled with the ship’s captain and purser, who had confiscated his luggage, that included his precious notes. Lebedev slapped a case against them and remained in Cape Town for nearly a year till matters were resolved. He gave musical performances that turned him into a popular and much sought after musician.

His notes that he managed to recover went on to make up the book he published in 1801, after reaching England: A Grammar of the Pure and Mixed East Indian Dialects. The book, for all of Lebedev’s disillusionments, was dedicated to the East India Company.

He left for Russia soon after, and soon had his way in convincing the state to invest in a printing press where books in the Devanagari script could be printed. Tsar Alexander then appointed him professor of eastern languages and a member of the Academy of Sciences. In St Petersburg, Lebedev also published his other principal work, An Impartial Review of the East Indian Bramgens (or Brahmin) systems, of their Sacred Rites and Folk Customs.

In the past decade, thanks to the efforts of a few Russian Indologists, some of Lebedev’s other forgotten contributions have come to light, along with some other startling new information, which makes Lebedev’s life something out of The da Vinci Code.

In 2005, a research project conducted under the aegis of a group of St Petersburg Indologists unearthed a number of manuscripts; some of these believed to be written by Lebedev himself. These include his draft for a grammar of the Bengali language and also his attempts to translate texts from the Old Testament into some Indian languages. Some of his attempted translations from the Bhagavad Gita into Russian also appeared in his Mathematical Manuscript. Lebedev apparently also wrote a short work, Arithmetic Tables, to familiarise future Russian businessmen and travellers with rules of Indian counting and the monetary systems then in vogue.

Another theory on Lebedev has sought to establish that he was a Freemason and was helped in his quest for knowledge by Masons he encountered worldwide – including Razumovsky himself and even the Tsar Paul I, whom Lebedev met in Paris. But Lebedev encountered fellow Masons in Madras and in particular, in Calcutta, where John Shore, then Governor General of British India, stoutly supported his theatrical endeavours. There were also secret patrons from Masonic Lodges and Lebedev couldn’t bring himself to give away their real names.

One of his drawings in Impartial Review… shows Lebedev’s depiction of what is believed to be Cosmic Man (“Atma”), which, according to Indologist Yaroslav Vassilkov, has a striking resemblance to the figure of Adam in a key Masonic text. The speculation on all this, thanks to this renewed interest in Lebedev, will only continue; though Lebedev, who died in 1817, carried several of his secrets to the grave.