This story begins at the end. With a life that died many times over.
On a late summer morning in 2012, a friend and I went looking for Circarina, one of the few remaining relics of the era of professional theatre in north Calcutta. For people of my parents’ generation, Circarina, the city’s only circular auditorium, was completely unforgettable, and a little bit crazy.
My friend, a fellow theatre-enthusiast, and I walked east along Beadon Street, off Hatibagan’s main avenue. After some scouting, the building appeared on the left: a crumbling, toy-like yellow mansion. Inside, a small lobby snaked past little cages, which used to be ticket counters. The lobby narrowed into a dark, circuitous passage that felt like the murky interior of a factory.
We followed the meandering passage to a set of stairs. Framed posters of old plays shone gaudily on the walls of the family home, a level above the auditorium. A veined iron gate that looked like it had shielded the passage from the world for decades, lay in a crumpled heap of rust to one side. It was guarded by an old maidservant and a pair of cats who started at the sight of strangers.
The old woman called Amar Ghosh, Circarina’s owner – a tall, mild-mannered man who appeared younger than his eighty-three years. Though he spoke haltingly, Ghosh was eager to talk about the theatre that he had carved out of the ground floor of his family mansion.
Built in 1975, Circarina was not an old hall like Star, Minerva (built in 1893), or even the neighbouring Rang Mahal (1931); it caught the tail-end of the century-long carnival that was north Calcutta theatre. But between the seventies and the nineties, Circarina was something of a sensation, a unique landmark in the neighbourhood and of the theatre scene, because for Ghosh, theatre was a spectacular kind of showmanship.
When Ghosh took us downstairs, the auditorium felt small, a place of puppetry rather than theatre. We entered through the gallery that circled the stage and walked past its seats, which were covered with the silver mesh of cobweb, to the round plank of wood at the centre. We climbed down a winding set stairs, crammed with broken furniture, wicker, sackcloth and mangled billboards, all seamless under a thick film of dust – past a set of greenrooms with dust-caked mirrors and tiny speakers that used to broadcast the play in progress – into a dark basement space.
The basement was filled with fragments from old sets: a dressing table, a wheelchair and other bits of broken furniture. In one corner was a switchboard from which the stage lights were operated. The magic was contained there: a red lever in a cylindrical glass box. At Ghosh’s instruction, his assistant pulled the lever. Almost soundlessly, the massive round stage came down, darkening the yellow light of the basement.
That’s how it worked. After every scene, the attending technician lowered the stage, which came down along a hydraulic piston that floated on oil. The actors slipped into the greenroom to change costumes while backstage boys changed the set. Then new characters got onstage and it floated back up to the heart of the audience above. It was theatre imagined on the scale of circus.
During its heyday, the stage went up and down before a packed house three nights a week, on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays – the three days professional theatre shows were staged. But that summer afternoon, sitting in a small, windowless room next to the ticket counter that used to be the office, Ghosh told us that he no longer even had money for his cataract surgery and that all his pension money went into the building’s maintenance.
Circarina had been all but dead for over a decade, barring the rare song and dance event put on by local clubs or an occasional meeting of the Hatibagan market merchants’ association. Ghosh said he made about Rs 10,000 a month renting out the lobby space and downstairs hallway to bookbinders and welders. These were the tiny factories we had passed on our way up, smelling of glue and oil.
With the sleepy desolation of the playhouse as a backdrop, Ghosh told us stories of Hatibagan theatre’s slow slide into oblivion. He blamed television, which started gaining popularity in the early 1980s, for the onset of the decline. Then the videocassette player brought entertainment right into people’s bedrooms.
At the same time, jatra, the melodramatic open-air folk theatre form popular in the villages steadily bled north Calcutta theatre dry – by stealing away not so much the audience but actors, who were lured by larger and larger sums of money. The rural prosperity of jatra, Ghosh said, also played a part in the languishing of north Calcutta’s professional theatre.
Ghosh had held on to Circarina as if it were a dying child, but other playhouses had passed into the hands of businessmen who were less interested in theatre than in the property. Many of these playhouses caught fire, usually in the dead of night. Insurances were settled, and apartment complexes and large department stores were built. The vultures were circling Circarina’s prime real estate too, Ghosh told us.
On January 3, 2014, Amar Ghosh died at the age of eighty-five. But his time was gone long before he was. So were the halls of Hatibagan.
The versatile artist Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee has done something truly unique in his short video on the forgotten professional theatre of Calcutta, and daringly, he has called this theatre by that striking name. Broadway across North Calcutta? This dead phase, now hanging to the dust and cobweb of abandoned basements such as Circarina’s, cries out for nostalgia.
But there is a lot more than nostalgia at stake here. The theatre history of Bengal, inevitably left-leaning, has been keen to forget this horizon of decadent, middlebrow entertainment, touched by the morally suspicious. The history of theatre in Bengal is the history of the experimental, left-leaning group theatre; commercial or professional theatre is left out of the archives and the chronicles, and is on its way out of most memories. Spotlight, this brief video, lights up the darkened strip across this forgotten Broadway.
Sujoy is well-known to lovers of Bangla theatre and music, but a larger audience knows him from his performance in recently beloved films such as Belasheshe, Bidaay Byomkesh, and Shahjahan Regency. This video love letter to Calcutta’s deceased professional theatre is born in his imagination, and is narrated by Rudrarup Mukhopadhyay. It assembles a formidable caste of actors, several of whom were involved in this Bengali Broadway.
Dead people crowd this history, more so for me personally. The ghost of Amar Ghosh lingers over the decrepit Circarina building. Closer and closer, I see my own mother, Arpita Rudra, whom I lost in my twenties, in a green room, still with wig and make-up, terrifying a child-me, still flush with tears having seen her die on stage. Like many struggling actresses in the ’80s and ’90s, she swayed back and forth between experimental group theatre and the more commercial group theatre, seeking whatever spotlight that might give her recognition and a livelihood.
I remember her crying before a gunshot in Amar Kantak, the long-running hit play in Rang Mahal, and I remember her last performance before she passed away in her fifties – with the group Sayak. The terrifying memory of watching a mother cry and die on stage – of romancing a stranger – shaped my novel, The Firebird, and it gives me the saddest happiness to see the novel as the inspiration for Spotlight, Sujoy’s video love letter to these strange times, when women in theatre were seen as suspicious, indeed, dangerous, by the middle class.
More so women who acted in the Broadway of Bengal, in the slowly degenerating halls that stood not far from Sonagachhi, Calcutta’s legendary red-light district.
Unsung, unremembered, this theatre has never seen a tribute as Spotlight promises to be. The video-story opens with the reminiscences of Bratya Basu, eminent actor and thinker of the theatre. Then a legend appears on screen. The favourite of Satyajit Ray, one who lent much glitter to this Broadway – Soumitra Chatterjee, along with his daughter Poulami Bose reads an excerpt from Neelkantho, a play that ran forever to packed houses in Rang Mahal.
The flavour of history is followed by thoughts on the lost heritage by a practitioner, the thespian Sohag Sen. And then Ratna Ghoshal reads from the play Nahabat, another comedy wildly popular back on this Broadway. All Bangla performances carry English subtitles.
And then comes a part that’s special to me, and which promises to speak directly to audiences who do not follow spoken Bangla. Actor Neeraj Kabi, most recently the face of the show Patal Lok, reads passages from The Firebird.
The film closes with a song sung by Daminee Benny Basu, from the play Barbodhu, the famous dramatisation of Subodh Ghosh’s short story in which an escort plays the role of wife for men who need to make social appearances as married men. “Barbodhu”, a poetic coinage that translates roughly as “the outside wife”, was the greatest sensation on the professional stage. Opening on 15th August 1972, the play ran for 1800 nights on a stretch.
Panned as obscene by many and shunned vehemently by left-leaning intellectuals, Barbodhu was something of a forbidden pleasure for contemporary Bengali society, its fatally attractive outside wife – at once a comedy of errors and a deeply melancholy story of a self-destructive female protagonist. Spotlight could not have a more meaningful conclusion than with the invocation of one of the most sensational, and scandalous successes of the bustling professional stage that now only lives in broken, cobwebbed houses or remodelled shopping malls.
Saikat Majumdar’s novels include The Firebird (2015) and The Scent of God (2019).