|Image of Mrs. Sarah Siddons, Esther Leach was often compared to her. livelystories.com|
By the 1850s, Calcutta had two divisions : White Town: That was primarily British and other European settlers and centered on Chowringhee and Dalhousie Square. Black Town: Mainly native Indian and centered on North Calcutta. The city saw rapid growth on account of solid industrial growth, starting in the early 1850s. The fusion of British and Indian culture resulted in the emergence of a new class of Indians called Babus whose members were urbane, educated, government officials. newspaper reporters and Anglophiles. Invariably most of them were from upper class Hindu communities. As a result, by 19th century - late 1800s a section of people in Calcutta exhibited highest socio-cultural sophistication. In the 19th century, the Bengal Renaissance helped the population improve their literacy rate and other skills. The city hosted conferences, etc where topics of various subjects were taken up for intellectual discussion. The opening of Asiatic society by some like-minded English men like Judge Jones was a boon for the natives. Judge, for the first time, supported by ample evidence that India's ancient language Sanskrit has close links with some European languages.
|Sans Souci theater. credit:puronokolkata.com|
So, in Calcutta the English had almost everything they could ask for, but something was clearly missing, over which they felt sad. - the beauty of amazing dramas or plays something like Shakespearean play performed by professional actors in a professional theater. The plays of bard of Avon were on their mind. Othello or Tempest, perhaps would cheer them up and drive away their blues.
It was one Mrs. Esther Leach, was instrumental in opening a temporary theater called the Sans Souci theater at the corner of the Government Place East, Waterloo Street. It was a two-story building and the upper floor was occupied by St. Andrew’s Library. The lower floor was spacious and Mrs. Esther Leach had no difficulty in converting the lower floor in to a fine theater that could accommodate 400 people at a time. It was good enough to conduct plays and performances were held for about a year till a large spacious structure was built at’ at No. 10 Park Street where the St. Xavier’s College now stands.
The Sans Souci theater, designed by the architect Mr. J. W. Collins, was an enormous building, resembling the Greek Parthenon with six Doric columns. It was completed in May 1840. It is a spacious building 200 feet in length and 50 feet breadth. The stage with green rooms is a huge one 28 feet in breadth, 50 feet depth,
Part of he theater was built through public subscription. Additional cost for interior decorations, etc - fittings, seating wardrope, scenery, etc needed additional Rs.80,000.00 which was raised through the mortgage of the property.
It was on March 08,1841under the presence of of the Governor General Lord Auckland. (Asiatic Journal 1841, May.), the formal opening of Sheridan Knowless’s “The Wife”was taken place. First ever English play by English actors in Calcutta. Mrs. Leach, nick named the "Queen of the Indian Stage" appeared as Mrs. Wyindham in the farce. ‘The Handsome Husband,” an after-piece of Merchant of Venice had a good response. Mr. James Vining an actor of London-fame, and stage manager played Shylock. The theater was full to the brim and the audience was cheerful and spell-bound.
Every thing was going well at the new theater until Mrs. Leach, while waiting by the stage for her cue, caught fire from an oil-lamp and in seconds, she was in flames. The burns were so bad she could not survive and on Nov. 22, 1843 at 34, she died. After Church Services and Eulogy she was buried in the Military Cemetery at Bhowanipore. Unfortunately, the fire mishap that killed one of the fine theater persons brought the curtain down on the English theater in Calcutta. However, despite the sudden demise of Mrs. leach, English companies did conduct plays once in a while. The native population, for some reason lost interest after the tragedy.
The Sans Souci Theater and Chowringhee Theater, were greatly instrumental in the development of Bengali theater.