Sunday, 31 July 2016

The poignant story of British theater actress Mrs. Esther Leach, Colonial India

Chowringee Theater. Mrs. Leach played here. First theater in Calcutta  to allow females to play. It is at the corner of Theatre Street and Lower Chowringhee Road. The whole site between Chowringee Road and Elysiam Row. credit:.puronokolkata.com
The East India Company, entered Indian subcontinent with a view to doing mercantile trade and their intention was not to grab lands. But in the late 1600s they brought the entire Bengal - huge land under their control, of course, using conceit and cheating. Further expansion saw the establishment of Calcutta as the capital and growth of a large British community in a strange land. By 19th century, Calcutta became the 2nd most important city next to London in the British Empire. Now the English had various clubs associations, etc to get a break from the monotonous and mundane life far away from their home and to keep themselves busy on holidays. This helped them get rid of their blues and loneliness. Accustomed to, as they were, attending opera, theater plays, etc., the British community wanted to have a nice English theater where they could stage English plays. For sometime they had to be content with non-English entertainment - the French Opera artists, the Chinese rope trick masters, etc., that, once in a while, landed there to cheer up the sun-drenched Europeans. English Classical entertainment was the right answer to keep the English community happy. Such social events would keep their English spirits up and, as for the English bachelors, it was one of the hangouts to socialize and have fun.


"Calcutta Theater” and the “Chowringhee Theater” provided the entertainment for the English settlers post 1756 (after the battle of Plassey). A fascinating fact was that the former theater got donations from none other than Warren Hastings and judge Elijah Impey who were impeached by the British parliament for their miscarriage of justice in the case of one Nand Kumar. Lord Cornwallis was a great patron of  Chowringhee Theater where for, the first time, females were to allowed to play the roles. Soon some additional theaters appeared in the vicinity to stage English plays. 

The Calcutta theaters and plays lacked good actors, proper direction, stage and set  administration, so the quality of plays was not good enough for the people. As for actors, they lacked necessary acting talents related to dialogue delivery, good voice and  more importantly histrionics. At this crucial  juncture  there appeared a beautiful actress by the name of Mrs. Esther Leach,  some thing like a pretty angel appearing before the stranded people in a  dark jungle. She was a young  and energetic woman, playing in leading roles in the Dum Dum(now a suburb of Kolkata) theater. She was impressive, intelligent and above all amiable. She had a nice voice, talents and the innate ability to do any role with dedication. So, "a star was born".

Esther Leach was born in Meerut (now in the state of Madhya Pradesh ) in 1809 and her  father was Mr. Flatman. After the death of her  parents  when she  was very young,  she  stayed in  the barracks of Berhampore  where she was nurtured  and educated by Corporal Paddy Flinn of the 17th foot of EIC. There she got a chance to act in some plays and the soldiers and officers at Berhampore were enthralled  by her stunning debut performance without any stage fear or freight and free delivery of dialogue without any hesitation or trepidation. The impressed military personnel  gave her a copy of Shakespeare plays as a gift. It was a turning point for her. Being smart with good memory, she got the plays of  the great bard of Avon by heart. The theater enthusiasts at Calcutta got the scent and wanted to bring her to Calcutta to play in their clubs. By hard work and nurtured talents this young lady began to climb the ladder of fame by stepping on the rung one by one.

In Berhampore Esther, married to John Leach 17 years her senior, had lots of leisure time at her disposal when  John was posted to  Rangoon on assignment. She came to Calcutta at the invitation of  officers of Calcutta  and got her  debut in the Dum Dum theatre. Mrs. Leach's aura, charm and acting talents took the English community by storm. Overnight the lady from Meerut was popular in Calcutta. Later her husband Leach joined her as he was transferred to Ft. Williams, Calcutta. It was at Chowringhee Theater  Esther played for the first time on 27th July, 1827 - a great event attended by the elite and“the fashionable everybody of Calcutta"including the Governor General.

Esther had an amazing stage presence and played her role as Juliet  very well in the play Romeo and Juliet. The English at Calcutta for the first time felt they had finally tasted the real thing. The newspapers made critical reviews on her stage performance and  she became quite rightly, “the Mrs. Siddon of Bengal” and the Chowringhee Theatre (built in 1813) was as good as any theater  in London. In a nut shell she became one of the best female performers in theater.

In the next eleven years she dominated the English theater in Calcutta and donned a variety of roles and and played them with poise and aplomb. Then her theater life, all of a sudden, came to a stop after the loss of her beloved husband  in the midst of her immense popularity and  three children. By the end of 1837 Esther announced her plan to return to England due to poor health. Her announcement sent shock waves across the English theater  lovers.  She was given warm fare well  on January 12th 1838. In her tearful farewell speech couched in emotional words and  delivered with intense pathos,  she did mention that she would visit Calcutta one day.

She did return to India  with a broken heart. That  the Chowringhee theater had been destroyed by fire was a bad news  for her because it was here she had built her career.  In an indomitable spirit she wanted to rebuild all that was lost  and she would expect nothing less than a full fledged theater again to get the English plays going as usual before.

She rented a spacious ground floor (used to be a godown) in a two story building at at the corner of the Government Place East, Waterloo Street and ran a theater under the name of Sans Souci. Sheridan Knowless’s “Hunch Back” was staged with Mrs. Leach as Julia on  the opening night 21st August 1839 and the sale proceeds of that play were set aside to meet the loss of her old stage associates Mrs. Francis and Mrs. Black who had lost everything in the fire.
Theater actress Mrs. Esther Leach grew up here.Cantonments at Berhampore - Aquatint, drawn and engraved by James Moffat (1806). murshidabad.net

The Sans Souci theater, an enormous building resembling the Greek Parthenon with six Doric columns  was built  in the spot where St. Xavier’s College stands today. The subscriptions for building  the theater came liberally. Lord Auckland and the business man  Prince Dwarkanath Tagore  donated  Rs.1000 each.
The additional cost Rs.80,000.00 for theater decorations, seating, scenery, sets, wardrobe, etc was met through mortgage of the property. The building was completed in May 1840 and in March, 1841 formal opening took place with Sheridan Knowless’s “The Wife” under the patronage and immediate presence of Governor General Lord Auckland.

The Sans Souci theater staged many plays, among them the  most memorable one is Othello. A point of interest was a Bengali played the role of Othello, the African Moor from Venice and Mrs. Leach's daughter Mrs. Anderson played  Desdemona, Othello's wife. It received critical reviews in the newspapers.

In October 1843  one James Vining a member of a prominent theatrical family arrived in Calcutta to join Sans Sauci as  the new stage manager and the “Handsome Husband” was chosen  to be performed with Mrs. Leach playing the role of Mrs. Wyndham. In the middle of the drama, a horrible thing had happened
Mrs. Leach’s clothing had caught fire by an oil lamp which had been kept to light the back of the stage and she received severe burns. She was taken care of by three doctors, despite their efforts
situation worsened and at 11 am on 18th November,1843 she passed away.

This is the heart-rending story of a poor English girl who had lost her parents when she was young  and who began her arduous life's journey with gusto and  earned  fame, success and love by dint of hard work, dedication and courage. It was the edit of god that she had to breathe her last in the theater that gave her name and fame.
Sgt.Mr. Leach and Mrs. Esther Leach, Calcutta theater actress buried here. Military Cemetery in Bhowanipore. www.cwgc.org
It is unfortunate that Mrs. Esther was buried rather unceremoniously beside Sergeant Leach  and there is nothing to the grave of the first and best mega star of  colonial Calcutta in the Military Cemetery in Bhowanipore.

http://livelystories.com/2015/01/05/esther-leach-queen-calcutta-theatre/