Known as the ‘The Star of native stage’ and ‘The Moon of Star theatre’, Binodini Dasi was a renowned thespian in Colonial Calcutta.
Popularly referred to as ‘Notee Binodini’, she was born in 1862 into a family of sex workers. She began her career at the age of 12 to support her family and went on to become an iconic presence in Bengali theatre. She propelled her way into the theatre world, playing lead roles of Sita and Draupadi at a very young age, winning over audiences and critics alike.
Life in theatre
She was mentored by Girish Chandra Ghosh at the Great National Theatre. Her career spanned over a time of twelve years where she played over eighty roles. Her performance in Chaitanya was particularly lauded where she played Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the saint (Male) who advocated a mode of salvation that attacked the existing caste hierarchy.
She was one of the first actresses in South Asia to write her own autobiography, Amar Katha. She also wrote Amar Abhinetri Jibon (My life as an actress). Both these books talk about her experiences in the theatre world of colonial calcutta, marred by loss, treachery, betrayal and exploitation. Her contribution as an actress and an entrepreneur and a makeup artiste is unforgettable. She is attributed with the creation of an entirely new make up style that blends both European and Indian styles.
Forgotten by history
Soumitra Chatterjee, who wrote the introduction to the recent reprint of Amar Katha, points out that she has largely been ignored and unacknowledged by history. This is often attributed to the fact that she was born into a non-dominant caste, low income family that engaged with sex work. The historians dealing with Bengali theatre and society have overlooked her narratives of her life and her contribution to the performing art. Not only was she a pioneering entrepreneur, she also revolutionized stage make-up by blending European and Indian styles.
Supriya Chaudhri claims that in the book, The First Light, Sunil Gangopadhyay provides the history of that era intertwined with gossip and romance. The semi-fictional is not very kind in its description towards Binodini Dasi. He is unsympathetic towards her and sensationalizes her stormy relationship with her mentor Girish Chandra Ghosh.
Soon after a performance titled Binodini’r Khonje: The Songstress in 2014, dedicated to her stellar body of work, Soma Chatterji reminisced about her life and time. She says that what makes Binodini stand apart from all of her contemporaries is the fact that she never shied away from her roots. She proudly acknowledged the circumstances under which she began acting and charts her growth as an actress in her unfinished book, Amar Abhinetri Jibon.
Theatre researcher Ria Basu in her paper, Memoirs of The Colonial Actress – The Personal as the Politicalwrites, “Binodini Dasi reveals a space of constant negotiation between the nationalist imagination of the woman and the agency of the performing woman in a largely male space, where the boundaries of the public and the private come to be gradually distorted. This leads one to question the extent of her compliance and awareness of and in this mobilization. “Amar Katha” (1912) being an autobiography actually becomes a political tool to understand the constant tussle and flux in the relationship between the actress and her mentor, actor-playwright Girish Ghosh who not only had orchestrated the rise of Binodini, her consequent fame and acceptance in the Bengali community but has filled into her narrative space even on print through the preface injected into her memoirs.”
Contribution besides theatre
A staunch feminist, her body of work as an author contributes to the corpus of women’s literature during colonialism. Her autobiography records her life experiences, travel, loss of her daughter and love and betrayal in the theatre world. Through her work she also provides a commentary on society and its treatment towards women.
She makes bold statements about the hypocrisy towards women and actresses in particular, at a time when actresses worked in poor conditions and were considered to be ‘bad women’ by the virtue of being in public eye, being the recipient of wages and possessing the mobility that only men had access to.
She makes stingy comments on the so called enlightened Bengali society of the 19th century, which embraced European values but viewed liberated women with suspicion and even distrust. They were condemned for not fitting the notions of femininity that restricted women to strictly domestic spaces.
Binodini Dasi contributed immensely to women’s accessibility to public spaces, especially the stage. She craved out a niche space for herself as a performer, unfazed by the hyphenated label of a prostitute-actress that she had to bear during her active years as a thespian and even after she retired. Making her way through a highly gender-role conforming and casteist society, she made it acceptable for women to be on stage, and play a range of diverse and substantial roles. She will forever be remembered for hercolossal courage and her unfazed fearlessness.
Also Read: How Feminist Theatre Emerged in India
Featured Image Credit: The Telegraph India