Located in the colonial part of Kolkata, Cornwallis Street (now renamed to Bidhan Sarani), Star Theatre is considered to be a pride of Bengal’s cultural heritage. What was built as a tool for freedom of expression to educate people about atrocities committed under the British Rule through plays, ironically turned out to be a stage of betrayal for a renowned theatre actress.
Among the forgotten legends who built the eminent theatre, lies the heart-rending story of Binodini Dasi, who traded her body for the love of thespian.
When Gurmukh Ray, a businessman, agreed to finance the construction of the theatre on the condition that she become his mistress, she agreed. The deal seemed less erroneous after Ray promised the young woman that he would name the theatre after her and even engrave the letter ‘B’ on its white marble walls.
Both Ray and Girish Chandra Ghosh, Binodini’s acting mentor, believed it would not attract the crowd if it were named after the ‘fallen woman’ who was raised amidst sex workers. Such an act of exploitation, deception and misuse of power to outrage a woman’s modesty would perhaps fall under today’s #MeToo movement.
Alas, back in those days, people’s sense of freedom and justice was limited to the colonial rule.
However, the incident did not break Binodini’s undying spirit. Only after three years she quit her terrific theatrical career at 24, spanning 12 years and 80 roles.
Besides being one of the very first female actors in theatre, she was believed to be one of the first actresses in South Asia to pen her autobiographies, Amar Katha (My Story, 1912) and Amar Abhinetri Jibon (My Life As An Actress, 1924-25). In both books, she writes about her life experiences, mostly tragic, on and off stage.
She also reveals the dark side of being a woman in a male-dominated profession and raises multiple issues like gender pay disparity, objectification by audiences and co-actors, poor working conditions and caste discrimination.
Hers is a tale that begins in the city’s red-light area and works its way up to applause from prestigious families and blessings from the sage Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. It was for her exemplary cross-dressing performance in a play as holy saint Chaitanya. No wonder her life is appealing to playwrights and filmmakers.
According to reports, actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is likely to essay Binodini in director Pradeep Sarkar’s biopic. Amal Allana’s play Nati Binodini is one of the earliest and famous plays on her life, where five actresses depict various phases of her life.
Rise of the Fallen Woman
Binodini was born out of wedlock in 1862. Her mother and grandmother were sex workers. The family was so stricken with poverty that her brother was married when he was only five. The dowry he got was used to feed the family.
The family would often give rooms on rent and one of their tenants, Ganga Baiji, was Binodini’s ticket to the theatre.
She would learn music from the singer and accompany him for his music sessions. She was nine when she first saw a play. Awe-struck by the stage, the young girl expressed her desire to act. This way, she even supported her family financially.
Her first notable role was in and as Hemlata in Haralal Ray’s play. She worked her way up, landing prominent mythological roles like those of Sita and Draupadi.
In her professional life, she tasted success early, her popularity lasting till the time she passed away in 1941; her personal life was on the other end of the spectrum. She was deceived by the person who promised her a fairy tale, which included marriage. Eventually staying with Ray as the ‘other woman’, she gave birth to a daughter who died at 12. A few months later, she adopted a girl.
Despite all the name and fame, Binodini did not move out of her house, where she breathed her last.
Binodini Dasi led her life on her own terms, amidst all impositions by society. She carved her niche as an excellent actor and paved the way for other women in the industry. She certainly was a 19th-century feminist!
All images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)