The Origin of Theatre in the Princely State of Tripura

Somdev Banik

Tripura University, India

Vol. 1, No. 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF

DOI: 10.21659/bp.v1n1.06


The Kings and princes of Tripura during the 18th and19th centuries were keen enthusiasts of art and literature. Bengali literary and artistic traditions deeply impacted the royal cultural taste, and Agartala emerged as a parallel centre of literary and cultural activities beyond Kolkata. Through royal patronage, theatre grew as a form of private entertainment. With independence, with the influx of migrants, newer groups grew rapidly bringing in new issues and styles. Theatre in Tripura finally took the form of a cultural movement during the sixties. This paper traces the growth of theatre in Tripura, which was essentially Bengali in language and spirit, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries till Independence.

Keywords: palace drama, royal patronage, theatre practice, stage

The Royal legacy of the kingdom of Tripura is one of the oldest in this country. Established in 1280 by Ratna Fa, this Manikya dynasty has seen a line of 185 kings ruling this state of Tripura, often referred to as Hill Tipperah by the British Indian Empire. Since a large portion of the territory of Tripura included the fertile lowlands of Bengali inhabited areas, Bengali culture and traditions had always dominated the cultural and literary firmament of this kingdom. Even the chronicle of the dynasty, Rajmala was written in Bengali verse in the fifteenth century by the court pundits Sukreshwar and Baneshwar, on the basis of recitations of the royal priest of Dharma Manikya, Durlabhendra Chantai, of an oral tradition in the Tripuri language. Bir Chandra Manikya, ruling Tripura during the second half of 19th century, enacted several reforms and modeled his administration after the pattern of British India. Birchandra and his son Radhakishore Manikya refurbished the cultural frontier of the state, by openly patronizing Hindusthani vocal and instrumental music, Manipuri music and dance forms, Bengali folk musical and theatrical traditions, Kirtans, Pachali recitations, forms of Krishnalila narrations as well as jatra performances. Early dramatic forms emerging in Tripura were a result of the efforts taken by the princes and courtiers of the Palace in makeshift stages within the compound. As the viewership and interest increased, theatre moved out of the Palace confines to open fields, school compounds or private lawns of the aristocrats. The early performances were mostly religious, allegorical or patriotic in theme, though vulgar and lewd jatra shows for rural audiences also made their inroads during this time.

            The practice and popularity of Bengali musical plays (geeti natya), paala acting and other folk dramatic forms grew in Tripura during the last few decades of 19th and early decades of 20th centuries. Even experimentations between different ancient and modern forms, encouraged by the ruling dynasty led to enrichment and diversification of the local theatrical traditions. Birchandra Manikya turned his palace into a centre of musical training and learning where exponents from different parts of India assembled and found patronage. It is his effort which saw a fusion between the Gaudiya and the Manipuri traditions resulting in a unique style of rendering Krishnalila oriented paalas. Radhakishore Manikya was as talented a connoisseur of art and culture as his father, if not more. His primary interest though was literary revival, art and culture did not suffer any neglect in his hand. He was a poet and painter himself. It’s during his time that Rabindranath visited Tripura several times. Radhakishore sponsored an annual grant of Rs. 1000/- for Shantiniketan and helped Rabindranath in introducing Manipuri music and dance to the outside world. It’s during his rule that two Opera styled performance companies, Kasharipatty and Acharyapara Jatraparty, in the tradition of Dhaka Barisal jatra companies grew up in Agartala. Though they were semi-professional groups, their rendering of popular religious paalas were in high demand both in rural and town areas. Inspired by their popularity, several groups of hilly people also undertook to enact Hindu religious stories in the uphill tribal areas of Tripura.

The first Westernised theatre stage grew up in Agartala during Radhakishore Manikya’s reign, in 1897, known as Ujjayanta Natyasamaj. Bengal famous Star Theatre used to visit Tripura on different occasions during this period. Ujjayanta Natyasamaj based its performance practices on the style of Star theatre. This group started its journey with the performance of a five act play, Pativrata, written by Maharajkumar Mahendra Devburman, also the chief organizer of the group. This play published in 1897, is considered to be the first play written by a playwright from the state. In the reign of Maharaj Birendra Kishore Manikya, Ujjayanta Natyasamaj performed many more plays, among which were Tagore’s ‘Raja O Rani’ and ‘Bisharjan’. Plays of Dwijendralal, Amritlal and Girishchandra were also enacted by this group around this time. The second original play to be written by any playwright from the state was ‘Tripura Gaurav’, inspired by the patriotic plays of Dwijendralal and performed by this group. All plays of Ujjayanta Natyasamaj were performed at least for a minimum of three days, the first day’s show was exclusively for the royal audience, the second day’s show for the women audience and the third show open for the common public.

Birendrakishore succeeded his father in 1909. Though he patronized folk forms of theatre following the footsteps of his father, his interest was in modern theatre. The proscenium theatre tradition began in the reign of Radha Kishore, but was nurtured by Birendra Kishore to its potential, while training the local artistes with the necessary skills. Birendra kishore was directly involved with Ujjayanta Natyasamaj initially, later on he formed another group called Pushpbanta Natyasamaj. Birendrakishore worked as the playwright, artist, music composer and director of this company. Some religious song dramas written by the king himself were performed with great zeal on the stage of Pushpbanta for some time. The king’s keen interest in drama inspired the royal family members, the Thakur society, local artists and actors from Bengali and Manipuri community to actively engage in building an environment congenial to flourishing theatre. This led to the growth of several aristocratic amateur theatre parties in Agartala during Birendrakishore’s rule. One exclusive women’s theatre also came into existence under the leadership of Maharani Pravabati Devi within the palace. 1917 onwards grew up several theatre groups owned by the Thakurs like Ranbir Karta’s Theatre, and amateur groups of Lebu Karta, Surendra Karta, and Narsimha Karta. These private theatre groups experimented with different forms and practices of modern theatre within their limited scope. Lebu karta alias Brajabihari Debbarma was an avid theatre enthusiast and accomplished instrumental musician in the court of Birchandra Manikya. He tirelessly experimented with newer ways of applying and integrating classical and instrumental music in musical dramas. In Lebu Karta’s theatre mostly musical operas and mythical plays with rich content of songs and dance were enacted…Full Text PDF