Back in the 1790s, a building on 25 Domtola Lane (now Ezra Street) in Calcutta was burned to the ground. From rubbing shoulders with Mozart to being in prison in Calcutta, the building owner, a Russian theatre artiste, had done it all. But could he uncover whodunit? 

Count Andrey Kirillovich Razumovsky, a Russian diplomat in the mid-18th century was adept at playing the torban, a Ukrainian musical instrument. In 1777, the count was selected to represent Russia in a diplomatic mission to Italy.

But before the Count and his diplomatic entourage could reach Naples, a conflict sparked between Austria and Prussia and the mission was then diverted to Vienna. Accompanying the Count was his friend and confidante, Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev.

In Vienna, Lebedev lost himself, quite literally. Coming from a family with musical genes, Lebedev just couldn’t believe his luck that he was in the music capital of Europe where the likes of Mozart and Beethoven walked the streets.

Though it cannot be said that he collaborated with the musical greats, he certainly came in close contact with them, especially Mozart, as mentioned by Utpal Dutt. 

These interactions would harness the  composer in Lebedev which would one day help him to stay sane in a debtor’s prison in Calcutta in British-controlled India.

From rubbing shoulders with Mozart to being in prison in Calcutta may seem like a steep fall, but you must also consider who was Lebedev’s adversary – a highly corrupt bunch of people who would do anything to make a profit and bring down any opposition.

In 1785 Lebedev, much like the fortune seekers of those times, boarded a ship called the Rodney en route to Madras in the southern coast of the Indian Subcontinent. In a couple of years, Lebedev made his way to Calcutta, the nerve center of British-controlled India.

Calcutta, the city with its immaculate places, drunken parties, and unique mix of ethnicity and culture mesmerized Lebedev. He writes in his diary: “Perhaps we Russians will learn something from them. Perhaps they will learn something from us”.

Lebedev learnt Bengali from a local teacher named Golak Das and after quickly mastering the colloquial nuances of the language, he took the leap and translated a comedy ‘The Disguise’ written by British author and playwright Richard Paul Jodrell.

He named it ‘Kalpanik Sang-Badal’. When Lebedev read it out among his Bengali peers, everyone encouraged him to turn it into a play, and thus it was. Though it took some time, Kalpanik Sang-Badal supposedly became the first Bengali stage play.

Lebedev’s play became a hit, he transformed Jodrell’s medieval Spanish into contemporary Calcutta and infused life into it with characters like Ramsantosh, Bhagyabati, and Sukhomoi. Lebedev then purchased a piece of land and created his own theatre.

It came to be known as the Bengally Theatre. As people flocked to see Lebedev’s creations, it also drew enviable gazes from the European theatre artistes who were mostly under the British East India company. 

Conditions became so trying that the European theatres had to lay off some of their staff as the plays were not attracting substantial audiences anymore. A couple of them, Joseph Battle and John Welch, decided to join Lebedev.

Lebedev didn’t initially suspect anything, but then tragedy struck. One fine day the entire theatre was burned down. Though many believed it was a mishap, Lebedev suspected it was foul play and that Battle and Welch sabotaged the theatre under the orders of the EIC.

With no theatre, it became impossible for Lebedev to pay his staff’s wages and the misery only compounded when Battle filed lawsuits against Lebedev for unpaid wages. The EIC was more than happy to put Lebedev in a debtor’s prison for a while and deport him soon after.

Lebedev in his diary wrote, “I did not contemplate that in a kingdom ruled by merchants, my efforts would inflame such hatred”. Native Bengali theatre would be forgotten for many years after Lebedev.

Clearly, no one wanted to cross paths with the EIC until a fiery band of writers and actors came along in the mid-19th century with the likes of Michael Madhusudan Dutt defining a new era for Bengali theatre and literature.



‘Pure and Mixed’ in East India: Gerasim Lebedev’s Intercultural Enthusiasms, by Gautam Chakrabarti, Cracow Indological Studies vol. XVII (2015); Professional Theatre: The Beginning, by Utpal Dutt, The Statesman, Calcutta Tercentenary Issue, February 1990