The Final Act of Varanasi’s Naachghar

Social Commentary

The Final Act of Varanasi’s Naachghar

Illustration: Rutuja Patil

The stage is set. Everyone is gathered in the Assembly Room and the air is thick with anticipation. His Highness the Maharaja of the princely state of Benaras, Ishvari Prasad Narayan Singh, occupies the throne, as his staff waits hand on foot. The Maharaja is flanked by the imperious Kunwar Sahib and British sahibs, who endure the oppressive heat of April with resignation. The women and Indian officers wait a few paces away, hands folded in patience.

Something historic is about to unfold. India’s first Hindi play, Janaki Mangal, based on the wedding of Sita and Ram, and written by Shital Prasad Tripathi, is going to be staged for the first time. In the corner, Bhartendu Harishchandra, standing at the cusp of literary and cultural greatness, takes his position as Lakshman…

The year was 1868. The address was Purana Naachghar, in the posh cantonment area of Varanasi. In the years to come, Naachghar would acquire distinction as a celebrated venue for classical and performing arts, but on that evening its journey was just beginning.

The sprawling 1.93-acre property, now called Bungalow No 25 A-B, was built in 1814. Its grand main hall, with a 32-feet-high ceiling, served as the Naachghar and was known far and wide as being the second English-style theatre in the country after Chaurangi in Kolkata. Apart from the main auditorium, where performances were routinely held, its spacious tennis courts were a huge draw for the British officers populating the princely state; its walking plazas undoubtedly the scene for a romance or two.

After Janaki Mangal was staged, Bhartendu Harishchandra formed an amateur theatre group with his literary associates and dramatists of the time. Together, they produced a number of Hindi plays under the banner of Benaras Theatre, shaping the course of modern Hindi drama. English, Bengali, Hindi and folk plays continued to be performed at the auditorium until the early 1890s. Kashi, the oldest and holiest city on the planet was once home to several artists. Music flowed from the doorways of its many Hindustani classical gharanas. And Naachghar was at the centre of all this cultural activity.

Today, the bungalow’s crumbling facade would not be out of place in a horror film. The inside resembles an abandoned, haunted godown stripped of any trace of splendour.

Somewhere down the line, at the peak of colonial power, Naachghar acquired a veneer of debauchery. The bungalow’s club came to be attached with a bar and was frequented by East India Company officers. Dancing girls (some of them Europeans) kept the inebriated officers enthralled. The club also hosted performances by “Swar Vadhus”, women from genteel homes, who sang in the Nagar Manoranjan Gayaki style. According to journalist and Varanasi expert, Amitabh Bhattacharya, some of the performers even attempted English thumri – but that trend quickly passed, owing to the performers’ poor knowledge of the language.

Naachghar’s slide down the slope of cultural ruin began when it came to be auctioned in 1920 and landed in the lap of the Das family. According to Braj Kumar Das, the bungalow’s caretaker and one of the owners of the property, his grandfather (also named Braj Kumar Das) was the official auctioneer at that time. Even though auctioneers were barred from bidding, the senior Das ensured that the gavel went down on his brother-in-law Jeevan Das’s bid.

In the course of its 202-year history, Naachghar adapted to serve the times – sometimes as a guesthouse, sometimes as the office of the Central Ground Water Board authority, and in the last decade of the 1990s, as the rooms of a carpet manufacturing company. But Braj Kumar Das, who is possibly the last holdout and guardian of this beautiful ruin, still treasures his association with Varanasi’s rich cultural past. “I’m proud that my forefathers rubbed shoulders with stiff white collars when the first Hindi drama was staged at this historic spot,” he says.

But pride hasn’t translated into action. Today, the bungalow’s crumbling facade would not be out of place in a horror film. The inside resembles an abandoned, haunted godown stripped of any trace of splendour. The plaster on the walls has all but come apart, the tin roof has gaping holes. Nearly every corner of the bungalow is coated with a combination of moss and spindly spider webs. Some old furniture like a table, a few chairs, and some curtain hangers serve as ghostly reminders of a gloried past.

And in this hollowed-out frame this cultural institution will remain. The property cannot be bought or sold; since the bungalow is governed by Cantonment Board rules, no repairs or construction can be carried out without the board’s permission. The many members of the Das family who stake a claim to the property, are not even on speaking terms with each other. They are all waiting for the day the government will step in to sort things.

These logistical and ownership troubles don’t deter Varanasi’s performers and literary-minded folk. Every year, April 3 is celebrated as the birth anniversary of Hindi theatre. Theatre groups like Natya Vasudha and Ayodhya Shodh Sansthan, part of Uttar Pradesh’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs, hold annual discussions and seminars on the state of Benaras Theatre. Every year they suggest that the bungalow should be turned into a memorial or a theatre academy or even restored to its previous glory as a centre for cultural events. Until the stakeholders decide to get over their apathy though, Naachghar will remain a fading footnote of our cultural history.

Edited by Karanjeet Kaur