Aesthetics An Indian History
The forgotten Opera House at Jhalawar
Popular as a site for Parsi theatre, Shakespearean plays and even Kalidasa’s Shakuntala in its heyday, the Bhawani Natyashala, located in south-eastern Rajasthan, and believed to have been inaugurated in 1921, is a building that illustrates the various currents that shaped architecture as well as theatre histories in India
About a hundred years ago, the king of a princely state in south-eastern Rajasthan built a natyashala, or a theatre, in his capital city. The visionary king, who was an avid traveller and a patron of the arts, was keen to bring the outside world to the people of his kingdom so that they could experience a world they would never have otherwise had a chance to see. The theatre was just one of his many initiatives towards bringing in the outside world including the finest library of its time, and societies to promote the arts, literature, music and culture, among others.
The king had the theatre built along the lines of opera houses he had seen in Europe. It had box seats and a large stage that could accommodate not only several performers but also elephants and horses. The Bhawani Natyashala, for that is what the theatre was called, was inaugurated in 1921, according to a plaque placed at its entrance. The English text on the plaque reads:
This building Bhawani–Natyashala, meant for all performances and lectures, was designed and constructed under the orders and guidance of H.H. Maharajadhiraja Maharaj Rana Shree Bhawani Singh ji, Sahab Bahadur Narendra of Jhalawar, by Thakur Umrao Singh, Home & Military Member of the State Council. The first play staged before His Highness on Saturday, the 16th July 1921 was Shakuntala of the great poet, Kalidas.
Less than a hundred years after the Natyashala’s inauguration, it lies in ruins. Abandoned, empty and neglected, the doors and windows of the twostoreyed theatre are broken , with debris lying all around. There is no signage on the building and if not for the
commemorative plaque whose faded lettering is barely visible, the Natyashala could have passed off as just another building in the Palace complex or Gadh Mahal that it is located in Jhalawar.
Compared to the condition of the building exterior, the Natyashala’s empty and cavernous interiors are in a better condition. This is no traditional theatre, but an opera house with balconies and boxes spread over two floors for the audience to enjoy performances. And yet, even though the design may have been inspired by the opera houses and theatres that Maharaj Rana Bhawani Singh saw in Europe, the aesthetics and design sensibilities are very much Indian with decorative arches and floral stucco work on the arches. The bare interiors give no indication of the seats that would have filled the theatre or the props or the curtains essential to a performance. There are no performers and there is no audience.
And yet the acoustics, which are fantastic, makes it easy to imagine Bhawani Natyashala of the past when it would have been a lively venue for performances. How would the lighting have been managed? Would there have been separate sections for men and women? Where would the royal box have been? Where would the musicians have been seated? Did Uday Shankar, the world-famous dancer and choreographer, who grew up in Jhalawar, ever perform at the Natyashala? Who were the people who came to see performances at the Natyashala? What caused the decline in the fortunes of the Bhawani Natyashala?
After Maharaj Rana Bhawani Singh’s death in 1929, his son Rajendra Singh took over. He was just as enthusiastic in promoting art and culture and was a
generous patron. Bhawani Natyashala thrived and was quite the ‘happening’ place in the region with plays, musicals, classical Indian drama, ballets, and more being performed there. It even had its own director of Shakespeare plays, in Charles Doran! Baba Doran, as Charles was known locally, was a touring actormanager-owner of a Shakespearean company who arrived in Jhalawar in the 1930s from London to take up the position of Director of Shakespeare’s plays at Bhawani Natyashala. He was there for a few years before moving to Mumbai. Parsi theatre was quite popular at the Bhawani Natyashala, thanks to a large, thriving Parsi community in Jhalawar, and other audiences as well.
But winds of change carrying the country’s Independence came in and with it, the abolishment of the princely states. Much of the royal property was taken over by the government; the theatre — and the palace complex it is located in — was one of them. The palace complex turned into offices for various government departments, while the theatre became a multipurpose space, including an indoor arena for badminton. And then one day, in the not too distant past, the government offices and the people who worked there moved out of the palace complex, including the theatre, locking it up behind them.
A visit to places like Bhawani Natyashala brings up thoughts on the life of buildings and structures like these, and some comparisons as well. The Royal Opera House in Mumbai languished for years only to be restored and thrown open to the public in 2016. The publicity that led to the grand opening and after was nothing short of a blitz. And then you have the Opera House at Jhalawar, lying virtually forgotten and abandoned by its caretakers — the State Government.
But maybe not for long, for with the centenary year of the Bhawani Natyashala coming up in 2021, the Rajasthan State Government has announced plans to revive it.  Towards this the State Department of Archaeology and Museums has been given charge of restoring the Natyashala. It is not clear what the State Government’s plans are for the space after it has been restored.
Can the Bhawani Natyashala be revived as a performance space that can be sustained in the long run, or would it be used only for annual festivals to promote arts and culture of the region? The possibilities for alternative uses of the space at Bhawani Natyashala are many — as an exhibition space for the royal history of Jhalawar or as an extension of the Jhalawar Government Museum, among others.
A theatre, or for that matter, any creative space or activity should not be kept shut for long. It is time for Bhawani Natyashala to come out of hibernation, though what form it will be in, remains to be seen.
1 Photograph given by Mahijit Singh Jhala and reproduced here with permission. 2 https://www.pressreader.com/india/ hindustan-times-st jaipur/20180517/281655370725486 This article is based on discussions with Mahijit Singh Jhala, greatgrandson of Bhawani Singh, and information gathered from an obituary notice for “Sir Bahadur Bhawani Singh of Jhalawar in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society”, Vol. 90, p.370, 1930.
This page, top: The Bhawani Natyashala as it stands today Opposite page: a view of the different levels of the Bhawani Natyashala. Delicate, beautiful arches are a striking feature of the structure. The main entrance is straight ahead and the stage is located behind the viewer
This page, left: A view of the interiors from the entrance, looking towards the stage Bottom: Another view of the how the interiors of the Bhawani Natyashala look. One can imagine how packed it would look when filled with people in anticipation of a performance, or watching one