Aes­thet­ics An In­dian His­tory

Domus - - CONTENTS - Text by Sudha Gana­p­athi

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. [2] 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.

NOTES:

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

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