New Theatre Quarterly

Research Article

Russian Enterprise, Bengali Theatre, and the Machinations of the East India Company

Laurence Senelick


Was the father of Bengali theatre a Russian? Or were the brief adventures in India of Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev (1749–1817) ‘a mere blip on the screen of Bengali performance history’? Already widely travelled in Europe, Lebedev, influenced by the then current belief that India was the cradle of civilization, arrived in Madras in 1785 during the virtual hegemony of the East India Company in the sub-continent. Inspired by his attempts to master the ancient Sanskrit tongue, he eventually set up a Bengali company in opposition to the New Playhouse in Calcutta, which staged English plays for audiences of colonists. Initial success was tempered when Lebedev's company found itself the target of attack from the Playhouse, and subject to continuous legal harassment. Forced to take flight from his supposed creditors, Lebedev found security only when, under the more tolerant regime which followed the accession of Tsar Alexander I in 1801, he returned to his native land, where he laid the foundations for the scientific study of India in Russia. Laurence Senelick here traces the many ups and downs of Lebedev's career, and argues that ‘his theatrical activities are a cynosure for the controlling urges of his age’.