The Nil Darpan Controversy

I’m thrilled to share that my article “Nil Darpan: How a Mistakenly Published Play Helped Force Labour Reforms in British India” has been published in the rigorously peer-reviewed UK-based journal Race & Class which is produced in cooperation with the Institute of Race Relations.

Don’t be fooled by the title of my article. I promise an informative, thoroughly researched yet entertaining, engaging, darkly comic yarn complete with a plot twist ending involving Indian film director Abhijit Chowdhury. Many thanks to journal Editor Jenny Bourne and Deputy Editor Sophia Siddiqui for their keen eyes and for letting me keep the f-word.

From the journal’s website…

Race & Class, “a journal on racism, empire and globalisation…is a refereed, ISI-ranked publication, the foremost English language journal on racism and imperialism in the world today. For three decades it has established a reputation for the breadth of its analysis, its global outlook and its multidisciplinary approach.”

“One of the few scholarly quarterlies that bridges the gap between the academic and the ghetto.” Guardian, UK

“Combines scholarship, insight and sympathy for the hopes and problems of the poor and oppressed people throughout the world. It is an achievement as significant as it is rare.” Noam Chomsky

Abstract: In 1860s India, Bengali playwright Dinabandhu Mitra wrote the play Nil Darpan (Indigo Mirror), an exposé of violent abuses committed against Indian farm workers by powerful British indigo dealers. With help from a Christian missionary, the play was translated into English and shared with the office of Bengal’s Lieutenant-Governor, Sir John Peter Grant.

Grant approved a few copies to be printed to share with colleagues; instead, hundreds were mistakenly printed and distributed to Parliament members in England, outraging and embarrassing the British Raj. But would the amusing debacle help bring positive change to Indian labourers? 

The events of the Nil Darpan controversy are well-known to historians but have often been mythologised and misrepresented. The author provides a unique perspective on the events by comparing and contrasting the news media’s coverage of the Nil Darpan controversy, and Bengali theatre and film artists’ reactions to it, using his own findings from Indian, UK and US newspapers of the era ranging from 1859 to 1917. This article is based on his lecture given at the annual Fulbright Association Conference in October 2023 held in Denver, Colorado.

The article begins below:


During the period of British rule of the majority of India, Calcutta was, for most of Britain’s reign, the nation’s capital. Kolkata, as it is called today, situated in Bengal on the banks of the Hooghly River, a tributary of the Ganges, is now thecapital of the Indian state of West Bengal. As the capital of British India, much of the anti-British sentiment that was expressed here by Bengalis set the tone for the rest of the country through Bengalis’ arts and politics. This includes patriotic,therefore implicitly anti-British, songs and plays.

Some native Bengali children, mostly boys at first, attended Christian missionary schools and colleges, where they learnt about, and were influenced by, western playwrights, especially UK playwrights, whose plays were crafted using a traditional five-act plot structure, ranging from Shakespeare to Shaw.

But what about outside of Calcutta in the rest of Bengal? As you might imagine, the land was chiefly rural and therefore chiefly agricultural. During the nineteenth century, a major cash crop in Bengal was indigo, the plant from which blue dye is made, and from which blue clothing was manufactured. Indigo imported from India made blue clothing highly fashionable, and England now had… You can finish reading the full article here. Note that it is currently Restricted Access, meaning you need to log into your university account through the Race & Class website to view it.