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:

Crisis

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.

My Indian Film Debut

Anirban Bhattacharya as Kolkata detective Byomkesh Bakshi on Hoichoi.

Today I had my film debut and I’m thrilled it’s in an Indian flick. I was honored that accomplished director Abhijit Chowdhury, whose current HoiChoi (think Bengali Netflix) series Astey, Ladies rocked my world. He asked if I’d do him a favor and play a British police officer in his new limited series, a period drama entitled Manbhanjan adapted from Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Giribala.” Really he was doing me the favor because it turns out he’s shooting a historical film set in thelate 19th century against the backdrop of the nascent Bengali theatre scene, which is exactly one of my Fulbright research areas.

I’m not going to give away the entire plot but suffice it to say they had done their homework and recreated it spot on. My hat’s off to the screenwriter, set designers, choreographer, director and the whole crew. The 1870s saw the first Calcutta (now Kolkata) production of Dinabandhu Mitra’s controversial (for the British Raj) play Nil Darpan (literally “Blue Mirror,” in this case blue referring to the indigo plant), which held a mirror up to the gross mistreatment of impoverished indigo farmers. I won’t go into detail here, but its first productions and publication in 1859-60 in rural Benal led to an amazing turn of events and other protest plays, culminating in the 1876 passage of the Dramatic Performances Control Act, which was only ever enforced by the British Raj against Indian plays. Nil Darpan continued being periodically revived in Bengali-owned theatres for decades afterward.

In my obsession with this time period, and having visited what’s left of Kolkata’s old theatres and perused many hundreds of old theatrical advertisements, new articles, reviews and photos at this point, I have often wished I could go back in time and see the real productions. Tonight on set I got a glimpse of what that might be like.

We were shooting in an old playhouse recreating what would have been a typical night at a Bengali theatre in the late 19th century, opening with a mythological drama (in this case a story from the life of Lord Krishna and his consort Radha), then a long intermission while the set was changed for the next play, the social drama Nil Darpan.

So here I am watching actors in period clothing doing scenes from Radha-Krishna, then Nil Darpan, while an “audience” of actors in 19th century period attire sits watching and reacting to it. I play a British police officer sitting with my British wife near the front, becoming highly offended and eventually enraged by what I see onstage. I’m stopping there regarding the film’s plot.

The biggest thrill for me was getting to share the screen with a major star, Anirban Bhattacharya, who is known for many award-winning stage and film roles, but he’ll always be HoiChoi’s Byomkesh to me. Byomkesh Bakshi is India’s answer to Sherlock Holmes, the stories written by Sharadindu Bandhopadhay and set in pre-Independence Calcutta (now Kolkata). I’ve been a fan for several years, have read all the stories, seen I think all of the movie adaptations, and all of the current HoiChoi episodes. This was long before I knew I’d not only be meeting Mr. Bhattacharya but performing alongside him.

At one point, I said to a fellow performer playing a fellow Brit with me, who seemed unaware of who he was, “That guy’s a famous actor.” She replied that famous people didn’t impress her.   I said, “Yes but he’s famous for a reason. He’s famous because he’s a terrific actor. One of the finest in India.”

She thought for a moment. “What was his name again?” She whipped out her phone to Google him.

Meanwhile, you should have seen me gushing at Anirban between takes, pumping his hand up and down saying, “I’m a big fan. I’m aware of who you are. It’s an honor to work with you.”

One more day of shooting for me later this week in which I get to have a face-off with Anirban’s character. I’m brushing up on my British accent.

UPDATE, June 2019:

Eternally grateful for the opportunity.