One of the two things that repeatedly came up during background research on Jhalawar, before my Hadoti trip in November 2016, was the nearly 100-year old Bhawani Natyashala (the other was the Government Museum at the Gadh Mahal or Palace). The brief descriptions of the Natyashala was varied — it was a theatre, dance hall, performance hall, royal audience hall, etc. Even though the descriptions didn’t agree on what the Natyashala was, they all agreed upon one thing — that it was beautiful, one of its kind, and worth a visit.
But once in Jhalawar, I found out that the Bhawani Natyashala was closed and out-of-bounds to the public — something that none of the websites that touted it as a must-see bothered to mention ! Mahijit ji, my host in Jhalawar, told me that I could still see it from the outside and that’s what I decided to do. But luck had other plans for me.
The Bhawani Natyashala is located in the premises of the Gadh Mahal, and after my friend and I finished the tour of the museum and the painted rooms, we asked the museum attendant who was taking us around, for directions to the theatre. He offered to not only take us there, but also open it up and show it to us since he had the keys with him. A short walk later, we were in front of the Bhawani Natyashala.
If the attendant hadn’t mentioned that this was the theatre I had come to see, I wouldn’t have known for there is no signage. I just stop and stare for I can’t believe just how derelict the Natyashala is. The doors and windows on the different levels were broken and there was a new construction to the theatre’s right, which to put it simply didn’t belong there. The stacks of stone tiles and construction debris made it look like a dumping ground.
There is a plaque/stone commemorating the first performance at the Bhawani Natyashala outside the building, but the lettering which is in Hindi, English and Urdu is faded and it takes some effort to decipher it. The English text on the plaque (please click on the picture for an enlarged view) 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.
Standing before the plaque and reading the text is an invitation to travel back in time, and I can’t help but recall and contrast the very interesting history of the Natyashala as against its present state.
About a 100 years ago, the visionary king of the princely state of Jhalawar, Maharaj Rana Bhawani Singh, built a theatre there. Bhawani Singh, who was a great lover and patron of the arts and an avid traveller, built the theatre along the lines of the opera houses he had seen in Europe. It had box seats and a large stage that could accommodate not only a large number of performers, but also elephants and horses. The theatre was quite the ‘happening’ place in the region with Shakespeare’s plays, musicals, classical Indian drama, ballets, and more being performed there.
When Bhawani Singh died, his son Rajendra Singh, who was just as enthusiastic in promoting and patronising art and culture, took over. But winds of change carrying the country’s Independence came in and with it the abolishment of princely states. Much of the royal property was taken over by the government; the theatre — and the palace complex it is 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.
The Natyashala interiors are a surprise. It is far bigger than I expected and in a far better condition too — or maybe it was the dim light which softened the view ! Though seats that would have filled the theatre are no longer there, nor are the props or the curtains or the people performing or an audience — it was still easy to see imagine a lively Bhawani Natyashala of the past. As I walked around the theatre, I wondered if there were separate sections for the men and women, and if the women would have been in purdah. Where would the royal box be? Where would the musicians be seated? Did Uday Shankar, who grew up in Jhalawar, perform at the Natyashala before he became famous in Europe? Did he perform here after he became famous?
The architecture fascinated me too with the blend an Indian aesthetics within a largely European design, as did the acoustics which was fantastic. All in all it made me wish I could watch a performance here. Any performance.
But most of all, I was fascinated by the how the Bhawani Natyashala was more opera house like than a conventional theatre. I was also surprised how none of the aforementioned sites referred to it as one. Initially, I thought I was wrong in thinking that this was built as an opera house, but then found some validation in my thoughts about a month when I came across this obituary to Bhawani Singh. Among other things in the beautifully written piece, it says that “he built… an opera house… in Jhalawar”.
See the pictures below. Do you also think this is an opera house?
There isn’t much information available about the Bhawani Natyashala, apart from what I have shared here, which I have pieced together based on what little was available and from talking to Mahijit ji, who is the great-grandson of Bhawani Singh. But last week, he shared with me a two photographs and a fascinating snippet of Charles Doran, a touring actor-manager-owner of a Shakespearean company, and his connection to the Bhawani Natyashala. The new information and photographs made the vibrance of the Natyashala, that I had only read/heard about, so much more real.
Baba Doran, as Charles was known locally, who arrived in Jhalawar in the early 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 arrived who was he told me the fascinating story of Baba Doran, an Irish Shakespearean actor, who was for a few years in the early 1930s, the director of Shakespeare plays at Bhawani Natyashala.
This rather grainy photograph of the Bhawani Natyashala was taken sometime in the 1930s by Premchand, the official photographer of Jhalawar State. See how different it is from the first photograph in this post. The first thing you will notice — apart from the good condition of the building and its surroundings — is the signage just above the entrance. The next thing you will notice is that there is no commemorative stone/plaque. So, when was it added, I wonder?
The visit to Bhawani Natyashala brought up a lot of questions in my mind about the life structures like these, and some comparisons as well. The opera house in Mumbai languished for years only to be restored and thrown open to the public after many years. The publicity that led to the grand opening and after was, to put it very politely nothing short of a blitz. And then you have the Opera House at Jhalawar, lying virtually forgotten and abandoned by its caretakers.
I have no idea what plans the Rajasthan State Government has, if at all, for the Natyashala, but it is time that the space is opened up. My point is not to accuse, but to think and contribute ideas for a one of its kind space, and an important part of Jhalawar’s history and heritage.
Can it be revived as a theatre again? I don’t know, but I would answer no at this point for I don’t think Jhalawar has the kind of audience that a theatre like this would need to sustain itself in the long term. But one can begin with annual festivals to promote the region and Hadoti as a starting point for bringing attention and funds for its restoration.
Can the space be used as something else? Definitely yes for use as a creative space, and no for badminton matches and a storage shed. The possibilities for an alternative use of the space at Bhawani Natyashala are endless — as an exhibition space for the royal history of Jhalawar or shifting the sculpture gallery of the museum to the Natyashala are just two options.
A theatre or for that matter any creative space or activity should not be kept shut for long. Time for Bhawani Natyashala to come out of hibernation, I say, even if it is in a new avatar.
PS: What do you think can be the future of Bhawani Natyashala? I would love to hear your views on this.
Acknowledgement: Thank you, Mahijit ji for sharing the photographs of Baba Doran and that of Bhawani Natyashala in the 1930s with me, and giving me permission to use them on my blog.