Bhawani Natyashala: The opera house at Jhalawar

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.

Bhawani Natyashala, Jhalawar, Opera House, Theatre, Rajasthan, Travel, Architecture

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?

Bhawani Natyashala, Jhalawar, Opera House, Theatre, Rajasthan, Travel, Architecture
View of the interiors from the entrance and looking towards the stage.
Bhawani Natyashala, Jhalawar, Opera House, Theatre, Rajasthan, Travel, Architecture
Each of those arches would have been private seating area for a patron. Were sections separated using curtain, velvet curtains perhaps?
Bhawani Natyashala, Jhalawar, Opera House, Theatre, Rajasthan, Travel, Architecture
Another view of the how the interiors of the Bhawani Natyashala look like. Just imagine it filled with people in anticipation of a performance or watching one !
Bhawani Natyashala, Jhalawar, Opera House, Theatre, Rajasthan, Travel, Architecture
The photograph does not convey the depth or size of the stage. All I can say that it is one the biggest that I have seen. Apparently, there are underground passages and ramps that would allow animals and chariots to be brought to stage seamlessly.
Bhawani Natyashala, Jhalawar, Opera House, Theatre, Rajasthan, Travel, Architecture
View of the different levels of the Bhawani Natyashala. Note the beautiful delicate arches. The main entrance is straight ahead and the stage is behind me.

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.

Bhawani Natyashala, Jhalawar, Opera House, Theatre, Rajasthan, Travel, Architecture
Charles, aka Baba Doran with Maharaj Rana Rajendra Singh of Jhalawar (centre), c. 1930s.

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?

Bhawani Natyashala, Jhalawar, Travel, Rajasthan, Theatre, Opera House
Bhawani Natyashala in the 1930s. Photograph by Premchand, the State artist of Jhalawar.

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.


The Hadoti Trip Series: Dear Hadoti | Discovering Jhalawar | The painted rooms in the Garh Mahal of Jhalawar | Bhawani Natyashala: The Opera House of Jhalawar | An evening in Jhalrapatan | The Buddhist Caves at Kolvi | The Gagron Fort at Jhalawar | An impact crater, a temple ruin and some discoveries | A fun evening in Kota | A safari on the River Chambal | The painted rooms of Kota Garh | The Shiva temples of Bijolia | The temples at Badoli | That and this in Bundi | The painted rooms of Bundi Palace | The stepwells of Bundi |


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26 thoughts on “Bhawani Natyashala: The opera house at Jhalawar

    1. I don’t know how I missed out on responding to most comments on this post. My apologies..

      I didn’t know there was an Opera House, until I walked in and saw the architecture. Till then, from the name, I had assumed that the Bhawani Natyashala was a conventional teatre.

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  1. What an absolutely beautifully written piece. Thank you once again for sharing yet another treasure. If there is one person who ca promote Hadoti, Jhalawar in particular, it is you Sudha. This region deserves recognition.

    I particularly admire how your research and reading continue much after a visit of yours to any place. Most do it before, some perfunctory, others in detail. But once a visit is over, their blog is written and the chapter closed. You don’t give up because you have an enquiring mind, curiosity and a whole host of questions for which you want the answers which satisfy you.

    It is this quality of yours which will take your authorship to great heights. That book you are going to write is lurking somewhere in the corner. May I request advance booking to get the first autograph?

    God bless.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Jayanti. I’m completely with you when you say that this region deserves all the recognition and more, I hope discerning travellers will soon be making a beeline for the Jhalawar region.

      One of the reasons, I take such a long time to write is because writing a blog post in not just about my experience of the place, but also information based on research and my thoughts and questions about it. The flipside is that my posts are getting longer, and as a friend joked are the length of a research paper !

      I’m touched by your faith in my ability to write a book. Frankly, though I have many ideas, I don’t think I’m ready to write one. To be able to write a book, at least the kind of book that I want to write, will require a kind of expertise that I am neither qualified for nor have the knowledge gained through experience. Maybe one day I will write a book, that is not now.

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  2. It’s a chance discovery! you’re lucky. Heritage is not something we all appreciate. For most of people heritage is “tuta futa”…something that has no future. People are excited to see shiny buildings. But then it’s our loss, if we can’t understand its value and what riches it can bring!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A chance discovery or a lucky discovery or serendipity or whatever… I’m glad I was able to see this wonderful piece of architecture and heritage,

      I wish the Bhawani Natyashala be a living heritage as in it be used for performances and stagings, if not on a regular basis then at least as a venue for an annual festival. It would be such a wonderful way to respect a heritage like this in contemporary times, wouldn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hadoti is definitely one of the lesser explorer and marketed regions of Rajasthan. While there are quite a lot of Japanese, German, French tourists visiting Bundi, Indians generally give it a skip. Its a blessing in disguise,I guess. Its not at all touristy.
        At the same time, the upkeep of the Garh palace was the worst I have come across. This is what family feud and dispute can do our heritage. Its a mess!
        I hope that we have better efforts to maintain our heritage.

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  3. Great Coverage of the Heritage.. Thanks
    Sir John Martin Thomas
    Chairman Save Indian Royal Heritage

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  4. Just read this article. It was a treat to know about such a beautiful and precious resource for the practicing of art and creative work. But the idea of converting it into a heritage makes me feel upset. I belong to this district, doing theatre since last three years and just got to know that it’s foundation day was celebrated when I was at my hometown. I thought there might be a play going to be staged on the occasion, but the authorities declared that there will be only ribbon cutting ceremony and they people will ask government to convert it into an heritage. It makes me sad being an artist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Swapnil. Welcome to my blog and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting.

      I agree with you say that this should be a performaing space, instead of being locked away and treated as heritage. I don’t know whether the Bhawani Natyashala can be run profitably all through the year as one. I would be happy if it got some love and care by way of some restoration and then at least be used for annual theatre festivals to begin with.

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