He was a dramatist who wrote and staged dramas to awaken national feelings. His plays were, therefore, a crusade against the imperialist British. He walked an unbeaten path and became iconic by his carefully wrought works of literature. Besides, he also left a mark by his legendary transformation under the influence of Sri Ramakrishna.
Calcutta was then mesmerized by the British. Its rich and enlightened, accordingly, praised British rule and carped at everything indigenous. They were blind to the miseries of the masses and hyper-critical of their religion and culture.
Meanwhile, Girish Chandra Ghosh (1844-1912) appeared in the arena of Calcutta theatre as a rebel and proved his worth sailing against the current as well as the sloppy intellectuals who abhorred him deliberately. He drew actors from sex workers for both male and female roles. A great social reformer like Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891) had also criticised his initiative.
Leftist scholar and theatre personality Utpal Datta (19231994) wrote that Girish could be not only counted among the great dramatists of India, but some of his dramas are also of world standard. Datta said: “He is at times full of the Epic Theatre of Bertolt Brecht in the modern time. He sometimes experimentally applies Expressionism even before the advent of German Expressionism. In delineating the complex nature of human character and in manifesting controversies he is again sometimes worthy student of Shakespeare.” He lamented that Girish did not receive good reviews in spite of his extraordinary attainments. Scathing remarks by Prof. Sukumar Sen on the works of Girish Chandra Ghosh hit him hard enough to say that Sen’s study of Girish was superficial.
Girish was revolutionary in his endeavour to transform theatre from a medium of private entertainment of the well-to-do to a public enterprise with a view to infusing patriotism among all and sundry. He rebuilt its management employing and empowering people who were otherwise repulsive to prudes.
He fundamentally wrote and showed those plays which carried the message of patriotism and exposed traitors, renegades and quislings. For instance, he staged Michael Madhusudan Datta’s Meghnad Badh in 1877, himself acting as both Rama and Bibhishana with huge success, though with no appreciation from the Bhadralok community. Madhusudan and Girish indicated an imperative fight for independence by their emphatic use of the term janmabhumi in the scenes of Lanka.
Girish’s Jana was of the same sentiment and spirit. His Sirajuddula and Mirkashim were squarely anti-British. Aspects of British atrocity vis-a-vis peaceful living of Hindus in the Muslim period came in again and again. By virtue of its content Sirajuddula developed into a patriotic “slogan”. Girish in that way preached Hindu-Muslim unity to ordinary people who usually thronged his shows.
Creating a contrary currency, British merchants destroyed Indian stockholders and established their monopoly in the Indian market. Mirkashim was written in this context. Girish made the issue of unequal economic battle more powerful. Such a theme had never been conceptualized in Bengali plays before him. Hence, he was an original playwright who demonstrated how British merchants had converted the masnad of Bengal into a commodity to buy and sell in order to consolidate their position surreptitiously.
A remarkably advanced political thought was available in his play Chanda. Commitment to one’s own country and argumentative religious awareness were its hallmark. Its conclusion was a firm rejection of fatalism and acceptance of the individual’s exclusive right to judgment and leadership. There was a living picture of fright and panic in the country when people’s fundamental rights were taken away. It was amazing that he could produce an extremely progressive play like that as early as in 1890.
It was significant that thieves, beggars and prostitutes, who lagged behind in the race for existence and were considered the scum of society, appeared repeatedly in his plays. Karmeti Bai happened to be another popular social play by him which demonstrated how thirst for money had plagued society, garbling love for the country. Those who were indulging in moneymaking immorally, multiplying sufferings of the poor and vulnerable, were denuded by him.
He suspected he was perhaps incurring the wrath of the British by dint of his plays and that a retaliatory ban on theatre might befall him because of the connivance of his detractors. To safeguard theatre he, therefore, intelligently prepared some small plays eulogizing Queen Victoria as well.
Girish’s viewpoint regarding superstition sprang from his perception of Vedanta. So, he never called the superstitious uncivilised (asavya) as the high-brow, English- educated did. He wrote rather with sympathy and respect for them, pointing out the detrimental effects of superstition. His plays were, by and large, on social problems in the garb of Puranic tales. He thus reinstated the value of ancient literature and educated illiterate viewers simultaneously.
The mainstay of Girish’s plays was dharma. He propagated Religion Eternal (sanatana dharma) from the domain of theatre, fighting the religious reformations that aped the missionaries who preached with ulterior motives. His religious plays such as Prahlad Charitra, Sankaracharya, Billamangal, Buddha Charit and Chaitanya Lila took him to the peak of his fame.
Sri Ramakrishna was very impressed by his Chaitanya Lila, which he saw at the Star Theatre on 20 September 1884. He wholeheartedly gave recognition to theatre, saying it was a productive medium for mass education and urged Girish to continue.
Girish was ahead of his time. He was a follower of Ishwar Gupta (1812-1859) who wrote poems to arouse people from ignorance and torpidity. Girish was a vastly read and a highly knowledgeable person. His erudition spanned a wide range of subjects. He learnt Sanskrit and English proficiently though he was not educated beyond school. He wrote as many as 80 plays. He translated Macbeth into Bengali and wrote poems excellently. He applied a new amitrakshar type metre which later came to be known as Girish-Chanda. He was also a good homoeopath who had treated many serious patients successfully.
However, Girish was so unhappy in his personal life. Relentless personal tragedies shattered him and made him a non-believer ultimately and as a result, he became reckless and hedonistic. But in his heart, he was an ardent devotee (bhakta), from where he wrote plays overflowing with the essence of devotion (bhaktirasa). Observing that, Sri Ramakrishna accepted him as his close disciple. Girish’s misconduct and misbehaviour had no impact on him. Girish was badly repentant and described himself as the worst “sinner” for his hauteur. Sri Ramakrishna told him that one who harped on sin was a real sinner. He then said to Girish: “How can you say that? Suppose a light is brought in a room that has been dark a thousand years; does it illumine the room little by little or all in a flash?”
Skilfully chiselling and modelling him by his razor-sharp spiritual acumen, Sri Ramakrishna shaped him into a wonder. Looking at the unprecedented change he had undergone, Girish used to tell others to watch him in order to be able to understand how immensely great Sri Ramakrishna was.
Girish’s friendship with Swamiji was dearly deep. From the very beginning he was with him as a benefactor of the Ramakrishna Order. He spent the rest of his life in close association with the monks of Ramakrishna Mission. His love and devotion for Sarada Devi was boundless.
Utpal Datta correctly saw Girish inextricably linked to Ramakrishna and Vivekananda in his thought and action. According to him: “Humanistic interpretation of Vedanta came from Ramakrishna-Vivekananda.
Their advent took place due to the urgency of modern time. Society created such traditional yet totally new interpreters like them because of its own requirement.” Girish, he believed, had exhibited that humanistic and democratic consciousness in his works.Today, scholars unequivocally acclaim Girish as an outstanding poet and playwright, while followers of Sri Ramakrishna, on the other hand, fondly remember him for his exceptional role in and contribution to the activities of the Ramakrishna Movement from its birth.
He could do so much because the love of God and love of motherland freely mingled in him and made him a patriot with a difference.