12 Dinabandhu Moitra: Nil Darpan

Mr. Sayantan Mandal

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Nil Darpan or The Indigo Planting Mirror


In 1859, from a press named BanglaJantra of Dhaka, a play was printed under the supervision of Ramchandra Bhowmick. The name of the playwright was not mentioned in the printed text. Written in colloquial forms of Bangla, on the lamentable condition of Bengal’s village society under the gruesome atrocities of the British indigo planters, the first English translation of the play appeared in 1861. Who wrote this play in Bangla? Who was the native translator of the English Nil Darpan? The silence over the authorship of Nil Darpan, its early reception, performance is indicative of the colonial administrations’ fear even among the socially secured and well placed erudite circle of native Bengali printers and authors of mid-nineteenth century Bengal. And that’s why, though written and printed first in 1859, the literary circuit involved in the making of Nil Darpan did not even make their limited public exposure until unless summoned by the Calcutta Supreme Court in 1861. Regarded as a literary testimony of the famine stricken agricultural community of the mid -nineteenth century Bengal, the Nil Darpan is actually placed at a pivotal point of mid-nineteenth century socio-political polemics.


How should be the language of the modern Bangla literature, what would be the literary concerns? Caught in between such contemporary tensions, Nil Darpan or The Indigo planting Mirror served as an exemplary case whose literary merit was often defended and judged from an author’s literary, political accountability to the readers’ society as well as the state. The introduction to the English translation of the text judged Nil Darpan to be a play without any “marvellous or very tragic scenes, yet in simple homely language gives the annals of the poor.” The supreme court judge, Sir Mordaunt Wells who presided over the Nil Darpan trial, described the work as a “foul and disgusting libel.” And Rev. James Long, in his statement, though did not use the word ‘obscene’ but described the play to be containing coarser passages and statements which were expunged or softened in the English translation. On the other hand, the popular acceptance of this play in the nationalist atmosphere of 1870’s Calcutta also inaugurated the journey of the first commercially viable public Bangla theatre. But that was 1872, December 7, when Nil Darpan was performed by the National Theatre, eleven years after its first performance in 1861 in Dhaka by the East Bengal Stage. A lot had happened in between. The printer and the publisher of the English translation of the play were tried, convicted, penalised. The native English translator lost his job. An indigo commission was formed, headed by Walter Scott Seton Karr, to look into the situation. The findings and recommendations of the committee provided one of pioneering moments of nationalist consolidation. By the beginning of 1870s, in Nil Darpan, while at one hand, the native elite literati of the city of Calcutta– the Land Holder’s Society or the The British Indian Society, the Journalists, the Barristers, found a political literary dictum in Bangla plays where their political, social responsibilities and ambitions can be righteously exercised, on the other hand, the colonial state found vernacular literature’s content, its market rules as a serious matter of administrative control and surveillance. The expression of such discoveries were loud in the codification of Registration Act of 1867, in the Obscenity Act of 1856 and in the Dramatic Performance act of 1876. However, the significance of the text of Nil Darpan needs also to be understood from the perspective of the people whose language, land and life the play intended to safeguard. Contemporary literary taste had long begun banishing rustic, colloquial language as impurities from the modern Bangla. Tied to a system where one’s language was silenced, platforms of grievance redressals were prejudiced, these people had hardly any other option but to find their voice in the Nil Darpan, in its civilised political dictum and nostalgia for the pride of the caste, of the family and the village.


Nil Darpan and its fate evolved in this power polemics, in memories, in literary histories. It was recognised as a Bangla play on Indigo Exploits of the Sahib communities, as a play whose author knows to dare newspaper editors but not offend the colonial English race. In times when printed books sold in market became synonymous to civilisation; when corollary discourses on obscenity spread its roots from the contagious disease act through anti-prostitution progressive reform stances deep into the publication, composition and sale of Bangla literature, Nil Darpan emerged as one of the most significant texts of contemporary socio-political and literary concerns.


From the beginning of the nineteenth century a transition was set in motion in the literary domain of Bengal. With the consolidation of colonial knowledge production efforts from William Jones’ Asiatic Researches through Fort William College, Bangla literature and literary performances underwent a process of discovery, of recognition. Printed books, newspapers, pamphlets which started making its novel presence felt very strongly by 1830s in the city space of Calcutta, escalated the literary transition in process. It was a transition which had shaken the pre-print readers’ categories of learned readers’ who could read, write and had access to manuscripts and common mass who partake literature in performances or in collective recitations. The modern commodity of printed book alienated Bangla literature from its performative flexibilities and brought it within the bounds of reproducible exactness to cater in the market for all to consume. This transition which went on to be recognised as the modernisation of vernacular Bangla literature, was also guided by the discourse around the content of the reproduceable and exact literary texts. Consequently, the uncertainty of identifying the manuscript writer and its many versions was reduced by the printed details of the book which by law was required to furnish the name of the author, the publisher and the address of the printer. The encounter between pre-print Bangla literary traditions and colonial civilising missions and administration not only streamlined the modern form of Bangla literature through acts regarding copyright and registration of publication. Its content, use of language was often judged obscene and unfit for the consumption of new domestic readers. In such atmosphere, Bangla literature and its growth into a marketable and civilised form was supervised by new literary associations and their publishing efforts. Vernacular Literature Society, also known as Bangabhasa Anuvadak Society, (Society for Bengali Translation) established in 1851 under the leadership of Rajendralal Mitra, Madhusudan Mukhopadhyay, Kaliprasanna Singha, Pearychand Mitra, was one among such new literary associations which zealously participated in the contemporary discourses and making of useful and healthy domestic literature in Bangla free from the charges of obscenity and inappropriate use of language.


Published in 1859, Nil Darpan, was a literary text that emerged from Bengali progressive literary circle formed of colonial clerks, missionaries and zamindars. Dinabandhu Mitra, the playwright, born in 1829, was taught in Rev. James Long’s Free School, and later in the Hindu College. He was a postal department employee who had served in Patna, Nadia and Dhaka of contemporary Bengal Province. As a member of the educated literati of Bengal, Dinabandhu Mitra and his play Nil Darpan are intricate part of the mid-nineteenth century literary concerns. The literary enterprise in Bengal from 1850s had attempted to harbour a niche of readers. To sustain the market of printed books, new domains of readers, such as domestic readers, women were explored. A stream of healthy, useful, domestic literature emerged in competition with the cheaply available booklets of the popular market. However, as far as the choice of genre and content were concerned, an uninterrupted exchange of ideas between the cheap and erudite Bangla literature marked the literary characteristics of the period. Naksha, Darpan and similar styles of social criticism, of satiricial pieces in Bangla was the norm of the day. Alaler Gharer Dulal (The Spoiled Brat of the Rich) in 1858, Ekei ki bole Sabhyta (Is this Civilisation) in 1860, Hutom Penchar Naksha (Sketches by the Wise Owl) in 1861, Apnar Mukh Apni Dekh (See your own Face) in 1863, are some of the contemporary satirical works which aimed at the hypocrisy of the city-bred, educated Bengalis. On the other hand, these texts, beside holding a mirror in front of the contemporary society, also attempted to forge a literary Bangla language that would take their efforts to all the readers. Language in use became a crucial centre of debate and experimentations. Nil Darpan, coming out of such literary atmosphere, contributed to both these ongoing literary movements. The play manifested a nineteenth century Bangla author’s anxieties, his accountability to his fellow writers and contemporary literary debates, his apprehensions and fears of punishments at the hands of the colonial state. While the fiction allowed the text to be located in imaginary Bengal villages of Shamnagar, Sherpur, Shantighata and avoid direct confrontation with the colonial administration, the authorial anxiety went further ahead. The author’s preface to the text presented the indigo planters as the few stray examples which is responsible for the ill repute of the whole English race which otherwise had established themselves in Bengal and the world as the most generous dispenser of law and order and civilisation. The separate categories of good sahibs and bad sahibs or more precisely, presenting the indigo planters as the threat to English honour and public peace, was a strong literary signature of the author’s political conviction. Similarly, the colloquial dialogues of the play, which retained the social fibre of the locale; the strict division of language code among the characters, manifesting each characters social position, helped the author to construct a nostalgia for village Bengal which prospered, despite their internal differences of languages, social status, living condition. Under the good, caring and pious zamindars and the their able administration the villages of Bengal was a happy abode which the indigo planters ruined. The anger of the raped village women, the frustration of the farmers, who were forced to receive advance money and cultivate cash crop like indigo instead of rice, all were subsumed in the zamindar’s nostalgia for the past days of peace, of social sanctities and made Nil Darpan the testament of the collective public opinion.


How do we study Nil Darpan or for that matter any literary text which had such checkered history of origin? How do we read a literary text that had been written more than a century ago and in its afterlife had been variously recognised and rated? It would be anachronic to judge the play for merits and demerits from our current perspective of literature. To appreciate the play and the role played by vernacular literature and its translation during the making of modern literature, we need to take into account all the coordinates. The Bangla text of the play, the modern practitioners of Bangla literature, modern literary discourse, the supreme court case, The Indigo commission report, the continuing trend of labour migration from the villages to the city, the unending series of famines, the land equation, taxation – all these aspects are necessary to understand and appreciate a play like Nil Darpan. A comparative historiographic approach, therefore, can help us go beyond the structure of the play and its celebration as a social documentary. It can lead us closer to the intricate process of modern making of literature where dialects were identified, standards were established. Nil Darpan, under such critical lenses, can emerge as a literary witness of many a chapters of Indian Modern Literature and provide us with a register to trace how modern literary sensibilities were inextricably interlinked with the political idea of being, to understand the multi-layered difficulties of addressing certain concerns in printed literary form which were censored and disciplined. The characterisation of the play, in such readings, can provide us with many questions, such as that of – the acceptable and glorified disparity between the worlds of men and women, the peaceful submission of the whole society to strict caste norms of interactions. Nil Darpan, as a text still awaits to be read today from these points of view. And thrugh such reading can, perhaps, the world of Podi mayrani (sweetmaker), Sadhucharan, Khetramoni could only become more vocal and real and offer its readers more secrets which were kept under the case files and petitions for ages.

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  • Bandyopadhyay, Brajendranath. “Dinabandhu Mitra” in Sahitya Sadhak Charitamala vol. 2. Bangiya Sahitya Parishad. Calcutta,
  • Introduction to Nil Darpan in Dinabandhu Granthabali, Sajinikanta Das and Brajendranath Bandyopadhya,. Bangiya Sahitya Parishad. Calcutta,1943.
  • Knowsley Pamphlet Collection.
  • Letter to Rev. James Long from Raja Radhakant Bahadoor and 46 other principal natives of Calcutta. In The Prosecution of Rev. James Long. Knowsley Pamphlet Collection.
  • Mitra Dinabandhu. Nil Darpan. Sulabh Jantra, Dhaka, 1859.
  • Nil Darpan or The Indigo Planting Mirror. C. H. Manuel of Calcutta Printing and Publishing Press, Calcuuta, 1861.
  • Oddie, Geofrey. Missionaries, Rebellion and Proto-nationalism: James Long of Bengal 1814-87. Curzon press, Richmond Surrey, 1999.
  • Report of the Indigo Commission. 1862.
  • Statement by Rev. James Long, 20th June, 1861. In The Prosecution of Rev. James Long.