Shakespeare Sarani was originally known as Theatre Road and on April 24, 1964, it was renamed to pay homage to the great dramatist and playwright of all times — William Shakespeare — on the occasion of his fourth birth centenary celebrations. Long before it was renamed after the Bard, Theatre Road and its adjoining area was known as Birjee during the British rule.
PRESENTING THE HISTORY:
We all know that Govindapore, Sutanati and Kolikata(Calcutta) were the three villages that constituted themselves into the present metropolitan city of Kolkata. Birjee was another village that became part of Calcutta after the acquisition of the zamindari rights of Calcutta, Govindapore and Sutanati. The original village tank of Birjee called Birjee Talao still exists behind Nandan Cultural Complex. The East India Company tried to acquire Birjee and 37 other villages around their settlement of Calcutta for which they sent an embassy headed by John Surman in 1717 to Emperor Farrukshiyar. Birjee consisted of four villages falling under the Parganas of Calcutta, Paecan, Nadia and Ameerabad. Dihi Birjee was bounded by the Burial Ground Road (now known as Park Street) on the north, Maratha Ditch (Lower Circular or Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Road) on the south, Race Course on the west and the unfinished portion of Maratha Ditch on the east.
Nawab Mir Jafar gave 55 villages around the Company's settlement of Calcutta to Colonel Robert Clive as a personal gift for elevating him to the Gaddi of Murshidabad. After the death of Clive, Birjee and other villages on the 24 Parganas became the property of the Company.
Nawab Shiraj-ud-Daulah had a hunting lodge at Birjee where Victoria Memorial Hall now stands. Governor General Warren Hastings is on record as having hunted Royal Bengal Tigers sitting on the back of elephants in Birjee. The squatters displaced from Govindapore, when Fort William was constructed there along with its glacis or Maidan, were the first settlers of Birjee towards the east of Chowringhee Road. Bustees or clusters of huts sprung up in Birjee in due course. Englishmen had purchased lands in Birjee to build garden houses in the days of Clive.
Theatre Road itself was named after the Chowringhee Theatre. The erection of the Chowringhee Theatre at the crossing of Chowringhee and Theatre Road in 1813 called for clearance of the bustees of Birjee. At the Theatre, H. H. Wilson, Henry Moredith Parker, H.W. Torrens, Joachim Hayward Stoqueler, William Princep, James Princep and other regaled the audience from 1813 to 1839. The theatre had a capacity of 800 in boxes and 200 in pits. A devastating fire consumed the Chowringhee Theatre in the morning of June 1, 1839 without causing injury to anyone as the rehearsals were over by then and the actors and actresses had left the theatre house.
Colvin's Bustee situated near Birjee was soon turned into a market. Thus, Birjee became the new locale of the white town after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 since Dalhousie Square became the administrative and commercial capital of India. Provision for piped water, drainage, garbage clearance and street lighting after 1860 made Birjee, Theatre Road, an ideal locality for European settlement. Armenians and Jews, the promoters of British Raj, top bureaucrats and business magnates, rajahs and zamindars settled in the area after 1857 and made it their preserve. Some of their garden houses have survived and they bear testimony to continuity and change in the land use pattern in Theatre Road. Chowringhee was responsible for making Calcutta the City of Palaces and it was the garden houses in and around Theatre Road that contributed greatly to this distinction. Honourable H. Beverley, C.T. Buckland, Honourable W.F. Macdonall, Sir Richard Garth and M. L. Mangles (all in the Company's service) were residents of Theatre Road in 1879. Dr. Krishna Dhan Ghose, father of Sri Aurobindo, was also a resident of this street that year. Rajahs, maharajas, nawabs and other dignitaries started living in Theatre Road in the beginning of the 20th century.
The concept of boarding houses first started in Theatre Road. Between 1900 and 1947, several boarding houses belonging to Mrs. Annie Monk, Mrs. McDonell, Mrs. Box, Mrs. Curtis, Mrs. Walters were situated on Theatre Road.
Today's Kenilworth was formerly Mrs. Walter's Boarding House. Astor is the only hotel that has got an address in Theatre Road today. Astor Guest House is situated on the opposite side of the hotel. Metropolitan (18, Theatre Road) is another guest house that is still in existence. Thus, there is change in continuity in the hospitality business in Theatre Road.
Clubs were the social centres of Europeans. Though Theatre Road, boasted of three clubs in the 19th century, it has only one today. The Swiss Club established in 1924, with its changed name International Club, functions from 42, Theatre Road.
Theatre Road was an important intellectual centre when the British Council and Institute of Historical Studies were situated here. They have shifted to a nearby street. Along with State Archives at 43, Theatre Road, the street can truly be considered an intellectual centre, as two more cultural institutions have come up here in recent years (Sri Aurobindo Bhavan and Bharatiya Bhasha Parishad) to justify the claim.
A LOOK AT SHAKESPEARE SARANI TODAY:
A lot has changed in Shakespeare Sarani since its Birjee days. Today it is home to a plethora of shops, art galleries, food joints, hotels, designer stores, a college, a nursing home and residential buildings. The street is always bustling with activity and is considered as a posh locale in Kolkata. It might interest you to know that Shakespeare Sarani had ushered the concept of shopping malls in Kolkata. The first air-conditioned market was started here. Rani Birla Girls' College on Theatre Road occupies the site of the former Calcutta Three Hundred Club. It then was the nursery section of Modern High School for many years before it became Rani Birla Girls' College. The Kalamandir at the crossing of Theatre Road and Lower Circular Road is a popular landmark here which hosts a wide range of cultural programmes.
The changing face of Shakespeare Sarani is the best introduction to the city of Kolkata: a narrative of continuity and change.
(WITH INPUTS FROM RENOWNED HISTORIAN P. T. NAIR)
DID YOU KNOW?
Piped water was supplied to the residents of Theatre Road in 1870. Drains in the Theatre and other roads in the locality were connected to the Chowringhee Main in 1860.
FOR A 'NOBEL' CAUSE
Two of the Nobel Prize winners were the residents of Birjee or Theatre Road. Electric lights were introduced in Theatre Road after 1900. Sir Ronald Ross (Medicine, 1902) worked for his Nobel in Presidency General Hospital.
Theatre Road's breakthrough in Medical Science is well known from Dr. U.N. Brahmachari's use of Urea Stibamine for eradication of Kala Azar. The first eye hospital where cataract was operated was situated at the crossing of Wood Street and Theatre Road in 1828.