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British India’s Racist Theatre: How ‘Blackface’ Took Centre Stage

Does anybody from Calcutta, now Kolkata, remember Dave Carson – the American who popularised ‘blackface minstrelsy’?

Published
Theatre
6 min read
View of the Bijou Grand Opera House, Calcutta.
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Tucked away, for over a century, in an unidentified grave in Kolkata's Lower Circular Road cemetery, was the highly popular ‘Anglo-Indian’ actor and comedian of 19th century India; the man who had a run-in with Bengali theatre doyennes like Girish Ghosh and Ardhendu Sekhar Mustafi when they were trying to establish The National Theatre – the earliest of Bengali professional ensembles.

Archival image of Ardhendu Sekhar Mustafi.
Archival image of Ardhendu Sekhar Mustafi.
(Photo: India Net Zone)

David Nunis Cardozo – known by his stage name – Dave Carson, one of the earliest American performers in imperial India, is important because for a long time before cross-cultural integration and globalisation of the arts became a buzz word, he had come to India in the second half of the 19th century, in 1861, stayed back and adopted Kolkata as his home. This was the man whose humorous sallies had delighted audiences throughout India and beyond, in the cities of Kolkata, Mumbai, Mussoorie, Shimla, Meerut, Dehradun, Rangoon, Melbourne, Tokyo, and in many more, for over three decades in the second half of the 19th century.

A sketch of Dave Carson from The Indian Charivari.
A sketch of Dave Carson from The Indian Charivari.
(Photo Courtesy: Accessed by Devasis Chattopadhyay) 
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Who Was Dave Carson?

Modern theatre historians have hardly ever mentioned Dave Carson by his actual name. It could be the reason why we failed to identify his grave, till date. Friends and admirers had lovingly bestowed on him the honorary title – ‘CSI’ – ‘Comic Star of India’ – the honorific he used in his theatre advertisements proudly.

Carson was an American by birth – born to a Spanish Jew father, and an American Protestant mother. He was the owner and the lead actor of imperial India’s famous ‘Blackface Minstrel’ theatre group – one of the most idiosyncratic forms of the 19th century entertainment genre that found its way to India. It was a form of American entertainment in which white performers painted their faces black to enact insensitive stereotypes of blacks or natives that raucous white audiences lapped up.

The Indian Charivari.
The Indian Charivari.
(Photo Courtesy: archive.org)

The Indian Charivari Album of 1875 – the popular Punch and Comic magazine – wrote:“David Nunis Cardozo, alias Dave Carson – some twenty other towns might claim the honour of being the birthplace of Dave Carson. But truth must prevail, and we can vouch for the fact that Dave, who has become so thoroughly identified with life in the East by his representations of the Bengali Babu, the Parsi, and the Palkee Wala is a native of the West. He was born in New York some forty years ago, his father being a musical instrument maker, where, no doubt... Dave derived his musical talent.”

The Charivari further stated that at the early age of sixteen, Carson had boarded a ship as a ‘Loblolly boy’ and reached Australia. A few years later from there he accompanied a company of ‘Black Face Minstrels’ and reached Calcutta in 1861. Since then, as per Indian Charivari, ‘Our Boy Dave’ never went back home.

Detail from cover of The Celebrated Negro Melodies, as Sung by the Virginia Minstrels, 1843
Detail from cover of The Celebrated Negro Melodies, as Sung by the Virginia Minstrels, 1843
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Bengali Plays & Birth Of ‘The National Theatre’

He used to tread the boards of the Opera House in Kolkata, now known as Globe Cinema Shopping Mall, which stands right opposite the iconic New Market. His tent-pole satire was – The Bengalee Baboo – along with ‘Meri Jaan’, where he poked fun at the nouveau riche Babus of Kolkata – which were regularly advertised through newspapers and out-door banners under the name – Dave Carson Sahib Ka Pukka Tamasha.

Around that time, with the introduction of English-medium education, and because of the influence of the Bengal Renaissance, Girish Ghosh, Ardhendu Sekhar Mustafi, Nagendra Nath Banerjee – the future leaders of Bengali theatre, started the ‘Bagbazar Amateur Theatrical Society’ in 1868. They gave several successful performances of Dinabandhu Mitra’s Sadhabar Ekadashi and Lilabati. Witnessing the huge acceptance of Bengali theatre, fashioned after the tradition of the English proscenium plays, they thought of going professional – and producing Bengali plays in line with professional English theatres by charging admission fees through tickets.

Girish Chandra Ghosh, the father of Bengali theatre and an eminent personality in 19th century India.
Girish Chandra Ghosh, the father of Bengali theatre and an eminent personality in 19th century India.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Girish Ghosh, the fulcrum of Bengali professional theatre, strongly opposed the idea of a paid Bengali public theatre because of a lack of organised funding, and due to the absence of a dedicated proscenium stage at that point of time. Minus Girish Ghosh, others under the leadership of Ardhendu Sekhar, decided to proceed with the idea. The National Theatre was born and turned professional on 7 December 1872.

Dave Carson show: a newspaper ad on 11 Feb 1888, Calcutta
Dave Carson show: a newspaper ad on 11 Feb 1888, Calcutta
(Photo: Archival image accessed by Devasis Chattopadhyay)

This was the time when Dave Carson was at the peak of his career and was having a dream run of his very successful show with his signature skit Bengalee Baboo in his dhoti, kurta, jacket, shoes, and with his blackened face in the style of a ‘Blackface Minstrel’, holding a hookah in his hand, singing:

‘I’m a very good Bengalee Baboo
I keep my shop in Radhabazar
I live at Kolkata
Eat my dal-bhat
And smoke my hoookka…’.

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‘Mustafi Sahib Ka Pukka Tamasha’

The impact of Carson’s show was very adverse on the ticket sales of The National Theatre. Audiences started ditching them and going to the Carson show. The National Theatre started losing serious money and its existence was at stake. Ardhendu Sekhar was repeatedly reminded by some members that possibly Girish Ghosh was right; the decision to start the Bengali National Theatre was perhaps a mistake.

Ardhendu Sekhar decided to fight back and took the fight to Dave Carson during the Christmas season. The city of Kolkata, including its British part, was plastered with posters and banners announcing – Mustafi Sahib Ka Pukka Tamasha:

‘Burra-din ka naya ranga khasa
Mustafi Sahab Ka Pucca Tamasha
Come friends and patrons from our old Dharmatala basa
Mustafi Sahab Ka Sankritan
Not old trash but new happy fun’.

On the opening night, Ardhendu Sekhar appeared on the stage in an English dress with three companions, and started with their prologue song:

‘Mustafi Sahib Ka Pukka Tamasha
Neither short nor very long
Dekho Tamasha naya rang
Mustafi Sahib Ka naya dhang
We have no horses, or donkeys or monkeys on the stage
But talented actors and artists of the age.’-

Bijou Grand Opera House, view from the stage in 1918, Calcutta
Bijou Grand Opera House, view from the stage in 1918, Calcutta
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A Response To Dave Carson’s ‘Bengalee Baboo’

The main event was the caricature of ‘Burra Sahib’, responding to Carson’s – ‘Bengalee Baboo’.

The historic Star Theatre in North Calcutta.
The historic Star Theatre in North Calcutta.
(Photo: Facebook)

‘Hum Burra Sahib hain duniya mein
None can be compared humara saath
Mister Mustafi naam humara
Chhat-gaon mera achche bilat
Ghar ki Malek, Aadmi ki Malek
Lord of all hain hum
Nahi sakta n**g*rs but mera tolerate
Chunam gali mera dham
Dirty n**g*rs I hate to see
Bara Maila uff baap-re-baap
Holway pill hum khayenge raat ko
Health rakhne mera saaf…’

It was a clear dig at Blackface Minstrel. The audience lapped up the show. The National Theatre never looked back.

According to Harry Hobbs, in the last 14 years of his life, Carson was in great distress due to financial difficulties because of his supposedly profligate lifestyle and drinking habit. Ashim Kumar Biswas, Secretary, Christian Burial Board, Kolkata, confirmed to this writer, that David Nunis Cardozo, aka Dave Carson, was buried on 26 February 1896 around the age of 61, at the Lower Circular Road cemetery, Kolkata. He lived his life in the truest spirit of one of his songs:

‘Here today and gone tomorrow
In this vale of tear and sorrow,
Never lend but always borrow
Kutchparwani Meri Jaan.’

Girish Ghosh and Ardhendu Mustafi had a lot of respect for Dave Carson. On 29 February 1896, three days after his burial, Star Theatre, the citadel of Bengali professional theatre, cancelled its scheduled performance in memory of Dave Carson, said Sushil Kumar Mukherjee in his book The Story of the Calcutta Theatres (1753 – 1980).

(Devasis Chattopadhyay is the author of the book ‘Without Prejudice’, and an expert Corporate Reputation & Brand Management Strategist, and a Kolkata history buff. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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