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Chowringhee Theatre The Black Pagoda
Sans Souci Theatre - Legend of The Lost
2708    Dibyendu Banerjee    18/11/2018

During the early years of their settlement, the life in Calcutta for the Europeans was hazardous and boring, without any entertainment. However, entertainment centres of their choice gradually grew up around the Tank Square area, as the white population of the city was also centred there. In the mid-18th century, when the British started to expand their settlement outside the Fort area, the area around Chowringhee was one of the first expansions. They built huge bungalows and houses all along the eastern end of the road, while the western edge was intentionally kept open for the security of the Fort William.Soon, within the early decades of 1800s, this area became the new entertainment centre of the white population of the city, where they could have almost everything they could ask for their entertainment. But, somehow they were clearly missing something else. They badly missed a theatre hall, as they missed performance of dramas and musicals, performed by professional actors in a professional board. They also missed the huge building of the Chowringhee Theatre, crowned with a beautiful dome, which entertained them for a long time, from 1813 to 1839 and was finally consumed by a devastating fire in 1939.


During those days, Esther Leach was the most famous and pretty female actor, who made her debut at the Chowringhee Theatre on 27 July 1827. She was in England, when the disastrous fire devoured Chowringhee Theatre. When she came back, she was shocked to hear the news, but made up her mind to fight back. She was an avid theatre lover and had no intention to give up her career as an actor. She therefore, decided to build a new theatre hall and with the help of Lord Auckland and Mr. Stocqueler, the editor of the Englishman, started to raise funds for the foundation of a building for her dream project. In between, she arranged a makeshift theatre under the name ‘Sans Souci’ in a building situated at the corner of the Government Place East and Waterloo Street, where Ezra Mansions stand today. Later, Sans Souci would be shifted to the new building at 10 Park Street, where St. Xavier's College stands today. Nevertheless, theupper floorof the building on Waterloo Street was occupied by St. Andrew’s Library, while the spacious lower floor looked more like a storehouse. EstherLeach took all the pain to convert the entire lower floor into a nice theatre hall, sufficient to accommodate about four hundred persons at a time. The temporary hall was opened on 21 August 1839, when ’Hunch Back’ by Sheridan Knowles was staged with Esther as Julia. The entire sale proceeds of the night were donated to meet the loss of her old stage associates Mrs. Francis and Mrs. Black, who had lost everything in the fire. It was fine for the beginning of Sana Souci and the performances were continued in the same venue for about a year. After that, a more ambitious, more spacious and an imposing structure was built at No.10 Park Street and the Sans Souci Theatre shifted there permanently.

Sans Souci Theater

Fund required for the construction and interior decoration of the new building was raised through public donations and subscriptions. Apart from the generous contribution of Lord Auckland and Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, some substantial money was also contributed by Esther herself. However, since that was not enough, the rest was raised by the mortgage on the property. The construction of the magnificent theatre building, elegantly designed by the architect, JW Collins, was completed in May 1840.


The newly built massive and majestic building of the Sans Souci theatre located on Park Street resembled the Greek Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis, complete with six Doric columns. The 200 feet long and 50 feet broad structure of the theatre was built with a huge portico in the front. The spacious stage was as big as 28 feet in breadth and 50 feet in depth. Arrangements for green rooms and other necessities were also arranged properly. Finally, the inaugural opening of ‘The Wife’, a five act play by Sheridan Knowles took place at Sans Souci on 8 March 1841, under the patronage and presence of the Governor General Lord Auckland. It made history, since that was the first time an English play was staged in Calcutta performed by the English actors.

Sans Souci Theater

Sana Souci created a storm among the theatre lovers of Calcutta for staging Othello and Desdemona, where Othello, played by a young Bengali youth named Baishnav Chandra Adhya and the gorgeous Desdemona had set the stage on fire.

Unfortunately, a different sort of fire untimely destroyed Sans Souci, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Calcutta. In the month of October 1843, James Vining, a famous actor in London, who belonged to a well known theatrical family, arrived in Calcutta to take over the charge as the new stage manager of San Souci and at the same time, the ‘Handsome Husband,’ an after-piece of Merchant of Venice was selected to be staged. Esther Leach, popularly known as the ‘Queen of the Indian Stage’ played the role of Mrs. Wyndham in the farce, while James Vining appeared as Shylock. The theater was brimful and the audience was exhilarating and elated. The situation was full of expectation at the new theater, when Mrs. Leach accidentally caught fire from an oil-lamp while waiting for her cue by the stage and within a few seconds, she was totally engulfed by flames.

Image of Mrs. Sarah Siddon, with whom Esther Leach was often compared to

Later, it was reported in the local newspapers that Esther Leach was not in life threatening condition and soon she would appear on the stage. Everyone believed the story, except Esther herself. She knew that she was going to die soon and requested her friends to look after her children. After the visit of two ministers of the Church, she passed away at 11 am on 18 November 1843 at the age of 34 years, 4 weeks and 4 days. After the completion of the Church Services, she was solemnly buried in the Military Cemetery at Bhowanipore. That was the end of the little orphan girl who was brought up in Berhampore by Corporal Paddy Flinnand and was often compared to the legendary actress Mrs. Sarah Siddons. Nothing is left as a memory of this amazing lady whose talents and personal attractions had no rival, not even in England.


The fire mishap that killed one of the finest theater persons of the period, ultimately brought the curtain down on the English theater in Calcutta. After the sad demise of Esther Leach, James Vining sailed back to England and a new leading lady Mrs. Ormonde arrived from Cambridge to replace Esther Leach. But, she died of cholera within a few weeks. Finally, in 1844 the enormous building of Sans Souci was purchased by the Right Rev. Dr. Carew for a sum of Rs. 40000/. The spot where St. Xavier’s College stands today, was once occupied the massive building of Sans Souci, the dream of an unsung talented lady.

It is considered by many that, in some way or other, the English theatres in Calcutta, mainly the Chowringhee Theater and the Sans Souci Theater, had inspired the elite Bengali society for the development of Bengali theater in the city.

Sans Souci Theater
Sans Souci Theatre - old picture
Chowringhee Theatre The Black Pagoda
Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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