Friday, May 24, 2013

Book Review: The Lonely Monarch by Sunil Gangopadhyay

Title: The Lonely Monarch
Author: Sunil Gangopadhyay (translated by Swapna Dutta)
Publisher: Hachette India
Pages: 248
Price: Rs 350
Genre: Literary Fiction / Historical Fiction /Theatre / Translation
Rating: 9/10
Format: Paperback

It took me a while to begin this book. ‘The Lonely Monarch’ by Sunil Gangopadhyay, beautifully translated by Swapna Dutta, was supposed to be about Bengali theatre of the 1920s. I felt I would not be able to relate to it, since I knew nothing about either theatre in general or Bengali theatre in particular. Then I read the ‘translator’s note’, where she herself admits that she “knew very little about the theatre scene in Bengal and even less about the people involved in it”, and yet she was fascinated and enthralled by the book. That did it for me. And I am grateful, I read it.

‘The Lonely Monarch’ is the story of the stalwart of Bengali theatre, Sisirkumar Bhaduri, in the early twentieth century. Although the story is about a real, revered personality from the theatre world, yet this book is not a biography. As the author says, “basing it on facts, as far as possible, I’ve had to fill the available framework with my imagination.”

In ‘the Lonely Monarch’, the author creates a vivid imagery of the old-world Bengal and its theatre world. Sisirkumar Bhaduri, the scion of a declining zamindar family, was enamoured by the world of theatre. When he joined professional theatre, there had never been any actor so highly educated; considering the notoriety associated with it (all actresses came from the red light area). He strongly believed that theatre should be integral to the culture. He worked relentlessly from the beginning of his career to the end to create a culture of refined taste in theatre. He performed in and directed several outstanding plays, which got him adulation from the masses as well as critical acclaim. But he soon realized he was not cut out for working under anybody and started his own theatre company.

The story traces his rise and fall, the many highs and lows of theatre world; his dream of a national theatre to teach acting and theatre to the younger generation; his attempts to refine the taste of the general audience to more tasteful plays, to break away Bengali theatre from the shadows of English theatre and make an identity of its own; to break the stigma around theatre and make it part of the popular culture; and to produce and direct outstanding plays, and not be confined by the money spinners. 

The book also chronicles his tumultuous personal life and his struggle with alcoholism. A man of such extraordinary talent was married to a simple, ordinary girl with no knowledge of poetry and art. Even his attempts to teach her finer nuances of life turned futile because of the orthodox outlook of his parents. Misunderstandings led to her suicide attempt and later her death, which kept him guilt-ridden throughout his life. Later, he found his match in Kanakabati, who was educated and an excellent actress, but he failed to bestow upon her the respect and dignity of being his wife. She died heartbroken.

He also dabbled in movies for money but his heart was not into it. Films appeared too mechanical to him. Moreover, on one hand he was an exceptional actor and director, on the other hand, he never understood the commercial aspects of running a theatre, which always led to his downfall. It disappointed him that neither the government nor the rich of Bengal patronized the Bengali theatre.

There are many references of eminent personalities of those times like Rabindranath Tagore, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Satyajit Ray; even the author Sunil Gangopadhyay himself appears in the narrative.

Towards the end of the book, though the country had got independence but his dream of national theatre remained unfulfilled. In his old age, the once-torch bearer of Bengali theatre passed his days in poverty and loneliness, refusing any kind of charity. He just wanted to be remembered as an actor / director of exceptional talent and outstanding caliber.

The book is quite interesting and engrossing. The narrative is fluid and what is commendable is that it never feels like a translation.

If literary fiction is your thing, go for it.

A few memorable lines from the book:

“That’s what real art does to a person. It charms as well as overwhelms.”

All he had asked for was a national theatre where he could teach stagecraft to the new generation – the nitty gritty of acting, experimenting with new forms of drama – without having to worry about money, the kind of organization that existed in any civilized country in the world. 

Note: Text in italics has been quoted from the book.

Review Book courtesy: Hachette India
Image source: Hachette India


  1. hmm surely not my kind of book

    1. Why? What you did not seem to like? Just wondering....