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BINODINI DASI (1863–1941)

Binodini Dasi was a stage actor renowned for her dramatic and passionate performances. In the nineteenth century actors were regarded as little better than prostitutes, but Binodini was nevertheless a star. She debuted on stage at the age of eleven, acted in over 50 plays and portrayed some 60 roles. Girish Chandra Ghosh called her ‘a living goddess’ and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee gave her the credit of being greater than him in breathing life into the character of Mrinalini that he had created.

She was born into a Kolkata family who had once been entertainers but had degenerated into prostitution. She hated her home, including the fact that she was married very young but her husband refused to accept her. But at the age of nine she came into contact with the famous singer Ganga Baiji, and learned music from her. This was the turning point in her life. Not only was Ganga Baiji an independent professional supporting herself, but she attracted a galaxy of cultured people who came to hear her sing. Soon they noticed Binodini’s talents and she got her opening on the stage. She was an instant success, though life was hard.

In the first years of her career a wealthy male patron whom she looked on as her partner supported her. This man married some years later, leaving Binodini devastated both emotionally and financially. Then Gurmukh Rai offered to finance a theatre if she would set it up. This she did, founding the famous Star Theatre, only to find that the very colleagues who encouraged her in her venture came forward to take it away once it had become a success, alleging her status as ’prostitute’ made her unfit to manage it. By 1886, though she had tried to live for a time as a simple actress without a male protector, she had been ostracised from the theatre. Not much is known about her life after that, except that she lived quietly in the parts of the city given over to ‘vice’, where people would not throw her past career in her face. She published her autobiography under the title Amar Katha in 1913, in the form of letters to Girish Ghosh.
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