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“Neel Darpan” or “The Indigo Planting Mirror” is a Bengali play written by Dinabandhu Mitra between 1858 and 1859. This drama sheds light on the social unrest in Bengal known as the Indigo Revolt. The play focuses on the treatment of Indian peasants, also known as ryots, by the European indigo planters. It was initially published in 1860.
The Indigo Revolt and the Plight of Indian Peasantry
Mitra’s play vividly portrays the behavior of certain European indigo planters. Their actions were later exposed by an official report from the 1861 Indigo Commission, highlighting the worst atrocities. The ryots were compelled to cultivate indigo, a high-demand crop in the international textile industry, despite its detrimental effect on the land. This forced cultivation led the ryots into a vicious cycle of debt and economic dependence, often enforced through violence. Through this play, Mitra showcases the realities of intimidation, exploitation, violence (including sexual violence), and the lack of judicial redress experienced by many in Bengal.
Image: Title page of Nil Darpan and portrait of Dinabandhu Mitra from Ramtanu Lahiri, Brahman and reformer. A history of the renaissance in Bengal, from the Bengali… Edited by Sir Roper Lethbridge (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co, 1907.), p.94.
Translation by Reverend James Long
In 1861, Mitra sent a copy of his play to Reverend James Long, an Anglo-Irish priest, who had been running the Church Missionary Society school in Calcutta, where Mitra himself was educated. Reverend Long had a keen interest in what he called the “Native Press” and had previously compiled lists of Bengali publications. He believed that vernacular writings were a vital reflection of Indian sentiments that had been often overlooked by those in power.
Reverend Long shared the play with William Scott Seton Karr, the secretary to the Government of Bengal, who, in turn, brought it to the attention of Lieutenant Governor Sir John Peter Grant. Sir Grant requested an English translation of “Nil Darpan”, which Reverend Long arranged, with Michael Madhusudan Dutt being the likely translator. Reverend Long edited the translation and provided his own introduction. Around 500 copies were printed, some of which were distributed in official Government envelopes, giving the translation an appearance of official sanction.
Image: Portrait of Michael Madhusudan Dutt from Ramtanu Lahiri, Brahman and reformer, p.30, and bust of James Long in Kolkata via Wikimedia Commons.
Backlash and Trial for Libel
The translation of “Nil Darpan” quickly caught the attention of both the indigo planters and the pro-planter press. They felt defamed by the play itself, Reverend Long’s introduction, and Mitra’s original preface. As a result, James Long, the translator of the play, faced legal action. Walter Brett, the proprietor of the Englishman newspaper, along with the Landholders Association of British India and the general body of indigo planters, took Long to court for libel.
The trial took place in July 1861, and although there was considerable sympathy for James Long, he was found guilty. He was sentenced to one month in jail and fined Rs 1,000. Kaliprasanna Singha, a Bengali author, promptly paid the fine on Reverend Long’s behalf.
Impact and Censorship
“Nil Darpan” became the first play to be commercially staged at the National Theatre in Calcutta. It was one of several politically charged plays that provoked the British Raj to introduce restrictive censorship measures on Indian theater through the 1876 Dramatic Performances Act.
In conclusion, the play “Nil Darpan” by Dinabandhu Mitra shed light on the harsh realities faced by Indian peasants under the oppressive indigo planters. Its translation into English by Reverend James Long gave a wider audience insight into the plight of the ryots. The play and its subsequent trial had a significant impact on Indian theater and the struggle for freedom of expression.
This article was written by a Cataloguer at India Office Records and first appeared on the British Library’s Untold Lives Blog.