It is a little known fact that
actors in Bengali theatre, prior to entering the
stage, bow down before the image of an unshaved,
rustic-looking, middle-aged man, who is now unofficially
the patron deity of all dramatic performance in
the region. It becomes all the more intriguing when
we realize that the gentleman in question was an
unlettered individual who was never formally related
to theatre and saw only a few plays during his own
The story of how this came to
be about begins on February 28, 1844, with the birth
of a boy named Girish at Calcutta. Girish lost his
mother when he was eleven and his father at fourteen.
From his boyhood, he was a voracious reader but
left school since he found the formal atmosphere
detrimental to the process of learning. Without
the restraining hand of a loving guardian, Girish's
life drifted into drunkenness, debauchery, waywardness
and obstinacy. He had to earn his living through
a succession of office jobs, which he found thoroughly
boring. His spare time was devoted to the theatre,
both as playwright and performer. He was, in fact,
a bohemian artist. An early marriage proved unable
to stabilize his lifestyle and his wife passed away
when he was thirty. Thus did he lose his mother
in childhood, father in boyhood and wife in early
For the next fifteen years he
worked in various capacities in different offices.
He continued to indulge his appetites but also remained
devoted to writing and acting. In his late thirties,
he had already begun to be recognized as the father
of modern Bengali drama. He was single-handedly
revitalizing the revival of theatre by producing
a vast body of dramatic work in the Bengali language,
and at the same time was molding the first generation
of actors and actresses by leading from the front;
in fact, such was his versatility that he often
played two or three roles in the same play. In 1883,
the Star Theatre was opened in Calcutta with his
money; this later developed into an active center
for the evolution of Bengali drama.
In Girish's case, talent and
licentiousness gradually achieved a state of peaceful
co-existence. He himself sized up his personality
as follows: 'from my early boyhood I was molded
in a different way. I never learned to walk a straight
path. I always preferred a crooked way. From childhood
it had been my nature to do the very thing I was
forbidden to do.'
The course of Girish's tumultuous
life continued till he read one day about a holy
personality who was living in the famous shrine
of Goddess Kali (Dakshineshwar) near Calcutta.
A skeptical Girish, without ever
having met the sage, concluded that he was probably
a fake. However, soon after he heard that the guru
would be visiting his neighborhood and decided to
see him firsthand. It was nearing sunset when Girish
reached the place, and lamps were being brought
into the room. Yet the ascetic kept asking, "Is
it evening?" This confirmed Girish's earlier
opinion, 'what pretentious play-acting, it is dusk,
lights are burning in front of him, yet he cannot
tell whether it is evening or not' thus murmuring
under his breath and not recognizing the saint's
super conscious stage, he left the premises. Thus
was the first impression of Girish Chandra Ghosh,
the father of modern Bengali theatre, regarding
Sri Ramakrishna, the beloved saint and priest of
one of India's most renowned Kali temples.
Some years later, Girish saw
the holy man again, at the house of a common acquaintance.
In his own words: 'after reaching there, I found
that the sage had already arrived and a dancing
girl was seated by his side and singing devotional
hymns. Quite a large gathering had assembled in
the room. Suddenly my eyes were opened to a new
vision by the holy man's conduct. I used to think
that those who consider themselves param-yogis or
gurus do not speak with anybody. They do not salute
anybody. If strongly urged they allow others to
serve them. But his behavior was quite different.
With the utmost humility he was showing respect
to everybody by bowing his head on the ground. An
old friend of mine, pointing at him, said sarcastically:
"The dancing girl seems to have a previous
intimacy with him. That's why he is laughing and
joking with her." But I did not like these
insinuations. Just then, another of my friends said,
"I have had enough of this, let's go."'
Girish went with him. He had half wanted to stay,
but was too embarrassed to admit this, even to himself.
Only a few days after this, on
September 21, 1884, the saint and some of his devotees
visited the Star Theatre, to see a play based on
the life of the great Vaishnava devotee Shri Chaitanya,
authored and directed by Girish. The latter reminisced:
'I was strolling in the outer compound of the theatre
one day when a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna came
up to me and said: "The guru has come to see
the play. If you will allow him a free pass, well
and good. Otherwise we will buy a ticket for him."
I replied: "He will not have to purchase the
ticket. But others will have to." Saying this,
I proceeded to greet him. I found him alighting
from the carriage and entering the compound of the
theatre. I wanted to salute him, but before I could
do so he saluted me. I returned his greeting. He
saluted me again. I bowed my head and he did the
same to me. I thought this might continue forever,
so I let him perform the last salute (which I answered
mentally) and led him upstairs to his seat in the
This was Girish's third meeting
with Ramakrishna; but his intellect continued to
refuse to accept another human being as a guru.
This is how he reasoned: 'after all, the guru is
a man. The disciple also is a man. Why should one
man stand before another with folded palms and follow
him like a slave? But time after time in the presence
of Sri Ramakrishna my pride crumbled into dust.
Meeting me at the theatre, he had first saluted
me. How could my pride remain in the presence of
such a humble man? The memory of his humility created
an indelible impression on my mind.'
Three days later, Girish was
sitting on the porch of a friend's house when he
saw Ramakrishna approaching along the street: 'No
sooner had I turned my eyes towards him than he
saluted me. I returned it. He continued on his way.
For no accountable reason my heart felt drawn towards
him by an invisible string. I felt a strong urge
to follow him. Just then, a person brought to me
a message from him and said: "Sri Ramakrishna
is calling you." I went. He was seated with
a number of devotees around him. As soon as I sat
down I asked the following question:
"What is a guru?"
"A guru is like the matchmaker
who arranges for the union of the bride with his
bridegroom. Likewise a guru prepares for the meeting
of the individual soul with his beloved, the Divine
Spirit." Actually, Sri Ramakrishna did not
use the word matchmaker, but a slang expression,
which left a more forceful impression. Then he said:
"You need not worry, your guru has already
Girish, however, was a complex
personality: a mixture of shyness, aggression, humility
and arrogance. Although in one corner of his heart
he did believe that Ramakrishna was the guru who
he had hoped for, another part of his old self revolted
against the idea. On December 14th of the same year,
the playwright was in his dressing room when a devotee
came up to inform him of Ramakrishna's arrival.
"All right," Girish said rather haughtily,
"take him to the box and give him a seat."
"But won't you come and
receive him personally?" The devotee asked.
"What does he need me for?
" said the annoyed Girish. Nevertheless, he
followed the disciple downstairs. At the sight of
Ramakrishna's peaceful countenance Girish's mood
changed. He not only escorted the saint upstairs
but also bowed down before him and touched his feet.
Later Girish said: 'seeing his serene and radiant
face, my stony heart melted. I rebuked myself in
shame, and that guilt still haunts my memory. To
think that I had refused to greet this sweet and
gentle soul! Then I conducted him upstairs. There
I saluted him touching his feet. Even now I do not
understand the reason, but at that moment a radical
change came over me and I was a different man.'
'Soon he started conversing with
me. He spoke of several things while I listened
longingly. I felt a spiritual current passing, as
it were, through my body from foot to head and head
to foot. All of a sudden Sri Ramakrishna lost outer
consciousness and went into ecstasy, and in that
mood he started talking with a young devotee. Many
years earlier I had heard some slandering remarks
against him, made by a very wicked man. I remembered
those words, and at that moment his ecstasy broke
and his mood changed. Pointing towards me, he said,
"There is some crookedness in your heart."
I thought, 'Yes indeed. Plenty of it - of various
kinds." But I was at loss to understand which
kind he was particularly referring to. I asked,
"How shall I get rid of it?" "Have
faith," Shri Ramakrishna replied.
On another occasion when Ramakrishna
offered Girish a spiritual discourse, the latter
stopped him short saying: "I won't listen to
any advice. I have written cartloads of it myself.
It doesn't help. Do something that will transform
my life." Girish had a writer's skepticism
about the authority of the written word. Ramakrishna
was highly pleased to hear his view and asked a
disciple to sing a particular song whose words went
like this: "Go into solitude and shut yourself
in a cave. Peace is not there. Peace is where faith
is, for faith is the root of all." At that
moment Girish felt himself cleansed of all impurities
and doubts: 'my arrogant head bowed low at his feet.
In him I had found my sanctuary and all my fear
Girish's faith however required
constant strengthening; years of suffering and torment
had damaged it severely. In a later meeting he again
directed the question to Ramakrishna:
"Will the crookedness of
my heart go?"
"Yes it will go."
Girish repeated the question
and received the same reply. The process was replayed
twice until one of the other disciples reprimanded
Girish: "Enough. He has already answered you.
Why do you bother him again?" The theatre veteran
turned towards the devotee to rebuke him since no
one who dared criticize him ever escaped the lash
of his tongue. But he controlled himself thinking:
'my friend is right. He who does not believe when
told once will not believe even if he is told a
One night, while Girish was in
a brothel with two of his friends, he felt a sudden
desire to see Ramakrishna. Despite the lateness
of the hour he and his friends hired a carriage
to Dakshineshwar. They were very drunk and everyone
was asleep. But when the three tipsily staggered
into Ramakrishna's room, he received them joyfully.
Going into ecstasy, he grasped both of Girish's
hands and began to sing and dance with him. The
dramatist thus described his feelings: 'here is
a man whose love embraces all - even a wicked man
like me, whose own family would condemn me in this
state. Surely, this holy man, respected by the righteous,
is also the savior of the fallen.'
Girish, however, was not always
so pleasant when drunk. Once at the theatre he publicly
abused Ramakrishna, using the coarsest and most
brutal words. All those present were shocked and
advised the sage to sever all links with the playwright.
It is interesting to read what
Girish himself says about this incident:
'Although I had come to regard
Sri Ramakrishna as my very own, the scars of past
impressions were not so easily healed. One day,
under the influence of liquor, I began to abuse
him in most unutterable language. The devotees of
the master grew furious and were about to punish
me, but he restrained them. Abuse continued to flow
from my lips in a torrent. Sri Ramakrishna kept
quiet and silently returned to Dakshineshwar. There
was no remorse in my heart. As a spoiled child may
carelessly berate his father, so did I abuse him
without any fear of punishment. Soon my behavior
became common gossip, and I began to realize my
mistake. But at the same time I had so much faith
in his love, which I felt to be infinite, that I
did not for a moment fear that Sri Ramakrishna could
ever desert me.'
A common friend reminded Ramakrishna
of the story of the serpent Kaliya, who, while battling
Krishna, spewed enormous quantities of venom and
said: "Lord you have given me only poison,
where shall I get the nectar to worship you?"
Similarly, Girish too had worshipped Ramakrishna
with abuse, which was in accordance with his nature.
Ramakrishna smiled and immediately
asked for a carriage to go to Girish's house, where
he found the latter repentant. Seeing the guru,
Girish was overwhelmed. He said, "Master if
you had not come today, I would have concluded that
you had not attained that supreme state of knowledge
where praise and blame are equal, and that you could
not be called a truly illumined soul." On another
occasion Ramakrishna had told Girish: "You
utter many abusive and vulgar words; but that doesn't
matter. It's better for these things to come out.
There are some people who fall ill on account of
blood poisoning; the more the poisoned blood finds
an outlet, the better it is for them. You too will
be purer by the day. In fact, people will marvel
One night, Girish drank himself
into unconsciousness at the house of a prostitute.
In the morning, he hastened to visit Ramakrishna.
He was full of remorse but had not neglected to
bring a bottle of wine with him in the carriage.
On arriving at Dakshineshwar, he wept repentantly
and embraced Ramakrishna's feet. Then, suddenly,
he felt in urgent need of drink, and discovered,
to his dismay, that the carriage had already driven
off. But presently a smiling Ramakrishna produced
not only the bottle, but Girish's shoes and scarf
as well; he had privately asked a devotee to bring
them from the carriage before it left. Girish could
not control himself; he drank shamelessly before
them all - and, having done so, was again remorseful.
"Drink to your heart's content" Ramakrishna
told him, "It won't be for much longer."
Girish said later that this was the beginning his
abstention from intoxicating drinks. But the abstention
was gradual; and this was certainly not the last
time that Girish was drunk in his guru's presence.
Sri Ramakrishna never forbade Girish to drink because
he knew that it takes time to change deep-rooted
habits. Yet the silent influence of the guru's love
worked wonders. In the playwright's own words: 'from
my early childhood it had been my nature to do the
very thing that I was forbidden to do. But Sri Ramakrishna
was a unique teacher. Never for a moment did he
restrict me, and that worked a miracle in my life.
He literally accepted my sins and left my soul free.
If any of his devotees would speak of sin and sinfulness,
he would rebuke him saying, "Stop that. Why
talk of sin? He who repeatedly says, 'I am a worm,
I am a worm,' becomes a worm. He, who thinks, 'I
am free,' becomes free. Always have that positive
attitude that you are free, and no sin will cling
One day Girish finally surrendered
himself at the feet of Ramakrishna and asked him
for instruction. "Do just what you are doing
now," said the guru. "Hold on to god with
one hand and to the material world with the other.
Think of god once in the morning and once in the
evening, no matter how much work you have pending."
Girish agreed that this sounded simple enough. But
he then reflected on his disorganized life, so much
on the mercy of impulses and emergencies and realized
that he did not even have fixed hours for eating
and sleeping; how then could he promise to remember
god? Making a false commitment was out of the question.
Ramakrishna, as if reading his
mind said: "Very well, then remember god just
before you eat or sleep. No matter what time of
the day it is." Girish however, couldn't even
make this simple promise, the fact being that any
kind of self-discipline was repugnant to him. "In
that case," said Ramakrishna, "give me
your power of attorney. From this moment on, I'll
take full responsibility for you. You won't have
to do anything at all."
Girish was overjoyed. This is
what he had been wanting all the time; to be rid
of responsibility and guilt forever. He readily
agreed to the suggestion and thought to himself,
'now will I be as free as air.' He was however mistaken
- as he soon found out. By consenting, he had turned
himself into Ramakrishna's slave. Whenever Girish
indulged himself, he was forced to think of the
tremendous moral burden he would be placing on his
guru. In fact, he found it hard to not constantly
think of Sri Ramakrishna before performing any action.
One day he went to a brothel
intending to spend the night there. At midnight
however, he experienced an unbearable burning sensation
all over his body and had to immediately leave the
place to return home. Girish was reminded of the
time when Ramakrishna had compared him to a cup
of garlic paste. Though such a container may be
washed an umpteen number of times, it is not possible
to get rid of the smell altogether. "Will my
smell go?" Girish had enquired. "Yes it
will. All offensive odor vanishes when the vessel
is heated in a blazing fire." Was this the
same heat that was tormenting him now? So wondered
In later years he would tell
young devotees that the way of complete self-surrender
was actually much harder than the way of self-reliance
and effort: "Look at me, I'm not even free
to breathe, Sri Ramakrishna has taken full possession
of my heart and bound it with his love."
'One day, when I arrived at Dakshineshwar,
Sri Ramakrishna was just finishing his noonday meal.
He offered me his dessert, but as I was about to
eat it, he said: "Wait. Let me feed you myself."
Then he put the pudding into my mouth with his own
fingers, and I ate as hungrily and unself-consciously
as a small baby. I forgot that I was an adult. I
felt like a child whose mother was feeding him.
But now when I remember how these lips of mine had
touched many impure lips, and how my guru had fed
me, touching them with his holy hand, I am overwhelmed
with emotion and say to myself: "Did this actually
happen? Or was it only a dream?" I heard from
a fellow devotee that Sri Ramakrishna saw me as
a little baby in a divine vision. And from then,
whenever I was with him, I would actually feel like
Here it is also relevant to observe
that though Girish had the company of his mother
till the age of eleven, he only had a limited interaction
with her. This restriction was due to an innate
fear on the part of the parent that if she came
near her children she would lose them; blaming herself
for the many such bereavements she had already suffered
Long before he had met the dramatist,
Sri Ramakrishna had a vision, which he described
as follows: 'One day, when I was meditating in the
Kali temple, I saw a naked boy skipping into the
temple. He had a tuft of hair on the crown of his
head, and was carrying a flask of wine under his
left arm and a vessel of nectar in his right. "Who
are you?" I asked. "I am Bhairava,"
he replied. On my asking the reason for his coming,
he answered, "To do your work." Years
later when Girish came to me I recognized that Bhairava
In fact, Ramakrishna had often
chided his disciples who derided Girish's enchantment
with the bottle, saying, "What harm can alcohol
possibly cause to someone who embodies Bhairava
himself? None other than our beloved Mother Kali
can ever judge or restrain him. We, who are her
mere servants, may not even dare to do so. Girish
is not a hypocrite, he is the same, inside and outside."
The analogy with Bhairava is both apt and instructive.
Bhairava was generated from the wrath of Shiva,
when the latter was forced to listen to the vain
boastings of another deity (Brahma). Having such
provocative origins, holding within himself a simmering
potential, Bhairava is thus visualized in Indian
thought as an ambivalent, excitable and dangerous
character, reflecting the emotions aroused at his
birth, and even today is worshipped with offerings
of alcohol in many shrines across India.
The bonding through sharing of
food was further strengthened when one day Girish
went to the house of a friend, who too was a devotee
of Ramakrishna. He found the host cleaning rice.
Now, the latter was a rich landlord with many servants,
but nevertheless he was performing this unaccustomed
job himself. Girish was amazed and enquired of the
reason. The householder replied: " The master
is coming today, and he will have his lunch here.
So I am cleaning the rice myself."
Girish was touched by this extraordinary
devotion. He reflected on his own ability to be
of such service to Ramakrishna. He returned home
and lay on the bed thinking, 'Indeed, god comes
to the home of those who have devotion like my friend.
I am a wretched drunkard. There is no one here who
can receive the master in the proper manner and
feed him.' Just then there was a knock on his door.
Startled he jumped up. In front of him stood the
master. "Girish I am hungry, could you give
me something to eat?" There was no food in
the house. Asking Sri Ramakrishna to wait, he rushed
to a restaurant nearby and brought home some fried
bread and potato curry. The food, coarse and hard,
was much different from what the frail guru's constitution
permitted. Nevertheless, he relished it with visible
joy and delight.
As time progressed and age took
over Ramakrishna, his health began to deteriorate.
On the advise of doctors he was moved outside the
city where the air was felt to be better.
An arrangement was made whereby
the householder disciples contributed money for
his treatment, food and rent. The younger, unmarried
devotees, who later would establish the Ramakrishna
Mission, managed the household, including the nursing
and shopping. After a while however, some of the
householders felt that the expenditure was getting
out of hand and demanded that a strict accounting
system be maintained. The youngsters felt offended
and decided not to accept any more money from them.
When the situation reached a flashpoint, Girish
came forward with a solution. He simply set fire
to the account book in front of everybody. Then
he told the householders to each contribute according
to his means and that he would make up the shortfall.
To the unmarried monks he said: "Don't worry.
I shall sell my house if the need arises and spend
every bit of the money for the master." Whatever
might have been the fate of Ramakrishna's physical
well being, one thing was certain - Girish's healing
was complete - and he later remarked in humor: 'Had
I known that there was such a huge pit in which
to throw one's sins, I would have committed many
more.' It was this transformed soul who began the
practice of paying homage to Sri Ramakrishna before
the commencement of a theatrical performance.
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