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Shimla’s Gaiety Theatre – A Grand Legacy

In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the town of Shimla (earlier, Simla) had just been settled. The houses were few and far between. Some years were still to pass before this unusual little town, high in the hills, found its place in the sun as the ‘summer capital’ of British India. From a rugged outpost, hundreds of miles and weeks of arduous travel away from Kolkata (earlier, Calcutta), the seat of the increasingly powerful British East India Company, Shimla rapidly transformed itself into one of the most elegant towns in the world. It was in those early years that a tradition of amateur theatre was also established – a time-honoured legacy that continues unbroken to the present day.

The first authenticated performance was obviously not an easy one. A member of the cast who was to act the woman’s role, refused to cut off his moustache; another decided that the time was ripe to go bear hunting. The cast was replaced and the play took place in what the Governor General, Lord Auckland’s sister Emily Eden described in 1838 as “… a little sort of theatre …small and hot and somewhat dirty.” This would probably have been in the old ‘Assembly Rooms’ in the area of today’s subzi mandi, vegetable market.

The stuffy room of Emily Eden’s time gave way to the considerably grander Gaiety Theatre which opened in the newly constructed Town Hall in 1887 – which was Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Year. The first recorded performance had coincided with her coronation. In the European tradition, this would make the Shimla Amateur Dramatic Club one of the oldest in the country. It was also in that year that the Amateur Dramatic Club was registered as a joint stock company and formally housed in the Town Hall.  Placed in a strategic wedge between the Mall and the Ridge, the Town Hall was a magnificent five-storied building designed by Henry Irwin in the Gothic style and this had galleries, a ballroom, an armoury, a Masonic hall, dressing rooms, offices, a police office, a drawing room, a bar and several other rooms. The structure dominated Shimla’s skyline till it was found to be structurally unsafe and sections were demolished a bare two decades after it had been built. The jewel in its core, the Gaiety Theatre, fortunately, remained untouched and performances retained all their vigour and vitality.

The Gaiety Theatre, the heart of the old town hall is a remarkable piece of Victorian-theatre architecture. This was built after a plan which won the prize offered by the Dramatic Society in London for the design of a bijou theatre which was to form a part of the Dramatic College. Expectedly, the Gaiety has been compared to other exceptional halls. It has been called a miniature version of London’s Royal Albert Hall, it has been likened to halls in Vienna – and its diverse elements have been compared with some of best period halls in the world. For all that, the Gaiety Theatre is unique. Inspiration may have come from elsewhere, but today, this has the distinction of being what may be the only authentic Victorian hall and stage to be found in Asia.   

The first play, a comedy-farce to be staged at the Gaiety was somehow appropriately named, ‘Time Will Tell.’ Hundreds of plays, musicals, theatre and music performances later, time, and the Gaiety, have told a story that has spanned events both big and small; events both theatrical and historical. While the Amateur Dramatic Club held first rights to the Gaiety, they were not the only performers and others – including some vernacular theatre groups – used the hall.

Coming largely as the bequest of an empire that often rode roughshod over its subjects, of the Gaiety Theatre it may be said that this is one legacy that free-India has acknowledged, appreciated and now, has wholeheartedly restored. Shimla’s Gaiety Theatre is not just a hall. This is an institution in the true sense of the word; if history and tradition have acid tests to check the measure of a place’s worth, then this has passed them and passed them well.

Players, Big and Small

Of the Amateur Dramatic Club, in the early twentieth century, it was said that its members were, “…actors by profession though some of them (took) up Government employment as a pastime.” Be that as it may, but the boards of the Gaiety have had celebrities in more ways than one play on them. Viceroy, Lord Lytton wrote and staged the play ‘Walpole.’ Founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell was part of the cast of the cast of ‘The Geisha’; a young Rudyard Kipling acted in ‘A Scrap of Paper.’ Legends of Indian cinema, singing and acting have stood before the lights. The legendary singer, K.L. Saigal is believed to have made his first public performance at the Gaiety while he held a humble job in town. Other names connected with the Gaiety include the Kendalls, Master Madan and Master Mohan, Balraj Sahni, Manohar Singh and Anupam Kher.     



© 2009 The GaietyCultural Complex is a division of the Himachal Pradesh Department of Art & Culture. 
Mailing Address:mail@gaiety.in Department of Art & Culture, Kusumpti Shimla-171009