The first person to play Indian tunes on Western instruments was not someone from the early days of Bollywood. It was a Russian named Gerasim Lebedev who came to India with a travelling military band in 1785.
Initially based in Chennai, he found the European society there very conservative and travelled to Calcutta two years later. Here he began taking lessons in Bengali, Sanskrit and Hindi from Golucknat Dash (Lebedev’s spelling), a local school teacher. In exchange he gave the teacher lessons in violin and European classical music.
(Annapurna, the central character in Bharat Chandra Ray Gunakor’s Annadamangal Kabyo.)
He set songs written by Bharat Chandra Ray to tune and used them in two English plays that he translated into Bengali.In Lebedev’s own words, “having observed that the Indians preferred mimicry and drollery to plain grave solid sense, however purely expressed – I therefore fixed on those plays, and which were most pleasantly filled up with a groupe of watchmen, chokey-dars; savoyards, canera; thieves, ghoonia; lawyers, gumosta and among the rest a corps of petty plunderers.”
He was also the first to build a proscenium theatre to stage vernacular plays. Unfortunately, his success with Love is the Best Doctor and Disguise caused the local English theatre community to become jealous and his theatre at Dom Tollah (today’s Ezra Street) was burnt to the ground. He had to declare himself bankrupt and leave India thanks to continued harassment by the East India Company.
In the ten years that he spent in Bengal he managed to write a dictionary of Bengali words, a mathematics book in Bengali and translate parts of Bharat Chandra Ray’s Annada Mangal Kabya into Russian. He set up a press that he equipped with Bengali type in St. Petersburg. He also wrote books on Brahmin customs and Indian languages and their Indo-Germanic roots after returning to Russia. What a guy!
(A poster for a Lebedev play in Calcutta)