Memorandum of Gerasim Lebedev
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Memorandum of Gerasim Lebedev

Gerasim Lebedev (1749-1817), considered the father of Russian Indology, was a professional musician who lived in India between 1785 and 1797 learning Indian languages, literature and traditions, founder of the first Bengali theatre. His stay in India and his travel accounts occupy special place not only in the history of Russian science and but also in the history of Indo-Russian cultural ties. Lebedev’s journey is among the most outstanding travel accounts of Russia towards the end of the eighteenth century.

Documents on the life and works of Gerasim Lebedev from the book "Russian-Indian relations in the 18th century"(1965) are available аt the link


On the 12th Day of February 1785 I embarked at Gravesend on the Honorable East India Company’s Ship Rodney Commanded by Captain Wakeman; and proceeded to Portsmout, — from whence on the 25 Day of March following we pursued our Destined Voyage to Madras (other­wise called from the Dedication of this Fortress to the English Champion Fort St. George) situated on the Coast of Coromandel in the East In­dies, — a Settlement the second now in rank, but formerly the first be­longing to the English East India Company — the Circumstance of a Kings Court of Judicature being about the year 1773-7 established at Fort William having arrogated Superior rank, of Course it superseded that of the Madras Courts, which was governed only by a Citizen-ycleped Mayor and a corpulent Cabinet Council who at certain times, disdaining to languish on the Nawaubs (nabobs) Plaw only, improved, as it were by intuition on the Corrie and Rice found there, some shining Dainties in golden dishes and Catered for themselves — which certainly, it must be allowed was the most solid way that could have been devised to proclaim to the world their intrinsic worth. At this place we arrived «after having enjoyed a seasonable Stay of five Days at the island of Joana» on the 27th of July following.

The very next Day after our arrival I was most politely invited on the Shore by Captain William Sydenham (then Town Major of Mad­ras — but since most deservedly and to my unspeakable joy, promoted to the distinguished rank of Lieutenant Colonel) who from having been pleased with a Speciment I had exhibited of my musical talents —instantly honored me with not a display of delusive parade of Complimentary osten­tation, but an Engagement for two years certain, on specific terms fixed by himself which I consider then, and do now still gratefully esteem an handsome allowance vizt a fixed Salary of Two Hundred Pounds per An­num, exclusive of many Contigent yet valuable Emoluments which Proposition so spontaneously and generously urged.

Those two years thus pleasingly employed, and most harmonically Expiring, Infatuated by the general report that Bengal was a more Diffusive Theatre for the animated action of the bolder Race of Adventures than Madras (and in which class as a Specimen of my Spirit I presume to include G. L., which (in Russian is also Г.Л.) and stung also by the Emulation of enlarging my Soale of Knowledge in respect to things, as well as Men — I at once Determined an visiting that Country — not without an honest view at the same time I will confess, of improving my finances also on a Prolific Spot where it was said that innumerable Sojourners most of all nations had rapidly acquired Competent fortune.

On the Snow then returning from Malacca with Captain Forster, in the Space of 15 Days we arrived in the River Ganges and on passan he saluted Fort William and dropped Anckor at Sulky exactly op­posite the Town of Calcutta, now the Principal City in all the Mogul Empire though himself resides at Delly.

Here as at Madras I was treated from all ranks to the very highest with all possible hospitality and for generosity I found myself deaper in debt: to Alexander Kyd (then Town Major of Calcutta bit Since promoted to the rank of Colonel) and more to Mrs E. Hay, Lady of Secretary to the Governement, to Provincial Judge Burish Crisp, to Colonel Christop­her Green, to the Honorable Justice Hyde and to many others too nume­rous to name them here: than to any Person in my own Country, till thro intence and unwearied application to my Work I could not vicit my friends so often as formerly, which offended come lovers of music so highly as to induce them to oppose my views in every line I afterwards engaged in.

In the Year 1789 I made my first application and to my great mortifi­cation for the space of two long Years I could not meet with such a Pun­dit or Interpreter as could even Explain the Shancrit alpha­bet which in Used for the Bengallie Language (otherwise called Prakrit or Bhasha Бгаша) nor could I derive any material assistance from books. I was therefore nearly on the point of Dropping the design altogether, but at this critical time my Sicar  introduced a Bengallie Schoolmaster named Shrie Golok Nat Dash who was skilled both in the Bengallie Language and the mixed (Jargon) Hindostanie Dialects grammatically and he under­stood tolerably well also the sacred Shanscrit Language — and what was the lucky Circumstance, he was no less desirous of learning music of me, than I was the hindostanie Languages of him. We began the next Day af­ter our first interview, and on my Enquiring what Language was the most Spoken in the East Countrys, he replied that from his Idea of the Question — the mixed is in the more General use — but there is not in existence any thing like an Alphabet or Grammar to be obtained, so cau­tious and selfish are the whole Society of Pundits and Brahmens; he therefore earnestly advised me to apply to the Shanscrit Alphabet, since it was the golden master key to that invaluable treasure of Eastern Sciences and Knowledge.

I persevered in a continued perusal of the five Divisions of the al­phabet for many years, and agreably to my own innate ideas arranging them in the most advantageous disposition Canditly submited my labour to some of the Distinguished Pundits, who to my great delight applau­ded my zeal in a Cause hithero so obscured and which I insinuate to them in pretty direct terms that Superstition had blindly lent her inflammatory aid at least to masquerade, and if practicable, totally to withhold from all the world, but their selfish selves.

I now translated the Vocabulary, and Composed Several Dialogues on different Subjects both in Bengallie and in the mixed Hindostanie and was solacing (amusing) myself with a hope that I should long be qualified to Converse; but 1 was here widely mistaken, because I did not understand the common dialects — and I discovered that these proceeded from the Bengallie Shanscrit and dabe nagrie, and therefore was induced to write them grammatically that I might acquaint myself with the difference. 1 did so — and ascertained the Dialects that distinguished each Station of life, and I found that both the Superior and Inferior is Uni­versally written in the Bengallie Shanscrit character, and the Superior and Inferior mixed Dialects are spoken through all the Eastern world.

After these researches I translated two English Dramatic pieces. The Disguise (much contracted in this book from an author, impossibility of filling up all the Characters for the first lime) and Love is the best Doctor into Superior Bengallie Language, and knowing from observation that Indians prefer mimicry and Drollery to plain, grave solid Sense, however purely expressed, I therefore fixed on these Plays which most Delightfully filled up a Group of watchmen (Chokeydars), Savoyards (Kane-ra), Thieves (Ghoonia), and amongst the rest Lawyers and a most honorable Corps of petty plunderers, escorted by a Petty Self-interested Clerk of a very Petty Court which has the brazen audacity to assume Conscience as a Motto merely to screen its daily plunder and its other unparalleled and Diabolical outrages together with the lurking obscure mover of this horrid Machine more abhorrent than the Venetian deadly night wagon, to those who have the sad misfortune to be subject to its fangs — but horribly disgusted at this seemingly outré, but really Genuine Picture of a Caco-demon I shall attempt to recover my exhausted Spirits by resuming a far more pleasant Subject.

When my translation was finished I invited Several Learned Pundits who perused my work Several times very attentively and then I had the opportunity of observing what Sentences appeared the most pleasing to them and which created Emotion. And if I do not flatter myself in this Translation the Spirit of both the Comic and Serious Scenes was much heightened, and which would in vain be immitated by any European who did not possess the advantage of such an Instructor as I had the extraor­dinary good luck to procure thro a Solemn bargain made between us of an interchange of instruction beside his monthly sallary which the Bengallie Considering highly advantageous to himself was induced cheerfully to accede to.

After the applause of the Pundits, Golock nat Dash, my linguist made me a proposal that if I chose to represent this Play publicly he would en­gage to supply me with Native Actors of both Sexes, and I was exceedingly delighted with the Idea: without loss of time therefore I consulted my friends, but they urged that it was dangerous as well as pre­carious for me to adopt the Scheme on Account of offending the Company’s haughty Supercilious manager and the many interested proprietors of their theatre who would naturally set every Engine to work to disturb my Ope­rations in a business that might attract the public attention from their theatre, and deprive them of the golden harvest they had hitherto undistur­bedly appropriated to themselves. But firmly determined at every risk, still to proceed, I instantly solicited the Governor General Sir John Shore for a regular licence and it was granted without hesitation. Thus fortified, and impatient to exhibit, I built a Commodious Theatre on a plan of my own, in Domtollah (Dom Street) № 25 in the Center of Calcutta and I even applied for the hire of the Company’s Theatre till my own should be ready — but instead of complying with preposition they ridiculed in all private Companies Don Quixote Plan (as they called it) had in view, laefore I had time to Submit my Play to the Public and to defy the criti­cism of my adversaries.

So many obstacles being purposely thrown in my way, it was the greatest difficulty I could procure Actors — but I at last found thro the Golok, yet was under the necessity of allowing them all Subsistance many months before I could avail myself of their Services.

After the first and second representation of The Disguise, which at­tracted an overflowing house I obtained a full permission to perform both English and Bengallie Plays which so enraged the manager and some of the proprietors that they left no stone unturned to stop the rapidity of my progress — and Joseph Battle Scene Painter, who was thus employed was fixed on as the means.

It was concerted by that Battle should pretend that from ill Usage of Mr. Thomas Rowarth (Manager) he was determinate to leave the Company’s Theatre, and in the height of my preparations Battle applies to me with a Dismale face — and offers his Services — I was Entrapped in his Scheme, and pitying Battle’s misfortune I consented to employ him as a Scene Painter — and even went so far as to admit him as an Equal partner in my Undertaking — for which he engaged to pay a moderate premium in six months, or from his share of the nett profits arising from each successive representation. The terms of this agreement were solemnly expressed on papers attested by proper witnesses.

Two European Actresses were now engaged besides seve­ral actors European and Natives and I advanced money for their main­tenance approportioned their Salaries, and continued daily to pay Artifi­cers and workmen of every denomination, to hasten the opening of the Campaign.

Elate with having gained the Title of a Theatrical Manager Joseph Battle to shew his importance and his Superiority in taste he instantly set about disfiguring my Theatre and Spoiled all the Scenery — accompa­nying his outrage with the Delusive promise of improving the House; upon my remonstrating on the impropriety of his conduct and assuring him that I absolutely insisted on his performing his Contract, he abruptly departed — and to accomplish all his villainy, he took employment again with Thomas Rowarth the Manager, who (as his brother) to distress me received the Renegado with open arms. Still not contented, to crown all, my actresses by them were enticed away and refused to, stand to their signed Contracts with me on various pretences, and thus, tho‘ they had received money in advance, they all of one accord decamped, and refused ever after to return.

Finding that a Court of Justice was the only resort I had for a redress of my grievances I made application to several Lawyers, but to my astonishment each was armed with an Excuse and some of them declined by Cause alleging that not perfectly Understanding the English Language I could not duly explain its merits. I even approached Sir R. Chambers (a Judge of the Supreme Court) who said that it was his Province as a Judge only to Determine Suits before the Court and that it would be derogating from his dignity to act the part of a Consellor in private. It was Certainly wisely said. Contrary to all Expectations how­ever, I found that the practice of Law in this meridian is more merciful against offenders than I had been taught to suppose — and so could obtain no redress tho’ I was armed with penalty bonds from all the Actors I had engaged for a strict performance of their respective public Engagements at my Theatre.

It immediately occured to me that a different Species of Justice is adopted in different Countries, and on Comparison of the First Emperor (Peter the Great’s) distribution of it to the meanest Individuals particular­ly exemplied in the Case of Mr. Gordon for a mere personal Insolt in pri­vate Company is one an eminent proof to the Eternal honour of that Emperor, nor can, or will I be guilty of so much injustice myself, as to omit mentioning what has made such an indelible impression on my memory the noble generosity of the Great Empress Catherine the 2d in the case of an English merchant in assisting him with hundred thousand rubles of her own accord at a critical time when he would without such: munificent relief have been irretrievably ruined.

So dissappointed in all my endeavours I was reduced to the mortify­ing necessity of demolishing my Theatre, and of selling all the materials of every sort at a random Sale for an infinitely less sum than the workmen’s wages in erecting it had originally cost me — and to resign to my more lucky Rivals the fame as well as the profits of Theatrical Gene­ralship.

My only views in publishing this memorial is to show how very precarious it ever must be for any Individual to expect, that let his merit and Exertions be never so great to derive any adequate Permanent Contenance, in a Settlement (place) that is so entirely influenced by a set (in number larger of the wicked and smaller of the virtuos) of agents so re­mote from the Scene of responsibility. Especially towards a Stranger that had no other plea for his protection and Encouragement then professional merit, but which however deminutive, he ever Studiously Endeavoured to exert and improve by every method within the Circumscribed Scale of his means and abilities.