Nichola Pais explores the Parsi theatre, a highly influential movement in the realm of modern Indian theatre, and its impact on cinema.
Indian theatre has ancient roots. Some scholars opine that it emerged in 15th century BC. Ancient Vedic texts like the Rigveda show proof of drama plays that were enacted during Yajna ceremonies. In medieval India, from the mid-12th century to the 18th century, India’s artistic identity was seen to be deeply rooted in its social, economic, cultural, and religious views. Performances including dance, music, and text were an expression of devotion for Indian culture. Adapting to the socio-cultural landscape of their patronage, by the early 13th century, a marked change had set in. Sanskrit dramas and stagecraft, which had been patronised by the elite, had become redundant owing to the influx of Turko-Persian influences. Modern Indian theatre can be said to have developed during the period of colonial rule under the British Empire, from the period between the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. Also known as Native theatre, modern Indian theatre denotes a theatrical approach which sees the Indian social space meeting with Western theatre formats and conventions. Modern Indian theatre took root in Bengal, where plays like Buro Shalikher Ghaare Roa (1860) by Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Nil Darpan (1858–59) by Girish Chandra Ghosh, and searing works by Dinabandhu Mitra and Rabindranath Tagore explored concepts of nationalism, identity, materialism and spiritualism. So widely did the power of theatre grow, that the British government in India went on to implement the Dramatic Performances Act in the year 1876 to police seditious Indian theatre, and curb the use of theatre as a tool of protest against the oppressive colonial rule.
What is Parsi theatre?
Parsi theatre’s aesthetics and strategies greatly influenced the concept, organisation and production of modern Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu theatres in India. It had absorbed several features of eastern traditional or folk performing arts, such as music, mime, and comic interludes.
While theatre in India may be traced back to Sanskrit dramatist Kalidasa’s plays, it was with Parsi natak mandalis that drama developed in colonial times. Focusing on entertainment with a social message, Parsi theatre was a highly influential movement in the realm of modern Indian theatre. A professional theatre movement, it was sponsored by the Parsis and the Zoroastrian traders who migrated in the 17th century from Parsa in Iran to India, to settle in Gujarat’s coastal areas, before many chose to move to nearby Bombay for trade and commerce. A rich and prominent business community in the city, the Parsis had predominantly adopted English ways of living. They went on to develop theatre both for their personal amusement and commercial purposes. Flourishing between the 1850s up until the 1930s, Parsi theatre was the result of the blending of European techniques and local folk forms of Indian theatre. It marked the beginning of a new tradition in Indian theatrical culture; before this, the only kind of Indian theatrical practice in existence was folk theatre performances. Popularising proscenium-style theatre in regional languages, Parsi theatre was melodramatic and entertaining in nature, with the plays incorporating humour, melodious songs and music, sensationalism and stagecraft. Its success led to the development of bhasha theatre in regional languages. Parsi theatre’s aesthetics and strategies greatly influenced the concept, organisation and production of modern Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu theatres in India. It had absorbed several features of eastern traditional or folk performing arts, such as music, mime, and comic interludes. Thus, Parsi theatre plays were not a mere imitation of western theatre but a blend of Eastern and Western dramatic techniques. Neither purely based on Western theatre nor on eastern theatre, it was a hybrid which was successful in garnering the attention of audiences, as its influence quickly spread across India.
The history of Parsi theatre can be traced to the mid-19th century which was the time the British community in Bombay staged theatre in English. Parsi theatre derived inspiration from the English stage and it was in 1853, that they began staging their own Parsi-Gujarati plays in Bombay. The students of Elphinstone College in Bombay had apparently formed a dramatic society and started performing Shakespeare. Parsi Natak Mandali or Parsi Drama Company, the first Parsi theatre company, with Framjee Gustadjee Dalal (pen-name Falugus) as its proprietor, is said to have performed their first play Roostum Zabooli and Sohrab in 1853. This was followed by King Afrasiab, Rustom Pehlvan and Padsah Faredun. The very first performance of Parsi theatre in India is said to have taken place at Grant Road Theatre, Bombay. Incidentally, it was Grant Road Theatre along with Bombay Theatre, built in 1776 and modelled after London’s Drury Lane, which became popular for Parsi theatre performances. The Parsi Natak Company was supported by prominent Parsis including Dadabhai Naoroji, K.R. Cama, Dr Bhau Daji, Ardeshir Moos and others. Its popularity grew swiftly and by 1869, there were more than 20 Parsi theatre groups birthed in Bombay. Among the many theatre companies by the Parsis that emerged, were the Zoroastrian Theatrical Club, The Student Amateur Club, The Victoria Natak Mandali, Natak Uttejak Company, Empress Victoria Theatrical Company and The Alfred Natak Mandali. What began as amateur groups soon turned professional, as demand grew with audience numbers swelled by the city’s burgeoning middle class. An influential theatre tradition staged by Parsis and theatre companies largely-owned by the Parsi business community had developed. Hindustani, more specifically the Urdu dialect, was the language of performance with Gujarati also being popular. Debuting in Bombay, various travelling Parsi theatre companies proceeded to tour across India, especially north and western India comprising Gujarat and Maharashtra, popularising proscenium-style theatre in regional languages. Their repertoire included adaptations of English plays, Indian and Persian historical, mythological and social dramas. These plays not only entertained the masses but conveyed messages of social reform. Their popularity was immense, so much so that Parsi theatre even reached South East Asia, where it was known as Wyang Parsi and often imitated.
Debuting in Bombay, various travelling Parsi theatre companies proceeded to tour across India, especially north and western India comprising Gujarat and Maharashtra, popularising proscenium-style theatre in regional languages. Their repertoire included adaptations of English plays, Indian and Persian historical, mythological and social dramas. These plays not only entertained the masses but conveyed messages of social reform. Their popularity was immense, so much so that Parsi theatre even reached South East Asia, where it was known as Wyang Parsi and often imitated.
The sheer demand of Parsi theatre can be gauged by the fact that Victoria Drama Company’s Harischandra and Nal Damayanti, both episodes from the epic, Mahabharata, were performed for over 4,000 shows between 1892-1922. Bomanji Kabraji’s Baap Na Shraap ran for 500 nights with front row seats costing Rs.4 selling at a whopping Rs.22 in the black market! Parsi scholar, Dadabhai Patel, better known as Dadi Patel, took the initiative of producing the first Urdu musical play, Benazir Babremuniron. Parsi drama companies travelled with their Urdu-Gujarati plays to Rangoon, Singapore and even London. In fact, word goes that Queen Victoria and Edward VII had graced the performances of Harishchandra and Alauddin in London with their royal presence. Several comedy plays and skits were also considerably successful.
Various types of themes were popular, as Parsi theatre was highly eclectic, taking stories from the Persian Shahnama, the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, the fantastical Arabic Arabian Nights, Shakespearean tragedies and comedies, Victorian melodrama and more. Later Parsi plays mixed realism with fantasy, music and dance, narrative and spectacle, earthy dialogue and ingenuity of stage presentation.
Parsi theatre introduced Western plays and techniques in India, fast becoming the flavour of the season. While the early period saw the selection of plays by British playwrights which were staged in English, this went on to change as the theatre attracted a wide range of Indian audiences speaking different vernacular languages. Now the selected English plays went on to be translated in other Indian languages like Urdu, Hindi, and Gujarati, and performed. As demand further grew, original English plays did not remain the only source of content. While the early plays in Parsi theatre presented Indianised versions of Shakespeare’s plays, turning them into folk performances, adding in dozens of songs, soon Indian legends, epic and mythological tales came to be used as source material. As Parsi theatre companies started travelling across North India, they employed native writers to churn out scripts in Hindustani, mix of Hindi and Urdu languages. Parsi theatre started to select plots from popular Urdu literature and Hindi literature. Urdu literature, it must be remembered, was extremely popular at the time amongst both Hindu and Muslim audiences in India. In his book The Parsi Theatre: Its Origins and Development, Somnath Gupta writes, “Then fairies, princes, devils, and wizards from Muslim tales became more attractive than English spirit and ghosts, and the Parsi stage presented its patrons with such highly successful plays as Indar Sabha, Khurshed Sabha, Farrukh Sabha, Havai Majlis and Benazir Badre Munir. Indo-Persian/ Islamicate culture was a major influence on Parsi theatre. Urdu was the most widely used language in Parsi theatre during that period, owing to the influence of Urdu poetry. Inspired by the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), Parsi theatre performed a series of Persianate adventure-romances, whose popularity saw them later adapted into film. The demand for stories particularly desired by Hindu spectators was fulfilled by the Parsi theatrical companies selecting Hindi and Sanskrit narratives. Plays were written on such stories as Harishchandra, Gopichand, Mahabharata, Ramlila, and Bhakt Prahlad, which were subsequently performed. Various types of themes were popular, as Parsi theatre was highly eclectic, taking stories from the Persian Shahnama, the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, the fantastical Arabian Nights, Shakespearean tragedies and comedies, Victorian melodrama and more. Later Parsi plays mixed realism with fantasy, music and dance, narrative and spectacle, earthy dialogue and ingenuity of stage presentation. The result was a melange of melodrama.
First woman on the floorboards
A confluence of various theatrical streams of English and Indian dramatic styles, Parsi theatre incorporated various musical scores drawn from Western, Indian and Arabic musical heritages. It used varied ragas of Indian classical music along with a variety of songs and dances. With impressive stage décor and newer techniques, it blended the best from different sources and entertained with some of the best dramas. Standing as a grand spectacle among these, is Indrasabha, which reportedly featured a woman acting on stage for the first time. It was an adaptation of Sayed Aga Hasan Amanat’s play written in 1853 for Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s Lucknow court. However, owing to protests from conservative sections of the community, the play did not succeed. It did however pave the way for women to enter the realm of drama, a few years later.
Secularism takes centre-stage
This secularism was dictated partly by the ethnic heterogeneity of the new entrepreneurial class. While the enterprises were financed by the Parsis, who spoke Gujarati, the commonly understood language was Urdu, which had been popularised by the Muslim chieftains who had ruled over most of India since the sixteenth century.
Interestingly, while the range of Parsi theatre dealt with subjects as diverse as Middle Eastern romances, Hindu myths and adaptations of Shakespeare, its treatment stayed clear of religious and ethical nuances. With the writers of the plays being largely Muslims or Parsis writing for an audience that was predominantly Hindu, secularism was inherent and became a fashionable concept. This secularism was dictated partly by the ethnic heterogeneity of the new entrepreneurial class. While the enterprises were financed by the Parsis, who spoke Gujarati, the commonly understood language was Urdu, which had been popularised by the Muslim chieftains who had ruled over most of India since the sixteenth century. Secularism thus became the common ground, as the largely Muslim writers employed by the Parsi theatre tried to avoid the use of religious subject matter. Secularism gave plays a far greater chance of being successful and appealing to a larger number of audiences. Playwrights selected themes dealing with existential problems or ordinary, regular problems, with love being a favourite theme. As a result of this secularism, the action on stage was moulded into tautly constructed melodramas with dramatic curtain lines and a thrilling climax. Far from the slow, leisurely pace of traditional performances, Parsi theatre plays demanded attention at the level of plot. Parsi theatre also tried to break the reality-imposed characterisation in its performance. For instance, in its version of the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, it cast the Muslim Gohar and the Christian Mary Fenton as Sita. Parsi and Muslim actors also played roles of Rama and the Krishna.
Commercial Parsi theatrical productions had a number of unique and interesting elements. Three actors would chant a prayer before the drama began, after which one actor would deliver the prologue. In marked similarity to the Bengali indigenous dramatic production, Jatra, music played a significant part in Parsi theatre. The end of a play would see an actor come forward to offer a vote of thanks, ending with a farewell song. Parsi theatre was also rooted in community identity, with community members sharing a sense of oneness with the theatrical productions, and fostering identity and community culture. Communicating in the local languages like Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu, it used European-style proscenium with richly painted backdrop curtains and trick stage effects. It also depended on spectacle and melodrama to appeal to its audiences. It ushered in the conventions and techniques of realism, as it marked the transition from stylised open-air presentations to a new urban drama.
Novel dramatic devices
Plays mixed elements of realism with fantasy, music, dance, narrative and spectacle, dialogue and ingenuity of stage presentation, within a dramatic discourse of melodrama.
A predominant feature of Parsi theatre was the alternation of deep and shallow scenes. While the deep scenes contained serious subject matter, the shallow scenes were largely comic in nature, to amuse the audience. The shallow scenes would be mostly presented on the front stage and the deep scenes in the deeper part of the stage. While the shallow scenes ran at the foreground of the stage with a painted curtain generally depicting a street as backdrop, the deep scenes would be prepared during this time. The shallow scenes, enacted by the ‘lower class’ characters, served as links in the development of the plot. Their main purpose however was to keep the audience engaged while the deep scenes, which showed interior of palaces, royals parks, and other such visually opulent sets, were being changed or decorated. While important characters rarely appeared in the street scenes, the comic characters kept their place in the deep scenes. The characteristics of shallow scene of Parsi theatre have evidently come from Shakespeare, where the technique was used for ‘comic relief’ in his tragedies. However, while Shakespeare used comic relief as mental comfort for the audience just after the blood-shed on stage, Parsi theatre used shallow scenes for the passing of time when the scene preparation was in progress for the deep scene. Shallow scene incorporated comic dialogues, romantic scenes, highly dramatic actions, and some risqué scenes. Parsi theatre always used back and middle curtains to change the location or scene. The painted curtain dropped from pulleys was used for the changing of scenes rather than using props on the stage. Parsi theatre also directly presented melodrama on the stage like death and blood-shed, thus producing aesthetic pleasure in the audience’s mind. Plays mixed elements of realism with fantasy, music, dance, narrative and spectacle, dialogue and ingenuity of stage presentation, within a dramatic discourse of melodrama. Additionally, special kind of language was used for special kinds of characters, in another similarity with Shakespeare’s use of language in his plays. Thus, characters in the play spoke according to their social status, with the higher class speaking in figurative and beautiful language while the lower class used prose or communicative language. With the audience for Parsi theatre largely hailing from the middle and lower working class, there was wide usage of songs, metrical and rhythmic lines. Background music was also used in order to produce aesthetic pleasure or Rasa in the play, even as it helped the director create the illusionary reality on stage. Interestingly, the usage of music was borrowed from Indian folk theatre. Parsi theatre was thus a new and experimental movement on various levels, opening a hitherto unseen way of presenting a play on the Indian stage. In a nutshell, it promoted the use of both deep and shallow scenes, introduced secularism in content, and enabled the performance of plays in proscenium theatres.
The heady early days saw the rise of many greats. Nusserwanjee Eduljee was the top comedian of the day, while Kabraji Boman Nawroji was another pioneer of the theatre who produced and directed several adaptions of classical plays from English. Maneckjee and Khori Eduljee were among the key promoters of Parsi theatre in India. Prominent among the later playwrights of Parsi theatre are Adi Marzban, Pheroze Antia, Dorab Mehta, and Homi Tavadia. These authors were well-educated, conversant with Western arts and culture, versatile and possessed of a natural sense of humour. They were also known to be strict disciplinarians, accepting nothing short of perfection from their cast and crew. The towering figure of Adi Marzban (1914-1987), considered perhaps the most gifted and prolific Parsi theatre person of the 20th century, continues to dominate. Credited with approximately 100 Parsi Gujarati plays and author of close to 5,000 radio scripts, it was Marzban’s play Piroja Bhavan (1954) that had ushered in the birth of modern Parsi theatre, as it shifted the focus of Parsi theatre from historical dramas to farces and comedies. Known for his wide-ranging knowledge on topics as diverse as literature, art and music, astrology, magic and more, he remains unmatched in his brilliance and achievements. His efforts in modernising Parsi theatre were rewarded with the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award of India in 1964, and Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1970. Making his debut as theatre director at the turn of the 1950s, Marzban staged plays such as Sacred Flame, Time and the Conways, Hawk Island, The Curious Savage and The Little Hut in English and Fasela Ferozeshah and Hasta Gher Vasta in Gujarati. A trained musician, painter, ventriloquist and known for his comic timing, his plays were also socially relevant and well-crafted owing to his experience in journalism. He is known to have trained many young actor-directors like Pheroze Antia, Homi Tawadia, Burjor Patel and Ruby Patel who continued the Parsi theatre tradition. Another great, playwright Dorab Mehta wrote 300 plays and authored the award-winning weekly column Jamaas ni Jiloo in Jam-e-Jamshed for a whopping 54 years. The Parsi wing of the Indian National Theatre, comprising Parsi and Gujarati actors and directors, had also produced several memorable plays like Tirangi Tehmul and Taru Maru Bakalyu. Some of the key actors remembered for their contribution include Sam Kerawalla, Scheherazade and Rohinton Mody, Dolly and Bomi Dotiwala and the Kings of Comedy - Dinshaw Daji, Dadi Sarkari, and Jangoo. Dinyar Contractor, the famous multi-talented personality, Shammi, Boman Irani and Kurush Deboo, are among the other well-known artistes who have made their mark in more recent times.
Impact on cinema
Besides ushering in the development of bhasha theatre in regional languages, Parsi theatre also led to the development of Hindi cinema. Early Parsi playwrights took to writing the scripts of Hindi films, even as the effects of Parsi theatre continue to be seen in the ‘masala’ genre of Hindi cinema. The modern Indian film industry with its sub-plots, ‘dialogues’, song-and-dance sequences and fate-driven plots are a result of the influence of the playwrights of Parsi theatre. Parsi theatre portrayed tales that were largely light-hearted and entertaining even as they delivered a social message. Hindi films with their larger-than-life depictions, extraordinary stories, and song-and-dance sequences were emphatically impacted by Parsi theatre. Plays like Raja Harishchandra which ran for over 4,000 shows, ShirinFarhad and Arabian Nights which had been staged on a massive scale went on to make the transition to 35mm. Raja Harishchandra, India’s first full-length silent feature, is said to have been an adaptation of its theatrical production, which itself was a landmark production by Kaikushroo Kabraji. When Madan Theatres produced the play Indrasabha as a talkie film in 1932, it is said to have included 69 songs already familiar from the stage productions. The film was a synthesis of Parsi theatrical strategies and European opera aesthetics. Kohinoor Film Company also produced a silent version of this film – Sabz Pari in eight reels, featuring Miss Zubeida and Sultana. The film had four daily shows at Bombay’s Imperial Cinema, with extra shows on the weekend.
Early Parsi playwrights took to writing the scripts of Hindi films, even as the effects of Parsi theatre continue to be seen in the ‘masala’ genre of Hindi cinema. The modern Indian film industry with its sub-plots, ‘dialogues’, song-and-dance sequences and fate-driven plots are a result of the influence of the playwrights of Parsi theatre.
The conventions of Parsi theatre imbued the work of writers such as Agha Hashr Kashmiri, Syed Mehdi Hasan, ‘Ahsan’ Lakhnavi, Pandit Narayan Prasad Betab and Hakim Ahmad Shuja. Rhetoric and flamboyant acting style were its hallmarks, best embodied in later years in the towering Sohrab Modi. Sohrab Modi’s Pukar (1939) was a Parsi theatre-based Hindi film. Narayan Prasad Betaab also worked for Ranjit Movietone later, writing dialogues for the film Devi Devyani (1931). Prithviraj Kapoor considered him a mentor figure. The musical pieces, costumes, sets, melodramatic acting style and even gestures were adapted from the Parsi stage for the early films of the silent era. Greats like Ardeshir Irani, Sohrab Modi, and Prithviraj Kapoor are credited with bringing the tradition of theatre into cinema. Agha Hashr Kashmiri (1879-1935), who was perhaps the best known early 20th century Hindi playwright, exerted a strong influence on Parsi theatre productions. Attached to the Alfred theatre in Bombay between 1901 and 1905, following which he joined Madan Theatres’ Elphinstone and Corinthian companies in 1916, he was known for his adaptations of Shakespeare. Many of the plays written by Kashmiri were repeatedly filmed in the silent and early sound era.
Not only in terms of form and content, but the economic infrastructure set up by Parsi merchants also played a key role in early Indian cinema. Major companies like Madan Theatres, Imperial Film Company, Minerva Movietone and Wadia Movietone were founded through financial investments by Parsi merchants, who alse financed the theatre troupes.
The advent of sound in cinema had brought the theatrical idiom to early Indian talkies, as ‘filmized plays’ came to be produced by most of the studios. Some actors of Parsi theatre also transitioned to films when sound recording techniques enabled filmmakers to produce talkies or speaking films. The usage of Urdu in Parsi theatre was carried forward into film, becoming, by default, the language of cinema as well. Parsi theatre successfully defined an Indian style of expression which led to film adapting its theatre styles. With the invention of sound in motion picture, Parsi theatre lost its top position. However, its elements continued to remain an important part of the subcontinent’s cultural heritage on account of its significance and influence in Hindi cinema.
Decline in popularity
Renowned artist M F Husain had famously said that there was nothing more joyous than Parsi theatre in Bombay. However, in a far cry from its heydays to the 1990s, Parsi theatre has been plagued by uninteresting plots and tired themes. Current Parsi theatre is a faint shadow of the phenomenon it was in its golden period. The social life of Parsis growing up between the 1950s and 1980s was marked by weekly visits to the theatre, to watch, re-watch and enjoy Parsi plays. Directors such as Adi Marzban and Pheroze Antia penned original comedies about ordinary Parsis. These plays were brought to life by actors in traditional saris and topis, or smart Western suits. With some at nearly six hours-long, they nevertheless were met by cries for encores by a delighted, laughing audience. That vibrant culture is a thing of the past. Diminishing interest in the Gujarati language among Parsi youth, lack of new quality writers who are unable to match the skill of earlier Parsi-Gujarati dramatists, and a dearth of sufficiently talented actors like Jimmy Pocha, who elicited unending whistles and whoops on making their entry on stage, have taken a serious toll. Plays generally run only on Parsi festival days. Interestingly, in 1981, Mumbai-based theatre director Nadira Babbar revived the Parsi theatre style with her theatre group Ekjute’s production of Yahudi Ki Ladki (The Jew's Daughter), considered a classic in Parsi-Urdu theatre. This historical Urdu play by Agha Hashar Kashmiri, on the theme of persecution of Jews by the Romans, was first published in 1913. For 100 years, from 1850-1950, Parsi theatre had dominated the Indian culture scene. During its most creative period from 1870-1890, it had brought about a sea change in the attitude and perception about theatre. Parsi theatre will always be hailed for marking the beginning of a new tradition in Indian theatrical culture, which continues to endure albeit in a different form.
References: Theatre in India - Girish Karnad (Daedalus) Parsi theatre and its dramatic techniques – Dr Satish Kumar Prajapati (Pune Research World) The Parsi Theatre: Its Origins and Development - Somnath Gupta (Seagull Books) Laughter in the House: 20th Century Parsi Theatre - Meher Marfatia (49/50 Books) The Legends of Indian Cinema: Series Editor - Aruna Vasudev, Sohrab Modi – Amit Gangar (Wisdom Tree)