(Last Updated on : 09/12/2008)
Parsi theatre was highly influential in 1850s and 1930s. Parsi theatre can be seen as India's first modern commercial theatre. It was an aggregate of European techniques, pageantry, and local forms, enormously successful in the subcontinent. As the name indicates, it was subsidized to a great extent by Parsis. Parsis were mainly engaged in trading and shipbuilding. They eventually became an important business force on the west coast by the early nineteenth century, and began to cultivate the arts and philanthropy. A Parsi, Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, bought the colonial Bombay Theatre in 1835. In 1846 the Grant Road Theatre
in Bombay, constructed by Jagannath Sunkersett began hosting plays in English, then in Marathi, Gujarati, and Urdu or Hindi.
The first Parsi production is normally dated to October 1853, by the Parsee Stage Players
at Grant Road Theatre. Beginning as amateur groups that soon turned professional, many new troupes were launched in this period of rapid expansion when audiences grew large, made up mostly of Bombay's middle class. Major ones included the Parsee Stage Players, Victoria Theatrical Company
, Elphinstone Dramatic Club
, Zoroastrian Theatrical Club, Alfred Theatrical Company
, Madan Theatres in Calcutta, Empress Victoria Theatrical Company and Shakespeare Natak Mandali. By the 1890s, they employed salaried dramatists and actors. They built their own playhouses, and printed their scripts. They may have had many Parsi financiers, managers, performers, and patrons. But the personnel were by no means exclusively Parsi. Considerable cross-regional and cross-linguistic movement of artists and writers led to a heterogeneous mix at a broadly national level, with the result that Parsi companies not only worked in Gujarati, Urdu, Hindi, and even English, but inspired theatres in virtually every corner of India. This created perhaps the largest ticket-buying audience in Indian stage history. By 1900, troupes had started in Karachi, Lahore, Jodhpur, Agra, Aligarh, Meerut, Lucknow, and Hyderabad. Although Parsi theatre survived till the 1940s and beyond, notably with Fida Hussain in Calcutta, after the 1920s a majority of the companies transformed into movie studios once the Indian cinema industry was inaugurated. Later, with the coming of the talkies i.e. Alam Ara
in 1931, most of them either closed down or grew into larger units. But one way or another, Parsi capital sustained at least three major studios namely Imperial Film, Minerva Movietone, Wadia Movietone and one distribution network, the Madan Theatres.
The form was highly eclectic and of unlike parts, taking stories from the Persian legendary Shahnama, the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, the fabulous Arabic Arabian Nights, Shakespeare's tragedies and comedies, and Victorian melodrama, etc. Its style came from all of the above as well as English amateur theatricals, British touring repertories, European realistic narrative structures, the singing and performing traditions of nineteenth-century Indian courtesans, and the visual regime of Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma. The combination of simple plot, clearly delineated characters, strong emotional values, spectacle, and moral tone made the plays enormously popular. The mythological genre principally implied Hindu myths, and might therefore be called Puranic as well.
It became a heavily complicated ideological site, marking off linguistic territorialities, for example Hindi from Urdu or Hindustani, and partitioning the cultural apparatus of one language from another, especially as in the drama of Radheshyam Kathavachak and Narayan Prasad Betab. The mythological drama can also be read as a familiar and resilient inventory of figures in shorthand adopted to reflect urgent concerns. According to Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, the 'invocation of myths is less important than the way the stories are treated as a genre, modified as narratives or formally deployed as allegorical relays', dovetailing the mythological with the 'conservatively constructed notion of the social'.
The social drama was equally popular. It shaded into melodrama when propelled less by story and more by emotional effects, but its issues were mostly elaborated within the family. Problems about equality, sexuality, education, and inheritance enacted within domestic terms. It might also be seen as melodrama in a twentieth-century milieu, extending melodrama by introducing pressures of modernization. In telling stories with reformist concerns such as the rehabilitation of young widows, alcohol abuse, female literacy, sectarianism, polygamy, Westernization, and the anxiety of determining national and regional identities, writers like Agha Hashr Kashmiri
, Betab, and Kathavachak depicted a broader landscape than just a domestic one.
Famous Parsi plays, covering the range from romance to mythological and social, include Indarsabha or 'Indra's Court'', Gul Bakavali or 'Bakavali's Flower', Laila-Majnun or 'Laila and Majnun', and Shirin-Farhad i.e. 'Shirin and Farhad' in numerous versions were very famous. Some others can be mentioned as Hashr's Yahndi ki ladki or 'Jew's Daughter' in 1913 and Rustam aur Sohrab or 'Rustam and Sohrab' in 1929, Betab's Mahabharat in 1913, Ramayan in 1915, Kumari Kimiari or 'Kinnari Girl' in 1928 and Hamari bhul or 'Our Mistake' in 1937 and Kathavachak's Vir Abhimanyu i.e. 'Heroic Abhimanyu' in 1914, Shravan Kumar in 1916, and Bharatmata i.e. 'Mother India' in 1918. The several Shakespearean adaptations included Ahsan's Khun-e-nahaq or 'Unjustified Murder' in 1898, from Hamlet, Shahid-e-wafa or 'Martyr to Constancy' in 1898, from Othello, and Dilfarosh i.e. 'Merchant of Hearts' in 1900, from Merchant of Venice were also staged. Hashr's Safed khun i.e. 'White Blood' in 1906, from King Lear, and Betab's Gorakhdhanda i.e. 'Labyrinth' in 1909, from Comedy of Errors.
The performing conditions of the new configuration marked a significant change in viewing habits, enduringly because the proscenium arch, brought to India by the British in the 1750s and elaborated afterwards. This is replaced the open arena that had been the most prevalent site up to this time. The closed space that supplanted it was often roughly made with tin and bamboo or architecturally constructed with brick and mortar. Inside, there was elaborate stage tricks incorporated into the performance. The proscenium was pushed back a fair distance from the spectators, with an orchestra pit, usually dug into the earth where the platform ended, between it and the audience. The time of performance was generally late evening.
Plays ran for weeks, even years depending on their popularity, and went on tour sometimes for months together covering India, but also Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, Indonesia, and parts of Africa. Because it encouraged new mimetic prospects, connected to the picture frame, and to the possibilities of reproducing perspectival space, the proscenium arch was by far the most significant adaptation of Western conventions that the Parsi theatre appropriated. It achieved mimesis, or verisimilitude, through backcloths painted on the principles of optical convergence or perspectival illusion. Images receded into the distant upstage and created a fiction of reality since the paintings were governed by the notion of the central vanishing point. The 'locations' appeared more real than anything produced previously. Generalized backdrops included forest, garden, street, palace, and sometimes heaven. Besides, each company had its specific curtain, its legend of sorts. The Zoroastrian Club displayed King Ushtaspa's court, with Zarathustra holding the mythical ball of fire. At first, Europeans created the 'drops' but later, Indian painters trained at art colleges. The Painter brothers were the best-known backdrop artists.
Parsi theatre as well as Sangitnatak and early movies employed Ravi Varma's mise-en-scene. He drew historical, mythological, and modern figures in the foreground, and a dense environment behind contextualized, or provided the attendant conditions or given circumstances for, their behaviour. Scene designers imitated this way of describing locale, of demarcating background from foreground, accommodating the actors' postures and gestures into it. The backdrops manifested locations analogous to those summoned by the text, and therefore interpolated the performers into physically defined. But they also offered a spectacular and fantastic space beyond the illusionistic one. While the narrative was grounded in the atmosphere produced by the materiality of the paintings and the architecture that enclosed them, paradoxically the world of romance and dream was also revealed and made possible through this very tangibility.
Since the backcloths were framed in the proscenium arch as in a window. For the viewer, there appeared to be a continuity of space and time. Some sort of space or the preceding part of the locale i.e. the palace, forest, street is existed before it came into sight. One portion existed in the arch and another beyond the arch. This continuum resembled the way we experience time and space in ordinary life. Events follow one another, the arrow of time flies toward the future. This was new for the spectators, or at least unlike what they encountered in pre-modem theatrical forms. Thus the curtains allowed new means to tell a story, perceive dramatic continuity, and create character formations. Hafiz Abdullah's Sakhawat Khudaost Badshah or 'Generous and Godly Emperor' in 1890 for the Indian Imperial Theatrical company had fourteen backdrops. The scenes delineated became increasingly more 'real' or illusionist.
The Parsi theatre appropriated other Western presentational modes that produced formal and experiential mutations. It assimilated the five-act structure, related by extension to the proscenium that put the chronological narrative into place in the first instance. It rearranged the cognizance of stage time and space by intervening in the conventions of formality in Indian theatric and visual traditions. The mechanical devices to operate flying figures and furniture, imported directly from melodramas in London. This shaped the textual scenarios.
The melodramatic style occasioned by stage machinery became so popular that, in a sense, conventional storytelling was redrafted. By definition, melodrama integrates spoken text with music. The category now also came to be applied to romantic plots that act on the audience's emotions without considering character elaboration or logic. An economically workable commercial stage in most urban centres fitted folk performance to the European proscenium, creating technical models and unexpected marvels. Eventually, and paradoxically, these were put in the service of realism as being assembled at this time. Architectural and stage technologies allowed for vampire pits, flying beds, miraculous appearances and disappearances. These are best suited for romances and mythological tales.
Among the most popular actors of the Parsi stage there were Dadabhai Patel
, K. N. Kabraji
, Jehangir Khambata
, Cowasji Khatao
, C. S. Nazir, Khurshedji Balliwala, Framji Appu, Sohrabji Oghra, Abdul Rahman Kabali, Sohrab Modi, Amrit Keshav Nayak
, and Fida Hussain
. Among the famous actresses, Mary Fenton or Mehrbai was the daughter of an English officer in the British Indian army. Gohar or Kayoum Mamajiwala debuted as a child, and Patience Cooper and Seeta Devi performed with Madan Theatres in Calcutta. The light-classical musical vocabulary of Parsi theatre included ghazal, qawwali, thumri, dadra, and hori. The common instruments were harmonium or 'organ', clarinet, sarangi, tabla, and nakkara drums.