History of Gujarati Theatre
Commencing from the 14th century, Gujarat has had a long tradition of folk theatre. Starting with the popular folk theatre of Bhavai, its origin was traditionally credited to Asaita Thakar, a religious folk singer. Eventually in the early 16th century, new elements were being incorporated in the Gujarati theatre, like using the Tamasha folk tradition of Maharashtra. In the royal courts and temples of Gujarat, Sanskrit drama was performed and during the reign of the British East India Company, foreign operas and theatre groups inspired the local Parsis to start their own travelling theatre groups, largely performed in Gujarati.
The year 1852 was the turning point of Gujarati theatre, when a Parsi theatre group performed Shakespeare in Gujarati language and it continued to prosper in the early 20th century. The first theatre group of Gujarati theatre was founded by Framjee Gustadjee Dalal in 1853 and was called the Parsee Natak Mandali, which staged the first Parsi-Gujarati play, Rustam Sohrab.
According to historian Makrand Mehta, the first theatre group in Gujarat was founded in Morbi by Mulji and Vaghji Oza. The ‘Arya Subodh Natak Mandali’ came into existence in 1878. This was the first group that was not coming from the Parsi theatre or the Bhavai tradition. It was the result of the influence of both the Indian as well as the western traditions. Its first production was 'Bharthari', which created a history of its own on Gujarati theatre as it continued to be performed for years together in Saurashtra.
Development of Gujarati Theatre
The development of Gujarati theatre was mainly brought with the hands of 3 serious dramatists like Dahyabhai Jhaveri, and the brothers Moolji and Vaghaji Asharam Oza. They helped in the introduction of new designs of stage, like tableaux, social themes, and the traditional Garba dance. The ‘Wankaner Aryahit Vardhak Natak Mandali’ and ‘Morbi Arya Subodh Natak Mandali’ made its fame in the Kathiawar peninsula as travelling repertories. But, in general, the styles remained melodramatic, together with trendy dresses, two dimensional painted backdrops and music that had always remained an essential part of theatre.
Types of Gujarati Theatre
The Gujarati theatre can be divided into various sub genres like commercial, amateur and developmental types of folk theatre. Out of these the two main traditional forms of Gujarati theatre include Bhavai and Akhyana. But currently, with the onslaught of television, the efforts of maintaining the traditional forms of Gujarati theatre have been difficult.
Gujarati Theatre Companies
The Gujarati theatre has its traditional stronghold in Vadodara, where most of the theatre groups have their origin. Mumbai has become a good host of Gujarati theatres because of lots of Gujarati people live there. But the traditional Gujarati taste has been changed according to the people of Mumbai. Discussed below are some of the popular Gujarati theatres:
Naath Theatre: Established in 1992 by Kamlesh Mota and Babul Bhavsar with an aim to provide a message to the masses while entertaining them through the plays. This Gujarati theatre in Mumbai presents regular Gujarati and Hindi plays. It is also associated with the premier institution of art ‘Sangeet Kala Kendra’. The most prestigious play by Naath Theatre is ‘Saraswati Chandra’, which won 5 awards by the Transmedia Software Private Limited in the year 2003-04.
Ideas Unlimited: This theatre has promoted the Gujarati literature and culture to a wider audience. It tries to create an interest and appreciation of the rich Gujarati cultural heritage among the young generation through theatre. It is considered as the only Gujarati theatre group in the city, which is modern in sensibility.
Kala Sangam: It is one of the most talent creator Gujarati theatre group in Mumbai.
Senior and popular artistes like Jaya Bachchan and Shatrughan Sinha also ventured in the famous Gujarati theatre production house named the Sanjay Goradia production.
Another well-known Gujarati theatre is the 'Avni Theatre production'. It is very famous with the NRI Gujarati audiences. This theatre was started by a theatre personality Amee Trivedi in the year 2000 with an aim to set up its own tradition. Now, this theatre's name has become must to remember with the Gujarati theatre. The debut venture of Avni was 'Lajja Taney Maara Samm', which was the biggest hit of the year 2000-01. Another play by "Avni" was "Lagangaadu Chaale Aadu" which became the first play in Gujarati theatre to get an international premiere.
Plays of Gujarati Theatre
The Gujarati play - Rustom, Jabuli and Sorab, which are based on the popular dramatic tale of Shah Nama, is considered as the beginning of Gujarati theatre. It was staged at the Grant Road Theatre of Mumbai on October 29 in 1853. Bhavai, the popular folk form of Gujarat was not much related to theatre earlier but now it has been incorporated into most of the Gujarati theatres. Currently, social issues and awareness is being spread via Gujarati theatre, like the evils of dowry, women’s equality and health, alcoholism, vaccination etc.
The Gujarati theatre actors got exposure when the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and the Bombay State Competitions held between 1950 and 1960 provided most of the projects to the professional Gujarati theatre. For example, Pravin Joshi, Vijay Dutt and Kanti Madia were launched in the 1953 competition. In the same way, some of the intercollegiate competitions organized by the Indian National Theatre in 1975-78 gave break to the talents like Mahendra Joshi, Paresh Raval, Mukesh Raval, Siddharth Randeria, Homi Wadia, Sameer Khakhar, Nikita Shah, Sujata Mehta, Daisy Rani and Latesh Shah. Now, they are trying to establish younger generation of theatre professionals.
It is said that a Gujarati play named ‘Harishchandra’ influenced very much the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi. The Gujarati theatre has inspired thinking of the people, created social awareness and national spirit during pre independence days.
Modern Gujarati Theatre
In the late 1980s, the Parsi dramatic companies laid the foundation of modern Gujarati theatre. These theatre companies brought western techniques and themes as well as music to form a renewed vernacular theatre. Thus, original plays like ‘Kumar Ki Chhat Par’ and ‘Kahat Kabira’ by renowned playwrights like Madhurai, Vinayak Purohit, Shiv Kumar Joshi and others were revived.
In the centenary year of the 1857 uprising, the Indian National Theatre staged a Gujarati play "Bharelo Agni". It is regarded as a landmark for the non-professional Gujarati theatre. One of the most versatile Gujarati actresses is Sareeta Joshi, who has dominated in the new Gujarati Theatre for the longest time. Another talented Gujarati dancer and actress is Mallika Sarabhai, who made her name for the role of Draupadi in the world famous playwright Peter Brooke's "Mahabharata".
In the 21st century, cinema and television have taken over the field of entertainment. But the Gujarati theatre has not lost its charm yet. Sometimes the flow of the plays has slowed down and sometimes changes are done to match with the tastes of the audiences. But the Gujarati theatre has survived along with the new style. Amol Palekar is one of the recent actors cum filmmaker from Gujarat, who has also tried to revive the Gujarati theatre. The Gujarati theatre has also marked its place in the World Theatres through its colourful representation of the plays.