(Last Updated on : 23/02/2011)
Parsi theatre in English was quite popular among the educated Parsis in Mumbai
during the days of the British colonial rule in the country. The Parsis were among the elites in Mumbai and they became attracted to theatre by way of their interactions with the Europeans and local mercantile communities. Leading Indians were invited to the English theatre in return for hosting their colleagues at entertainments such as Nautch parties. By 1821, Parsis had begun attending the English-language Bombay Theatre (also known as the Theatre on the Green) located in the heart of the Fort area of south Bombay. In 1853 the theatre was shut down due to certain financial problems. It was sold to Jamshed Jejeebhoy.
Jamshed Jejeebhoy, along with Jagannath Shankarseth and Framji Cowasji, started collecting subscriptions and petitioned the Governor of Bombay for a new theatre. The Grant Road Theatre was opened in 1846 on land donated by Shankarseth with a generous contribution from Jejeebhoy. Until 1853 all performances in the Grant Road Theatre were in English. The performers of English theatre included both amateur British actors residing in the cantonment and civil lines and professional touring artists from England, Europe and America. Indian performers came onstage very rarely and that too as extras.
The first Parsi theatrical company appeared on the boards in 1853 with Rustom Zabooli and Sohrab, probably in Gujarati. Over the next few years, as the popularity of English theatre began to wane, Parsi and Hindu companies performing in Gujarati, Hindustani and Marathi found favour with the populations living in the Grant Road area. As these trends continued through the 1850s and 60s, full-length plays in Gujarati dominated, accompanied by shorter farces in Hindustani. Even in its earliest years, the Parsi theatre
developed a penchant for producing plays based on Shakespeare. According to the newspapers, Parsi theatre productions of Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Timon of Athens all mediated through the Gujarati language
were mounted at the Grant Road Theatre between 1857 and 1859.
Concrete evidence of Indians performing in English appears from the early 1860s. The impetus fro this came from the students and ex-students of Elphinstone College. In 1861 a student named Kunvarji Nazir formed the Parsi Elphinstone Dramatic Society, an amateur club where enthusiasts received training from professionals like Hamilton Jacob. They staged a number of English plays at the Grant Road Theatre and earned respect from both Indian and European audiences. A few professors organised another student group, the Shakespeare Society, which put up productions in the private confines of the college once or twice a year. However, the trend of performing in English was noted only among the college. The vogue for performing in English was largely limited to the college, however. The desire to enact Shakespeare in English had given way by the late 1860s to an interest in adapting Shakespeare to Indian languages and environments. The professional company that succeeded the Elphinstone amateur group, the Elphinstone Theatrical Company or Elphinstone Natak Mandali, was primarily performing in Gujarati and Urdu by the early 1870s.