In the preface to his first play, Bejan ane Manijeh (1869), Kaikhushro Navroji Kabra, the eminent journalist, explained that his goal was to compose Swadeshi plays for his Deshi brothers. As regards the sources that would constitute the content of these plays, an inexhaustible source was present. According to Kabra, and many of the other dramatists of the time, just as the West had its Homer and Shakespeare, so the East had its Kalidasa and Firdausi. Thus by recognising these influences, Kabra established the objective of the creation of cultural and historical consciousness through the plays, rather than mere pursuit of profit. The project here was that of re-inventing the past in the face of increasing colonial domination. A major influence during this time was the works of Firdausi, the narratives of the ancient Kings of the Parsis, of the kings of Persia. Thus Kabra very strongly focused on the Parsis as the historical community descended from Firdausi's heroes. His objective in writing plays was to safeguard Parsi drama while reviving Parsi self-awareness and creating solidarity.
Kabra's embrace of Firdausi and the Persian past was a continuation of the dramatic traditions among the Parsis. The earliest Parsi theatrical group had performed Rustom and Sohrab in several instalments in 1853 and 1854. Subsequently, Barjor and King Afrasiab and Rustom Pehlvan strengthened the identification between 'Parsi theatre' as a new form of cultural expression and the mythological-history of the Persian homeland. Shahnama stories were already circulating as printed episodes (namas) in Gujarati and Persian. Oral recitations of the Shahnama were both a form of entertainment and tool for moral instruction in vernacular schools.
Through the Shahnama plays enacted in Gujarati, the 'Parsi theatre' was thus established in the early years as a public representation of a particular community. Though these plays were not meant exclusively for the Parsis, they nonetheless expressed a celebration of Parsi identity. Gujarati-language media such as folksongs and tales were often used to propagate reformist beliefs, as well as to inculcate new behaviour and attitudes, especially among women. Women were seen as particularly vulnerable to superstitions, and their domestic seclusion and low degree of educational attainment were blamed on the surrounding non-Parsi society. In popular songs and stories the female heroes of the Shahnama and medieval Persian romances, such as Nizami's, were upheld as models.
In addition to the Nama stories and their enactments, the Garbas and Garbi's, or women's songs, and the old Dastans and Qissas, Parsi popular culture at mid-century included important genres such as the Khayals or improvised poems of the Turra-Kalgi factions, playlets and songs from the Gujarati dramatic form Bhavai, the Lavanis and ballads in Gujarati and Marathi associated with the Maharis and Tamasha, as well as ghazals in Persian, Urdu, and Gujarati, songs based on Bhakti poets like Kabir, and Boris, Thumris, Tappas and other secular songs. These genres are all exemplified in the numerous song anthologies compiled by Parsis and printed in Gujarati in this period.
These songs from a variety of languages, published in the Gujarati script, in turn became a resource for the playwrights of the Parsi theatre. Playwrights sometimes commissioned songs for their plays from well-known poets, and their names are mentioned in the prefaces. But equally they drew on popular tunes, setting new words to a popular song and borrowing freely from existing material. Songs were necessary adjuncts to narratives in creating stage appeal, and the importance of music grew as the Parsi theatre developed.
(Last Updated on : 17-03-2011)
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