The reasons for the wealth the Parsis amassed during the British Colonial period can be traced back to the fact that the Parsis became mediators between the imperial power and the Indian peoples. Hitherto they had been small land owners and merchants in what is today the state of Gujarat on the western coast of India.
So while the majority of Parsis continued to foster close links with the colonial rulers, a small but very powerful number of Parsis became active in India's anti-colonial freedom struggle. Dadabhai Naoroji and M.M. Bhownugree became the first Indian members of the British Parliament and represented India's interests there. Naoroji was also one of the founder members of the Indian National Congress. Phirozsha Mehta became the Mayor of Bombay and took the British administration head on in several well documented and colourful conflicts. Bhikaji Cama was a radical revolutionary who was exiled by the Raj. She had the distinction of unfurling India's first national flag at an international forum. Thus in the colonial period while many Parsis aligned themselves with the British, some began to image themselves as Nationalist Indians.
Among the latter group was the growing band of Parsi creative writers. In the pre-colonial times Parsis had not produced much literature. Colonial Parsi discourse was written mainly in English but there are also some texts in Gujarati. Prominent writers of this period were Behram Malabari, a bilingual poet, travel writer and journalist; Cornelia Sorabji, a lawyer by profession who wrote short fiction and other autobiographical texts; Fredoon Kabarji and A.F. Khabardar who were poets and wrote poems in English and Jamshedji Petit and Jehangir Marazban who wrote poetry in Gujarati. These Parsi playwrights founded the Parsi Theatre movement, which had a major impact on Indian theatre and even the cinema. The Parsi Theatre in the late nineteenth and the first quarter of the twentieth centuries operated mainly in Gujarati and Hindustani. None of these text displayed overt ethno-religious tones.
With the end of colonial rule, the Parsi writers once again went into a kind of hibernation. The independence of India was won at a high cost and the country was divided into India and Pakistan. The carnage of Hindus and Muslims on both sides of the new border made the tiny Parsi community feel very insecure again as it was spread out in both the new nations. So the Parsis withdrew into prudent silence. This silence was sometimes punctuated by stray stories and novels in English and plays in Gujarati, but was broken in a major way only in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This postcolonial Parsi literature was mainly in the form of novels and short stories written by Bapsi Sidhwa, Farrukh Dhondy, Rohinton Mistry, Firdaus Kanga, Dina Mehta and Boman Desai. All these texts displayed ethno-religious attributes not evident in the writing of the colonial Parsis.
Apart from the novelists, this period also saw the growth of Parsi poets and playwrights - Keki Daruwala, the poet, Gieve Patel, poet, playwright and painter and Cyrus Mistry the playwright. The feeling of alienation and insecurity experienced by diasporic communities is evident in most of these texts.
The postcolonial Indian novel in English has many high-profile Parsi practitioners, especially Rohinton Mistry but the field of drama has fewer Parsis. This can also be attributed to the fact that drama in English is a rather low-key activity in India and there are very few Indian dramatists who write in English - Girish Karnad, Pratap Sharma, Gieve Patel, Gurcharan Das, Cyrus Mistry and Mahesh Dattani.
Neither Patel nor Mistry writes in the tradition of the old Parsi Theatre which tackled large, epic subjects from Indian history which were very clearly nationalistic in tone. Both these dramatists in fact actively resist the overblown style and melodrama of the old Parsi Theatre. Patel and Mistry's inspirations have been European and American dramatists. Patel is equally clear about the focus on Parsi race and Zoroastrian religion in his plays. However, Patel's Parsi characters and backdrop have not been obstacles to the wider Indian acceptance and appreciation of his plays. Patel feels that the more faithful a play is to its origins, the more universal it becomes.
(Last Updated on : 21-09-2012)
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