Foremost among these was the so-called Parsi stage, a broadbased commercial theatre whose appeal and influence extended far beyond the ethnic group from which it took its name. In a short time the demand for Parsi theatrical fare spread to all parts of India. The major companies routinely toured between Mumbai, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar, Delhi and the Indo Gangetic plain, Kolkata and Chennai. Parsi shows were the primary form of dramatic entertainment consistently available to urban audiences in greater India for almost a century. In consequence, the influence wrought by this stage on the development of modern drama and theatrical practice, and on the folk styles of performance, has been substantial. The Parsi theatre stage exerted a major impact on the emerging Marathi theatre and Gujarati theatres, as well as on new drama in Hindi language, Bengali language, Tamil language, and other regional languages.
Much of the initial inspiration for the Parsi stage came from British-sponsored dramatic efforts in their colony. English style playhouses were erected in Mumbai and Kolkata in the late eighteenth century, and the native elite was invited to attend English-produced performances from time to time and even to act in selected roles. Later the Parsi companies played in the same halls and took over the material culture of European theatre: the proscenium arch with its backdrop and curtains, Western furniture and other props, costumes, and a variety of mechanical devices for staging special effects. Artists from Europe were commissioned to paint the scenery, and the latest in "elaborate appliances" were regularly ordered from England, so as to achieve "the wonderful stage effects of storms, seas or rivers in commotion, castles, sieges, steamers, aerial movements and the like."
The early playwrights of the Parsi stage, K. N. Kavraji, E. J. Khori, and N. R. Ranina, were themselves Parsis. Gujarati being their mother tongue, it became the first language of the Parsi theatre. By the 1870s the large companies had adopted the practice of hiring Muslim munshis (scribes) as part of their permanent staff, and Urdu language became the principal language of the stage.
In important respects aside from language, the Parsi theatre revealed its distinctive Indian character: it employed Indian subject matter and included a great deal of music and dance. These characteristics were a natural legacy of the Indian dramatic tradition; the existing folk drama much influenced the Parsi theatre while it exerted a counter effect on indigenous theatre.
The Parsi theatre's sizable repertoire of mythological and legendary plays thus drew on the same stratum of North Indian popular culture as the nineteenth-century folk theatre and with equal alacrity embraced non-Indian subject matter side by side. Shakespeare provided a rich store of plots, and the prestige of the bard's name went unsurpassed on the Parsi stage. The Shakespearean stories were heavily Indianized, characters being reassigned names, castes, and communities, geographical settings transferred to Asia, and motivations and story lines adjusted to fit the Indo-Muslim environment.
The music and dance of Parsi theatre, although difficult to document, appear to have been liberal in measure and hybrid in manner. The "orchestra" often consisted of harmonium and tabla, played by accompanists who, seated in the wings or pit, "also in many cases do duty as prompters."
Available scripts show that a typical scene in a Parsi stage play consisted of a variety of songs and verses (in forms such as thumri, ghazal, Iavani, sher, musaddas, mukhammas, savaiyd, or simply gana) connected by prose dialogues. In early plays, dialogues were composed in rhymed metrical lines; actors spoke them with great emphasis to project the lines to the back of the hall. Later prose became predominant, although rhyme at the end of sentences remained. In such stylistic matters much mutual influence is visible between the North Indian folk theatre forms such as Swang and the Parsi theatre in this period.
Although the Indian elite saw in the Parsi theatre vulgarity, sensationalism, and lack of aesthetic standards, the humbler sections of society thrilled to the mystique of English company names like the Corinthian, the Victoria, and the New Alfred. The sumptuous fittings of the Parsi stage, replete with elaborate painted scenery, fine costumes, exotic Anglo-Indian actresses, and tricks of stagecraft augmented the allure. Such shows may have been commonplace in the numerous theatrical houses of the big cities, but in the provincial towns the spectacles no doubt overawed the populace. No wonder then that the Bombay companies were eagerly sought as the purveyors of all that was current and stylish in theatre. They were widely emulated wherever they performed, particularly in the cities of Indian state of Uttar Pradesh such as Varanasi, Lucknow, and Kanpur where they enjoyed an enthusiastic following.
The exchange between the urban Parsi theatre and the simpler, more rustic Swang and Nautanki operated in both directions. Stories, songs, and stage techniques moved back and forth at different times. Early on, the Parsi theatre drew from the themes and conventions of the folk theatre. A common core of stories is found in both theatres in the period from 1850 to 1900. Once the Parsi theatre's popularity was established, this process reversed itself.