Parsi Theatre

While the contribution of the Parsi Zoroastrian community of India in the field of aviation, atomic energy, the medical sciences and even geology is documented and well known, the pioneering work of this community in the field of music and performing arts needs to be studied and documented. Parsis were the pioneers in the Modern Theatre Movement of India. The form of theatre, which they created is today known under the generic term “Parsi Theatre”.

 

While folk theatre had existed in India since very early times an interest in modern theatre began among the Parsis in the 1850’s after watching European dramas brought to India by the English. Amateur dramatic societies such as the Elphinstone Dramatic Society began at educational institutions and the first Parsi Theatre company called “Parsi Natak Mandali” began in 1853. It was owned and directed by Gustadji Dalal and supported by Dadabhai Naoroji, K.R. Cama, Dr. Bhau Daji, Ardeshir Moos and others. It was followed by theatrical companies managed by Parsis, which included “The Zoroastrian Theatrical Club” “The Student Amateur Club” “The Victoria Natak Mandali”, “Natak Uttejak Company”, “Empress Victoria Theatrical Company” and “The Alfred Natak Mandali”. Between 1853 and 1869, 20 Drama companies were created by Parsis.

 

Parsi Theatre began in Gujarati and Dr. Gopal Shastri of MS Univ. Baroda states “The credit of giving birth to Gujarati theatre goes to the Parsis”. They brought new techniques, created amateur and professional groups, which they handled with managerial skills and wrote new dramas and operas. They also innovated stage techniques. Following this the first Urdu dramas and operas were written and performed by Parsi companies under the Victoria Natak Mandali and scholars state that Parsi theatre created the first Urdu play.

 

In the 19th century the Natak Mandalis presented theatre that inspired the Freedom Movement through socially relevant plays and social reforms. Some of these great names include Kaikushru Kabraji, Dadi Patel, Behramji Fardunji, Marzban Nusserwanji, Merwanji Khansaheb. While these belong to the classical tradition amongst the modernists who upgraded acting skills are the names Adi Marazban, Pheroze Antia, Erach Pavri. Today the only family troupe remaining is the family of Yazdi Karanjia of Surat.

 

Parsi theatre had certain unique traits, before the drama began three actors would collectively chant a prayer. After the prayer one actor would deliver a prologue. Music was an integral part of Parsi Theatre and at the end of the play an actor expressed thanks to the audience and often sang a farewell. The songs of Parsi Theatre have been preserved in the memories of the amateurs who have kept Parsi theatre alive in Calcutta for the past 100 years through the “The Calcutta Parsi Amateur Dramatic Club”. PARZOR has compiled a full list of the play scripts donated by the Calcutta Amatuer Dramatics Club(CADC) when Parzor visited Calcutta. These represent 100 years of Parsi theatre performed regularly by the CADC. Mr.Noshir Gherda, who played an active role in the CADC, including acting as a beautiful lady, took the Parzor team to visit the CADC premises which have become neglected over time. CADC, which is planning to shift out of these building requested Parzor to preserve their collection of Parsi Theatre items for posterity. Click here for the list of plays. We invite researchers to explore the fascinating world of Parsi theatre which pioneered the modern theatre movement in India.

 

The plays performed by Parsi Theatre were in various languages: Urdu, Hindustani, Gujarati, and English. Themes ranged from the Shah Namah and Persian legends to Indian classics like Harishchandra (1883) and Chandravali (1881). It is significant to note that many plays with Sanskrit themes were written by Muslims like Murad Ali Murad and directed by Parsis like Sohrabji Ogra. It is this fusion of cultures and the creation of a pan Indian identity by Parsi Theatre that is perhaps its most significant contribution to the performing arts of India. Many plays were adapted from English plays such as “Dil Farosh” i.e. “The Merchant of Hearts” based on Shakespeare’s “The Merchant in Venice” and “Gulnar Firoze” based on “Romeo and Juliet”. A popular actress was the beautiful English Mary Fenton, traditionally women’s roles were acted by handsome men but as in this case there were some exceptions.

 

Parsi theatre was pan Indian also because they traveled right across India acting at various locations from the North- West Frontier Provinces down to Ceylon and Burma. Today most of the classics have been forgotten and what remains is the popular comedy – farce routine performed on celebrations like Navroze and Pateti. Parzor has collected not only printed plays but also hand written manuscripts, theatre programmes, props and even a journal written at sea during the long voyage to Africa by a member of a theatrical company. It is hoped that we can collect all that remains of a once glorious tradition and preserve it for students, historians and the theatre fraternity. We invite researchers for the theatre module. Please contact either Dr. Shernaz Cama at shernazcama@hotmail.com or Mr. Dadi Pudumjee at dadip@airtelmail.in