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Parsi Theatre by Salim Arif (Part 1)

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The French Revolution of 1789 and then the revolution of 1848, led to the emergence of a middle class as the decisive force in society in Europe. The core of this middle class came from the semi educated products of the national school university systems initiated by Napoleon in France and followed by other countries in Europe.

Small provincial towns emerged with a semblance of urbanization and a social administrative order. This evolution of a new civilization was also happening in India, with the establishment of Presidency College and other British academic institutions, around 1850s.

Port cities like Calcutta, Bombay, Karachi, Madras, Vizag and Lahore, Kanpur, Delhi came up as important trade and commerce centres during the process of industrialization, attracting immigrants from several parts of the country. This new mixed population in expanding cities needed entertainment. By this time auditoriums as places for public performances, town halls, opera house kind of theatres, spread all over cities and proscenium stage theatres became a norm. In the West, during and after the Renaissance, theatre got a fillip and with Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen, Chekov and others, it developed a social acceptance that has since continued. It also changed the narrative form from the days of Aristotle and became more flexible without any classical bondage. But unlike the Shakespearian stage which could provide flexibility of space to denote several locales and one could perform a whole play with props on a bare stage much like our Sanskrit theatre staging, this architecture of Proscenium theatre with its box set stage facilities facilitated the creation of plausible interiors or rooms on stage with real life details and dimensions. Language of the theatre changed from poetry to prose. Dialogue acquired an everyday conversational feel and theatre became a place to see a slice of life on stage. Playwrights like Ibsen, Chekov and G.B.Shaw wrote about these new urban middle class homes and a three walled set depicting interior of a house became most used setting of scenes in their plays. This also led to the concept of the audience becoming a fourth wall in this make believe “illusion of reality” drama world in Europe. The notion of realism set root and this one end, placement of stage and the other side seating of audience became a given norm for theatre designs.

The fixed seating of each audience member gave them a fixed perspective of this framed, live changing picture on stage, an element which laid the basis of cinema little later.

When Wajid Ali Shah the famous Nawab of Awadh staged several Rahas in the Qaiserbagh Baradari including Amanat’s Inder Sabha in 1854, he initiated what can be called a tradition of Modern Indian Urban Theatre in the city of Lucknow. A dance drama with innumerable songs, Inder Sabha became a landmark performance followed by a few other plays written by Wajid Ali Shah. An accomplished poet by the pen name of Akhtar, Wajid Ali Shah wrote small performance pieces involving Kathak and Thumris and later wrote probably the first Urdu play Radha Kanhaiyya Ka Qissa. His Parikhana was a repertory of performers and the complex had Rahas Manzil as a regular space devoted to these frequent events. The legacy of Wajid Ali Shah got a dubious reputation in the hands of British and several other native hardliner commentators after his eviction from the throne of Awadh. His contribution in poetry, music and dance has been acknowledged without any serious discussion on his theatre forays. Lucknow and the region of Awadh has played an important role in the evolution of Modern Indian theatre and cinema since then.

While folk theatre had existed in India since very early times in the countryside, an interest in modern urban theatre began among the Parsis (a rich community of entrepreneurs in India) in the 1850’s after watching European dramas brought to India by the English. Parsis as they were called arrived in the state of Gujarat (close to Bombay) from Persia and quickly established themselves in trade and business.

A new civilization was taking roots in India around the mutiny of 1857, and Parsi merchants managed to set up several industries and business houses with their acumen for understanding consumer needs and creating new commercial possibilities in this evolving social spectrum. Subsequently, Parsi merchants of Bombay saw a commercial possibility in creating theatre companies that began to be called Parsi Theatre Companies. Not to be left behind, Calcutta soon followed and became an equally important centre of creating these companies. Twenty drama companies were created by Parsis between 1853 and 1869. These repertory companies of those days began to be called Parsi Theatre Companies as a generic entity.

Urdu being the new fusion language of the masses from Indian main land, became the vehicle for the content of a Parsi company play. A lot of talent from Lucknow, Benares, Meerut, Agra, Hathras and Muradabad etc. came into these companies especially in writing and acting. Mehdi Hasan Ahsan, the eminent writer of plays like ‘Khune Nahaq’, ‘Dilfarosh’, ‘Sharif Badmash’, ‘Chalta Purza’ and ‘Bhul Bhulaiyaan’ got drawn to this movement by watching plays coming to Lucknow and later wrote for Sohrabji Ogra in 1890s. There were dramatists, directors and actors who enriched this important movement. Prominent among them were Amrut Keshav Nayak, Radheshyam Kathavachak, Aga Hasra Kashmiri, Pandit Narayan Prasad Betaab, Munshi Vinayak Prasad Talib, Munshi Syed Mehdi Hasan and Munshi Shekh Mahmud.

Parsi Theatre became a confluence of various theatre streams. It had different dramatic genres- historical, mythological, social, political story – lines and those adapted from the English stage. Its main language remained Urdu. A Parsi Theatre company had two or three writers, backstage technicians, managers, costume and setting teams, actors and couple of directors (very often called dialogue coach) on monthly salaries. Several artists and writers from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds came together and created a heterogeneous mix at a broadly national level, with the result that Parsi companies not only worked in Urdu, but inspired theatres in virtually every corner of India.

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. This important secular legacy was inherited by our popular cinema with great success and thrives on till today. By 1900, theatre troupes had started in Karachi, Lahore, Jodhpur, Agra, Aligarh, Meerut, Lucknow, and Hyderabad.

For instance, Lucknow which initiated Inder Sabha in 1854 had its share of theatre activities later too. The first theatre house specifically for plays in Lucknow came up at Maqboolganj (currently Ramgopal Vidyant Marg) around 1860’s. Bengali plays were staged there between 1870-1876. ‘Ramabhishek Nataka’ was written by Ram Gopal Vidyant in 1877 for this stage so that Urdu/Hindi (essentially a refined form of Khadi Boli of the region) audiences also got to see some plays. Parsi company plays routinely visited Lucknow. Naushad the eminent music director of Hindi films started by performing in an orchestra in Jagat cinema/theatre in Aminabad of Lucknow and later migrated to Mumbai to carve a niche for himself in cinema. Even Begum Akhtar, the famous singer of ghazals and thumris had a short career in a theatre company in Calcutta after the legendary Gauhar Jaan from Allahabad/Benares. While folk theatre had existed in India since very early times in the countryside, an interest in modern urban theatre began among the Parsis in the 1850’s after watching European dramas brought to India by the English community. Elphinstone Dramatic Society, the first “amateur” dramatic society began the tradition of companies at educational institutions in India at that time.

The first “Parsi” theatre company called “Parsi Natak Mandali” began in 1853. It was owned and directed by a Parsi gentleman called Gustadji Dalal and supported by Dadabhai Naoroji, K.R. Cama, Dr. Bhau Daji, Ardeshir Moos and others. Subsequently, Parsi merchants of Bombay saw a huge commercial possibility in creating theatre companies that would become resident performing troupes and would also travel around the country in several cities with multiple shows. Several 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” emerged.

(To be continued…)

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