A Parsi theatre company had two or three writers, backstage technicians, managers, costume and setting teams, musicians, actors and couple of directors (very often called dialogue coach) on monthly salaries. Parsi theatre became a confluence of various theatre streams. 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 Gujarati, Urdu, Hindi, and even English, but inspired theatres in virtually every corner of India. But Urdu, a very popular language that evolved amongst the masses of North India between 18th to 19th century remained its main communication tool.
A commercial enterprise managed professionally, Parsi theatre created a system for the largest ticket-buying audience in Indian stage history. It had different dramatic genres – historical, mythological, social, political story – lines and those adapted from the English stage. A variety of themes were tackled in these plays. They ranged from the Shah Namah and Persian legends to Indian classics like ‘Harishchandra’ (1883) and ‘Chandravali’ (1881). 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’. 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 and cinema of India.
Parsi theatre also employed Indian subject matter and included a great deal of music and dance. These characteristics were a natural legacy of the Indian dramatic tradition. Our classical theatre of the Sanskrit days and the existing folk drama which used song, dance and drama as part of narrative structure much influenced the Parsi theatre while it exerted a significant influence on indigenous regional theatre. Amongst various innovations, it brought in playhouses was the use of gaslights placed on the apron of the stage to light up the players in a performance. Subsequently they became electrical foot lights and led to other technical upgrades.
The other very important innovation introduced was the use of multiple painted backdrops to depict various separate locales. The variety of locations in plays to be presented by a Parsi company demanded a different kind of setting and staging technique than that of box–set plays. The box set was a name used generally for a single location, three-walled set of a drawing room or bedroom that had it as the main location of the play. But in the repertoire of Parsi companies, each play required a different staging with multiple locations. Taking a cue from painted backdrops and landscapes of European paintings, these Parsi company plays used several backdrops depicting various locations during a play performance. After each scene, the backdrop would change from a forest to a palace courtroom or the bedroom of the princess. While the backdrop change would take a few seconds, the setting up of appropriate properties like furniture pieces and other related accessories took more time. Inspite of several stagehands, it still needed about five to fifteen minutes to put everything in place. While the set was being changed,there would be an interval for refreshments and a play went on for hours due to these scene changes. That hampered the flow in narrative. The audience would come back and would find it difficult to remember the scene and storyline. Several devices were invented in the narrative to engage the audience while these changes of locations were made on stage.
The Parsi playwrights thought of an indigenous way of keeping the audience engaged during this set change time gap. Inspired by our traditional folk theatre forms, they incorporated song and dance to fill in this time. A half curtain or the main curtain would become the backdrop and a comic skit called ‘Comic Interlude’ would happen while the changes took place behind this curtain. These comic interludes created laughter and provided welcome relief to the audience involved in the main dramatic flow of a play like ‘Yahoodi Ki Ladki’. To break this monotony, a few item songs would also be performed during these changes of scenes. Thus comic scenes and dance numbers became mandatory of any narrative as allied tracks to the main storyline.
They were the sub-plots to the main storyline. This requirement created a specialist set of actors who were called comedians, dancers, villains, vamps and action heroes. They were actors who would be limited to doing comic scenes, a dance number, play the bad man or woman as part of archetypes or stereotyped roles. Type-casted in several plays, these accomplished actors who became stars in their own right, did the same kind of roles in different garbs for almost their entire careers. The same tradition got picked in our films and several actors in these roles at times were bigger stars than our main heroes. Abdul Rahman Kabuli a famous actor of tragic or stately roles, got associated with New Albert Company and then joined New Alfred and performed in Radheshyam’s plays. Balivala, Khurshedji Mehrbanji (1853–1913) was another famous comic actor and one of the Parsi theatre’s most successful actor-managers. He was associated with Victoria Theatrical Company from the early 1870s until his death. Other famous actors included Khurshed Balivala, Kavas Khatau, Jehangir Khambata, Sohrab Ogra, and Fida Hussain. Available scripts show that a typical scene in a Parsi stage play consisted of a variety of songs and verses. They would indicate forms such as thumri, ghazal, lavani, sher, musaddas, mukhammas, savaiya , or simply gana in the directions given by writers. They connected by prose dialogue interspersed with these songs. In early plays, dialogues were composed in rhymed metrical lines; actors spoke them with great emphasis to reach the audience at the back of the hall. The style of rendering dialogues in Parsi style was known as ‘Blood and Thunder’ style .The actors would enhance the impact of a dialogue by rendering poetic couplets with a flourish as given by the writers. This in turn brought instant applause. These moments became a repeat value aspect of a play and brought in audiences again and again.
Traditionally women’s roles were acted by handsome men in these companies in the beginning, Bal Gandharva, (Narayan Shripad Rajhans 1886–1967) was one such singing actor in the Marathi musical theatre who became a legend in his lifetime. He was an iconic leading performer who excelled in doing female roles on stage. Pestan Madan, Edal Mistri, Naslu Sarkari, Darashah Patel, Amritlal, and Narmada Shankar were the other famous actors known for playing female roles on stage. Alfred Theatrical Company was a leading 19th century company founded in 1871. Flourished under actor-manager Kavasji Khatau from early 1880s until his death in 1916; then his son Jahangir ran the company.
The Parsi theatre performed ‘Indrasabha’ as a grand spectacle and for the first time in this country presented a woman to act on the stage. Though it did not succeed due to protests from the conservatives in the society it did bear fruit when after a few years women entered the drama world in bigger number as actresses in major and secondary roles. A popular actress was the beautiful English lady Mary Fentun, who was an exception at the time. Many reached the pinnacle of acting later, the outstanding among them being Gauhar, Munnibai, Motijan, Amirjan, Latifa Begum, Khursheed, Mehtab, Rani Premlata, Saraswati Devi, to name a few.
By 1900, theatre troupes on the lines of Parsi theatre companies had started in Karachi, Lahore, Jodhpur, Agra, Aligarh, Meerut, Lucknow, and Hyderabad. There were dramatists, directors, 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, Munshi Syed Mehdi Hasan and Munshi Shekh Mahmud. Famous Parsi plays, covering the range from romance to mythological and social, include ‘Indarsabha’ or ‘Indra’s Court’, ‘Gul Bakavali’ or ‘Bakavali’s Flower’, ‘Laila-Majnun’ or ‘Laila and Majnun’, and ‘Shirin-Farhad’ i.e. ‘Shirin and Farhad’ in numerous versions were very famous. Some others can be mentioned as Agha Hashr Kashmiri’s Yahudi ki ladki or ‘Jew’s Daughter’ in 1913 and Rustam aur Sohrabor ‘Rustam and Sohrab’ in 1929, Betab’s Mahabharat in 1913, Ramayan in 1915, Kumari Kinnari or ‘Kinnari Girl’ in 1928 and Hamari bhul or ‘Our Mistake’ in 1937 and Radheshyam Kathavachak’s Vir Abhimanyu i.e. ‘Heroic Abhimanyu’ in 1914, Shravan Kumar in 1916, and Bharatmata i.e. ‘Mother India’ in 1918. The several Shakespearean adaptations included Ahsan Lakhnavi’s Khun-e-naahaq or ‘Unjustified Murder’ in 1898, from Hamlet, Shahid-e-wafa or ‘Martyr to Constancy’ in 1898, from Othello, and Dilfarosh i.e. ‘Merchant of Hearts’ in 1900, from Merchant of Venice were also staged. Agha Hashr’s Safed khun i.e. ‘White Blood’ in 1906, from King Lear, and Betab’s Gorakhdhanda i.e. ‘Labyrinth’ in 1909, from Comedy of Errors.
These plays required varied musical scores drawing on Western, Indian and Arabic music heritage. For certain subjects, they made use of different ragas of Indian classical music, variety of songs and dances. The English and Sanskrit dramatic styles were used for staging and amalgamated with proscenium stage requirements. Being a ticketed commercial enterprise, it needed impressive stage décor, newer stage techniques to lure its audiences.
Parsi theatre and other similar companies became the leading entertainment provider to our audiences till about 1930s. The major companies routinely toured between Bombay, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar, Delhi,the Indo-Gangetic plain, Calcutta, and Madras. The Parsi stage exerted a major impact on the emerging Marathi and Gujarati theatres, as well as on new drama in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, and other regional languages. Parsi theatre dominated the Indian culture scene. In its most creative period from 1870 to 1890, it brought about a complete change in the attitude and perception about the theatre in the minds of the people. It reflected nationalist and social concerns also, but within the ambit of their commercial structure. The Parsi theatre along with providing entertainment to Indian masses also played a role in their cultural moulding and promotion of social reforms. The theatre that arose out of these motivations had themes that carried moral and social messages for the audience. Important Hindu social and religious movement like the Arya Samaj, founded by Dayanand Sarasvati in 1875 reflected in plays. Its principles influenced literary and theatrical production, bringing agenda of moralistic nationalism through its plays. The freedom movement, issues like dowry, ill effects of drinking, communal harmony, respect for other religions etc. were addressed directly or covertly in Parsi plays which had a large social patronage. Prominent among the lower class of audience were soldiers and sailors. The military forces encouraged theatrical evenings as a harmless form of entertainment for its soldiers. A popular piece was received with loud applause by the audience.It was followed by shouting and demands that a song or dance be repeated “once more”. Multiple curtain calls and showering of artists with cash or gifts or “inam” were also common.
Integrating the best from several sources and fusing them into a synthesis of Indian storytelling traditions, the Parsi theatre thrilled the Indian people with some of the best dramas. Parsi theatre brought in a sophisticated presentation methodology to plays. It also gave theatre a social base. The theatre itself became a place of elegant outing for its patrons. Seats arranged by class and rows provided civilized movement within a theatre. The ringing of bells or announcing time for starting and intervals became a norm. Necessary amenities such as refreshments rooms and intervals added a sense of decorum to the proceedings in the hall. Family shows where special performances for women were also a feature of the Parsi theatre’s popularity and growing respectability in the middle classes. Playhouses were set up so the children were tended by their “ayas” so the ladies could watch the play in peace. The Parsi drama companies travelled with their plays to Rangoon (Burma), Singapore and to London too and won much appreciative praise. The Burmese King Thibu gifted Rs.4,300 and precious stones and diamonds to the drama company and its artists. Their London performances of ‘Harishchandra’ and ‘Alauddin’ were graced by the presence of Queen Victoria and Edward VII and were praised by them.
But technology was about to strike. With the advent of cinema these companies shifted lock, stock and barrel to this new medium. A majority of these companies transformed into movie studios once the Indian cinema industry was inaugurated. Almost all the stars and major talent like writers, musicians, directors of our silent and early Talkie films came from these companies. The playhouses got converted to cinema halls and these theatre companies laid the foundation for the studios of film companies. Instead of presenting plays each day, they filmed and released most of them to several hundred screens in one go. The talent pool remained the same, company structure remained the same, only the economics changed. Running companies of live theatre suddenly became too much to handle for too little gain. Cinema made it possible for these owners to provide filmed entertainment to one and all, sitting in cities like Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. The advent of sound in films in 1931 led to a rapid decline in the Parsi theatre, since cinema now became an audio visual medium with songs and dialogue as its most potent component. Most of its personnel found employment in cinema, and audiences too switched loyalties. Although Parsi theatre survived till the 1940s and beyond with The Moonlight Theatre of Calcutta, under the direction of Fida Hussain, it died a natural death and remains in public memory as a precursor to our mainstream films.