11 Parsi Theatre; Regional Theatre

Dr. Mrinmoy Pramanick

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“For 100 years, from 1850-1950, Parsi theatre dominated the Indian culture scene. In its most creative period from 1870-1890, it brought about a complete change in the attitude and perception about the theatre in the minds of the people” (A Time for Natak – History of the Parsi Theatre).


Parsis were the pioneer in modern theatre movement in India. The theatre what they had introduced is popularly known as Parsi theatre. It is beginning of a new tradition in Indian theatrical culture. Before this tradition had been started there was folk theatre performances as only one kind of Indian theatrical practice. 1850s onwards, Parsis started performing theatre following the British or European theatre in India. The first Parsi theatre company was started in 1853, was owned and directed by Gustadji Dalal and supported by DadabhaiNaoroji, K.R. Cama, Dr. BhauDaji, Ardeshir Moos and few others. There were many other theatre companies by the Parsis which were emerged after this. Those are “The Zoroastrian Theatrical Club”, “The Student Amateur Club”, “The Victoria NatakMandali”, “NatakUttejak Company”, “Empress Victoria Theatrical Company” and “The Alfred NatakMandali”. According to “Parzor” almost 20 drama companies were founded in between 1853-1869.


Parsi theatre actually prepared a path for the emergence of Bhasha theatre in India. For example, it has immense influence on the growth and development of modern Gujarati theatre. What was most significant about Parsi theatre is its contribution towards stage design, use of technical apparatus, introduction of professional attitude, opera culture, etc. In other side, it appeared as alternative theatrical culture than the mainstream dominating European theatre. Parsi theatre companies brought confidence among modern Indian professional theatre practitioners to write drama for their own theatre also. Parsis introduced Urdu drama for performing in the theatre also. This is how, it prepared a road towards modern Bhasha theatre with enough boost and collective cultural confidence. Beside Urdu and Gujarati, Hindustani and English were major languages what Parsi theatre used to perform. The themes of the Parsi theatre was widely extended from Shahnamah to Indian classics. This was only theatrical form as well as culture what was pan Indian, their troupe used to perform from North to South, from West to East till Burma even.


Uniqueness of Parsi Theatre


Structurally Parsi theatre performance was different than proscenium theatre practice and it had closeness towards Sanskrit drama structure, though it did not follow any of the trends blindly. In commercial production this uniqueness worked as a good gesture to reach to the audience. The interesting and homely uniqueness of this commercial theatrical production was –

  1. Three actors used to chant a prayer before the drama began.
  2. Immediately after the prayer once actor used to deliver the prologue.
  3. Music was very much integral to the Parsi theatre. And in this regard it has similarity with Bengali indigenous dramatic production, Jatra.
  4. At the end an actor used to come to say thanks and quite often he used to sing a farewell song.
  5. Humour is also very common element of the Parsithetare.
  6. This theater was truly a community production in a sense that it was deeply rooted into the community identity and the audience from the community used to subscribe it as own. The people of the community used to share the oneness with the theatrical productions. And it also helps the community to build the identity.
  7. Therefore Parsi theatre is a community culture, is a family culture and is a romance of the individual who are/ were passionate with it or about it (Parsi Theatre).
  8. Parsi theatre used communicate with the local languages like Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu.
  9. It used “European-style proscenium with richly painted backdrop curtains and trick stage effects”.
  10. To create appeal among the audiences it used to “depend on spectacle and melodrama”.
  11. “Simultaneously, it ushered in the conventions and techniques of realism, marking the transition from stylized open-air presentations to a new urban drama” (Gupta, Somanātha ;).
  12. According to Girish Karnad, “The stagecraft of the Parsi model demanded a mechanical succession of the alternating shallow and deep scenes. The shallow scenes were played in the foreground of the stage with a painted curtain- normally depicting a street- as a backdrop. These scenes were reserved for the ‘lower class’ characters with prominence given to comedy. They served as the link scenes in the development of the plot, but the main purpose was to keep the audience engaged while the deep scenes, which showed interior of palaces, royals parks, and other such visually opulent sets, were being changed or decorated. The important characters rarely appeared in the street scenes, and in the deep scenes the lower classes strictly kept their place” (Prajapati, Satish Kumar ).

Significance of the Parsi Theatre


Times of India, reported on 5th January, 2016, “Yazdi Karanjia, an octogenarian Surti and one of the doyens of Parsi theatre in Gujarat, was in Ahmedabad on Saturday to deliver a talk on the history of Parsi theatre as part of a three-day literary festival organized by Gujarat University. “The question about survival of Parsi theatre is one of the most frequently asked questions nowadays, but I am hopeful that the theatre will be alive till the last of Parsis is alive”, he said” (Parsi theatre will last till the last Parsi, says Yazdi Karanjia). According to Yazdi Karonjia the history of Parsi theatre in India can be traced back to 1840s when they performed Shakespeare’s play and Faramjee Dalal staged very popular original Parsi play ‘Rustom and Sohrab’ in 1850s. The very comment made by Karonjia in the abovementioned conference shows the cultural integrity of the Parsi theatre with the Parsi culture and perhaps no other art form of the Parsi’s is so much identifiable with the community. It seems that the community expresses the best through this art form.


Parsi theatre not only had influenced Indian Bhasha culture but it also had influenced Bollywood. Ardeshir Irani, Sohrab Modi, and Prthviraj Kapoor brought the tradition of theatre into cinema. Sohrab Modi’s Pukar (1939) was Parsi theatre based Hindi movie. “The influence of Parsi theatre went beyond the use of Urdu. The song-and-dance formula owes its popularity to the Parsi theatre to a great extent. When the Bombay film industry grew, Urdu, by default, became the language of cinema” commented by Parsi Khabar. “The Parsi Theatre took a new turn in post-independence India with the rise of the popular cinema.The standard-bearers were FerozeAntia and Dr Ratan Marshall. Adi Marzban freed Parsi drama from the shackles of tradition and brought realism to the theatre” (A Time for Natak – History of the Parsi Theatre).


Somnath Gupta in his Parsee Theatre, rightly commented on the greater significance of the Parsi thetare in the Indian culture. The invention of sound in motion picture, the Parsi theatre lost its regular space of happenings but it (Parsi theatre) “remains a vital component of the subcontinent’s cultural heritage”, because of its significance and influence in different Indian theatrical forms and Bollywood movies.


The early theatre practices in India was highly sophisticated. One has to be amazed to see the deepness of aesthetic sense and sincerity of creating the beauty through the production. Seating arrangement like proscenium structure, highly expansive frames of paintings, photos were used to mark the difference between actors and the audiences. Highly valuable and gorgeous costumes, changeable paintings all around the hall, gaslights, also used to be there in making of beauty. Sometimes there were even refreshment rooms and there also were opportunity for the family shows where women were very much welcome.


It is said that the Parsi theatre entered into the culture of professionalism since 1870 and actors across the classes used to participate in this theatre tradition. Many of the famous actors were from the lower class and some of them used to stay in the very poor areas and narrow lane of the city like Dhobi Talao. The famous actors from such class is like Kavasji Khatau, Jehangir Khambatta.


Play like “Uttejak Mandali” was performed almost 1100 times in 16 years and those who were engaged with this production were very much educated and conscious about their society and political surroundings. So, took their theatre as their social responsibility. They wanted to change the society and desired to bring some progress in the society through their theatrical dialogues with the people. To them, theatre was nothing but a mode of communicating with the masses. The theatrical texts which were presented from such objective used to have strong message of social significance and used to carry moral values addressed to the audiences (A Time for Natak – History of the Parsi Theatre).


Multilingual Sources of Parsi Theatre


As we mentioned earlier that Parsi theatre practiced multilingual texts through their theatrical productions. The first Urdu book which was adapted into Parsi thetare was Natak Sagar by NurIlahi and Muhammad Umar, published in 1924. The Urdu which was used in different productions of Parsi theatre was not the Urdu of Delhi or Luknow but the Urdu mixed with Gujarati, Hindi and Awadhi. This is how different registers of the languages were used in the Parsi theatre. And Parsi theatre successfully represented the multilingual ethos of the country. But this significance is not limited in addressing multilingual ethos of the country but it has greater politics and culture of tolerance. Parsi theatre tried to be more accommodating, inclusive and also tried to be a space of representation of many, which shows a deep thought and love of the brains behind it towards the greater people of Indian irrespective of caste, class, religion, culture and languages. In its very nature Parsi theatre appears as a symbol of inclusive cultural practice in India.


Not only in the Urdu linguistic culture but also among the Gujarati speaking people this theater culture was so integral. The below mentioned information shows deep affinity between Parsi Theatre and Gujarati language. “The most important among the Gujarati weeklies was Kaysar-e hind, established in 1882. Essays by Dhanjibhai N. Patel (1857-1937) on the Parsi theater were published serially in it for 97 weeks. Of these, 68 were collected and published as Parsi Natak Takhtani Tavarikh by Kaysar-e Hind Press in 1931. The book included approximately 150 photographs of Parsi actors…. Patel’s narrative extends from the founding of the Parsi Natak Mandali in 1853 through the era of Mary Fenton and Kavas Khatau in 1890s” (Hansen). This work is indeed a documentation, an archival work of Parsi thetare and not only important for the theatre history but for the cultural history of modern India.


Parsi Theatre as Secular Space


“The play dealt with subjects ranging from Middle Eastern romances to Hindu myths and the adaptations of Shakespeare, but the treatment avoids all religious and ethical nuances. Secularism was a fashionable concept ….” (336), Karnad says in Theatre in India (Prajapati, Satish Kumar;).


As the audience was heterogeneous, across the classes, castes and religious communities; they were catered different narrative genres. Sometimes, it was Indo-Muslim fairy romance, sometimes Hindu mythology, and sometimes bourgeois social drama. This is how, whole approach of Parsi theatre was very much inclusive and it held polyphony and plurality of Indian culture through the practice.


Parsi theatre very consciously tries to break the reality imposed characterization in its performance. In its version of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, it made Gohar and Mary Fenton as Sita and other women characters and these two actress are respectively from the Muslim and Christian family; and simultaneously Parsi and Muslim actors played roles of the Rama and the Krishna. Such characterization needs to break one’s own religious practice, identity and concept of otherness at least for the time being to do justice to the characters of the play. And I think this is very much significant, that we all in multi-religious, multiethnic country like India have to bring our religious ego down and also have to play our role being the other of ourselves to realize the opposite subjects. Such practices in theatre also helps the audiences to break the stereotypes about the characters of the play and the character of the actors as identical. Accommodation of opposites and tuning the eyes with the differences to erase the distances among the people following different religions (Hansen).


Freedom Movement, Harmony and Parsi Theatre:


The Nataka Mandali, not only inspired Indian bhasha theatre movement but also it had impressive contribution in the freedom movement, as they used to perform nationalist and socially realist dramas in their theatre. But this trend was not unique to Parsi theatre, most of the Indian Bhasha theatre used to perform nationalist theme in their performances at the end of 19th and in the beginning of 20th century. Communal harmony as a theme of play was very common in the nationalist theatrical performances of Parsi theatre. And as we mentioned earlier they reached to the people of Delhi, Lahore and Calcutta with the plays of such kind. The participants in this Parsi performance and theatre group were from Parsi, Hindu, Muslim, Anglo-Indians and Jews of Baghdad. Very composition of the theatre company was very harmonious.


Decline of Parsi Theatre


After Independence, rather the partition Parsi theatre lost its pace gradually. The Hindus and the Muslims were divided. Two nations were made. The people who were engaged with the Parsi thetare from different geographical regions they had divided into many parts of two nations, either in India or in Pakistan. People were divided and broken psychologically. The Hindu-Muslim question was so common, debated, and aggressive and unrest in whole political scenario that the Parsi community was bit confused to understand where to place themselves. The community as a whole became very much silent and it influenced their cultural productions and greater cultural life (Vinai , Maya; Prasuna, M.G.)




Parsi theatre is first Indian professional theatre in modern times. It had pan Indian influence and it could successfully transcends the barrier of caste, community and language along with the geographic boundaries. The very Indian favour of multilingualism was truly practiced in this theatre culture. It was beginning of Indian awakening towards confidence to own a theatre tradition professionally and to practice theatrical forms found in different Indian bhasha traditions. Parsi theatre was so powerful in its approach through content, style, language and mobility that it had influenced the audiences of urban India mainly across the geography. This theatrical tradition can be strongly observed as continuous flow of alternative aesthetic in British India. Parsi, theatre successfully defined or offered a definition to an Indian style of expression and because of this powerful contribution later Bombay movie adapt Parsi theatre styles in it. Overwhelming cultural reception and its power to become a cultural denominator because of having pan Indian audience in British India, it can claim itself as first peoples’ theatre in modern India. Bringing the people from different class, genders, and ages from different linguistic, cultural and ethnic community is truly historic. But it is not the case that the Parsi theatre did not observe any rejection from the people. Renowned Bharatendu Harishchandra, a famous poet and critic in Hindi, was not ready to accept this theatre.

“Although the Parsi theater was produced within a cosmopolitan entertainment economy at a time when linguistic and communal identities were fluid and overlapping, the knowledge of the Parsi theater disseminated through South Asian language-based scholarly traditions has been produced under the shadow of the Subcontinent’s religious and ethnic antagonisms” (59-60), commented Kathryn Hansen.

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  • “A Time for Natak – History of the Parsi Theatre.” n.d. A Zoroastrian Educational Institute.<http://www.zoroastrian.org.uk/vohuman/Article/A%20Time%20for%20Natak%20Hist ory%20of%20the%20Parsi%20Theatre.htm>.
  • Gupta, Somanātha ;. The Parsi Theatre: Its Origins and Development. n.d. Google Books. <https://books.google.co.in/books/about/The_Parsi_Theatre.html?id=ex_iVE8vFLkC&redir_esc= y>.
  • Hansen, Kathryn. “Parsi Theater, Urdu Drama, and the Communalization of Knowledge: A Bibliographic Essay.” n.d. <http://www.urdustudies.com/pdf/16/8_Hansen.pdf>.
  • Parsi Theatre. n.d. Website. <http://unescoparzor.com/the-project/arts-crafts/parsi-theatre/>.
  • “Parsi theatre will last till the last Parsi, says Yazdi Karanjia.”Times of India. Times of India, 5 January 2016. Eversion. <http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/entertainment/hindi/theatre/Parsi-theatre-will-last-till-the-last-Parsi-says-Yazdi-Karanjia/articleshow/50448364.cms>.
  • Prajapati, Satish Kumar ;. “Major Experiments in the Theatre of Girish Karnad: A Case Study.”The Creative Launcher (n.d.). Website.<http://www.thecreativelauncher.com/upload/Major_Experiments_in_Indian_Theatre.pdf>.
  • Prajapati, Satish Kumar;. “PARSI THEATRE AND ITS DRAMATIC TECHNIQUES.”Pune Research World (2016): 2. <http://www.puneresearch.com/media/data/issues/5701dc9b0e111.pdf>.
  • Vinai , Maya; Prasuna, M.G.;. “The Quest for Identity: Parsi Culture and Sensibility in the Works of Playwrights Gieve Patel and Cyrus Mistry.”The Criterion: An International Journal in English (2013): 2. Website.
  • https://parsikhabar.net/film/the-influence-of-early-parsi-theater/1796/