Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The rise and fall of Parsi theatre

Tracing the growth of a vital but often underrated and misunderstood theatre tradition in India, city-based playwright Ranbir Sinh narrated the growth and decline of Parsi theatre on Wednesday at a talk organised as part of the Jaipur Heritage International Festival at Naila Bagh. The rise of Parsi theatre, he informed, came after a long vacuum in the Indian theatre scenario with its lucid language content. “After Sanskrit theatre fell out of popularity around 900 AD, most of the theatre was restricted to folk and religious theatre such as Kathakali and Yakshagana,” Sinh said.

Characterised by a full company , loud dialogue deliveries and active audience-artiste interaction, Parsi theatre defined the growth of much of India’s modern theatre. “What was then known as Bengali theatre or Marathi theatre was in fact in style very Parsi,” Sinh said. “Personally, I also think that Kuchamani and Shekhwati Khayal came out of it,” he added.

The first play believed to have been staged under the Parsi theatre tradition was a Gujarati translation of the legendary Persian tale of Rustom and Sohrab in 1840. Taken up as a possible commercial venture by the Parsis, the plays soon went local with social themes. “Though it was a product of colonial times, the content was very Indian,” Sinh said. It even played a crucial role in the Indian freedom struggle and produced many plays such as Keechak Vadh that, though being based on mythology, had strong allusions to the atrocities of the British.

The Parsi style of theatre even has a prominent connection to this city. According to Sinh, Sawai Ram Singh ordered the construction of Ramprakash Theatre after watching a performance in 1878 at Jaleb Chowk by a company owned by Rustom Pistonji. So much so that he had Ratanji Dhoondi take over as the Director for the theatre and paid him a monthly salary of Rs 978, a princely sum in those days. The theatre, once an opulent stage with seats made out of Burma teak, now lies in a decrepit condition.

Elsewhere in Rajasthan, Parsi theatre also gave way to flourishing theatre activities, especially in Tonk and in Jhalawar. The second place saw the translation of many of Shakespeare’s plays into Hindi by Purshottam Lal Surya.

Gradually with the advent of cinema – many early Indian films were similar to the Parsi theatre style – and the fall of the British empire, the Parsi theatre companies started flickering. A few Parsis from Mumbai attempted to keep the tradition intact but without much success. Sinh felt that the way the Parsis managed the theatre companies could prove helpful to revive contemporary theatre, especially with a varied repertoire and actors in the troupe on a contract basis. The style of production, he said, could surely be adapted to present tastes. “But variety, standard and regularity are crucial for its survival,” he added.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times


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