Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Marzban’s Dark Laughter

In my boyhood in Pune, the West End cinema would, at least once a year, transform itself into a live theatre to host a Parsi natak by a visiting troupe from Bombay. The wooden benches of the five-anna seats closest to the screen would change places with the sofas of the two rupee-four anna balconies. We habitual denizens of the ‘paanch anney’ would be shunted up to the cheap balcony while the rich and important Parsis and others would take their expensive places to the front of the stage.

By Farrukh Dhondy | Outlook India

meheremailer2One excitable friend, a lad from the Mody ‘colony’, taken by the excitement of for once occupying the balcony, couldn’t stop himself from leaning over it, bouncing in his seat and animatedly shouting ‘paanch anney mey goop choop’ at the great and good below. The disturbance was taken in stride as the laughter, catcalls and witticisms that accompanied the theatrical farce were par for those thronged performances.

Meher Marfatia and Sooni Taraporevala’s coffee-table tribute to the past of that very special theatre could have been called the Dawn and Twilight of Parsi Natak. The final chapters record vain attempts to keep alive a theatre which began with amateur and student groups in Bombay in the 1850s and virtually lost its boundless energy in the last decades of the twentieth century.

The book is not an analysis of Parsi theatre but a joyous celebration of it through memoirs, remarkable photographs, biographies of the various practitioners, tributes from their descendants and memories of the playwrights, designers and fans.

Parsi theatre began in the Victorian pastime of amateur drama with Shakespeare and Bombay versions of Gilbert and Sullivan. Then, catching the nationalist zeitgeist, it presented plays such as Harishchandra, Laila Majnu, Sikander aur Porus, Razia Sultan and Tipu Sultan in Hindustani and Urdu, apart from the regular fare of plays in Parsi Gujarati. Through this phase it can claim to have laid the foundations, or unearthed the soil for the beginnings of Indian cinema, which featured versions of Raja Harishchandra and Razia Begum as among its first offerings.

The troupes toured the country from Srinagar to Bangalore and Madras. Parsi women were not in those times encouraged to go to the theatre, far less act on the stage—so European ladies with a fluency in Gujarati or Urdu played the female roles.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, Bombay’s Grant Road was lined with theatres featuring the work of Parsi companies. Ahmedabad, Surat and Calcutta also launched troupes and playwrights, most of them professionals in other fields who had a love of this new expression of Indian culture.

The real revolution in Parsi theatre was brought about by the personality and talents of Adi Marzban, who, as a student in the ’30s and later as the chief begetter of Parsi drama in the ’50s and ’60s, made the genre of observational farce the central and by far the most popular form. Parsi theatre would take risks that the theatre in some other Indian languages, springing as they did from Ramlila or religious tableaux, wouldn’t. It embraced themes exploring relationships, sex, class, prejudice and eccentricity and was full of risque jokes, double entendre and a touch of ribaldry. Over all, as Meher Marfatia contends, it was a house built on laughter and frequented by Parsis and the other Gujarati-speaking communities.

Just one blip. The attempt by Marzban and others, several of whose careers in all the theatrical arts are sketched here, to introduce serious or tragic themes didn’t quite catch on. The genre was reluctant to make the transition from Parsi farce to Parsifal.

As a photographic archive, the book is comprehensive and it comes with the bonus of a sheet of lyrics, a CD of dialogue and songs, including a Parsi qawwali, and a handful of handbill programmes which stimulate (in me) memories of the plays and that past.

Laugher In The House notes, even as the curtain falls and the titters die out, that the age of that theatre is behind us. One of its final chapters quotes its practitioners on its decline and death—in India at any rate. One or two voices hopefully assert or predict that Parsi theatre will have a revival in Texas, Canada and Australia, continents in which the Parsis have settled and are attempting to keep alive their culture and identity. Perhaps, but that sounds to me not like laughter in the house but whistling in the dark.