Somnath Gupt’s book is an immensely readable account of the history and development of the Parsi theatre and its influences on early Hindi cinema.
Actor Sohrab Modi (left) and playwright Agha Hashr Kashmiri (right). | Public domain.
The history of Indian theatre and Hindi films invariably invites discussion of the Parsi theatre. Many established elements of Hindi films like dance sequences, music, liberal use of Urdu, and loud acting bear the influence of the Parsi theatre. In the early days of Hindi cinema, many films like Alam Ara (1931) and Khun-e Nahaq (1935) were cinematic versions of Parsi plays. In fact, many prominent actors of the early Hindi cinema like Sohrab Modi and Prithviraj Kapoor carried forward the influence of the theatre into films.
Despite such importance of the subject, literature on the Parsi theatre is sketchy and scattered in different places, often marred by inaccurate data and subjective interpretations. Useful literature is surely available in many Indian languages which, however, remains inaccessible for English readers. It is in this context that Somnath Gupt’s book The Parsi Theatre: Its Origins and Development, translated by Texas University professor Kathryn Hansen, becomes a valuable book on the subject.
Serious research on the Parsi theatre started in the 1990s which included efforts of Anuradha Kapur, David Wilmer, and Hansen herself. Hansen credits Gupt’s book as “a common source” for them and “the best single reference for the early period of Parsi theatre history.” Originally published as Parsi Thiyetar aur Vikas in 1981 from Allahabad, Gupt’s distinction lies, as Hansen writes, in his diverse and rich sources which include scholarly work in different languages, memoirs and autobiographies, “advertisements, reviews, and letters from the English newspapers and compendia of theatre lore published in Gujarati and Urdu, such as those by Dhanjibhai Patel and Abdul Alim Nami.”
As Parsi plays were written mainly in Urdu, Hindi, and Gujarati, their discussion has suffered from the linguistic bias of the commentators, with Urdu writers privileging Urdu, Hindi writers, Hindi, and Gujarati writers, Gujarati. This appears ironic, Hansen says, because “Parsi theatre in the 19th century was free of communal antagonisms. It is, rather, literary history written in the 20th century that has compartmentalised its development and divided it along linguistic, ethnic, and religious lines.”
The term “Parsi Theatre” refers to the theatres built and managed by the Parsis, as Gupt writes, “along with Parsi playwrights, Parsi dramas, Parsi stages, Parsi theatrical companies, Parsi actors, Parsi directors.” It also included others who were hired by the Parsi companies in different roles. Also included in this are non-Parsi companies from outside Bombay who simply used the word Bombay to establish their connection with Bombay companies. Gupt discusses two forms of Parsi theatre. The first group, comprising solely Parsis, performed plays in Bombay and also travelled to other places to perform plays. The second group of companies, not based in Bombay, “toured with their troupes”.
In the Preface, Gupt debunks the notion that no one has ever written on the Parsi theatre and credits Parsi authors themselves for first writing on the subject. He also discusses his sources in writing his book. Gujarati weekly newspaper Rast Goftar whose editor Kaikhushro Kabraji was a playwright, director, and actor is an important source. Similarly, the notices about the plays published in The Bombay Times, The Bombay Courier, and Telegraph are a useful source of information. He relies heavily on information in Gujarati weekly Kaisar-e-Hind, which published Dhanjibhai N Patel’s essays on the Parsi theatre, its actors, owners and directors which are further clarified in Jahangir Khambata’s book My Experiences in Theatre. Another rich source of information is Parsi Prakash which contains information about the “deeds of all influential Parsis” and the dates of the works of the Parsi playwrights.
Especially useful are the prefaces attached to original playbooks containing details of authorship, theatre company, dates of publication and the point of view of playwrights. An unpublished dissertation of Kumudini Arvind Mehta on Bombay’s theatrical history, consulted by Gupt, credits Shankar Seth, Bhanu Daji Lad and others, not Parsis, for commercialising the theatre and bringing it into Hindi and English from Urdu. Gupt relies heavily on Abdul Alim Nami’s monumental three-volume work simply titled Urdu Theatre and concedes “that the majority of plays for the Parsi theatre were written in the Urdu language” but sharply disagrees with the nomenclature “Urdu Theatre” as it tends to ignore the plays written in Gujarati and Hindi. Urdu plays were mostly based on Gujarati plays.
History of the Parsi theatres, audiences, and performances
Gupt traces the history of the Parsi theatre to the Bombay Theatre which, in all probability, was established in 1776. Not much is known about its activities from 1776 to 1819, but from 1819 to 1827 the Bombay Theatre was patronised by Bombay’s governor Mountstuart Elphinstone who not only was a regular at the theatre but also “gifted a number of comedies and farces to the theatre”. With a total capacity of 337 people for the audience in its dress boxes, gallery and pit, the interior design of The Bombay Theatre resembled London’s Drury Lane Theatre. Despite its inadequate scenery, poor and incongruent costumes, men playing women’s roles, and the use of oil lamps, candles and gas lamps for lighting, the Bombay Theatre still managed to interest the genteel class because of its location on Grand Road even though the distance inconvenienced the people living in far off places like Malabar Hill and Colaba.
There were cases of bad behaviour including foul smells, cat calls, and fist fights. People’s objection to the tall turbans of the Parsis which obstructed the view of the audience sitting behind them has also been recorded. Priced at Rs 8 for the Dress box, Rs 6 for Pit, Rs 5 for the Upper box, and Rs 3 for Gallery, the plays, usually influenced by English and Continental plays, included melodramas and farces. Gupt lists, among others, the performances of Edward Bulwer Lytton’s The Lady of Lyons, Thomas Morton’s Speed the Plough, James Kenney’s Love, Law and Physic, Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer and Matthew G Lewis’s The Castle Spectre.
The Parsi Theatrical Company, established by Pestanji Dhanjibhai Master in 1853, published advertisements for plays in newspapers under different names. Citing The Bombay Telegraph, Gupt also mentions the birth of one Parsi Dramatic Corps in Bombay which performed a play in Gujarati in 1853 about Rustam and Sohrab, the plot taken from Firdausi’s 11th-century Persian epic poem Shahnama. Another play Shyavaksh ki Paidaish, also based on Shahnama, and two Hindustani farces Tikke Khan, a satire on the life of the Nawabs, and Haji Miyan aur Unke Naukar Fazal aur Tikke Khan which included some supernatural elements, were performed in 1854.
Most of the plays performed during this early phase have been lost. From what has survived it can be said that Parsi theatre showed the history of Iran; selected heroes from the Shahnama; and performed plays in the original settings. Gupt also mentions the presence of Hindu theatre “in Bombay alongside the Parsi theatre” which performed plays in Marathi translated from Sanskrit.”
As there were only two playhouses in 1853, Edward Theatre and Elphinstone Theatre, the Parsi companies performed not only in Bombay but travelled outside Bombay regularly. Two separate chapters in the book provide details of the owners, directors and actors of more than two dozen Parsi theatrical companies. Parsis also built a number of playhouses from the beginning of the 20th century which included Empire Theatre, Eros Theatre, Esplanade Theatre, Gaiety Theatre, Grand Theatre, Golpitha Playhouse, Hindi Playhouse, Novelty Theatre, Original Theatre, Royal Opera House, Trivoli Theatre, Victoria Theatre, and Wellington Theatre. Most of these theatres were converted into cinema halls when Hindi films became the chief source of entertainment.
Playwrights of the Parsi stage
Among the important Parsi playwrights mention may be made of Nanabhai Rustamji Ranina (1832-1900) who translated parts of Shakespeare’s plays in Gujarati, Jamshedji Edalji Khori (1847-1917) who loved writing history, Kaikhushro Navrojji (1842-1904) who edited Parsi newspaper Rast Goftar and wrote the famous plays Jamshed and Faredun derived from Shahnama and Ninda Khatoon inspired by Sheridan’s School for Scandal and Nasharvanji Mehrvanji Khansaheb Aram who was the most prominent Parsi playwright writing and translating in Urdu. Kaikhushro Navrojji was also interested in “reformist Hinduism” as reflected in his plays Harishchandra, Sitaharan, Lavkush, and Nand Batrisi.
Sourcing his information from Abdul Alim Nami, Gupt provides a fairly comprehensive account of Urdu dramatists of the Parsi stage beginning with Mahmud Miyan Banarasi Raunaq (1825-1886) and his plays Benazir Badremunir, Jafa-e Sitamgar, and Zulm-e Azam. Husaini Miyan Zarif, another prolific writer, wrote plays and adapted plays of other playwrights. These playwrights followed the custom of including Farsi ghazals in the plays to attract Parsi spectators or to elevate their Urdu.
Munshi Vinayak Prasad Talib, a prolific playwright, wrote plays like Sangin Bakavali and Ali Baba aur Chalis Chor, a play written in verse mixing Hindi and Urdu. Gupt is critical of the use of Urdu in Talib’s play Ramlila where “rather than appearing as the sadhvi speaking to her husband Ram, Sita seems like some begum addressing her lord.” Narayan Prasad Betab (1872-1945) was another famous writer whose play Mahabharat, performed in 1913, “put an end to the dominance of Urdu on the Parsi stage”. Though giving credit to Talib’s Harishchandra and Gopichand as being the first Hindi plays, Gupt notes that after the success of Mahabharat, “company owners perceived the pulse of the audience and began to have plays written and performed in Hindi.”
The most prolific and successful of all playwrights, Agha Hashr Kashmiri (1879-1935) formed his own company, Indian Shakespeare Theatrical Company. He had an equal command of Urdu and Hindi, and was as familiar with Muslim history as with Hindu traditions and legends. Gupt acknowledges that “Truth be told, very few writers have achieved his level.”
Among the successful Urdu playwrights, there was Mehdi Hasan Ahsan who wrote Bhul Bhulaiyan casting Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors “in a Muslim light”, Dilfarosh, based on The Merchant of Venice, Khun-e Nahaq, based on Hamlet, and Bazm-e Fani based on Romeo and Juliet. Gupt talks about his “difficult Urdu”, the presence of feeling in his poetry, and his “strong and touching” dialogues but finds that his plots lack depth. Other Urdu playwrights discussed by Gupt include Abbas Ali Abbas(1889-1932), Mohammad Ibrahim Ambalavi ‘Mahshar’, Joseph David, Pandit Radheshyam Kathavachak, and Muhiuddin Nazan.
The audience of the Parsi theatre consisted not only of the Parsis but also Hindus, Muslims, women, and British officials. The plays often used drop scenes and street scenes with painted curtains, the number of curtains indicated in the script of the play. Though taking their plots and ideas from the English novels, the use of supernatural elements from Muslim tales in Parsi plays was found more attractive by the audience in successful plays like Inder Sabha, Khursheed Sabha, Farrukh Sabha, Havai Majlis, and Benazir Badremunir.
In fact, it was the huge popularity of Saiyad Agha Hasan Amanat’s Inder Sabha, a rahas (meaning “circle dance”, the genre took up religious themes) translated and adapted into different forms and languages and the subject of a full chapter in the book, that inspired all these other plays. Dadi Patel introduced the genre of opera with Benazir Badremunir. Figures from ancient Indian history and Hindu legends were also lapped up by the audience and songs became so important in the Parsi theatre that “occasions of joy, deaths, wars, and dialogues were all accompanied by singing” without their relationship to plot or characters.
Misconceptions cleared by the editor/translator
Kathryn Hansen provides useful notes to Gupt’s text to clear some misconceptions and biases in the original text. Thus, while talking about Ahsan’s play Chandravali Gupt identifies the author’s introduction of a bawd in the play with a Muslim atmosphere. Hansen’s note clarifies that “contrary to his usual balance, here Gupt indulges in the stereotype of Muslim culture as licentious. The bawd or kutni was a stock character in Sanskrit drama and continued into medieval literature.”
At another place in the text, when writing about a number of murders in Abbas’s play Zanjir-e Gauhar, Gupt mentions that “according to Muslim culture, these murders were not considered immoral”, Hansen alerts readers in her note to Gupt’s straying “into communal stereotypes”. She has also corrected errors in Gupt’s text that took place in the process of transliteration, “tightening the syntax and removing redundancies. Hansen also adds sources to Gupt’s text wherever Gupt borrowed material from other texts, in particular from Mehta’s dissertation, Patel’s and Shroff’s Gujarati works and Nami’s Urdu Theatar, without acknowledging his source. “As an editor, I have compared Gupt’s text with these sources and amplified the footnotes wherever necessary.”
The Parsi Theatre: Its Origin and Development in English translation is a welcome addition to the literature on the Parsi theatre.
The Parsi Theatre: Its Origins and Development, Somnath Gupt, translated from the Hindi by Kathryn Hansen, Seagull Books.
Mohammad Asim Siddiqui is a professor in the Department of English at Aligarh Muslim University.