Marking Navroz with a ‘naatak’

On Friday, Parsis celebrated Navroz, the Zoroastrian new year. The day is traditionally spent eating, praying and, in the evenings, watching a play. The Navroz naatak is a longstanding custom.

The plays are almost always comedies that were written by playwrights such as Dorab Mehta, Pheroze Antia, Homi Tavadia and Adi Marzban, who is acknowledged as the greatest Parsi dramatist of his generation. These theatrewallahs did their best work between the 1950s and the late 1970s. Their plays were either comedies or thrillers, says Meher Marfatia, author of the newly released Laughter in the House: 20th Century Parsi Theatre.

A watershed in the history of Parsi drama, Marzban is credited with bringing realism to a theatre that till the early part of the 20th century was dominated by epics and grand historical dramas. At its apogee, Parsi theatre was practiSed throughout the year. Today, Parsi plays are performed only during Navroz by a handful of veteran theatrewallahs for ageing audiences.

Sam Kerawalla, a lights and backstage expert who cut his teeth with Marzban, has been directing plays for 17 years. On Friday he did Dorab Mehta’s Jhan Jhov Tanh Baira (Women wherever you look) at the NCPA. Kerawalla’s play is about a bachelor who works in a company that only hires married men. Before his boss visits, he must find a wife. Kerawalla, who used to be Marzban’s stage manager, says he began directing Parsi plays after Marzban died in 1987 to honour the memory of his mentor.

On Wednesday, August 24, Dinyar Tirandaz will direct another Dorab Mehta play, Keku Maro King Kong. (Keku is my King Kong). The comedy hinges on a 60-year-old woman who gets pregnant. "It’s funny and full of commotion," says Tirandaz, who famously played the Parsi student in the hit television show Zabaan Sambhalke. Tirandaz,too does a play every year. "As long as I have strength, I will do Parsi theatre," he says.

The Parsi theatre of today, however, is a shadow of what it used to be. One of the reasons for its decline is that younger Parsis speak less Gujarati, Marfatia says. "I think there are good intentions and some stalwarts want to keep the tradition alive,’ she says. "But that is wishful thinking."