How the Parsis Shaped Theatre in Colonial Bombay


January 12, 2021

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Flops, frauds or community disapproval did not prove obstacles to the growth of the theatre enterprise.

Elphinstone Circle in Bombay in the 1870s. Photo: Lee-Warner Collection/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

When one thinks of Horniman Circle – the ring of elegant old buildings in south Mumbai – today, several associations spring to mind: the glossy storefronts of Starbucks and Hermes – the temples of neoliberal globalism; men snoozing on the garden’s shaded benches – a respite from Mumbai’s prickly afternoon heat; and the ghosting of an all but forgotten colonial past in the worn-out balustrades framing the round.

Article by Rashna Nicholson | The Wire

Yet few appreciate that this unassuming area, one of the better-conserved vestiges of the city’s history, was, more than a century ago, the pulsing heart of Old Bombay. While St Thomas Cathedral, consecrated in 1718, marked Bombay’s centre, the city’s first theatre – the other primary point of congregation for European residents – stood merely a few feet away.

Johnson, William; Henderson, William, The Cathedral, Bombay, 1855-1862. Photo: SMU Central University Libraries/Public Domain

According to the Bombay Times of 1842, the Bombay Amateur Theatre that ‘owed its origin to an earlier period than any Theatre in India’ was built in 1770 at the old Bombay Green, a location that was ‘a mere receptacle for rubbish’ granted without condition of any kind. The theatre initially served as the location for all significant socio-cultural events for the English community as Bombay possessed no Town Hall at the time.

Kumud Mehta notes that at this early stage when the Bombay Amateur Theatre’s membership comprised East India Company officers, women did not hesitate to perform. Nevertheless, as Bombay grew from town to metropolis this practice was discontinued, males having to impersonate the female parts. Crucially, this change in onstage personnel echoed larger demographic shifts offstage – Indians had begun to frequent the theatre.

Shortly after the introduction of English education in Western India, on August 3, 1821, a dress box seat was purchased by a ‘Balcrustnath Sunkerset’. A few months later, Hormusjee Bomanjee and Sorabji Framji purchased tickets for The Rivals. Meanwhile, the theatre that had incurred significant debts due to the disproportionate indulgences of its stage management, began to receive donations from the wealth seṭhīās for its upkeep, thus further reflecting the development of a diverse theatre-going public.

Francis Frith, Elphinstone Circle Bombay, 1850s-1870s. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The decline of the Bombay Amateur Theatre

But the theatre would not last for long. By the time the theatre’s last manager, William Newnham – an outstanding figure in the civil service – retired, its debt was upwards of Rs 33,000. Consequently, the government resolved to liquidate Bombay’s much loved first theatre. In the beginning, its books, props, painted backdrops, and furniture were auctioned for the trifling amount of Rs 2,133, and subsequently, in 1835, the building was sold via Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy to Bomanjee Hormusji Wadia for Rs 52,000.

With the sale of the theatre and the discharging of its debts, the left-over sum due to the public amounted to Rs 30,000 and lengthy was the debate as to the best way to put it to use for the benefit of the ‘public’. While some insisted on the erection of a market, an Indian hospital or a permanent spot for the Bombay General Library, others contended that as the theatre had been founded and nurtured exclusively by the city’s European residents the surplus should be used for the establishment of a grammar school for Europeans.

Finally, the government conceded to a memorial, with the merchant philanthropists Jagannath Shankarsheth and Framjee Cowasjee heading the signatories, that demanded that the balance realised from the sale of the old theatre be used for the erection of a new one. A plot in Grant Road in the heart of what was then known as the ‘Native Town’ was gifted by Shankarsheth, as the site for the theatre, and although many European residents expressed forebodings of the ‘mixed’ that is, European and Indian character of the new playhouse, the Grant Road Theatre, as it came to be known, opened to much fanfare in 1845.

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At that time, the city’s refuse was deposited on either side of Grant Road making the district uninhabitable and unhealthy. The Grant Road Theatre was the only building among these flats, standing like an oasis in the desert. Kekhuśro Kābrājī, the father of the Parsi theatre reminisced, “As I was returning one night with my father from the Grant Road theatre in a carriage…a ruffian prowling about in the dark at Falkland Road, snatched my gold embroidered cap and ran away with it.”

Jagannath Shankarshet. Photo: M. Jackson/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The Grant Road Theatre

Despite the theatre’s insalubrious location, in many ways, it may be deemed the incubator of the modern South Asian theatre and Indian cinema, as the Parsi theatre found its roots there. On Saturday, October 29, 1853, Roostum Zabooli and Sohrab was performed by the first Parsi theatrical company at the Grant Road Theatre. Thereafter, Parsi social reformists, seeking to reform the Parsis of ‘evil’ customs such as child marriage, dowry, opium addiction, and gambling, produced plays such as Nādarśā nā Lagan, Bāl Vīvā, Bad ilat no Gofo, and Ūṭhāūgīr Śurtī.

These performances were condemned and subsequently, boycotted by the traditionalist faction of the community to little avail – but the theatre had put an unstoppable cultural movement into motion. By 1858, four Parsi theatrical troupes had come into being, even as this number ‘was increasing day by day,’ resulting in 1861 in the aptly entitled phenomenon of ‘mushroom clubs’, the number of theatre companies having increased to approximately 20 in the span of three short years.

Thus, even as the English amateur theatre came under difficulties, the Parsi theatre became a profitable enterprise as observed when, in April 1859, two Parsis and two Borahs were charged for having defrauded the public. Subsequent to announcing a performance at the Grant Road Theatre and taking the entrance money, the errant boys absconded from the building.

Subsequently, the press reported of sailors who brawled and children who threw rotten eggs, slippers, mud and cow-dung on stage – a phenomenon that newspapers termed ‘dramatic mania’. In response to this perceived deterioration of the theatre and the proliferation of dramatic companies that the Gujarati periodical the Rāst Goftār bitterly described as ‘mosquitos breeding together’, the Victoria Theatrical Company – the longest running troupe of the Parsi stage – was formed.

Parsi social reformists, aching to return the theatre to its erstwhile objective of inculcating ‘morality and virtue’, produced epic Persian plays such as Bejan ane Manījeh, Rustam ane Sohrāb and Khuśru Śīrīn based on the orientalist scholarship of Franz Bopp, Max Müller, Friedrich Spiegel and Martin Haug even as actors were compelled to undergo vigorous training based on Kābrājī’s exacting standards.

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Yet the theatre also witnessed a hitherto unknown popularity: large crowds gathered on the street blocking the road before the commencement of plays and despite a number of stout doorkeepers, when the theatre’s doors were opened scores of men leaped in. Ḍaglīs tore, pāghḍīs flew, and hundreds returned as they could not find seats. The Victoria’s popularity lead not only to the construction of Bombay’s second theatre, the Victoria Theatre in Grant Road (Grant Road thus becoming Bombay’s theatre district) but also foreshadowed the Parsi theatre’s popularity across the Indian subcontinent and beyond.

The Parsi theatre’s expansion

Dadabhai Paṭel’s entry on the stage marks a pivotal moment in South Asian theatre history. Paṭel, the descendant of one of the first Parsis to have settled in Bombay and one of the few seṭhīā scions to attain the covetable M.A. title, joined the Victoria and quickly rose through its ranks to become managing director. He replaced Sassanid emperors with flying fairies, a dramaturgical transition that reflected a shift in the Parsi theatre’s objective: from the social reform of the Parsi community to profit-making and mass appeal. Increasingly, the theatre, abandoning the geographic specificity of ancient Iran, set about to produce an alternative imaginary non-occidental space somewhere between Turkey and China and, by analogy, of an imagined community somewhere in between even as the theatre’s language changed: from Gujarati to Hindustani.

On October 1871, Sonānā Mulnī Khorśed that portrayed the power and prestige of a Mughal kingdom, hīndī and sīndhī costume, and monuments such as the Taj Mahal transpired for the first time to thundering success and Khojas, Bohras, and Memons allegedly thronged the theatre. The play thus set larger wheels in motion. While other troupes followed the precedent set by the Victoria of ‘hīndī lebāś, hīndī dekhāv and hīndī ḍhapchap’, the Victoria set off for the first Parsi theatre tour outside the Bombay presidency in 1872. On February 2, 1873, news was published of Sir Salar Jung’s intention to build Hyderabad’s first proscenium-based theatre for the Victoria’s use. Thereafter, on October 11, 1873, four ‘respectable women’ graced the Victoria’s production of Indar Sabhā, an event that was proclaimed by the Parsi press as a sign of the ‘downfall’ of the theatre and of Parsi domestic well-being.

Although these changes gestated deep intra and inter-communal fissures in Bombay, the Parsi theatre experienced unmitigated expansion in these years – fanning out across the subcontinent to Delhi, Calcutta, Benares, Lucknow, and Madras where Patel grasped the opportunity of staging a scene from his company’s Śakuntala for the Prince of Wales. Dame fortune however, would only smile for a little while on the heir of the legendary Paṭel family.

The Original Victoria subsequently set off for Bangalore on December 19, 1875, where Paṭel fell mortally ill. He was hastily sent back to Bombay to the care of numerous physicians employed by his influential family only to succumb after an operation of the stomach at the ripe age of thirty-two on March 17, 1876. Thus wretchedly ended the life of the proponent of the pan-Asian Parsi theatre.

Yet the staggering influence of his work – of introducing Indo-Persian mythological stories in contemporary garb, mechanical scenery, and daredevil stunts on the South Asian stage, would persist well into the twentieth century through the medium of not only Hindustani modern drama but also the Indian cinema industry that is, ‘Bollywood’.

Rashna Nicholson is an assistant professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Hong Kong. Her book The Colonial Public and the Parsi Stage: The Making of the Theatre of Empire (1853-1893) which provides the first comprehensive, archive-based history of the Parsi theatre is forthcoming in 2021.