Vintage variety

Published : Sep 09, 2011 00:00 IST

A reminder of the heyday of Parsi theatre, which is said to have heralded the modern theatre in India.

LAUGHTER in the House: 20th Century Parsi Theatre is a much required documentation of a theatre that was once a sparkling combination of wit, flippancy and parody but is now all but dead. The book written by Meher Marfatia and having photographs by Sooni Taraporevala, offers full-fledged nostalgia for all those who flocked to watch this cultural phenomenon that was referred to as Parsi nataks (plays) or just nataks. This theatre was so popular about 25 years ago that it had an audience that reached beyond the Parsi community. Special plays would always be put up on festival occasions but audience demand through the year kept playwrights, song writers and actors busy through the year.

The nataks were something Mumbaikars looked forward to. Though largely from the community, the audiences were a mixed bag of Gujaratis, Maharashtrians and anyone else who enjoyed a wholesome evening of brilliant wit and songs laced with satire, usually rendered in the lively dialect of Parsi Gujarati. N ataks were also performed in English, Urdu and Hindustani.

Although the book under review focusses on Parsi theatre from 1940 to 2000, the genre took shape some time in the mid-1800s. In fact Parsi theatre has been credited as being the initiator of the modern theatre movement in India. It is understood that Parsis who watched the shows of travelling European theatre troupes adapted the idea and started staging performances in Gujarati. Themes were drawn from the socio-political framework of the country and parody was the commonest vehicle to depict them. Songs were an integral part of the plays and were used not as entertaining breaks but to further the story or bring out some aspect of a character's personality. To that extent they were operatic in nature. Certain traditions were started at this time and continued to be followed until the art form started to lose its glory about 25 years ago. The nataks usually began with a prayer followed by an introduction delivered by an actor and ended with thanks and a farewell song to the audience.

The first Parsi theatre company started in 1853 and was called the Parsi Natak Mandali, which found supporters among people such as Dr Bhau Daji Lad, Dadabhai Naoroji and K.R. Cama. Its success spawned more interest in the form and in the space of 16 years, 20 drama companies were formed. It was a happy partnership audiences thirsted for plays and theatre companies flourished. Topics extended from run-of-the-mill matrimonial farces to Persian and Indian classics to politically fiery issues such as the freedom movement and issues of social reform. English plays were also translated and performed with Shakespeare being an all-time favourite.

Interestingly, though Parsi in nomenclature, there were contributions from all communities. Early plays could have been written by a Muslim in Sanskrit, directed by a Parsi and acted by travelling English men or, more unusually (for those times), English women.

To a great extent, the natak retained much of its early structure. The satire, the song, and the use of amateurs remained intact and were carried forward by stalwarts such as Pheroze Antia, Dorab Mehta and Homi Tavadia. The doyen is, of course, the inimitable Adi Marzban, a name that is synonymous with nataks. While it may not be entirely fair to equate Parsi theatre solely with Adi Marzban considering its long history, it is impossible to deny Marzban his position as a master of the game.

Marzban was truly a Renaissance man. As the book points out, apart from giving theatre-goers some of their best loved plays he proved his mettle equally with scripting hit radio programmes and editing the Jam-e-Jamshed, Asia's second oldest newspaper, which started in 1832 and is still published.

Marzban's genius at everything he tried his hand at would be worthy of a book in itself but Laughter in the House brings out the essence of the man as it does with the tradition of Parsi nataks. The tradition is all but dead now except for the Calcutta Parsi Amateur Dramatic Club, which is the only theatre group in the world to stage plays continuously for the past 103 years. It continues an old tradition of performing a natak on every Parsi new year's day.

A classic coffee table book in size, Laughter has much more content than what is generally available in that genre. Produced beautifully by one of the country's best printing houses, Jak Printers, the book has an extensive collection of photographs from old nataks. A pouch on the back cover holds a CD of some hit songs, a pamphlet with the lyrics of those hits and reproduced play bills of popular plays.

Laughter is a serious effort at preserving, passing on and making Parsi theatre available to those who missed its heyday.

The book is a good substitute for those who never had the good fortune to be evicted after a performance to the trademark strains of Adi Marzban's closing song in which he gently pokes fun at life, society and all human frailties.

Aave guchup gher jaavo, Nahi to hall ma thi kaar su bahar, Gher jai ne faraghat thavo, Dholyo hosay tab tayyar. Aye show pacho jova hoi, Hamesha taiyyar hame, Pun ticket vechti layjo, Khodabakhus na gusta tamay. (Go home quietly now or else you will be evicted from this hall. Go home and get comfortable. Your beds will be ready to sleep in. Do come again for the show but don't expect free tickets. Buy your own and for God's sake don't be cheap and try to gatecrash).

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