Nichola Pais explores the Parsi theater, a highly influential movement in the realm of modern Indian theatre, and its impact on cinema.
What is Parsi theatre?
Parsi theatre’s aesthetics and strategies greatly influenced the concept, organisation and production of modern Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu theatres in India. It had absorbed several features of eastern traditional or folk performing arts, such as music, mime, and comic interludes.
While theatre in India may be traced back to Sanskrit dramatist Kalidasa’s plays, it was with Parsi natak mandalis that drama developed in colonial times. Focusing on entertainment with a social message, Parsi theatre was a highly influential movement in the realm of modem Indian theatre. A professional theatre movement, it was sponsored by the Parsis and the Zoroastrian traders who migrated in the 17th century from Pars in Iran to India, to settle in Gujarat’s coastal areas, before many chose to move to nearby Bombay for trade and commerce. A rich and prominent business community in the city, the Parsis had predominantly adopted English ways of living. They went on to develop theatre both for their personal amusement and commercial purposes. Flourishing between the 1850s up until the 1930s, Parsi theatre was the result of the blending of European techniques and local folk forms of Indian theatre. It marked the beginning of a new tradition in Indian theatrical culture; before this, the only kind of Indian theatrical practice in existence was folk theatre performances. Popularising proscenium-style theatre in regional languages, Parsi theatre was melodramatic and entertaining in nature, with the plays incorporating humour, melodious songs and music, sensationalism and stagecraft.. success led to the development of bhasha theatre in regional languages. Parsi theatre’s aesthetics and strategies greatly influenced the concept, organisation and production of modem Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu theatre in India. It had absorbed several features of eastern traditional or folk performing arts, such as music, mime, and comic interludes. Thus, Parsi theatre plays were not a mere imitation of western theatre but a blend of Eastern and Western dramatic techniques. Neither purely based on Western theatre nor on eastern theatre, it was a hybrid which was successful in garnering the attention of audiences, as its influence quickly spread across India.
Commercial Parsi theatrical productions had a number of unique and interesting elements. Three actors would chant a prayer before the drama began, after which one actor would deliver the prologue. In marked similarity to the Bengali indigenous dramatic production, Jatra, music played a significant part in Parsi theatre. The end of a play would see an actor come forward to offer a vote of thanks, ending with a farewell song. Parsi theatre was also rooted in community identity, with community members sharing a sense of oneness with the theatrical productions, and fostering identity and community culture. Communicating in the local languages like Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu, it used European-style proscenium with richly painted backdrop curtains and trick stage effects. It also depended on spectacle and melodrama to appeal to its audiences. It ushered in the conventions and techniques of realism, as it marked the transition from stylised open-air presentations to a new urban drama.
Novel dramatic devices
Plays mixed elements of realism with fantasy, music, dance, narrative and spectacle, dialogue and ingenuity of stage presentation, within a dramatic discourse of melodrama.
A predominant feature of Parsi theatre was the alternation of deep and shallow scenes. While the deep scenes contained serious subject matter, the shallow scenes were largely comic in nature, to amuse the audience. The shallow scenes would be mostly presented on the front stage and the deep scenes in the deeper part of the stage. While the shallow scenes ran at the foreground of the stage with a painted curtain generally depicting a street as backdrop, the deep scenes would be prepared during this time. The shallow scenes, enacted by the ‘lower class’ characters, served as links in the development of the plot Their main purpose however w. to keep the audience engaged while the deep scenes, which showed interior of palaces, royals parks, and other such visually opulent sets, were being changed or decorated. While important characters rarely appeared in the street scenes, the comic characters kept their place in the deep scenes. The characteristics of shallow scene of Parsi theatre have evidently come from Shakespeare, where the technique was used for ‘comic relief’ in his tragedies. However, while Shakespeare used comic relief as mental comfort for the audience just after the blood-shed on stage, Parsi theatre used shallow scenes for the passing of time when the scene preparation was in progress for the deep scene. Shallow scene incorporated comic dialogues, romantic scenes, highly dramatic actions, and some risque scenes. Parsi theatre always used back and middle curtains to change the location or scene. The painted curtain dropped from pulleys was used for the changing of scenes rather than using props on the stage. Parsi theatre also directly presented melodrama on the stage like death and blood-shed, thus producing aesthetic pleasure in the audience’s mind. Plays mixed elements of realism with fantasy, music, dance, narrative and spectacle, dialogue and ingenuity of stage presentation, within a dramatic discourse of melodrama. Additionally, special kind of language was used for special kinds of characters, in another similarity with Shakespeare’s use of language in his plays. Thus, characters in the play spoke according to their social status, with the higher class speaking in figurative and beautiful language while the lower class used prose or communicative language. With the audience for Parsi theatre largely hailing from the middle and lower working class, there were wide usage of songs, metrical and rhythmic lines. Background music was also used in order to produce aesthetic pleasure or Rasa in the play, even as it helped the director create the illusion, reality on stage. Interestingly, the usage of music was borrowed from Indian folk theatre. Parsi theatre was thus a new and experimental movement on various levels, opening a hitherto unseen way of presenting a play on the Indian stage. In a nutshell, it promoted the use of both deep and shallow scenes, introduced secularism in content, and enabled the performance of plays in proscenium theatres.
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