Category Archives: Arts & Culture

Unveiling Pakistan’s Parsi Culinary Traditions: Pakistan Museum of Food

‘Pakistan’s Museum of Food’ is the largest and most comprehensive exploration of Pakistani cuisine online, featuring over 9000 Images, 90 videos and 100 stories that capture the vibrant culinary tapestry of Pakistan’s five provinces and beyond. This project aims to preserve and celebrate the culture and heritage of Pakistani food, as well as to document its dynamic evolution and progression. We hope that this project will inspire people to explore, appreciate, and enjoy the vibrant culinary culture, lineage and food practices of Pakistan, as well as to contribute their own stories and recipes to this living narrative.

You can see the entire exhibit here:


The special section titled

Unveiling Pakistan’s Parsi Culinary Traditions

Parsi heritage dishes from Karachi


can be seen here

The Parsi Community of Pakistan

Dwelling primarily in Karachi, the Parsis of Pakistan carry the legacy of their Persian ancestors who embarked on a journey to Medieval India. Although their community is small in numbers, their impact on Pakistan’s trajectory post-partition has been profound.

Time is running out for Parsi culture. Race to save it from extinction is on

When Delhi-based professor Shernaz Cama told the Parsis about the disgrace in which historical accounts were lying at the Meherjirana library, it became an emotional discovery for them.

Navsari/New Delhi: There were tears in Shernaz Cama’s eyes when she stumbled upon a Parsi hidden treasure in the depths of a 120-year-old library in South Gujarat’s Navsari. What she discovered that summer of 1999 wasn’t a cache of gold or precious stones, but ancient Parsi religious texts worth more than a king’s ransom. She carefully unearthed crumbling manuscripts from dusty old wooden almirahs of First Dastoor Meherjirana Library.

“It was the history of an entire community simply vanishing,” says Cama, a professor of English at Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College for Women and co-founder of the NGO Parzor Foundation, which works for the preservation and conservation of Parsi Zoroastrian culture and history.

The Parsi Zoroastrian handwritten manuscripts—some as old as 700 years—in Persian, Urdu, Gujarati, Avestan, Pahlavi and even Sanskrit, were rotting away in these cupboards, victims of India’s nasty habit of not preserving and archiving historical accounts.

Cama’s discovery all those years ago injected an urgency in the small close-knit community that is trying to reverse the tragedy of its slow extinction. For the Parsis, it is a crisis of memory as well as memory-keepers. The loss is at once urgent and historical. They fear that the tangible and intangible threads of their history, culture, philanthropy, and memory would vanish as well. And it has united all factions of the community–the wealthy and the not-so-rich, the young and the old, the traditionalists clinging to the ways of purity and the modernists demanding change.

It was the history of an entire community simply vanishing
– Shernaz Cama,
co-founder, Parzor Foundation

From Mumbai to Hyderabad, and Navsari to Kolkata, photographers are scouring family homes across India for old artefacts, memory-objects and stories to preserve, archive and exhibit history. Researchers and conservationists are preserving parchments. Scripts of plays are being digitised, heritage bungalows and baugs are being restored and oral histories are being recorded for posterity.

Many Parsis around the country have banded together to save their collective consciousness, generously giving away family heirlooms, and writing cheques to researchers and organisations active in this field.

Cama informed the Parsi community about the disgrace in which historical accounts were lying at the library. It became an extremely emotional discovery for Parsis who came together and donated money and expertise to preserve and restore the library as well as its rich literature. Parzor carried out the restoration project with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

Today, the restored farmans of Mughal emperor Akbar, the three volumes of Shahnama, an epic poem by the 10th century Persian poet Ferdowsi, a khayal by Tansen (still under restoration), letters by Abul Fazal who was Akbar’s grand vizier, and other scholarly work in Persian, Urdu, Gujarati, Avestan, Pahlavi and Sanskrit languages are stored in a tiny air-conditioned room in an annexure at Meherjirana Library. There is nowhere else to store them.

Cama’s efforts have also encouraged young researchers from the community to dedicate their careers to their community’s the conservation cause.

The First Dastoor Meherjirana Library. | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

UNESCO memory of the world project 

A chance conversation in 1999 with Spanish scientist Fredrico Mayor who was the then director general of UNESCO put Cama on the path to discovery. The two spoke at length about the culture, traditions, and heritage of the diminishing Parsi community. The same year UNESCO agreed to sanction $4,500 to a young Cama if she could come up with a project proposal.

“I was told that I would get the money if I could prove that the intangible Parsi heritage is of value to the world, and if the community supported my work,” said Cama. “Back then the world had not understood the value of oral traditions, nor had it realised that we were losing small communities at a rapid pace,” Cama said, sipping Irani tea at her South Delhi bungalow.

Parsi priests across the country gave her letters of support, as did all anjumans and punchayets — governing bodies representing the community. And the Parzor project was born.

“UNESCO’s intangible heritage programme started in 2001, I did my work in 1999. I take pride in saying that I heralded this project!” she said with a smile.

For the last 20 years, Cama has been travelling the length and breadth of India during summer breaks gathering stories, trinkets, and even valuable items. She has collected family portraits, jewellery, recipes, a water filtering system dating back a hundred years, lost songs, sandalwood boxes. She has recorded the processes of making kustis (a sacred Parsi thread), the methods used by bonesetters (chiropractors), as well as torans (a wall hanging made of glass beads), and Parsi embroidery work, among other things.

As Cama continued on her mission, she got support from the government of India, and helped conduct demographic studies on the Parsis, which led to the conception and implementation of the central government’s Jiyo Parsi scheme.

And along the way, she roped in young students, aspiring researchers and photographers to look after various aspects of the preservation efforts. 33-year-old Vanshika Singh,now a PhD scholar,helped in the digitisation of Parsi theatre scripts, while students like Pune-based Freny Daruwalla took up the mantle to record oral histories of members of the community. Ruzbeh Umrigar, a Navsari resident,started conducting heritage tours and walks in Navsari.

Parzor has organised more than 50 photographic and other exhibitions in the country and around the world on Zoroastrian and Parsi culture. They have made movies, published books, conducted workshops on Parsi embroidery, stained glass making and have also made more than 100 presentations on academic and professional writing on Zoroastrian culture and art forms.


Digitised Parsi theatre 

Vanshika Singh, then 23, was a sharp, ambitious English literature student at Lady Shri Ram College when she did an internship with Parzor. She was entrusted with one of the most interesting projects: collection and digitisation of Parsi theatre scripts written in Gujarati.

In 2012, when she visited Parsi families in Mumbai she was welcomed. Many people entrusted the young woman with family antiquities, and parted with them towards the larger cause of the community’s history and humanity. These include adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, photographs of old Parsi plays being staged, as well as now long-gone Parsi theatres in Mumbai. Some of the scripts include personal diary of Jehangir Pestonjee Khambata – a thespian of Parsi Theatre, on his voyage to Burma. Other earlier scripts from 1871 to 1875 refer to Harishchandra Natak by KN Kabraji, Jehangir by Adilji Jamshetji.

She interviewed people about the thriving Parsi theatre culture, and returned to Delhi with precious recordings, and two bags full of scripts and photographs on the train back to Delhi.

When I heard the recordings and went through the photographs, I realised the Parsi influence on the development of cities like Mumbai and Kolkata not only shaped them commercially, but culturally as well –
Vanshika Singh, PhD scholar at the National University of Singapore

The digitisation efforts were primarily carried out with the help of the Calcutta Parsi Amateur Dramatics Club and with two separate grants from the Sangeet Natak Ackdemi. Parzor currently has PDFs of digitised scripts in its repository, waiting for a website. Some scripts are with Parzor and some have been returned to the families, according to Singh.

“When I heard the recordings and went through the photographs, I realised the Parsi influence on the development of cities like Mumbai and Kolkata not only shaped them commercially, but culturally as well,” said Singh. “Yes, on the face of it you do have NCPA and other art galleries, but not all developments are grand.”

A lot of the anecdotes and snippets of history she gathered gave her a “micro-view” of the Parsi community and its impact. “You’re left wondering what prompted these communities to create space for cultural expression to thrive,” said Singh who is now doing her PhD in Social and Cultural Geography at the National University of Singapore.

Theatre is an intrinsic part of Parsi cultural identity. It was developed as the earliest form of entertainment, and to date the genre that rules Parsi theatre is comedy. Performed in Parsi Gujarati, they would run ahead of festivals and New Year celebrations, in pavilions set up in colonies or in theatres. But as the Parsi population dwindled, so have these traditions.

“There was a time, till even 5-6 years ago, when I used to perform 5-8 plays before New Year celebrations in Mumbai every year. This year I didn’t even go to perform there,” said theatre actor and Padma Bhushan awardee, Yazdi Karanjia. The living room of his 100-year-old home in Surat is filled with theatre memorabilia and awards earned in his seven decade-long career.

But Karanjia was nevera full-time theatre actor. He taught accountancy, much like many members of the community, who continue family traditions and professions, and provide services to the community while working other jobs.

As a boy, his friends would discourage him from pursuing a career on stage– he was too short for any role. But that didn’t stop him from pursuing his love for the performing arts. He goes on stage for the love of his art, not money. And now, some of the plays that he acted in will be part of the repository.

Parsi theatre doyene Yazdi Karanjia. | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

The scripts were digitised under the advice of scholar Rashna Nicholson, currently professor of theatre studies at University of Hong Kong and Cama. “Conservatism is expensive but digitisation is not so much. By digitising the scripts, we made them accessible to scholars across India and globe,” Singh said.

Singh and the Parzor team digitised 230 scripts over the course of six months in 2015-16 but they haven’t been able to develop a website for them because they lack the funds and resources to organise such lengthy archival work. Even though the scripts have no online home, word has spread across the world. Filmmakers from Australia and California and scholars from SOAS, London and other universities are reaching out to Parzor for PDFs of the scripts.

Recording and archiving are an important part of the process of documenting Parsi history, but for Singh, the fact that others find value in the work is fulfilling. “It leads to a question I think about. For a community like the Parsis, how can we create meaning? What does it want to circulate about itself or beyond it for us to make sense of its history?” Singh said.

Karanjia is not too worried about the future of Parsi theatre.

“As long as a single Parsi remains on the planet, Parsi theatre shall remain alive,” he insists.

A digitised archive of a photograph of Parsi theatre in action | Parzor and Sangeet Natak Academy Grants

Bonesetters, weavers, actors

Like Karanjia, many Parsis perform a ‘service’through which they contribute to the larger community. It’s a family tradition that’s not their main source of income.

Among Navsari’s Parsis there are astrologers, weavers, and even bonesetters (chiropractors) who provide people with alternative ways of healing broken bones. There’s no recorded literature of the techniques they employ, but knowledge passed down from father to son over generations.

“I am the eighth-generation bonesetter in my family, and my son is the ninth. My great great grandfather had gained the knowledge from a seer,” said Bezat Minusuraliwalla from Navsari, adding that he served at Mumbai’s Bhatia Hospital for five years though he doesn’t have a degree in medicine.

At his home in Navsari, he pulls out photographs of his ancestors who helped heal bones of people at a time when plasters, especially, weren’t effective. His knowledge and technique are now part of Parzor project archives.

Photo of a Prasi bonesetter. | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

During one of her many visits to Navsari, Cama recorded how the kusti, the sacred girdle worn by Zoroastrians around the waist, is handwoven by the women of Ava Baug and distributed to other Parsis. Shehnaz Dastoor (50) has been weaving the threads on the mechanised machine at her house for 20 years while humming to old Bollywood music playing in the background.

This is her primary family business–she learnt it from her mother who learnt it from her mother. But her daughters have chosen a different profession, “They don’t enjoy this kind of work. They are well educated and work in MNCs, where they earn significantly more money,” said Dastoor. She weaves the sacred thread for almost 12 hours every day, but is able to earn only Rs 15,000 a month.

As younger generations take up new jobs, recording these traditions becomes even more necessary, said Cama. Only memories will remain, so for archivists like her, there’s an urgency to record.

Oral history recordings

Freny Daruwalla who is in her mid-twenties, grew up in Pune, agnostic of her religion or religious traditions.

“I just didn’t have any interest in it,” she said.

That was until college, when she became more aware about her identity and wanted to get to know more about her community. “I had felt like an outsider till then, not knowing much about my community or participating in cultural events. As I grew older, I wanted to know more about my people.”

In November 2021, Daruwalla started working with Evergreen Story, a platform with a mission to record, preserve and (tell) humanity’s storiesand use the medium of storytelling to support the environment.” For every story published, the platform plants a tree in the name of the person documented.

Daruwalla started recording Parsi stories for the platform and has so far met more than 300 Parsis across the country and published their stories. Among her favourite stories are the recording of Mona Jaats, which are hymns sung before any religious function. Only the older generation of Parsis today have knowledge of Mona jaats, which are endangered.

She also interviewed the grandson of one of the last Parsi healers, who were called Va Ujavanu– those who used prayers to heal.

“The Parsis I had interviewed during my oral history recordings are mostly dead now. So Daruwalla is now traveling 20 years after I did to record the experiences of the younger generations,” Cama said.

The memories and micro-histories of Parsis are rich in vignettes and encounters with India’s elite. India’s first woman photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla who passed away in 2012 spoke to Cama at length about her interactions with the Gandhis. And one project that she could never forget was the wedding of Rajiv Gandhi with Sonia. Vyarawalla was paid for the photographs and the negatives. She never got to see her work again. “But it was all in her memory,” said Cama. And now, in Parzor’s oral history archives.

Photographers from other communities also document the Parsis, their distinct culture and dying heritage that piques the interest of many, like that of Bindi Sheth who put up her photo exhibition at India International Centre in Delhi. Bindi documented the Parsis in her hometown, Ahmedabad.

The themes that stand out in her exhibition are loneliness, love, loss and celebration, as well as a lingering influence of the British. There are photographs of young bachelor Parsis living in baugs, of older Parsis alone in old houses filled with antique furniture, and of families gathering for weddings and Navjotes.

The library makes appeals to the Parsi community on an annual basis and asks for donations for restoration, preservation work. That’s our main source of income
– Chaitali Desai, Librarian at Meherjirana

“As an outsider, I realised I have the advantage of noticing minor details like their love for natural elements that set them apart and make them a unique, intriguing community,” she said.

Ruzbeh Umrigar, who conducts heritage walks in Navsari, remembers spending his summers in the hall of the then crumbling Meherjirana library. He had no clue about the importance of the literature the library has. It was only many years later, after Cama’s discovery, that he learned about the rich texts lying in the cupboards of one of his childhood haunts.

Today, the library has an annexe, and a trust board has been set up to look after its day-to-day functioning. According to the current librarian, Chaitali Desai, it doesn’t get government support, but runs on charitable donations.

“The library makes appeals to the Parsi community on an annual basis and asks for donations for restoration, preservation work. That’s our main source of income,” she said.

The library’s collection and contribution to the community’s heritage is a source of pride for her. There are more than 600 handwritten Parsi scriptures, Desai said.

“The restoration of the Meherjirana library is one of the biggest achievements of Parzor. And not only have all books been preserved, they have also been digitised,” Cama said. “When I first went there, the books couldn’t even be touched.”

Now that it is back in the limelight, the library’s future is caught in the local politics of who gets to run it. Its responsibility currently lies with a trust which is not comprised of academics. Some Navsari residents, like Umrigar, fear that lack of scholars or academics puts these records in jeopardy.

But even as these battles are playing out in the upper echelons of the community, the younger generation is looking at ways to add to the work archived and documented so far. School teacher Pinaz (27) got the opportunity to work with Parsi author and historian Marzban Jamshedji Giara. She assisted him on the research of his last book, Prominent Parsis of Navsari, which was published a year after he passed away in 2022. And since then, Pinaz has been a little directionless.

“I need to be financially independent, I haven’t been able to work out a model where I research and document but also earn money at the same time,” she said adding that “it is very important to record contemporary Parsi stories, otherwise us and our stories will die in the little circle orthodox of our community want to restrict us to.”

Freny Daruwalla has lived through countless personal histories. The Parsis she interviewed shared their experiences of watershed moments—the red dots in history. Ninety-year-old Tina Mehta’s heart is still heavy with the memory of the last time she kissed her Muslim friends goodbye during Partition in 1947. Daruwalla heard the heartbreaking account of Ahmedabad resident, Hafiz Dalal, who frantically searched for his daughter when Gujarat went into curfew during the 2002 riots. She has felt the frustration of Dilshad Mistry, who was called to office within two days after the infamous floods in July 2005 that left Mumbai flooded.

These oral histories have made Daruwalla a time traveller.

“It feels like people are not talking from memory at all. The story just flows out of them naturally, like they’re living through it in real time.”

This ground report is the third in a series called Parsipolis. Read all the articles here.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

Time is running out for Parsi culture. Race to save it from extinction is on


The Colonial Public and the Parsi Stage

This book explores how theatre enabled Parsis to negotiate the growing challenges of colonialism

In ‘The Colonial Public and the Parsi Stage’, Rashna Darius Nicholson is particularly interested in exploring how theatre impacted the life of Parsi women.

In 1969, when the last vestiges of Parsi theatre could still be seen in Calcutta, Somnath Gupt, a professor of Hindi at Rajasthan University in Jaipur, published a book-length account of Parsi theatre. His engagement with the subject was motivated by his interest in the language which had long dominated Parsi theatre: Hindi or Urdu or Hindustani as it was known in the nineteenth century.

Gupt’s book was preceded by two books in Urdu: Urdu Drama aur Stage by Sayyed Masood Hasan Rizvi Adeeb (1957) and Abdul Aleem Nami’s multi-volume Urdu Theatre which was published in the 1960s. Both Adeeb and Nami mediated their engagement with Parsi theatre through its language of performance. Gupt’s primary sources were the theatre memoirs written by two Parsis, Dhanjibhai Patel and Jehangir Khambata (1914). Dhanjibhai Patel’s reminiscences were first serialised in the Gujarati newspaper Kaiser-i-Hind and then collected into two volumes; no copies of the first volume seem to have survived but the second volume (1931) is available in many libraries. However, Kaiser-i-Hind was then still in existence and Gupt could excavate the original articles from its archives.

Numerous other books on Parsi theatre were published in Hindi and Urdu in the following decades; for example, Hindi rangamanch ke vikas mein Bambai ka yog (The role of Bombay in the development of Hindi theatre)by Devesh Sharma (1987) and Parsi Theatre edited by Ranveer Singh (1990). Perhaps the only Gujarati book on this subject is Purano Parsi Natak Takhto (The old Parsi theatre) by S D Shroff (Firozgar) which was published in 1950. Shroff interviewed numerous retired Parsi theatre artistes while writing this book.

Parsi Theatre edited by Ranveer Singh, Jodhpur, 1990.

There have been very few attempts in English to document and analyse Parsi theatre through all the stages of its century-long existence. Rashna Darius Nicholson steps in to fill the breach with The Colonial Public and the Parsi Stage: The Making of the Theatre of Empire (1853–1893). Originally written as a doctoral dissertation, it has been published as a print-on-demand book by Palgrave Macmillan in their “Transnational Theatre Histories” series.

While Nicholson starts off by describing her book as “a history of the Parsi theatre”, it is much more than that. It is also an account of how the members of the Parsi community, as individuals and in groups, negotiated the challenges which an ever-expanding colonial nimbus showered upon it. She proposes the emergence of a Parsi “public sphere” in the 1830s and 1840s as the stage on which Parsi theatre began to be performed from 1853. She is particularly interested in exploring how these developments impacted the life of Parsi women who led largely regimented and secluded lives, not dissimilar to the harshest zenana.

Nicholson adds, “This book, however, does not simply map the shifts that took place through the theatre between physical and discursive bodies, between the construction and deconstruction of women as repositories of communal and national values; it also interrogates how these rhetorical manoeuvres are rendered legible by the material yet hidden body of the archive.”

As this quotation illustrates, the book is written in a high academic register and most readers interested in Parsi theatre would struggle to keep pace with it. But if they do so, they will be richly rewarded. They will get to experience the hurly burly of a rumbustious theatre culture complete with tyrannical directors, traitorous actors, flying machines, extravagant backdrops, and the occasional cross-dressing spectator. They could enter the hallowed portals of the Victoria Theatre where “respectable Parsi men and women” ran the risk of rubbing shoulders with “low class Muslims”. At the Delhi Durbar of 1877, they could choose to patronise either the Victoria Natak Mandali or the Elphinstone Theatrical Company. Upcountry, they could experience the adulation which Parsi actors and directors enjoyed in Indian princely states such as Jaipur and Baroda; and, in one episode more fantastic than Parsi theatre itself, forage for diamonds in silver coconuts in fin de siècle Burma.

Master Fida Husain in the role of Narsi in the drama, Narsi Mehta, 1950s

Like her predecessors, Nicholson mainly relies on the theatre memoirs of Patel and Khambata for primary information on Parsi theatre. But she ventures deeper into the nineteenth century with an exhaustive, and what must have been exhausting, survey of contemporary newspapers to understand how theatre unfolded in the public press. Unfortunately, of the early Gujarati newspapers, only Rast Goftar has survived the depredations of the twentieth century and she makes excellent use of it, as she does of Kaiser-i-Hind and the Bombay Times.

Nicholson, like most Parsi scholars of her generation, was, self-confessedly, bereft of Gujarati – the primary language of the Parsis for centuries until the 1960s – before she embarked on her research. However, unlike most of her peers, she was willing to ascend the learning curve to make use of the extensive Gujarati material which undergirds her work. As Nicholson mines her sources to understand the actions and reactions of the Parsi community in relation to theatre, she uncovers the roots of many of the anxieties that plagued the community post-independence and have been analysed by the anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann in her book The Good Parsi (1996). In the late 1880s, after the formation of the Indian National Congress, these anxieties played out in both the editorial and letters columns of Rast Goftar where the Parsis struggled to discover ‘their proper position in the confusion of races and denominations inhabiting India’.

Nicholson could have engaged more with the pre-1853 choices that Parsis had when it came to entertainment and public performance. They not only went to the Grant Road Theatre in the 1840s to see European performers but also frequented other informal venues where a wide variety of entertainments were offered by Indian performers. A number of Parsi men (and perhaps women) were skilled in singing and playing instruments and regularly entertained their compatriots.

Songbook for Bhagirath-Ganga, Parsi Elphinstone Dramatic Company published by Madan Theatres Limited, Calcutta

There was widespread interest in Urdu poetry as evidenced by the number of Bombay imprints in Urdu (in Gujarati script) published by Parsis. She does not take notice of the event which catalysed the Parsi theatre into existence: the first tour of Vishundas Bhave and his Hindu Dramatic Corps to Bombay during 1852-53 and their ticketed performances, both in the Black Town and the Grant Road Theatre. The role of Bhau Daji, the secretary of the first Parsi theatrical committee, and who was instrumental in getting Bhave to perform at the Grant Road Theatre, has also been given short shrift.

At some unspecified time during the years of rapid growth, Parsi theatre began the transition to no longer being just Parsi. Nicholson traces the beginning of this long phase to the 1870s when Parsi theatre troupes began to extensively tour north India and south-east Asia. As Parsi theatre began to attract new audiences in the hinterland, it tailored its performances to local tastes. In turn, local entertainers began to adapt Parsi theatre to their own performance protocols and also joined Parsi theatre troupes.

The word “Parsi” when associated with “theatre” began to assume new meanings, none of which had any relation to its erstwhile association with the community. In the mid-1890s, after four decades of existence, Parsi theatre entered what some commentators have termed as its “golden era” and became “the theatre of empire” as Nicholson aptly puts it. This era, when Parsi theatre dominated mainstream entertainment across North India from Peshawar to Calcutta via Bareilly, lasted until the early 1930s.

But once movies with sound began to gain ground, the fortunes of Parsi theatre nosedived. It survived in a few pockets for another three decades before it completely disappeared. The mantle of Parsi theatre fell on film while theatre in India took other directions. However, the “golden era” of Parsi theatre has hardly been documented or studied by theatre historians with Parsi-Hindi Rangamanch (1972) written in Hindi by Lakshminarayan Lal perhaps being an exception.

Nicholson also does not venture beyond the nineteenth century and has chosen to terminate her current study in 1893, a year in which, she notes, “moving pictures” were first invented. This event, however, did not have any impact on the trajectory of Parsi theatre. Eighteen ninety-three was also the year when Bombay was convulsed by riots. This was the first time that the Parsis were neither agents provocateurs nor active participants in nineteenth century Bombay riots.

This non-participation presaged a breakdown of the economic, political, and social power structures which the Parsi community had built for itself in colonial India and forecast their eventual marginalisation from the Indian mainstream, similar to the one they had experienced in Parsi theatre itself. One could conclude, like the author does, that, “…[t]hrough a syncopation of irruptions, insertions, blurrings, and exorcisms, the colonial Parsi drama as archive bore witness to a specific regularity of events, words, and ideals yet as an embodied, evanescent form not dissimilar to collective memory, it was also constituted by its own self-effacement, making history by forgetting it.”

Handbill for performance by Parsi Coronation Theatrical Company at Madan Theatre, Calcutta, 1932

It would be churlish to take issue with the trifling errors that have crept into the text, but one hopes they will be weeded out. For example, the Zoroastrians are described as having “fled for the coast of Gujarat” from Iran “between 8 and 10 CE” where “between the eighth and tenth centuries” was intended. The Cama family is described as acquiring Mumbai Samachar in 1832 from Furdoojee Murzban though their association with the newspaper began a century later; and Munshi Talib is characterised as a Muslim playwright while his name Vinayak Prasad suggests otherwise. However, readers will be curious to know why the copyright of the images reproduced in the book from one of the theatre memoirs has been attributed to the repository where the author referred to it.

The arena of Parsi theatre continues to remain a vast field for research. The careers of individual artistes and troupes have yet to be studied in detail. Play scripts and songbooks related to Parsi theatre were published in their hundreds – in Hindustani and other languages – but printed in Devanagari, Gujarati and Perso-Arabic scripts. These need to be documented and analysed. The archives of princely states who were generous patrons of Parsi theatre need to be examined. Photographs and souvenirs which are still in private possession need to be conserved. All the elements of theatre – song, lighting, art, costume, makeup – need to be investigated. The public and governmental response to Parsi theatre across India needs to be understood. Scholarly studies about Parsi theatre published in its own languages – Hindi, Urdu, and Gujarati – also need to be considered. It is hoped that a phalanx of committed and talented scholars will, like Rashna Nicholson, step forward to accept this challenge.

This article first appeared in Parsiana.

The Colonial Public and the Parsi Stage: The Making of the Theatre of Empire (1853–1893) by Rashna Darius Nicholson, Palgrave Macmillan


‘The Parsi Theatre’

‘The Parsi Theatre’ is an important addition to the sparse information available on the matter

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.

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 Developmenttranslated 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 sources

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 TimesThe 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 HarishchandraSitaharanLavkush, 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 BadremunirJafa-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 VeniceKhun-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 SabhaKhursheed SabhaFarrukh SabhaHavai 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.

Reverse Orientalism, Slander and the Origins of Bombay’s Once Fashionable Capitol Cinema

The theatre, now closed, began its life as the Gaiety for the upper crust of Bombay to see plays.

It was the year 1864. The Parsi theatre, founded by respectable reformists for the moral uplift of the Parsi community in Bombay, had deteriorated into innumerable clubs that performed low-budget Gujarati productions with flying slippers, rotten eggs, and drop scenes that fell off several times over the course of a performance. Against this backdrop, Kuvarji Sorabji Nazir first appeared on stage as the founder of the amateur Elphinstone Theatrical Club – the sole troupe ‘worthy of mention’. Though hailing from a relatively poor household in the then humble neighbourhood Chandanwadi, Nazir had passed his matriculation exam with flying colours. Tall and consistently well-dressed, he was best suited for directing the Elphinstone’s English performances of the Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew that were commended by no less than Governor Bartle Frere.

Cooverji Sorabji Nazir. Photo source” Dhanjībhāi Paṭel, Pārsī Nāṭak Takhtānī Tavārīkh, p. 7 Courtesy: The Trustees, The K. R. Cama Oriental Institute, Mumbai.

Much, however, was to change in a decade. By 1874, Nazir – now more businessman than Shakespeare enthusiast or patron of the arts – had fulfilled his ambition of monopolising the Parsi theatre’s greatest troupes and playhouses by becoming owner of the Victoria and Elphinstone Theatrical Companies and lessee of the Victoria and Grant Road Theatres, and owner of the Elphinstone Theatre.

So too had he managed to make innumerable enemies along the way: he had sabotaged the Alfred Theatrical Company that refused to divulge the secrets behind their mechanical scenery; he was the target of several significant lawsuits and a landmark copyright case (possibly the first in the subcontinent’s theatre history); and he was responsible for the irrevocable break-up of the Victoria due to his allegedly domineering ways. Despite or perhaps because of his garrulous nature, Nazir had become a man of considerable wealth. Worn by the Parsi theatre’s first tour across North India (when, during a performance, a sliver of metal from a prop sword pierced his eyeball), performances for Indian royals during the Prince of Wales’s visit; and the general liability of running two large theatre companies, Nazir gave up his position as owner of the Victoria and Elphinstone. Yet he found it tiresome to be idle for long.

Bombay’s lack of a theatre to house travelling European troupes became a matter of national embarrassment when the Prince on his return to Bombay from his tour of the subcontinent asked Lord Carrington if he could visit a theatre. His Highness was informed that neither a respectable theatre nor troupe existed in the so-called Urbs Prima in Indis (the first city of India). Travelling companies from England and Australia famously bypassed the capital of Western India in favour of Calcutta in their eastward journeys prompting the entrepreneurial Nazir to commit a very costly blunder.

On July 19, 1879, the Times of India announced that the Government had allotted a fine site at the end of Hornby Row facing the Victoria terminus to Nazir for the construction of an accessible and commodious theatre for the European residents of the city, the travellers passing through, and the ‘enlightened native community’. Designed by John Campbell from ‘the most recent models’ keeping in mind the requirements of Bombay’s humid climate, the playhouse – known now as Capitol Cinema – was constructed of teak, bricks and Mangalore tiles in a style of architecture termed composite Italian, accommodated 1,000 persons and cost Rs 36,000 to build. Prior to the theatre’s opening, Nazir declared in the English-language press:

The auditorium will comprise 23 private boxes, including the double box of His Excellency the Governor, on the upper tier, two large stage boxes and two orchestra boxes on the lower tier, 220 orchestra stalls and a spacious gallery and pit. Ample accommodation has been provided in the private boxes, which will be divided by partitions and handsomely furnished…Especial regard has been paid to coolness, and as the sides of the building are pierced by numerous ventilators, there will be nothing to stop the breeze in any part of the house. I purpose to open the theatre under the name of the GAIETY on Saturday evening, December 6, 1879.

Capitol Cinema, previously the Gaiety Theatre. Photo courtesy: Zubin Pastakia

Capitol Cinema, previously the Gaiety Theatre. Photo courtesy: Zubin Pastakia

The Gaiety with its eclectic combination of hierarchical seating, curtains in boxes for the women of the zenana, and ‘special regard for coolness’ was a perfect specimen of a theatre of Empire. Nazir had made arrangements for a first-rate comedy and burlesque company with a theatrical agent from Covent Garden for the theatre’s opening. The following letter from Mr Blackmore, confirming the engagement, was published in the Times of India:

London, March 28, 1879.
Dear Sir, – In reply to your favour of the 1st instant (to hand on the 22nd), relating to the formation of a comedy and burlesque company for Bombay for a season of a guaranteed period of twenty weeks, there is little doubt that, if reasonable time is given me…, I can procure artists thoroughly qualified for such a purpose, taking care that the ladies shall, in conjunction with the necessary ability, possess good personal appearance… 

The ‘good personal appearance’ of the burlesque company’s ladies would however become a matter of deep contention. After numerous advertisements, the English Comedy and Burlesque Company comprising the actresses Agness Birchenough, Edith Wilson, Madge Antoinette, Gertrude Dore, and Minnie Hampton arrived in Bombay to perform James Albery’s celebrated comedy The Pink Dominos on December 6, 1879. Curtains were hung up, matting laid down, the last chairs placed and numbered, and the ‘well-dressed, fashionable audience’ was finally admitted. Everything, according to the Times of India, ‘was perfect and in order.’ ‘The auditorium presented a scene bright, animated, and business-like as that of any theatre in the Strand on the first night of an anticipated triumph.’ It was, according to an English correspondent, almost impossible to avoid thinking we were again in the midst of civilisation in the West End of London.

Postcard of the Gaiety Theatre, undated, author’s own.

With the Gaiety’s opening ‘a new era in the history of the British drama in Western India’ commenced, albeit one that would not last very long. While the Times of India described the performance as worse than those of itinerant American troupes, the Rāst Goftār rebuked the building as ‘ugly’ in comparison to those in the surrounding precincts, prompting Nazir to threaten to close the entire undertaking. Good tidings should have been in the offing on Nazir’s benefit night on April 13, 1880 when Miss Antoinette performed the popular part of the ‘Parsee Girl of the Period’. However, the event would be memorialised in the annals of Indian theatre history not only for the paltriest amount ever raised for a benefit (Rs 10) but also for the beginnings of the ruin of one of the founders of the ‘modern’ Indian theatre.

Mr Nazir had, as we expected, the best and most fashionable audience of the season to welcome him last night, when he took his benefit…The curtain fell amidst a round of good-natured applause, and it seemed as though all was going as merry as a marriage ball, when Mr Nazir came before the curtain to deliver a personal address…He said it was a night of “prayer and thanksgiving,” of prayer to the Governor to reduce his ground rent by Rs 200 a month, of thanksgiving to…those gentlemen who had come to his aid financially…And then he committed the most extraordinary error, involving the gravest want of taste, of which any theatrical proprietor has ever perhaps been guilty. Possessed by some infernal spirit, he said with all the emphasis he could muster, that the promises of the London Agent who engaged the company had not been verified, and that he had been most signally disappointed in the personal appearance of the members of the company. The extraordinarily candid opinion of the personal charms of the ladies who had enabled him to make his benefit such a noted success was greeted with howls and hisses, and Mr Nazir retired amidst such a roar of disapprobation as has never before greeted a theatrical proprietor on the night of his benefit. A long interval occurred during which these marks of displeasure continued, and it was believed that some of the ladies of the company would refuse to appear again. At last Miss Antoinette made her appearance, and one of deference to her good nature, ill-timed or not, the performance was permitted to be continued.

That a Parsi theatre manager had the temerity to criticise the physical appearance of several English women before a thousand spectators not only conflicted with the Gaiety’s ostensible objective as upper-class entertainment but also constituted a landmark moment in colonial cultural history – a stunningly public yet completely forgotten form of reverse orientalism long before nationalist politics came to the fore. Not unsurprisingly, though Nazir tendered a public apology, the damage had been irrevocably done. Almost immediately after his benefit, the Parsi manager was waylaid with a protracted and onerous series of legal suits with the theatre’s contractors for Rs 24,000; Major Cowper and C.W.L. Jackson for a debt amounting to Rs 27,000; and Somejee Parpia, a dealer in furniture, for Rs 4000, culminating finally in a warrant for his arrest. The next year the Jame Jamshed published,

an Appeal on behalf of Mr. Nazir (..) especially [to] the European patrons of drama in this city, to extricate [him] from the pecuniary embarrassments consequent on his enterprise. The Jame thinks Mr. Nazir would not have come to grief, if he had contented himself by building the Esplanade Theatre. His ordering out a company from England, says the Jame, involved him further. The Parsee paper suggests two alternative plans for Mr. Nazir’s relief, and trusts the Europeans will not entirely ignore the claims of a former protege who did so much towards their amusement.

The Europeans however did just that. On November 14, 1881, the Deputy Sheriff put up for sale by auction Nazir’s much older Elphinstone Theatre. ‘No bids were at first forthcoming and the sale was about to be close when a purchaser made his appearance, and had the property knocked down to him for [the absurd amount of] Rs. 1,800,’ prompting the debt-ridden Nazir to revoke his retirement from the stage. Shortly after Nazir’s ruin, the Original Victoria usurped the Gaiety for its performances of the more popular Hindustani Shura-re-Ishk, after which the theatre was bought over in 1893 by Chhotalal Mulchand Kapadia of the Gujarātī Nāṭak Maṇḍalī. Although this marked the end of Nazir’s all-too-brief fortune and Bombay’s only theatre for the European and ‘enlightened native’ communities, the edifice – as lovers of old Bombay know only too well – had a long, illustrious, quasi-magical life through the course of the late 19th and 20th centuries, witnessing the heyday of Parsi theatre, the advent of cinema and beyond.

Capitol Cinema, previously the Gaiety Theatre. Photo courtesy: Zubin Pastakia

Rashna Darius Nicholson (Twitter: @rashnanicholson) is 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) is the first comprehensive history of the Parsi theatre. Her next monograph is on the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations’ cultural work in India during the Cold War.


‘Parsi Lady’, last unfinished work of Ravi Varma, to be up for public display

‘Parsi Lady’ being restored at Kilimanoor Palace

‘Parsi Lady’, last unfinished work of Ravi Varma, to be up for public display

On the occasion of the 175th birth anniversary of the legendary artist, the Governor will unveil the painting, restored to its original glory, today. Another yet-to-be-displayed painting, a portrait, too will be in public domain

‘Parsi Lady’ being restored at Kilimanoor Palace

‘Parsi Lady’ being restored at Kilimanoor Palace

‘Parsi Lady’ being restored at Kilimanoor Palace | Photo Credit: SPECIAL AARANGEMENT

An unfinished painting by Raja Ravi Varma, who redefined Indian art traditions during the colonial times, will soon be in the public domain. The painting ‘Parsi Lady’, now owned by the Kilimanoor Palace Trust, was the last painting (unfinished) by the legendary artist. He died on October 2, 1906, inside ‘Chithrashala,’ the artist’s studio at Kilimanoor Palace, leaving the painting unfinished.

Now, the Palace Trust has decided to unveil the painting along with another painting — the portrait of Thriketta Thirunal Uma Amma Thampuratti — which has also not been displayed yet, on the occasion of the 175th birth anniversary of Ravi Varma, who was born into the aristocracy at Kilimanoor in the erstwhile Travancore on April 29, 1848.

Rama Varma Thampuran, general secretary, Kilimanoor Palace Trust, told The Hindu that ‘Parsi Lady’ had a lot of specialities as it provided a glimpse into the Mumbai life of Ravi Varma and his association with people like filmmaker Dada Saheb Phalke, who was then an employee at the press owned by Ravi Varma. “We assume that the painting was a visual adaptation of a Parsi woman he came to know in Mumbai,” said Mr. Thampuran.

His link to Phalke

Ravi Varma wound up his press, sold his property there, and returned to Kerala in 1904 after his younger brother fell ill. Before returning, he gave a substantial amount to Mr. Phalke, sensing his passion for movies, which resulted in the making of Raja Harishchandra, the first full-length Indian feature film, said Mr. Thampuran.

After reaching here, he continued to paint at Chithrashala. He completed many of the paintings he had brought from Mumbai and gifted them, but ‘Parsi Lady’ remained unfinished. The palace has now restored the work with the help of S. Madhan, an art restorer based in Tamil Nadu and a disciple of the late V.N. Selvarehai, senior conservator, National Research Laboratory for Conservation of Cultural Property.

Tools for restoration

“Whatever he left unfinished is now part of history. We have just restored the painting to its original form by removing the old varnish layers and dirt accumulated on the painting over the years by applying organic chemicals. Further, the original paint layers were consolidated using revivable materials,” said Mr. Madhan. The painting will be unveiled by Governor Arif Mohammed Khan at Kilimanoor Palace on Saturday. However, the paintings will be put up for public viewing a month later as the palace authorities will have to arrange appropriate security measures, said Mr. Thampuran.

Leonard Bernstein presenting “Thus Spake Richard Strauss”

On this day in 1971, Leonard Bernstein presented “Thus Spake Richard Strauss”, a Young People’s Concert.
Bernstein explained to a national television audience Strauss’ Zarathustra “is a picture of man’s greatest problem — his mortality, the grim fact that he must die. This painful problem is shown in terms of a conflict…in musical terms: the struggle between one key and another, between one theme and another, between major and minor, between music that lifts us up and music that presses us down.
That’s going up, for sure; and clearly it’s in the key of C. Good old C – no sharps or flats, all white keys, no problems – bright and clear. And that’s why Strauss builds his introduction on this rising motive, because it’s supposed to depict a glorious sunrise…but with the sun arises the first conflict: that’s the conflict of major and minor.”


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