Category Archives: Books

“Becoming Farah” by Farah Rustom

Dear Friends,

Many of you in India will have personally met and known Farah Rustom in Mumbai and followed her unique personal story.  Farah has just released a book, titled “Becoming Farah”.  I encourage you to buy and read it.  It is available on Amazon in the paperback and/or kindle version. Thank you.

Amazon introductory text: “Farah’s cutting-edge gender reassignment surgery in 1976 created a sensation, as she was already well known as a pioneering lecturer on Western Classical Music Appreciation and a freelance journalist.  This is her astonishing, frank and unique story, honestly and movingly describing her many passions, experiences and travels around India. A moving portrayal of life in Bombay until the Eighties, belonging to a very special and distinct community little known outside of India, namely the Parsis, originally from Persia. It is a portrait of a wonderful and very special city in a joyfully creative and fascinating era, now sadly gone forever, although as every person who grew up in Bombay will attest, once the city becomes a part of you, it is there forever.”



The Navjote Book

An activity book for young Zoroastrians.

Interactive learning, games, stickers, templates for crafts and recipes! An excellent introduction to preparing young Zoroastrian children for the initiation into the faith and perfect for recently Navjoted children to enjoy.

The Navjote Book is available in India here and in the US here.


Don’t take our word for it, read our reviews!

“A must-have for young Zoroastrian kids. Making the understanding of our faith enjoyable through games, activities and coloring, this beautifully illustrated educational book will provide guidance to our young children for years to come.”

– Dasturji Khurshed Dastoor Vada Dasturji, Iranshah Atash Behram



“Authentic, modern, simple and zany – a wonderful combination for children. Delzin has done a wonderful job enabling children as well as youngsters to understand not only the religion and prayers, but also the customs and traditions, with oodles of fun and activities.”

– Ervad Dr. Ramiyar Karanjia Principal, Dadar Athornan Institue, Religious scholar 


“Delzin understands how young children learn and provides the necessary information on the Navjote ceremony in a beautiful manner.”

– Dr. Coomi S. Vevaina Professor Emeritus, INDIA Education Futurist, TEDx speaker, internationally acclaimed Educator



“The Navjote Book’ by Delzin Choksey is fundamentally different from similar books of the same genre in that it provides pre and recently Navjoted children with an interesting as well as fun time opportunity to learn about our faith, traditions and culture, that will create a lasting impact on their impressionable minds and stand them in good stead in the future.”

– Dinshaw K. Tamboly Chairman, The WZO Trust Funds

  The Navjote Book is available in India here and in the US here

For anywhere else worldwide please contact

Zoroastrians of Iran

Zoroastrians of Iran –
(A History of Transformation and survival) by Janet Kesternberg Amighi.
Mazda Publishers, U.S.A. (Year 2022)

    Just as Zoroastrians in Iran have adopted a secularized form of pre-Islamic culture with duality of Iraniyat and Zoroastrianism, Parsis of India too have encouraged themselves towards India’s heritage and culture and they are following their Zoroastrian religion with joy of India’s proudful culture and history.”

 Rayoman S. Ilavia

 Surat (Gujarat) India.

Email –

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The Hymns of Atharvan Zarathushtra

The Hymns of Atharvan Zarathushtra – Jatindra Mohan Chaterji














With a Foreword by S. Radhakrishnan,  former President of India

There are several languages used by the author/ Avestan, Farsi, Gujarati, Sanskrit and Bengali all submitted in Devnagri script. His comments in addition to the translations, are quite insightful.
He brings in poets and philosophers as and where appropriate.
There is a hard bound copy of Chatterjee’s epic tome,  in the K R Cama Library opposite Lion’s Gate in South Mumbai
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Click Here to download the entire book

One Woman’s Fight for Justice & Equality in Historic Bombay

The Mistress of Bhatia House by Sujata Massey

What’s it About?

Bombay’s only female solicitor, Perveen Mistry, grapples with class divisions, sexism, and complex family dynamics as she seeks justice for a mistreated young woman in this thrilling fourth installment in Sujata Massey’s award-winning series.

It’s a happy day when a reader can dive into a suspenseful new novel written by international best-selling and multiple award-winning author Sujata Massey. Her eagerly anticipated work The Mistress of Bhatia House (Soho Crime), latest in the Perveen Mistry series, is now available.

These historical fiction mysteries are well-plotted, thoroughly researched, densely layered, nuanced and satisfying. Without lecturing or moralizing the need for civil rights reforms, legal and social injustice issues relevant to the time are incorporated into the storyline, gently educating the reader.

I first became an admirer in 1997 with The Salaryman’s Wife, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. It was the first of eleven enthralling mysteries set in contemporary Japan with protagonist Rei Shimura, an American of Japanese descent.

Rei was introduced as an ESL-English teacher before she became an antique dealer and subsequently an art and vintage clothing expert. Rei is an adventurous and strong character who frequently changed jobs and stumbled across dead bodies until 2014 when the series paused (temporarily one hopes) with The Kizuna Coast.

The Perveen Mistry Series

Miss Perveen Mistry from Bombay, India, then a law student at Oxford University, was introduced in The Oxford Incident, set in 1918 as part of Sujata Massey’s collection of two novellas and three short stories titled India Graypublished in 2015. Three years later, a richly imagined new series featuring Perveen was launched with the full-length novel The Widows of Malabar Hill.

Miss Mistry returned to India armed with her hard-earned degree to become Bombay’s first woman solicitor and quickly became embroiled in solving a strange and mysterious murder case. The novel made a huge splash winning the Agatha Award, the Macavity Award, and the Lefty Award for Best Historical Mystery as well as the Mary Higgins Clark Award.

Two additional novels featuring the intrepid Miss Mistry followed: The Satapur Moonstone in 2019 and The Bombay Prince in 2021. The fourth installment is The Mistress of Bhatia House with what might be the most challenging investigation of her career.

Historic Bombay’s Only Female Solicitor

Perveen Mistry has experienced her own share of difficulties. Despite her stellar academic achievements and keen intelligence, as a woman, she was neither permitted to sit for the bar examination in England nor in India. She is a working solicitor but the only job available to her is as an associate in her father Jamshedji Mistry’s successful law firm as others would not consider hiring a female attorney. She cannot be a barrister; that is, she cannot present or argue cases in court.

Discrimination and inequality before the law also deeply affect her personally. Perveen remains in a loveless marriage, legally tethered to Cyrus Sodawalla, an abusive, loathsome scoundrel. She quickly left him and returned to her family home where she has resided for nearly four years. Perveen didn’t qualify for divorce under the stringent, male preferential Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act as she could not prove her husband had committed adultery and cruelty. Ironically, to obtain a divorce, he would have to charge her with adultery and ruin her family’s good name.

Husbands, no matter how despicable, control the destiny of their spouse and any children. It’s disheartening that to protect her spotless reputation and because their relationship would be taboo, Perveen cannot keep company with Colin Sandringham, the Englishman she secretly loves. Not surprisingly, her preferred legal cases champion women’s rights.

Born into moderate wealth and privilege, Perveen Mistry is a member of a well-respected Parsi/Zoroastrian family, an ethnic minority noted for its education, culture and entrepreneurship as well as charitable and philanthropic efforts.

Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion, one of the oldest faiths, followed by Parsis, persons of Persian/Iranian origin, founded more than 3,000 years ago based on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster, sometimes called Zarathustra. It emphasizes an eternal battle between the forces of good and evil. Many left Persia to settle in India and other countries after Arab Muslims conquered the region in the 7th century. There are generally fewer dietary restrictions than for Hindus as moderation is a key concept and meat is allowed.  (One of the most renowned Parsi of the 20th century was Queen’s Freddy Mercury who was born in Zanzibar.)

The family’s spacious home is also occupied by Perveen Mistry’s brother Rustom, her sister-in-law Gulnaz and their infant daughter Khushy as well as the servants. The colicky new addition and her mother whose moods are swinging wildly have unsettled the peaceable balance in the household.

Battling Issues of Inequality

In The Mistress of Bhatia House, our heroine continues to grapple with human rights issues of sexism, racism and class-driven inequities in the adjudication of legal cases. India in 1922 has many child brides and distressingly high infant and child mortality. Birth control is not only unavailable but even information may be deemed illegal and access to physicians is denied to the majority.

The novel begins with an extravagant afternoon tea and fundraiser for a proposed women’s hospital specializing in maternal health issues held at the home of an influential Gujarati businessman. Perveen witnesses a horrifying accident as his only grandson’s clothing catches fire from one of many decorative candles lining the garden pathways.

Sunanda, his ayah (nursemaid), rushes to put out the flames by smothering them with her own body thereby sustaining severe burns herself. Curiously, her mistress blames the young woman for inadequately protecting the lively seven-year-old and neglects to provide her with adequate burn care. Soon after, Sunanda is arrested and jailed on an unrelated and specious charge. Perveen rescues her from prison and brings her to the Mistry household.

The hospital’s chief donor dies suddenly, apparently murdered by lead poisoning which casts suspicion upon the ayah and Dr. Miriam Penkar, a Jewish-Indian obstetrician and personal friend of Perveen’s, whose patients would benefit from the proposed hospital.

Riveting Mystery with Historical Basis

The Mistress of Bhatia House is a riveting murder case, filled with intriguing characters, a potentially life-threatening investigation that is complex and dangerous as there may be some high-level cover-ups involved. It is a spell-binding novel you will not want to put down until the final page is read.

Sujata Massey has revealed her series set in India was partially inspired by a trail-blazing woman, Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) who studied law at Oxford University and in the late 1890’s became India’s first female attorney. However, it took until 1923 for Mithan Tata Lam to become the first woman to be admitted to the Bombay Bar.

Booklovers who enjoy reading Rumer Godden, Naomi Hirahara, Tasha Alexander, Vaseem Khan, Harini Nagendra and H. R. F. Keating, the creator of Inspector Ghote novels, are certain to embrace Perveen Mistry. In the right hands, this character and these hypnotic stories would translate well to screen adaptations.


About Sujata Massey:

Sujata Massey is the author of fourteen novels, two novellas and numerous short stories that have been published in eighteen countries. Her novels have won the Agatha, Lefty, Macavity and Mary Higgins Clark prizes and been finalists for the Edgar, Anthony, and Harper Lee literary awards. Sujata writes mystery and suspense fiction set in pre-Independence India, as well as a modern mystery series set in Japan.

Born in England to parents from India and Germany, Sujata was raised primarily in St. Paul, Minnesota, although her home for almost thirty years has been Baltimore, Maryland. She earned a B.A. in Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and wrote features for the Baltimore Evening Sun newspaper before becoming a novelist.

Contributor: Linda HitchcockOctober 11, 2023

One Woman’s Fight for Justice & Equality in Historic Bombay

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.

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