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A Time for Natak – History of the Parsi Theatre [i]


















Parsis are renowned for their own brand of humor and nothing illustrates Parsi humor like natak plays. But the contribution of Parsis to the realm of theatre in the Indian sub-continent is no laughing matter. In Kim, Kipling mentions the German painter who traveled with the Parsi theatre company to work on the set.  Scholars attribute the start of the theatre in the Indian–Sub continent was by Parsis.  Parsi theatre, while based on a British model, became an institution where educated people began to develop autonomy in their city and lives.

Evolution of the Parsi Theatre
In 1840, Framji Cowasjee, a prominent merchant prince, along with other leading citizens of Bombay submitted a petition for the construction of a new theatre to the Governor. After a campaign was carried out in the pages of the Bombay Gazette and in meetings in the Town Hall, the government agreed to underwrite the project. But the new theatre remained an unrealized dream until a generous contribution by Jamshedji Jejeebhoy in 1846 opened the Grant Road Theatre.

Thus began an epoch in the urban life of Bombay and its public culture. Initially the Bombay merchants with sharp business acumen were the pioneers in establishing a commercial theatre. The playhouse opened under English management, and the first plays performed were in English. Before long however, the Grant Road Theatre was recognized as the ideal locus for Indian theatrical productions. Parsi dramatic clubs chose this site for their fledgling efforts, and for the next three decades, Grant Road and its theatres were synonymous with the Parsi theatre.

For 100 years, from 1850-1950, Parsi theatre dominated the Indian culture scene. In its most creative period from 1870-1890, it brought about a complete change in the attitude and perception about the theatre in the minds of the people. The first drama company named Parsee Natak Mandale was established in 1853. Faramjee G. Dalal was the proprietor and the first drama staged at the Grant Road Theatre was “Rustom and Sohrab”. Also performed along with it was a farce “Dhanji Garak”.  Thereafter twenty more Parsi drama companies were formed, giving a further momentum to the theatre activity. The Natak “Uttejak Mandali” staged 1100 shows over 16 years. Initially Parsis who took a lead in this movement were educated people, guided by a desire to contribute towards the betterment of society. They viewed theatre as a medium through which they could communicate with the ordinary people. The theatre that arose out of these motivations had themes that carried moral and social messages for the audience.

The Helen Theatrical Company, photographed by Raja Deen Dayal, November 11, 1907, Photograph courtesy: Hemlata Jain

Theatre Productions
Productions by Parsi theatrical companies were large-budgeted affairs. Plays opened with actors in full makeup and costume - their hands folded and eyes closed, singing in a song of prayer song in praise of some deity -  and generally ended in a tableau. Sometimes at curtain call the director rearranged the tableau in a split second and offered a variant. Actors were required to know singing, dancing, music, acrobats, and fencing and to possess strong voices and good physical bearing. In improvised auditoriums with bad acoustics and packed with 2,000 people, actors’ voices reached the farthest spectator. Plays began at 10 o’clock and lasted until dawn, moving from comedy to tragedy, from pathos to farce, from songs to the rattle of swords, all interspersed with moral lessons and rhyming epigrams. All playwrights took inspiration from Hindu mythology and Persian legends, transforming these tales into powerful dramas.

One is amazed at the level of sophistication that the early theatre companies undertook for their play productions.  A proscenium (seating) arch rose high above the stage, positioning the players with an expansive picture frame and separating them from the audience. Massive painted curtains sets that shifted between the scenes and lavish costumes created sumptuous atmospheres filled with exotic images. Gaslights placed on the apron of the stage lit the players from below accentuating their gestures in an uncanny way. Seats arranged by class and row announced times for starting and stopping, and amenities such as refreshments rooms and intervals added a sense of decorum to the proceedings in the hall. Family shows where special performances for women were also a feature of the Parsi theatre’s popularity and growing respectability of the middle classes. Playhouses were set up so the children were tended by their ayas.

Kaikhashru Kabrajee.
Photograph courtesy: Zoroastrian Studies

Kaka Atakyo Bhatrijo Latakyo written, directed and performed by Nozer Buchia in Houston, Texas in 2003.
L to R: Kamarukh Gandhi, Peshotan Unwalla, Yasmin Medhora, Nozer Buchia, Persis Buchia, Kaizad Sunavala and Noshir Medhora

Emerging Middle Class Attend the Theatre
If the playhouse with its proscenium stage defined the interior spatial set-up, it also altered the older fluid geographies of performances. Beginning with the Grant Road Theatre, theatrical entertainments were located within particular zones of the city. Parsi theatre introduced new equations between leisure and location.

As Bombay developed from a colonial port into a major industrial center, the city’s theatre houses in their specific urban locations became indices of emerging social and cultural formations. A new class of Parsi merchant princes and influential citizens, the shetias, liked to think themselves as cultural agents in the metropolis. They were savvy investors and profited by their investments in the theatrical world. Simultaneously it laid the foundation for much broader class participation. Parsi theatre companies were largely financed by shetias who bought and sold shares in them and stood to gain or loose sizeable amounts of money. The Parsi theatre depended heavily on the emerging middle class of Bombay for its audience and corpus of dramas.

A new theatre, the Gaiety Theatre, was built near Victoria Terminus. From the early days, there was geographical separation between the European business and residence in the south in the Fort area to the Native town in the north. Gradually, wealth merchants, particularly Parsis, Banias and Bohras, dominated the northern part of the Fort. These affluent residents were among the first Indians to evince an interest in theatre, and they were well situated to observe the fondness of the British for the stage.

After the great fire of 1803, which destroyed much of the northern Fort district, Indian merchants were encouraged to inhabit a separate Native Town. A significant reclamation project was the completion of Grant Road in 1839. Another theatre came on the scene. It was known as the Theatre Royal or simply the Play House (Pila Haus), a sole building on the street at the time of its opening. According to K N Kabraji, the influential journalist, it stood “as an oasis in the desert”.

Behind the Scenes: Parsi Theatre Innovators and Notable Actors
Kaikhashru N Kabraji (1842-1904), an eminent journalist who edited the Gujarati newspaper Rast Goftar, established the Victoria Theatrical Company. A man of many talents- author, journalist, playwright, actor, singer, and director – he possessed the ability to develop and polish the different facets of a theatrical performances. He perhaps more than any other of his contemporaries, recognized the usefulness of theatre as an instrument for social change. For him, theatre could, through its themes, highlight the evils prevalent in society and simultaneously instill new values that were keeping with the times. He brought idealism, altruism, and enthusiasm to the theatre, which until then was considered disreputable.

Parsi theatrical production based on Ancient Iranian History, Bombay, India, early 20th century

Dadbhai Sorabji Patel
Kabraji was succeeded by Dadbhai Sorabji Patel who brought innovative ideas to it. It was he who produced the first Urdu musical play “Benazir Babremunir”. This delighted members of the Bohra, Khoja and Memon communities;  he also took the bold step of introducing women on stage. Parsi plays were performed in different parts of India, and troupes went to Burma and Singapore too.  Performances of “Harishchandra” and “Alauddin” in London were graced by the presence of Queen Victoria and Edward VII and appreciated by them. The growth of the middle-class audience was aided and abetted by Bombay’s assorted English and Gujarati newspapers, which displayed paid advertisements, commented avidly on performances and created a continuous furor of debate and sensation around the fledging theatre.

As Parsi theatre entered the phase of professionalism in the 1870’s, more of the actors were drawn from Bombay’s lower classes, and class differentiation among the audience appears to have increased. Kavasji Khatau, Jehangir Khambatta and other actors are known to have lived in the narrow lanes of Dhobi Talao, a poor district centrally located in the city.

Truly remarkable is the career of Jehangir Khambatta, who set out for London as a stowaway to see Shakespeare onstage, landed up in Java where he saw Othello acted by an Australian touring company, and went onto be a legendary man of the theatre.


Parsi play directors and actors were often feted publicly for their talent and contributions. In Allahabad, the Governor Sir Charles Monroe presented gold medal to Sohrabji Ogra and a hundred gold coins.


The prices for admission of tickets ranged from Rs 2.50 – Rs 3 for a box to less than a Rupee for a place in the pit. As the base for Parsi theatre broadened the audience would include Hindus, Muslims and non-Parsis spectators. The themes were now diversified. A bipartite structure of presentation was offered. Skits and farces whose performance time was not fixed and which can be assumed to have catered to a lowbrow audience followed the main drama.


Prominent among the lower caste audience were soldiers and sailors. The military forces invested in promoting theatrical evenings as a harmless form of entertainment. Soldiers were distracted from visiting the red light areas.


A favourable reception was demonstrated by loud applause, shouting and demands that a song or dance be repeated “once more”. Multiple curtain calls and showering of artists with cash or gifts or inam were also common. Hurling of chappals, rotten fruit, empty liquor bottles and shouts of “shame shame” indicated disfavour. Given all the obstacles it is no wonder that theatre managers spoke of their successful performances as victories and begged their audiences through their prologues and prefaces to show mercy and favour them with kindness.


Parsi theatrical production featuring colorful dances of India. Bombay, India, early 20th century

Parsi Theatre in New Worlds
The Parsi Theatre took a new turn in post-independence India with the rise of the popular cinema.

The standard-bearers were Feroze Antia and Dr Ratan Marshall. Adi Marzban freed Parsi drama from the shackles of tradition and brought realism to the theatre. He was a playwright, director and actor and a script writer who received a UNESCO scholarship and studied at the Pasadena Playhouse in the United States.

The legacy of nataks continues. In the last year alone I have read of several Zarathushti associations around the world advertising nataks as fund raisers for their communities. Nozer Buchia and his troupe raised $20,000 for the Houston Zarathushti Heritage and Cultural Center. This troupe travels to Toronto and Dallas in the effort of raising local and Houston funds.

And what better can be said about our talents and or history then what Bombay Samachar wrote August 1, 2004:

“We may be stupidly xenophobic. We may not pay any heed to doomsday demographics. We may be the most foolish of all Zoroastrians. We may continue to persist with the Towers of Silence even when there is not a single vulture. We may be cantankerous. We may totter on the lunatic fringe. But none can fault our sense of humor - natural, original, open, unmelodious and self deprecatory.”

A Natak production in Mumbai, India, early 20th century

Works Cited:

www.Bharatiyadrama.com “Parsee Theatre.”  27 October 2004 http://bharatiyadrama.com/parsee.htm

Doshi, Saryu. “Of Costume and Sets: Parsi Theatre.” A Zoroastrian Tapestry: Art, Religion & Culture. By Pheroza J. Godrej and Firoza Punthakey Mistree. Mapin Publishing , 2003. 485‑491.

Hansen, Kathryn. “Parsi Theatre and the City: Locations, patrons, audiences.” Sarai Reader  2002: The Cities of Everyday Life.  2 October 2004 http://www.sarai.net/journal/02PDF/04spectacle/02parsi_theatre.pdf

Rivetna, Roshan. “On stage and screen.” FEZANA Journal Vol. 16, No.4, Winter 2003): pp 75-76.

Vaidyanathan, P V, Dr. “ The Dream Merchants”. www.screenindia.com. 29 August 2003 http://www.screenindia.com/fullstory.php?content_id=5694

[i] This article including photos were featured in the Winter 2004 issue of HAMAZOR - publication of World Zoroastrian Organization based in the UK - and was posted on vohuman.org on January 15, 2005 courtesy of its author, Mrs. Aban Rustomji  and of HAMAZOR.