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Raising the curtain on Parsi theatre in Calcutta

This article is adapted and written by me based on an interview with Mr. Noshir Gherda in December 2010, which I was assigned to document for the Parzor Foundation. It first appeared in the Parsi Panorama souvenir publication released by Parzor at the India International Centre in March 2011 during a conference on Zoroastrian heritage and culture.

Mr. Noshir Gherda, December 2010

Early days

Parsis were the forerunners of the Modern Theatre movement in India in the 1850s, influenced by the European plays brought by the Raj. Amateur drama clubs originated in educational institutions, and the first Parsi theatre company, Parsi Natak Mandali, began in 1853. About twenty more companies followed over the next decade.

Parsi theatre, hugely popular in the last century, gradually fizzled out with the dawn of the new one. However, the Calcutta Amateur Dramatics Club, which celebrated its centenary in 2007, remained one of the few groups to hold annual performances. Today, Parsi theatre has become limited to its popular witty-farcical style but classics and historical plays are hardly performed.

Dr. Shernaz Cama and I visited Mr. Noshir Gherda in December 2010 at his daughter’s home in Delhi for an interview and a journey down memory lane. Eighty-eight years of age, Mr. Gherda is nonetheless no stranger to “modern” technology, and learnt how to use a computer because “everyone was doing it.” He agreed to humour us by recalling his tryst with the theatre and with the Club, even singing the opening song during our interview.

He was first asked to do a play, called Prince Charming, for his school when he was in the 4th standard, which started an annual trend. He fondly recalled his role in Shakespeare’s The Tempest – “I was Ariel. I flew through the air!” He acted every year in school, then at St. Xavier’s College, as well as St. Joseph’s College because the Fathers appreciated his talents. However, when he came to Calcutta in 1939, the Dramatics Club found his Gujarati to be too anglicised, and he didn’t get a chance to act until 1946 when he was enrolled at the Club by the then director, Behramsha Madan.

His accent remained a barrier, and initially all the roles he played were small ones like those of a policeman or detective. It was when his wife Katy became director in 1964 that he finally began to get bigger roles. “I preferred doing cameo roles rather than main roles; for one thing, main roles were very long to memorise. The cameo could stand out better,” he explained. His favourite cameo role was in a play based on the English drama Arsenic and Old Lace, in which he played the mad nephew who used to bury the bodies of the old people who had been poisoned.

Every year, at Pateti time, a play was done free of cost for the Parsi community by the Corinthian Theatre. This form of theatre thus started out as a tradition targeted mainly at the community. Later, to get funds, public paid performances were begun which were open to all. Initially sponsored and financed by Sethias, gradually they began to put out small advertisements to cover their expenses. The plays were initially performed at the Corinthian Theatre at 5, Dharmatala Street in Calcutta, which is today a cinema hall. Practice sessions were held every evening for two hours at the two-room premises on Bow Bazar Street, which were rented out to the Club for about 300 rupees a month. All the furniture, costumes and musical instruments were also housed here.

Enter women

It was only around 1956 that women members were introduced to the Club. When he joined in 1946, Mr. Gherda remembered it having only male members who also played female roles. He recalled wearing a sari and blouse for his role in Charlie’s Aunt, and chuckled while narrating an anecdote about Nariman Mehta, who used to act regularly as a girl. “Somebody…a Gujarati fellow fell in love with [him], and he insisted that ‘she’ was a lady, till he was taken backstage and ‘she’ took out her blouse!”

However, it was difficult to get men to act like girls and go through the bother of dressing up. He refers to the induction of women in the Club as a step toward modernisation. Amongst the ladies to put in their names as applicants was his future wife, Katy. She had an immensely successful career with the club and went on to become its director after Nariman Oonvala, a post she held for 18 years. “She made sure I learnt my part because I was a very naughty boy, never learnt my part till the last one week! But on stage I was perfect. I never let the club down,” said Mr. Gherda.

CADC image courtesy Parzor Foundation

Music and lines

Every performance was begun and ended with a song. The opening song was composed by Jehangir Polishwala in 1908, and was basically “an opening prayer.” The musical instruments employed during the performance were the pedal harmonium and tabla. All theatres had a small pit in front where the musicians sat. The music was never written down. “Behramsha (Madan) would play on the harmonium and give us the tune and the people would pick it up,” Mr. Gherda recalled.

All Parsi plays were in Gujarati. “In those days, everyone spoke Gujarati and they read Gujarati.” There would be one prompter’s copy which contained all the parts, and each individual actor had a copy with just his paragraphs and the touch word. Initially, these were hand-written by Jimmy Guzder, and later printed. Towards the end of the twentieth century, it became increasingly difficult to find people who could read Gujarati to act in the plays, and they began to transliterate them in English instead. The actors would then memorise the lines and perform.

The decline and then the loss of the bi-annual play in Calcutta has led to a weakening of the community feeling. “The Parsis always want a Gujarati play because they enjoy it, it’s something to go and see and also to meet a lot of people,” explained Mr. Gherda. The Club, however, is having problems finding plays as well as performers who are willing to come for regular rehearsals.

The Calcutta Amateur Dramatic Club celebrated its hundredth year in 2007, which was a remarkable achievement in the light of all these difficulties. As Mr. Gherda proudly claimed, “I think in the whole world, you won’t find any other dramatic club, amateur dramatic club, non-stop performing for one hundred years. Hail, rain or snow, we performed; curfew we performed, riot we performed.”