The curtains of the spare, elegant sitting room have been drawn against the April sun, and the noise of traffic on the busy Veer Nariman Road is muted. A fan whirs over us, but apart from its soft susurration, the only sound in the room is that of Sam Kerawala singing, “Tu kyaan gayi mari, wahli? (Where have you gone, my dear?)”. Perched on the edge of a sofa, the Mumbai theatre veteran is trying to give us an idea of the treatment that Shakespeare would have once got in Parsi theatre — lots of songs and generous dollops of irreverent Parsi humour. The 84-year-old says he doesn’t recollect which play it was. “I was only a tiny tot, you see. I didn’t even realise that what I was watching was based on Shakespeare,” he says. All he knew was that once the curtains went up, it was time to sit back and enjoy the histrionics, while munching on salted pistachios sold at the theatre. “Pistachios have become so expensive now,” he says, shaking his head ruefully.
In the years since the price of nuts skyrocketed, much has changed in Parsi theatre. Shakespeare, for instance, no longer inspires playwrights to touch the heights of farce. In the heyday of Parsi theatre, however, many of the Bard’s masterpieces, such as Othello, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Merchant of Venice were liberally harvested for laughs. The writers and directors of these plays didn’t feel the need to be weighed down by the great themes of betrayal, ambition, guilt and chaos explored in the original works.
The productions that Kerawala recalls watching were laugh riots, performed with gusto by the actors and loved by the audience. At least a few of these were by the legendary Adi Marzban who, veteran actor Burjor Patel recalls, brought his unerring sense of the comic and the absurd even to Shakespearean tragedies such as Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet — and turned them into parodies in the 1950s and 1960s.
Parsi theatre’s connection to Shakespeare goes further back, to the middle of the 19th century when modern Indian theatre was coming into its own. It was the first to adapt Shakespeare in an Indian language — Nathari Firangiz Thekani Avi (A Bad European Woman Brought to Sense) was most likely an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. According to playwright and scholar Sisir Kumar Das, whose essay “Shakespeare in Indian Languages” can be found in the book India’s Shakespeare, the text was in Gujarati and the play was staged in Surat in 1852. Keeping in mind the sentiments of the audience, the adaptation shied away from having an Indian version of Katherina as the titular shrew, choosing instead, to keep her European. Das writes, “The use of the title Nathari Firangiz is a clever device to appropriate the story that satisfies Indian male chauvinism without demeaning Indian womanhood, while underlining Indian criticism of the European female. It was important for the translator to remind his reader that Kate was not an Indian but a firangi.”
Parsi theatre was probably the first to realise the full commercial potential of Shakespeare and presented lavish productions, replete with music, elaborate costumes and backdrops and plenty of props. The locales and character names were suitably changed, comic situations were contrived in serious plays and the elements of Indian dance and music were incorporated into the narrative. Das writes, “In Parsi theatre versions of Shakespeare, one finds Portia singing passionate songs; Viola and Sebastian escaping in the opening scene of Twelfth Night in a train which, during a thunderstorm, plunges into the sea; Antony continuing to live after Cleopatra meets her violent death; King Lear is turned into a comedy, and the plots of Richard III and King John are fused into a single play.”
This Indianisation of the Bard of Avon would have been nothing short of revolutionary. As described in the essay “Shakespeare on the Stages of Asia” from The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Stage, this was after all an era when Kolkata’s English expatriate community was shocked to see “a real unpainted nigger Othello”, Bengali actor Baishnav Charan Auddy, who played the title role opposite English actress Mrs Anderson in 1848.
The audience lapped it up, often showering the the actors with gifts and money to show their appreciation. Parsi theatre companies produced versions of the Bard’s plays in Gujarati and Urdu, such as Har Jit (King Lear) by New Parsi Victoria Theatrical Company, or the many plays written by Agha Hashar Kashmiri, who was known as the “Shakespeare of Urdu”. Kashmiri formed the Indian Shakespeare Theatrical Company and wrote such adaptations as Murid-e-Shak (The Winter’s Tale) and Saeed-e-Havas (King John). The flag for Shakespeare in English was kept flying by a rare few, such as the dramatic club of Elphinstone College in Mumbai. As theatrical companies like the Victoria Natak Mandali grew more popular, many toured all over India, even going to Mandalay in Myanmar, Bangkok and Java. As Das writes, “It, of course, changed the characters and situations of Shakespeare plays beyond recognition, but the outcome was the growth of a new urban theatre of the masses.”
Actors gained fame for their roles, such as Pestanji Framji Madan who, with his beautiful face and sweet voice, was a popular choice for female roles. Sohrab Modi, one of the pioneers of Indian cinema, first found renown as a Shakespearean actor, performing in plays such as Khoon ka Khoon (Hamlet) and Saaed-e-Havas (King John).
In the 20th century, these Shakespeare adaptations strayed further and further away from the spirit of the source material, till writers mainly mined the original plays only for farce. Marzban was someone who did this extremely well, but he wasn’t the only one. As writer Meher Marfatia records in her book Laughter in the House: 20th Century Parsi Theatre, a theatre-for-charity tradition called Parsi Medical Amateurs, presented “outrageous spoofs of tragedies such as Hamlet no Omelette and Manchoo Macbeth”, first from 1917 to the 1950s, and then from 1970s to 1995. The pioneer of this tradition was Dr Jehangir Wadia, who also wrote, directed and acted in these plays, besides designing costumes and sets.
Kerawala, who helped out backstage as a boy, says, “Dr Wadia made Hamlet into a complete parody. In one scene, he showed the king sleeping on a couch. Then two characters come onstage with a huge funnel, like the ones used to pour petrol in tankers, and they try to kill him by pouring poison in his ears. That’s the beauty of Shakespeare’s plays. They are great story platforms. Once you have got the essence, you can do a lot with them.”