A five-member live orchestra near the stage strikes a high-decibel note even as the audience settles in. Soon after, a troupe gets on to the stage to sing Konkani songs. Each of the songs come with different social messages. Before the applause dies down, the curtain goes up to the first scene of a play. Laughter, claps and whistles follow almost every dialogue, until it’s time for the singers to take over, once again. And so it goes on for the next two-and-a-half hours: scenes of a single play interspersed with songs that have nothing to do with the play. The dialogues are straightforward, the jokes, at times, slapstick, the stage a tad tacky and the music far too loud. But the effortless performance and the social messages that come across keep the audience riveted. The magic of Tiatr, Goa’s traditional Konkani theatre form, is at work.
Tiatr deals with social issues ranging from substance abuse to civic laws and political issues. This particular play, Akantvadi Goeant Naka (Goa Doesn’t Want Terrorists), which talks about inter-caste marriages and how the communal harmony of the state is being threatened by hardliners, has been at the centre of a raging controversy in Goa. Even before it was first staged on August 9, members of a political party sought the arrest of its director and the play to be scrapped. If the controversy was unprecedented in the history of Tiatr, so were the reactions to it. Originally scheduled for four-five performances over a few weeks, the play is booked through October. “The episode marked a triumph of cultural freedom over political diktats,” says Tousif Sheikh, playwright and director, more popularly known as Tousif de Navelim.
On August 5, Sheikh received a threatening call, asking him to stop staging the play, whose theme was published by a local daily. Between August 5 and 8, he received 189 such calls. On August 9 at 2.45 am, Sheikh received the 190th call. “The caller said, ‘Go ahead and perform but after that we will kill you and your family and create bedlam in the state’,” says the 26-year-old. The last call made him rethink, and he decided to call off the show. The matter would have ended there, but for the people of Goa, who refused a refund of their tickets worth around Rs 100 and demanded that the play be staged. “This was quite unprecedented in the history of Goan theatre, as was what followed. Two hours later than the scheduled time, the Konkani play was finally staged in the presence of 70 constables, bomb detectors and two police jeeps in attendance to provide protection to my family and me,” says Sheikh.
The Tiatr tradition is at least 120 years old. It takes its name from the Portuguese word Teatro, which means theatre. The plot of a Tiatr is normally divided into six or seven parts, each called a “Pordho”, separated by songs or “Kantaram”. There are 12-15 songs in a play. The uniqueness of Tiatr lies in the fact that the story is based on a single theme, while each song has a different subject.
Goa has been in the news for the past few months with demands for a dress code for Goan beaches, and a ban on wearing bikinis, by various political leaders and parties. One of the parties, Shri Ram Sene, which hinted recently that it wants to set up a unit in the state, has also been blamed for fuelling communal tension by calling for an end to inter-caste marriages. “I strongly believe that Shri Ram Sene, with all its divisive ideas, should not come to Goa. My play openly says that Muslims are responsible for 9/11 and 26/11 attacks, but that doesn’t mean every Muslim is a terrorist. I think the audience likes this forthrightness,” says Sheikh, a Muslim married to a Christian, who first acted in a Tiatr in 2008. “We are fun-loving and open-minded, we should be left this way,” he adds.
While the Goa Kala Academy is currently hosting a month-long amateur Tiatr contest with over a dozen productions from the state participating, the Tiatr directory contains the names of some 500 artistes between the age of 10 and 75, who stay and work in Goa. “Goa has more than 25 Tiatr production companies. Earlier, we used to have about two productions per season but now each director does at least four. There are, at least, 800 Tiatr artistes in the state,” says Prince Jacob, chairman of the Tiatr Academy of Goa. Tiatr are usually staged between November and February.
Tomazinho Cardozo, a senior artiste, calls the Tiatr a mirror of the Goan society. “They highlight problems in the society through music that Goans love. Many of them talk of corruption in the system. No politician ever comes to see one, as they find themselves in it very often,” says the 61-year-old, with a grin.
Anil Kumar, 64, who makes a living out of performing in Tiatrs, feels the artistes need more government support. “I just get Rs 3,000 per month from the government,” he says. Jane Rebello, 50, who has been a Tiatr actor for 39 years now, however, would not exchange the modest earning for the perks of any other profession. For some like Hortencio Perriera, 61, it’s just a hobby. “Livelihood in place, I can live for my passion,” he says.
In November, Akantvadi Goeant Naka has been invited to London by the UK-based Goan community for a couple of performances. “I can’t thank the dissenters enough,” says Sheikh.