From its inception in 1853, Parsi theatre rapidly developed into a mobile, company-based entertainment that reached across colonial and princely India and extended overseas into Southeast Asia. Like its counterparts in modern Bengali and Marathi, it employed the prevailing local languages, used the European-style proscenium with richly painted backdrop curtains and trick stage effects, and depended on spectacle and melodrama to create audience appeal.
Simultaneously, it ushered in the conventions and techniques of realism, marking the transition from stylized open-air presentations to a new urban drama. Although largely displaced by motion pictures after the advent of sound in the 1930s, Parsi theatre remains a vital component of the subcontinent’s cultural heritage, significant for its long-term impact on diverse regional theatrical styles and the popular cinema.
There is a great need for reliable information in English that would shed light on the history and practice of this important theatrical form. A vital source is a Hindi book that appeared in 1981, Somnath Gupt’s Parsi Thiyetar, the best single reference for the early period of Parsi theatre history. It covers the antecedent phase of English theatre in eighteenth-century Bombay and extends through the end of the nineteenth century. Gupt consulted a range of source materials in several Indian languages as well as in English. The type of material is diverse, including advertisements, reviews and letters from English and Gujarati newspapers; early autobiographies and memoirs; and compendia of theatre lore published in Gujarati and Urdu.
Through translation, editing and annotation, Kathryn Hansen has sought to make Gupt’s Parsi Thiyetar-one of the most frequently consulted studied of the seminal Parsi theatre form-available to the general reader and the theatre specialist, thus making way for further research.