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The World is a Stage

While complete assimilation and Europeanization was attempted by a few very well-placed and well connected native Christian families (who were professionals such as lawyers, doctors, and educators) and while administrators began to share the power and the prestige of the colonial elite, the majority of the Christian population retained elements of their pre-Christian indigenous traditions in some form or other as part of their newly evolving culture.

Among the numerous cultural performances of Goa partaking of both indigenous and European transplanted traditions, the most popular and vibrantly alive is the Konkani language tiatr. It is a form which is rooted in the working-class and lower middle-class Goan Catholic population living in Goa or outside expressing their trials and tribulations, hopes, and aspirations.

Tiatr is a unique performing arts genre. It has elements of drama, music, comedy, and improvisation. In a typical tiatr performance there is a loose story line, which runs through the show. It is punctuated by ‘side shows’: irreverent and improvisational material consisting of songs – solos, duets, choruses (cantars), dances, comic skits, and monologues, all this to the accompaniment of a very loud Goan brass band which sits between the audience and the performance.

The plots of these dramas are contemporary. For the most part the situations are set within the framework of family and domestic life. Their structure is episodic, each individual scene being a more or less independent unit within an ongoing generalized framework. They play upon the emphatic responses of the audience – especially of the women. The plays work within a strictly Goan Christian moral context and reflect a complex set of attitudes which include, amongst others, an intense regional or national pride of Goa and things Goan, a strong belief in the sanctity of family life, and an abiding faith in God and his church.

Actors: C. D’Silva & Clara; Year: Not known; Photo credit: Not known
(From the collection of Fausto V. da Costa)

The language of the tiatr is Konkani as it is spoken in the Bardez district. But the relationship between tiatr and Konkani is much deeper. Tiatr can be said to be a celebration of Konkani. For tiatr audience, Konkani is not merely a language, a medium of communication, but a cause, a totemic symbol, a flag to rally around in fighting battles with the establishment and authority. All tiatr performances, the most enthusiastic and rousing response is reserved for ‘cantorists’ (singers) who stand up and call the Konkani speakers to rouse themselves to fight battles for Mother Konkani, so that she gets her rightful place as an official language in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitutions [which was eventually granted and Konkani now is a part of the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India].

In spite of the immense popularity of the tiatr, not enough attention has been paid to it by critics, scholars, or researchers. The few articles in the English and Konkani popular press are somewhat cursory and superficial, given to quick overviews and incantation of well-known names of writers and performers. This neglect is partly due to the scorn with which an influential section of the Goan population regards this popular entertainment as being a vulgar expression of low taste.

The very fact that tiatr is the most vibrantly alive, and commercially successful theatrical entertainment of the Goans demands serious attention and inquiry into what makes it so popular. The popularity of this form suggests the existence of a shared, common code of values, attitudes, perceptions of the self and World between the encoders (the performers) and the decoders (the audience). These signs and symbols, forming the common code, are a part of the context (the historical background, the social and cultural institutions) and the text (tiatr performances themselves).

Actor: Succurine; Year: Not known; Photo credit: Not known
(From the collection of Fausto V. da Costa)

The study looks upon theater primarily as a social institution and upon communication in theater as a social act. Although theatrical performance has many elements in common with other public performance such as the circus, magic, ritual, acrobatic, and martial art displays, in tiatr the enactment (mimetic presentation) of a story through action, words, and music appears to be the most important constituent of theatrical performance.

Tiatr and Konkani
Joao Agostinho’s tiatr was a reformist movement of the last decade of the nineteenth-century. Agostinho, was himself a charado,1 and an educated man. It was his disgust with the vulgarity of the zagors performed in Bombay by the Goan clubs for more than three quarters of a century before him that led him to experiment with and launch a new form of theatrical presentation. Although the text of his plays are not extant,2 from the praise they received from being high-minded and moral (as against later tiatrs which are condemned like the earlier zagors, which they were supposed to replace, as being vulgar and cheap, pandering to low castes) one can assume that the language used for dialogue was a refined version of the Bardezi dialect. The language of tiatr even today is Bardezi no doubt, but it is not the Bardezi of the actual colloquial speech. It is a stage Bardezi (written and spoken mostly by Salcette writers and actors) delivered in intonation patterns and cadences which have more to do with the convention and artifice of the stage than the actual speech of the people.

It is in the sideshows that the comedians use and play with the colloquial and natural elements of the language. It must be mentioned that the more popular Khel-tiatrs of the present day show a tendency towards naturalism in dialogue. The Hindu Konkani, the so-called Antruzi dialect espoused by V. R. Varde Valaulicar (Shennoy Goembab) as a literary vehicle has had very little to do with the Konkani used in the past and present in the performance of tiatr.

Konkani used in tiatr is thus a stage language based partly on the actual speech of the Bardez Catholics and partly on the high-sounding, declamatory, formal Konkani adopted for public discourse especially from the pulpit. This artificiality does not seem to affect adversely the popularity of tiatr. The new Konkani drama (nattok), on the other hand consciously using the rhythms of usual colloquial Konkani seems to have very little popular appeal as performance, though respected as literature.

Tiatr and Khel- tiatr
Tiatr and khel-tiatr performers can be roughly divided into two categories: the commercial and the amateurs. The commercial tiatrists look upon tiatr primarily as a money-making activity.

The tiatr troupes are organized on an ad hoc basis. There are no permanent companies or repertoire. The town of Margao in Salcette taluka is the organizational centre for tiatr and related activity. Since the nineteenth-century, Margao has been proud of its honorific title, the Athens of Goa. There might be some significance in the flowering of Konkani tiatr in close proximity of its civic facilities.

Actors: Rico Rod, Cecelia Machado, Sabina & Titta Pretto; Year: Not known; Photo credit: Not known
(From the collection of Fausto V. da Costa)

There are various networks formed on the basis of a common or shared village background schooling or kinship. For example, currently there are many popular khel-tiatrs, which have originated from the village of Benaulim. There appear to be at least five successful khel-tiatrists writing in and working from Benaulim. It should be noted that the ‘commercial’ tiatrists often denigrate these successful money-making as opportunistic amateurs who pack the troupes with their family members.

At the other end of the spectrum there are serious, dedicated amateurs who shun money-making practices, look upon tiatr as an instrument of non-formal education and social change. These are ‘serious reformers’ who deplore the slipshod methods, lack of education and social purpose of the commercial tiatrists. Where the commercial tiatrists have already a couple of rehearsals before they open the show, the ‘serious reformers’ have three weeks or more of rehearsals. Whereas the commercial tiatrist do not bother themselves with the publication of their scripts once the run is over, at least one ‘serious reformer’ has taken the trouble to publish scripts.3

Besides the ‘serious reformers’ we have another group of amateurs who are generally the younger and more enthusiastic member of the village communities or town wards (or neighborhoods). They enter the annual competition of Amateur Tiatr organized by the Kala Academy in Panjim and perform heroically, if not skillfully to an audience which has come – if at all it has – to jeer than cheer. For the most part these are teenage and young adult tiatr fans, who dream of making a breakthrough into the commercial world of tiatr at village feasts.

The rewards in commercial tiatr are high for those who make it. The highest payment per performance for the top tiatrists is Rs. 300.4 At present there are only three or four tiatrists who command such fees. It should be remembered that a successful performance might be staged at five different places in Goa from 10 am to 12.30 am during a single day. A star tiatrist with stamina stands to make as much as Rs. 1500 during the day. For the band or musicians, the average pay per performance is Rs. 100. The individual members of the band who are recruited locally are paid much lower rates.

Although tiatrs are performed throughout the year, the summer holiday season (April-June) and Diwali-Christmas-Carnival season (October-February) are the two main seasons. These are the seasons when expatriate Goans return to Goa; many as audiences but sometimes also as performers. During this season the tiatrs, which originate in Bombay, tour the home counties combining business with pleasure.

Like the municipal square in Margao, Dhobi Talao area in Bombay is the centre of Goan cultural life and during the rainy season there is more tiatr activity in Bombay than in Goa.

A tiatr performance is generally initiated by a single individual who is often a writer or actor or director or, more generally, a combination of all these. This individual either writes or gets hold of a script and contacts persons from his network for their participation. Since these performers are participating in a number of tiatrs at the same time, besides having full time jobs, the juggling of their schedules and dates for performance become the primary responsibility of the initiator/producer. Creative abilities and artistic aspirations have constantly to be subsumed to managerial skills. It is no wonder that often the whole cast meets for the first time at the first performance.

Actors: Wilson Mazarello (Wilmix) & Joe Rose; Year: 1989; Photo credit: Not known
(From the collection of Fausto V. da Costa)

The contractor is the most important person in the business of tiatr. Contractors come from all walks of life. There are contractors who are shopkeepers and there are contractors who are officers in the Goa police. Barring one star tiatrist who is a good businessman as well, all other tiatrists have to depend on the contractor for an assured income.

The contractor is responsible for the rental of the theatre, the audio system and publicity. He pays a lump sum to the initiator–leader which for tiatr averages Rs. 6000 per performance and for khel-tiatr Rs. 4000 per performance. His income for a capacity house of 2000 in a temporary shed is estimated to be Rs. 17,000 and for a full house of 1000 seats in a permanent theatre to be Rs. 10,000.

The expenses which the initiator/producer/author/director has to meet through the lump sum payment are payments for artists, band or musicians, make-up, prompter, setting and props, and light effects.

On an average, a run of fifty performances is considered to be a fair one. The runaway hit of the current season (in 1986), a domestic melodrama, based on a real life event had already passed the 150 mark and returned from a tour of the Gulf countries.

The Performances
Tiatr and khel-tiatr performances are staged at the permanent theatres available in Margao, Panjim, and Mapusa. They are also staged at the numerous village feasts and festivals held in honor of the patron saints of various village communities [see the handbill section]. There is a marked difference between the spirit and composition of the audiences in towns and villages. Tiatr performances in towns or villages are known for their tardiness. The festive audience is also more enthusiastic, demanding and outspoken in their responses. The cantars, which they like, are given encores so many times that they have a tendency to become real show-stoppers. The performances at town theaters have constraints of time and place and as such are comparatively tamer and less free-flowing.

Cantars (songs) are the most essential elements of the performance of tiatr. These cantars are composed and set to music by the cantorists (singers) themselves. Often these songs are written and improvised for the particular occasion. A short briefing to the musicians in the band before the performance is all that the cantorist needs. The thrust of the cantars is social and political criticism. The main targets are politicians in power and their corrupt practices. The tone is satirical but quite often virulent, harsh, and stringent, bordering on personal attack. As they express the anger and frustration of the powerless (Catholic) common man of Goa they elicit an overwhelming response from the audience.

Actors: Rico Rod & Paul Rommy; Year: Not known; Photo credit: Not known
(From the collection of Fausto V. da Costa)

Cantars also criticize Goans for failing to be good Goans and good Christians. The cantars which open tiatr performances are generally devoted to extolling the virtues of the Konkani language, reprimanding and scolding the Goans for neglecting their mother tongue.

The plays, generally speaking, are domestic melodramas (with a great deal of simulated physical violence a la Hindi film added) or soap operas (with a great deal of tear jerking material and sob stuff). There are two subplots in the manner of Victorian novels which may or may not converge in the end.

In the choice of themes and plots as well as in treatment, presentation and acting, the main influence in tiatr is that of the popular Hindi cinema. The ‘serious reformers’ referred to earlier, deplore this influence and would like tiatr to be more naturalistic and ‘socially relevant’, like Marathi drama.

Actors: Bab Peter, Prem Kumar, Ophelia, and unidentified girl (extreme right); Year: Not known; Photo credit: Not known
(From the collection of Fausto V. da Costa)

The plots of tiatr have generally championed the cause of the poor and the downtrodden, of the powerless against the powerful, of the munddkar (tenant) against the bhatkar (landlord) [see the handbill section wherein a tiatr by C. Alvares makes a similar claim]. This might be considered a natural extension of the Christian ideals of compassion. In political terms, however, this never extended to the conflict between the rulers and the ruled. Before 1961, tiatr was never a theatre of political protest. Tiatr and tiatrist, during the colonial rule, accepted the Portuguese rulers and the special benefits accrued to being citizens of Portuguese Goa.

Since liberation in 1961 things have changed in this respect. Tiatr now has a growing element of political protest as well as social protest. The cantorists who receive most applause are those who lampoon politics and politicians.

Tiatr is a dynamic performance genre. Its form and content constantly change in response to changes to popular taste as measured by commercial success. The traditional tiatr with its star performers currently seems to have become a somewhat tired vehicle. Khel-tiatr (non-stop) also has produced a number of commercial flops which tried to follow the successful formula of sensational action-suspense melodramas. Perhaps, the trend is towards integration of the improvisational comic sideshow material from the traditional tiatr into the plot and themes of khel-tiatr’s direct dramatic format.

During the last twenty-five years Goan society has undergone radical changes. II Vatican Council has liberalized the outlook of the Catholic Church. Political integration into the Indian Union has ended the isolation and stagnation of colonial dependency. It also has brought about feelings of frustration, felt more keenly by the traditional elites and the new rich migrant workers from the Gulf countries who feel that their space is being taken by outsiders.

Actors: Mary Vaz (L) Shalini Mardolkar (R); Year: Not known; Photo credit: Not known
(From the collection of Fausto V. da Costa)

There are also signs of changes in the Goan ethos. Portuguese is no more the language of public discourse. Goans are realizing that the Catholic Church is not a mere Portuguese or European phenomenon but a global institution with large number of Catholics living in conditions of privation and exploitation in third world countries. Some Goans have taken the trouble to go through the records of parish Churches to trace and adopt family names. Many more are choosing Sanskritic names for their children. Inter-caste and inter-faith marriages, though not commonplace, are being accepted. There are more Goan pilgrims visiting Our Lady of Vailankanni in Tamil Nadu than Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal. Fado and Portuguese music as well as Latin-African rhythms of the ’40s and ’50s are fast fading.

There are these signs of an epochalist attitude which are balanced by a search for Goan identity, an essentialist quest. Konkani language, of course, is a key factor in defining Goan identity. It would be wrong to dismiss tiatr as an outcome of cheap commercialism. Tiatr is a genuine expression of popular culture which juxtaposes and balances the epochalist and essentialist values and attitudes of Goan society.

Note: The endnotes are not by the author.

1. The group that is below the Brahmins and above the Shudras, amongst Goan Catholics.

2. In more recent times, some manuscripts of Joao Agostinho Fernandes’ tiatrs have come to light and are deposited in the library of the Goa Konkani Akademi, Panjim, Goa. The reader can find a discussion of some of his plays in André Rafael Fernandes, When the Curtains Rise.

3. With the establishment of the Tiatr Academy of Goa and the Dalgado Konknni Akademi, many scripts have been published and are available either for reference or purchase. But the complaint of tiatrists not being proactive in publishing their scripts is frequently made by those who place a premium on documenting the history of tiatr for future generations.

4. No doubt, the fee or payment has increased by leaps and bounds today.