Tiatr's Bombay Days

in Article
Published on: 20 October 2016

Dr. Kyoko Matsukawa

Dr. Kyoko Matsukawa is Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the Department of Sociology, Konan University, Kobe, Japan.

My association with Goa started in 1997. I finished my MA in Cultural Anthropology in Japan (my thesis was on the status of Christianity in India in the past and present). I had to decide on another topic for further fieldwork and research –- a kind of rite of passage in the discipline. I had already made up my mind to go to India as I wanted to see how Christianity was being practiced there today. A professor from Kyoto University suggested that Goa might be an interesting place for me. So I visited Goa briefly and fell in love with the place and its people. Eventually, I ended up spending 18 months in Goa between April 2000 and September 2001.


My fieldwork was mainly on the multilingual situation of Goan society. In my Ph.D. thesis I examined the connection between the social and cultural structure of Goa and the use of languages among people: Konkani, Marathi, Portuguese and English. I focused on the late 1980s during which the Konkani movement had intensified. In the course of my research, I realized that I was in fact examining the transformation of Goan society from a Portuguese colony to a part of independent India. The plight of Konkani today reflects the socio-cultural issues of Goan society.1 In recent years, my research interest shifted towards how Konkani ties people together inside and outside Goa. It appeared to me that I could get further insight into this by looking at the past and present of Konkani theatre, tiatr.

My First Encounter with Tiatr
It was a few days before the feast of Our Lady of Merces Church in November 2000. I had moved into an apartment of a Christian couple as a paying guest in July. We were relaxing in the living room in the evening when someone knocked at the door and the vicar of the church came in. He requested uncle and aunty (as I would refer to the Christian couple) to purchase some tickets for a ‘drama’. They bought three tickets. On the evening of the feast we went to the church compound where a makeshift stage was set up. My ticket had “NON-STOP-TIATR” written on it. The title of the drama was Nixannim. Although I could not follow the comic parts too well, I understood the main storyline. A young woman was pregnant but her lover left her and married another woman. She felt desperate and after giving birth to a baby boy, left for the Gulf leaving her child in the care of her neighbour. The boy was sold to a family and grew up into a fine young man without knowing his true mother. The story revolved around the son’s encounter with his mother when she returned from the Gulf.

The performance was well received by the audience. They clapped and whistled at the comedians who satirized Goan politicians (in that evening’s performance, the then-recently resigned Chief Minister of Goa, Francisco Sardinha was bitterly criticized). This encounter with tiatr left a deep impression on me. I realised that I could learn a lot about Goa from tiatrs!

After that I started to watch tiatr performances in earnest. I imagine it must have been strange for people to see a Japanese woman attending theatre halls like Kala Academy in Panaji and Gomant Vidya Niketan in Margao alone and laughing at comedies in Konkani!

From Goa to Bombay
While gaining more knowledge about tiatr my desire to go to Bombay grew. It is well-known that the first tiatr, Italian Bhurgo, was staged by Lucasinho Ribeiro on Easter Sunday, April 17, 1892, in the city. What intrigued me was the socio-historical background of the birth of this unique drama form.

The nineteenth-century witnessed the growth of business in the city. The first cotton-textile mills were established in the 1850s. The start of the American Civil War in 1861 was a boon for Bombay. America’s supply of cotton to Europe was halted and the Lancashire textile industry became dependent on Indian cotton, which was exported through Bombay. The prosperity of the city attracted a workforce from the Konkan region and other parts of Maharashtra as well as traders from Gujarat (Prakash 2010).

Bombay became a vibrant place open to new styles and technologies, not just economically but culturally as well. Parsi theatre was one of the products of this era. It found patronage in prominent merchants such as Jagannath Shankarset and Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy. The former donated a building site for the Grant Road Theatre, which soon became the centre of Indian theatrical performances. The Parsi theatre introduced a proscenium arch, massive painted curtains and gaslights. As Kathryn Hansen says, “Theatricality had suddenly reached a new level” (2002: 40-41). At the same time Bombay became the destination for itinerant music troupes. As Naresh Fernandes shows in his work, Taj Mahal Foxtrot, the first opera company visited Bombay in 1864 and later, in the first part of the twentieth-century, well-known American jazz musicians toured Bombay and their performances were received with great enthusiasm among the locals (Fernandes 2012).

The migration of Goan to Bombay took place in this context. By the time Ribeiro staged his tiatr, a considerable number of working-class Goans had already been employed as waiters, butlers, cooks, servants, tailors, musicians and governesses in the city. After Ribeiro, Joao Agostinho Fernandes (fondly referred to as ‘Pai Tiatrist’), Saib Rocha and J.P. Souzalin wrote original scripts and established the standard form of the play. The above mentioned working-class migrants were their principal audience.

In 2010, I embarked on a project to create a short film on tiatr. I felt it was necessary to capture the memories of the Bombay days, especially of the ‘golden phase of the stage’ from the 1930s to the 1970s, as André Rafael Fernandes calls it (2010). Two years later I had an opportunity to travel to Mumbai and visit the places where Goan migrants used to live and tiatr activities took place.

I was very fortunate to become acquainted with Cyriaco Dias, the veteran artist who was actively involved in those days. He also appeared in Amchem Noxib and Nirmon, the popular Konkani films produced by Frank Fernand in 1963 and 1966 respectively. Cyriaco agreed to guide me during this phase of documentation. We were joined by Gasper D’Souza, a video journalist and friend of mine. We began our documentation on August 29, 2012.

The Memories of Tiatr’s Bombay Days
On our way to meet the veteran tiatrists Betty Naz and Antonette Mendes that evening, Cyriaco told us anecdotes of another legend of the stage, C. Alvares. On the Saturdays that he was free, Cyriaco visited Alvares’s house to dictate plays. Before narrating the stories, Alvares always had a perfect idea about them. Cyriaco worked with him from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm. They resumed after lunch and by 7:30 or 8:30 pm, a script of a tiatr, with seven cantars (songs) included, was ready. It was not necessary to rewrite it.

Memories of Alvares were still vivid among the Bombay artists. Antonette too told me of how hospitable he was. Whenever he found his friends in a restaurant he beckoned to them saying, ‘Yo re!’, and treated everyone. He was always a generous person, limiting his own share from the ticket sales to a bare minimum.

The next day, we began tracing the venues where tiatrs were performed in the 1960s and 1970s. The image of the Princess Theatre at Bhangwadi was still fresh in the mind of the Bombay tiatrists. Kaiwan Mehta mentions in his book, that Bhangwadi derived its name from the many retail opium shops that lined the gateway and courtyard (Mehta 2009). The hall, which used to be located on Kalbadevi Road had been demolished a long time ago. An apartment building now stood in its place.

Nearby, the Edward Theatre where the film Amchem Noxib had been screened was still standing. At its entrance a huge palanquin-bearing elephant greeted us. Gujarati Parsi plays were actively staged here in the nineteenth-century. According to Cyriaco Dias, “If an artist performed on the stage of the Bhangwadi, it was like you passed an exam. You could then act on whichever stage.” There was a square cut in the centre of the stage. It was the stage elevator, which Cyriaco Dias had also operated. “There was a beauty in the hall. You could make wonders,” he said. The capacity of the hall was 848. The shows took place on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Other tiatrists too, like Titta Pretto, Antonette Mendes, Betty Naz and Betty Ferns described their memories of the hall. Titta particularly associated the venue as the launchpad to his career as an artist. He told me how at the age of thirteen or fourteen he ran and got into a tram to watch Miguel Rod’s Ghorachem Kestanv at the Bhangwadi.

After Bhangwadi, we went to Dhobi Talao. Here we visited Jer Mahal (the music shop, B. X. Furtado & Sons occupies the ground floor of the building). The building was constructed in 1914 and has housed the largest number of Goan clubs, according to Dr. Teresa Albuquerque (2012: 20). It was at a streetside here that migrant Goan musicians once sat waiting for their employers. At the iconic Kyani Restaurant, also situated on Jer Mahal’s ground floor, Cyriaco Dias enjoyed bread pudding with C. Alvares, Remmie Colaco and others.

When we went down Jagannath Shankar Seth Road a man approached us. It was Rex Fernandes, the proprietor of Rorex Tours and Travels. Adjacent to his shop was Cosma & Co., the ticket selling point of the tiatrs. Rex Fernandes had recognized Cyriaco Dias. Since Rex happened to be a member of the nearby Grand Club of Cortalim, he showed us around the inside of the club. Many Goans resided in such kudds. They were the main audience for tiatr performances. Even artists stayed there. Minguel Rod too had been a resident at the club. Apparently, even after the light-out time of 10:00 pm, he kept penning his tiatr scripts in the loft with the dim light of a candle.

We continued hunting for places where tiatrs used to be performed. Public halls such as the Royal Opera House, R. L. Tejpal Hall (now called Gokuldas Tejpal Auditorium, used mostly for Gujarati dramas) in Gowalia Tank, Birla Hall in Dhobi Talao, Ravindra Natya Mandir in Prabhadevi, etc. There had also been open-air performances at venues such as the Rang Bhavan in Dhobi Talao and Victoria Gardens (Jijamata Udyaan). School and church halls too were common venues for tiatr performances such as St. Xavier’s College in Dhobi Talao, St. Mary’s School in Mazagaon and Gloria Church in Byculla. For instance, the handbill of Alvares’s 1977 tiatr, Athantlim Kanknnam tells us that the drama was staged at Damodar Hall (Parel), St. Mary’s Hall, Birla Hall, Ravindra Mandir, St. Anthony’s Hall (Vakola), Bhaidas Hall (Vile Parle), St. Peter’s Hall (Bandra) and Tejpal Hall from August 6-17. The tickets cost from Rs. 4 to Rs. 6.

Inside the compound of the Gloria Church stands a small kiosk called the ‘Jack of All Stall’ where people used to buy tickets. The owner told us that the number of Goans in the congregation –- once 2,000 –- had been decreasing. His father used to be a contractor and arranged shows at St. Mary’s hall three times a day on Sundays. He still sells tickets for Menino de Bandar’s dramas but it is difficult to find an audience. Titta Pretto said, as a contractor, he had arranged for many new halls. Until the 1990s many shows were staged but after that the centre of tiatr shifted to Goa.

At the end of our journey, I had the opportunity to interview the Bombay tiatrists. We visited the Late Prem Kumar’s place on the second floor of a crowded building in Mumbai Central. His wife, Ramona spoke to us about her husband’s enthusiasm for tiatrs. She used to type his scripts at home. She sometimes accompanied him to a neighbourhood hotel to note down plots and dialogue. A special seat was reserved for him at the hotel. Even very late in the night, whenever good ideas came into his mind, he got out of bed and she would write down whatever he told her. He would bind all of his scripts and she showed us the specially bound script of Vauraddi.

Betty Ferns told us about her experiences too. She remembered that Prem Kumar’s Jivit Ek Sopon was staged at Bhangwadi time and again. At times a houseful performance at night was followed by a houseful performance the next day. Sometimes there was no time to print tickets and a piece of paper was given as a ticket. Antonette remembered Prem Kumar as a unique director. She told us how he put live snakes on the stage in Angounn.

There were snakes hanging here and there and she had to pass through them. She was very scared but Prem Kumar said, “They will not eat you, they will never bite you.” As such, he brought many innovations on the Konkani stage (Mazarello 2000: 127-129).

We also visited Ophelia D’Souza’s house in Mahim where Titta, Ophelia, Antonette, Rita Rose and Betty Naz got together. Make-up man, Caiti, also told us about his engagement with the artists. We travelled to Malad to meet Succorine Fizardo too. They all emphasized the team spirit between them. Betty Naz recalled those days saying, “Ami jedna Bomboy savn Gõyam vetaleanv tedna ami eka ghoran ravtalim, ek famil koxi ani sogllim ami borem enjoy kortaleanv. Ek bhav-boinni koxim ami sogllim barabor astaleanv, tiatrak voita astana amkam ek bos astali. Sogllim ami bosan vetalim ani ietalim ani bore amche dis voitale Gõyam astana. (When we came to Goa from Bombay, we usually stayed in one house as a family and really enjoyed ourselves. We were like brothers and sisters. We would go for the tiatr and come back together by bus. While we were in Goa our days passed with joy.)” The strong bond they used to have among them is still evident.

This affection and love for Goa and Goans is certainly at the heart of the popularity of tiatrs in Goa even today (although many worry about its commercialization). Some efforts have been made to record Bombay Goenkars’ stories from that era (Martins 2014). However, there is scope for more work to be done in order to preserve the memories of tiatr’s Bombay days. If possible, I would like to make another trip to Mumbai to listen to more stories.

I would like to express special thanks to Cyriaco Dias for all the assistance he gave me in Mumbai. I am grateful to the tiatrists I mentioned in the essay for telling me their memories of tiatr‘s Bombay days: Antonette, Betty Ferns, Betty Naz, Ophelia, Rita Rose, Succorine, Titta Pretto. The late Prem Kumar’s wife, Ramona and the make-up man, Caiti, too shared their stories with me. I also would like to thank Gasper D’Souza for capturing nice images of Bombay and shooting my interviews with the tiatrists. Several students of the Department of Sociology, Goa University helped me by transcribing and translating my interviews. Thank you.

Albuquerque, Teresa, 2012, Goan Pioneers in Bombay, Saligao and Panjim: Goa 1556 and Broadway Publishing House.

Fernandes, André Rafael, 2010, When Curtains Rise…: Understanding Goa’s Vibrant Theatre, Panaji: Tiatr Academy of Goa/Goa, 1556.

Fernandes, Naresh, 2012, Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age, New Delhi: Roli Books.

Hansen Kathryn, 2002, “Parsi Theatre and the City: Locations, patrons, audiences”, Sarai

Reader 2002: The Cities of Everyday Life, pp. 40-48.

Martins, Reena (comp and ed), 2014, Bomoicar: Stories of Bombay Goans, 1920-1980, Saligao: Goa 1556 in association with Golden Heart Emporium.

Mazarello, Wilmix Wilson, 2000, 100 Years of Konkani Tiatro, Panaji: Government of Goa, Directorate of Art & Culture.

Mehta, Kaiwan, 2009, Alice in Bhuleshwar: Navigating a Mumbai Neighbourhood, Mumbai: Yoda Press.

Prakash, Gyan, 2010, Mumbai Fables: A History of an Enchanted City, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

1. I obtained my Ph.D. from Osaka University, Japan in 2006. I brought out a book in Japanese based on the thesis in February 2014, which is entitled, Watashitati no kotoba” no yukue: Indo, Goa shakai niokeru tagengojyokyo no jinruigaku, in English, it can be translated as The Plight of “Our Language: Anthropology of the Multilingual Situation in Goa, India. Further information on the book can be found at http://ci.nii.ac.jp/ncid/BB15551938

I have published two articles on the language issue of Goa in English. They can be found at the links provided below.

‘Konkani and ‘Goan Identity’ in Post-colonial Goa, India’, The Journal of the Japanese Association for South Asian Studies, vol.14, 2002

‘The Formation of Local Public Spheres in a Multilingual Society: The Case of Goa, India’, in The Journal of the Japanese Association for South Asian Studies, vol.17, 2015