Thursday, April 14, 2011


The brass band (accompanied by a few electronic instruments today) strikes up for the third time. The auditorium fills with the vibrations of wind and percussion instruments. The curtains rise to reveal a suited man, wielding a mike, he paces the stage. The backdrop painted to resemble a garden or a park. Thus begins a tiatr, familiar and cherished by many Goans. Most of us are acquainted with this scenario, but what about the history of tiatr? Many of us don’t know much. As for me, I vaguely remember a Konknni textbook chapter in the VII standard highlighting a (brief) history of the tiatr.

But I encountered a welcome light on this vibrant and most loved Konknni drama in the form of Dr. André Rafael Fernandes’ researched book When the curtains rise…Understanding Goa’s Vibrant Konkani theatre. Dr. Fernandes reveals the history of tiatr: its birth and maturity, the challenges it faces and the numerous personalities (past and present) who have contributed to enriching this uniquely Goan art form. An interesting feature of this book is the exhaustive list of present day tiatrists given at the end of the book. Although the tiatr is 118 years strong and though roughly ten shows of tiatr are held every day in Goa, Dr. Fernandes cautions us about the onslaught of more glittering multimedia like cable and television making serious dents.
This book is important because it has given tiatr some (much needed?) legitimacy in the scholarly word. Dr. Fernandes traces the development of theatre in Goa. Theatre in the medieval times in Goa was mainly in the Portuguese language and themed on enacting the biblical scenes. The College of St. Paul’s took the lead in organizing plays in vernacular language in Goa.
Dr. Fernandes traces the origin of tiatr to the traditional khells/phells/fells and zagors performed in Goa from time immemorial. This khells traveled to Bombay with the immigrants and it is here that the tiatr was born. Exactly how the tiatr was born, I leave it up to you to find out (in the book)! Tiatr took birth due to the efforts of Lucasinho Rebeiro and João Agostinho Fernandes, who were disgusted by the vulgarity and ‘washing-the-dirty-linen-in-public’ attitude of the zagors. A history of theatre of Bombay is also traced to buttress the point as to why Konknni tiatr had to begin in that cosmopolitan city.

How can any Goan activity or festivity be complete without music? This reality comes forcefully to the fore, as the Goans’ love and mastery for music had a major role to play. A large part of tiatr (past and present) contains music and song. Tiatr (and Goan musicians) did benefit from the parochial music schools set up by the Portuguese as well as the more traditional forms of ovis.
Dr. Fernandes tells us about the various famous musicians of Goan extraction, who were sought out by the many bollywood producers and starred hotels in Bombay. Although the Goan musicians had a large part to play in Bollywood and the jazz scene of Bombay, they were sidetracked as mere ‘arrangers’, lements Dr. Ferrnandes. More terse and blunt words in the context of this injustice would have been welcome.

The single greatest contribution of tiatr, in my opinion, is the admittance of women on the stage. Regina Fernandes (wife of João Agostinho Fernandes) became the first woman in modern history to appear on stage, preceding Marathi, Bengali and Gujarati theatre by twenty-seven years. This means that Konknni tiatr was far ahead of its time. It had brought in social reforms, which were easily accepted by the conservative masses.  Batcara I was the play in which Mrs. Regina Fernandes made her historic appearance.
Dr. Fernandes does not dwell on this subject for much long, mentioning it only cursorily. What I was hoping for was a rigorous assessment of this situation, perhaps even a full chapter, was called for. If Mrs. Regina is the first woman to appear on stage at a time when women appearing on stage were frowned upon then isn’t she a role-model deserving recognition not only from Goans but also from the whole country? We should also not forget that in the same play, two other women had accompanied Mrs. Regina on stage: Mrs. N. Gomes and Mrs. Carmelina Fernandes.

Dr. Fernandes analyses the plays of João Agostinho with keen understanding and finesse. João Agostinho is important in tracing the history of tiatr as he has been rightfully called Pai Tiatrist (Father of the Konknni tiatr). In plays like The Belle of Cavel, Batcara I & II and Kunbi Jaki, Dr. Fernandes paints a mental picture of João Agostinho. Pai Tiatrist had vociferously opposed casteism and alcoholism. His plays always ended with a moral or homily (a hallmark of tiatrs in those times).
Dr. Fernandes informs us about the deeply sensitive and honest personality of João Agostinho. He showed empathy to the sufferings of the poor. He can rightfully be also called as a social reformer. João Agostinho published some of his plays, something that most of the tiatrists have not done. In fact Dr. Fernandes complains about the lack of documentation of tiatr. So tiatrists heed the advice of Dr. Fernandes and start publishing your work!

Dr. Fernandes divides the tiatr into three phases of development: 1. The Early Phase (1892-1930s); 2. The Golden Phase: a. 1930s-1961, b. 1961-1970; 3. The Contemporary and Non-Stop Tiatr Phase. This is a novel idea as a simple taxonomy puts the development of tiatr into proper perspective.
The chapter about the challenges of today that the tiatr faces, it seems, is hastily written. Dr. Fernandes has also kept out the perceptions of Hindus regarding tiatr as well as the Catholic view or perception about the nattok. It is an open secret that one community does not view the art form of the other community favourably. The thesis is confined to a few present tiatrists’ views and opinions, an extensive survey (through questionnaires or interviews) would have enriched the same.
Nonetheless, this book will be an enlightening read to all tiatrists and tiatr enthusiasts. One only hopes that this book will raise the curtains on further scholarly works on this dynamic and vibrant art form of Konknni theatre.

Name: When the curtain rise… Understanding Goa’s vibrant Konkani theatre
Author: Dr. André Rafael Fernandes
Published by: Goa 1556, Saligão with support from the Tiatr Academy of Goa
Price: Rs. 195/- (in India)
ISBN: 978-93-80739-01-4

Note: First published in Gomantak Times, dt. 13 August, 2010. In the article published in GT, there was an error in the title of the book. Instead of When the curtains rise… it read As the curtains rise… The error is regretted.

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