TIATR - AN UNLIMITED ENGAGEMENT
By Cynthia Gomes James
[April 17 is being marked in Goa as *tiatr day*]
Take a hot social issue. Blend it into a plot with fair measures of
romance, harsh injustice, sensational plot twists, sudden illnesses,
shocking deaths, bawdy comedy routines, crime and retribution, and about
15 songs. Remember to include a rousing patriotic song about Goa. Be sure
to throw in a wicked mother-in-law and two daughters-in-law: one devious,
and the other docile, plus a poor virtuous widow, a villainous rich man, a
hilariously dimwitted domestic servant or country cousin, and a pious
Pick a cast of dramatic actors who can carry a tune, and comedians with a
flair for slapstick and credible cross-dressing. Stir in a Konkani script
peppered with flowery metaphors, broad innuendoes and show stopping jokes.
Mix in melodramatic acting, vibrant sets, costumes in the latest fashions,
and a live orchestra. Top with a title that is bold and direct. Voila!
You have a recipe for a tiatr: the medium of folk theatre that is one of
the most savoury and enjoyable tidbits of popular Goan culture.
Konkani tiatr made its debut on April 17, 1892 with the staging of
"Italian Bhurgo" at the New Alfred Theatre (presently the Police
Commissioner's Office) in south Bombay. It was directed by Constancio
Lucasinho Caridade Rebeiro from Assagao, and had an all male cast of five
actors who played nine different roles.
Due to then prevalent social taboos, women did not venture onto the stage,
and male actors did the honours. The first actress to perform in a tiatr
was Regina Fernandes who made her maiden appearance in the year 1904.
Incidentally, Regina Fernandes was the wife of Joao Agostinho Fernandes,
who wrote the first original tiatr script for "Sundori Cavelchi" in 1895,
and is remembered as the father of Goan tiatr. In the 112 years since
"Italian Bhurgo", Konkani tiatr has established itself via amateur
endeavours in the villages of Goa, as well as through professional
presentations by tiatr troupes in packed auditoriums in Goa, Bombay,
Mangalore, the UAE, Kuwait, and the UK.
The word tiatr is one of many Portuguese words imported into Konkani
usage, and literally means theatre or loosely, a play. The art form of
tiatr that was born in Bombay, evolved from the folk art forms of zagor
and khell, which were less developed but popular forms of drama in Goa. A
traditional tiatr consists of six to seven acts known as pordhe
(curtains), each about fifteen to twenty minutes long. These acts contain
songs called cantos, which are related to the story and flow in and out of
the spoken dialogue.
In between the pordhe are inserted two or three songs called cantaras,
performed in front of the main curtain. The cantaras do not always
pertain to the story, but are a means of preventing boredom, providing
comic relief and time for the changing of sets, costumes and makeup. Often
these cantaras are used to deliver social messages or satirical asides on
current events that may not fit into the storyline of the play.
My enjoyment of Konkani tiatr began when I was a little girl growing up
in a nook of south Bombay that had a large Goan population. I remember
many a Sunday evening that my parents, neighbours and I spent in the
auditorium of St. Mary's High School in Mazagaon, being regaled by the
sizzling hit tiatr of the season.
The excitement would begin a few Sundays earlier outside local churches,
when the promoters would distribute colourful playbills to the faithful,
after Mass. In Goa, the pamphlets were, and still are distributed in a
more theatrical fashion.
Pickup trucks armed with loudspeakers clatter through little towns,
blaring popular Konkani music and chotrai (announcements) about the
forthcoming tiatr, while scattering a wake of multi-coloured flyers that
tease the eager hands of the children chasing behind.
After one grabbed a playbill, the ritual of assessing the entertainment
quotient of the promised fare would begin. The first clue would come from
the name of the tiatr: names like "Pangddo" and "Divorce" left one in
little doubt as to the theme of the drama.
Then fans would look for the names of their favourite tiatrists, some as
common place as Remy Colaco and Saby Fernandes, and others as quirky as
Bab (little boy) Peter, who you should know was a grown man then, and
Prince Jacob, whose claims to royalty are entirely self assumed. Other
stage name peculiarities of the Konkani stage included the practice of
abbreviating one's middle name or last name as in Betty Naz, Betty Ferns,
Minguel Rod, Alfred Rose, and Chris Perry, and also the habit of using
one's first initial and a last name, as in C. Alvares and H. Britton,
perhaps in the interests of privacy or marketing.
There were a few artistes who went by just their first names, like
Antonette, Ophelia, and the divine Lorna. Of interest to discerning tiatr
aficionados was the identity of the director, who most often is also the
A tiatr directed by Prem Kumar was sure to have high drama, while one
directed by M. Boyer would definitely have zany comedy routines. Finally,
for many of us who love tiatr just for the hilarious antics, the comedians
in the cast often became the deciding factor. Comic actors like the
unforgettable Souza Ferrao, whose ever changing on-stage persona won him
the title "Man of a Thousand Faces", Jacinto Vaz and Anthony Mendes
brought droves of people to concert halls in their heyday, and are legends
I must confess that my favourites were always the comedians.
Once the decision was made to go to the tiatr, one had to make a trip to
Jack of All Stalls in Byculla to purchase the tickets, and procuring them
gave the next few weeks a warm glow of anticipation. We would find out
which of our friends and neighbours were going, and plan for the big night
Once that Sunday evening came, it would be quite a sight at the bus stops
and taxi stands in Mazagaon and the surrounding areas, where you would
see gaggles of sharply dressed tiatr fans waiting to be transported to St.
Mary's High School. Depending on the size of the motley group, the bus
ride would become an opportunity for Goenkars to catch up with the latest
news of engagements, weddings, births, deaths, parish priests, medical
ailments, servant problems, the house in Goa, and children leaving their
nests for far off shores.
Occasionally one would catch a snippet of the latest scandal in the
neighbourhood, or even a brazen attempt at matchmaking for a nice Goan
girl or boy. This incidental socializing would continue well after the
bus ride ended, into the line for admission to the auditorium, and paused
only when we heard the first bell.
Ah, who could then resist the call to take our seats? The crowd of people
ascending the four flights of wide sweeping stairs of St. Mary's High
School would be roused to make it to the top floor and enter the theatre
One last attempt to buy a snack at the concession counter, and then we
would make our way to our seats, in no rush, as we knew from experience
that tiatrs rarely started at the scheduled time. While waiting in our
plush, red upholstered seats for the curtains to open, the excitement
would build up with the band playing catchy tunes, as other patrons found
their seats and the hall slowly filled up. The melodies of those fabulous
live orchestras still swirl fondly in my memory.
Finally, after the ringing of the third warning bell, the moment would
arrive when those heavy burgundy velvet curtains would part and the
opening singers would appear on stage. From then on, the tiatr would weave
its spell on the audience as we were alternately cajoled and heaved into
the trials, tribulations, antics, and adventures of the characters on
As the story unfolded, the audience left the actors in little doubt of
their reactions. These expressions ranged from appreciative whistles,
applause, laughter and demands for encores, to openly derisive catcalls,
directorial comments and shouts of "woosh" which could quickly fill the
auditorium. Many a hapless artiste has had to cut short a song or a speech
that did not go down well with a difficult audience, and many a favourite
has had to sing himself or herself hoarse from responding to repeated
demands for encores.
The intermission would usually be timed just as the plot reached a
cliffhanger or a stunning twist, leaving the audience eager to see more.
When the story finally came to a climax, the final scene would ensure
that the good guys earned their long overdue happy endings and that the
bad guys got the justice they deserved. As the tiatr ended with a closing
song by the cast, the audience would bid a wistful farewell and then make
a noisy exit as everyone voiced their opinions of the show.
As I look back now, I am grateful that I had the opportunity and the
inclination to learn my mother tongue, even if it was just
conversational. I learnt enough from my parents, grandparents and
neighbours in Bombay and Goa to enjoy practically every nuance of a tiatr.
Sadly, very few of my Goan friends at school or college expressed an
interest in attending tiatrs, mainly because they could not speak or
understand Konkani. While I was a student at St. Xavier's College in
Bombay, I was struck by my friends from various ethnic groups, who spoke
English as well as their mother tongues fluently.
It is sad that there are so many misguided Goans who have had the
exposure to Konkani, but due to a twisted inferiority complex, resist
learning it, and proclaim quite proudly that they don't speak Konkani.
Over the last fourteen years that I have lived in America, I have met
highly educated people from other countries, but I have never met any who
were ashamed to speak their mother tongue, whether it was Swedish or
For some reason, many educated Goans have the wrong assumption that if you
speak Konkani fluently, it means that you or your parents are uneducated,
or don't speak English, and so they willfully reject their own mother
tongue. But I digress.
Tiatr has never pretended to entice pseudo intellectuals, and you are
warned that a tiatr will never try to explore the meaning of life and
human existence. Instead, like folk theatre all over the world, it holds a
mirror up to society and shows us reflections of real people and the real
issues they encounter in their daily lives. And yes, tiatr will often
provide simplistic solutions to complex social problems, but it is after
all, like other forms of entertainment, a vehicle of escapism, and we are
all invited to enjoy the ride.
I have not lived in India for a while now, but I try to stay updated on
the current happenings in Goa's political and cultural milieu. On my
visits to India, I try to catch a tiatr, whenever possible. It appears
that there are many new faces on the Konkani stage and it is encouraging
to know that the medium still attracts fresh talent.
It is equally heartening to hear about legendary tiatr greats like Joao
Agostinho Fernandes and others receiving due recognition and accolades
from the tiatr community, as well as from the state's lawmakers. The
performing arts community is testing the waters further with experimental
tiatrs including Hindu and Catholic actors.
The themes of the concerts have progressed over the years, mostly
imitating life. Titles like "Bhangar Tuka Dilem" and "Vadoll" reflect the
issues that are prevalent among the Goan community today. Audiences who
were once stereotyped as backcountry housewives, domestic servants and
peasants, now include educated professionals.
Tiatr troupes now travel to countries like the UAE, Kuwait and the UK to
bring a touch of home to expatriate Goans there. Tiatr has also received
well-earned recognition as a popular art form from Goa's distinguished
Kala Academy, and has spawned various competitive events that keep the art
form alive. Today, there is a trend towards "non-stop khell" tiatrs which
omit the cantaras between acts, and that is hopefully a sign of audiences
wanting a choice between different variations of the tiatr art form.
As times change, and tiatrs keep pace with the shifting sands of Goa's
sociological landscape, there is hope that the medium will continue to be
the pulse of the people. In addition to our rich history, architecture,
folklore, music, dance, costumes, languages, cuisine, religious rituals,
and festivals, the art form of tiatr is yet another bright patch on Goa's
resplendent cultural quilt. May it never fade.
The writer is based in Texas, USA. She can be contacted via email. She
can be contacted via e-mail Cynthia.James
As archived by gaspar almeida