The Highs and Lows of Gujarati Theatre

Posted on 11 January, 2017 by Team Wishberry


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Gujarat’s folk-theatre form, Bhavai, has been in existence since the 14th century. But, it was in the late 16th century that Gujarat was exposed to western elements of theatre. The British missionaries who had already visited Goa and Maharashtra were familiar with Tamasha theatre elements and produced a play called Yeshu Masiha ka Tamasha, which was performed in Gujarat.

Gujarat had to wait till 1850 to have a modern Gujarati play in the works. Dalpatram wrote Lakshmi, which was based on the ancient Greek comedy Plutus. Around the time, there were Parsi theatre groups from Mumbai doing the rounds of Gujarat. It was in 1853 (finally) that a proper Gujarati theatre group was founded by Framjee Gustadjee Dalal. Called the Parsee Natak Mandali, the group performed its first play, Rustom, Jabuli and Sorab, based on the popular and dramatic tale of the Shahnameh of the 10th century. The play was staged at the Grant Road Theatre of Bombay on 29th October 1853. That performance truly marked the beginning of Gujarati theatre.

It got better from there. Stage decor was introduced, then backgrounds, props and it eventually got a proper proscenium theatre. But, the plays were still mythological in nature, or adapted and translated from plays around the world. There was no original content as such.

Rise of New Theatre

Gujarati theatre had to wait a long time to get strong original plays which changed its course. It was in the 1920s and 1930s that playwrights moved towards writing socially relevant plays. Playwright and producer Ranchhodlal Udayaram Dave rose with his plays, and went on to be called the Father of Modern Gujarati Theatre. C C Mehta was another such maverick who, with his over 25 plays, really pushed hard the experimental movement in Gujarati theatre.

Despite the early beginnings, the movement only truly took shape and strength in the 1970s. Mehta’s Aag Gaadi (Fire Engine) was an important play in that respect. It went on to be translated into multiple languages. Many talented writers, actors and directors were found through the bunch of college level and other theatre competitions which had become stronger around the 70s and the 80s.

Gujarati theatre got immense talent around the time in the form of actors such as Paresh Raval, Manoj Joshi, Jamnadas Majithia, Shefali Shetty, Tushar Joshi and the likes. Directors like Manoj Shah, who is now a legend of Gujarati theatre, also entered the scene around that time. Gujarati theatre was blooming not only in Mumbai, which is considered the epicentre of Gujarati theatre, but also in Gujarat. A multitude of theatre groups came up in that decade, especially in Vadodara, the cultural capital of Gujarat. These include groups like Rangavali (1974), Kashunk, Vishkambhak, Aakar Theatre (1980), Intimate, Jayashree Kala Niketan and Navchetan.

But in the 1990s, most groups dissolved and vanished.


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Cut to present

The major irony of Gujarati theatre, prevalent since the beginning, still remains - it is Mumbai that is the home of Gujarati theatre, and not Gujarat itself. Due to the strong presence of Marathi, Hindi and English theatre in Mumbai, Gujarati theatre gets the required push. The influence of these makes the Gujarati community in Mumbai work on their own theatre. This reliance and stronghold in Mumbai has the Mumbai theatre scene overpower the one in Gujarat. But, the power shift will only come when the quality of plays and the involvement of people grows.

Nonetheless, over the years there have been some incredible plays in the Gujarati theatre. Manoj Shah’s Ideas Unlimited Productions, for example, has produced some brilliant plays including Karl Marx in Kalbadevi, which is an intellectually humorous imagination of Karl Marx in present day world. They have also produced Hu Chandrakant Baxi and Mohan no Masalo, both of which are doing really well. One of the biggest productions, Code Mantra, a courtroom drama is also highly critically acclaimed.

But, compared to the comedies and adaptations, the original, courageous plays have been few.

During the 1960s and 1970s, theatre all over India underwent the experimental movement. Gujarati theatre went through the same, but could not sustain the aggression, the originality and the content. Hindi, Marathi and English theatres have progressed to the legendary stage due to a huge influx of original, contemporary plays for years. Gujarati theatre is almost at par with them with respect to everything else except the original, pathbreaking plays. However, slowly but surely the change is visible.

The days are silver for Gujarati theatre, but with a little more, the Golden era wouldn’t be too far.

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