One Part Catholic, Three Parts Fun: The Making of the Goan Tiatr

Goa’s 100-year-old musical theatre tradition is alive and kicking. | By Fernando Lobo  
Goa tiatr
Family-themed dramas are very popular in Goa’s tiatr. Songs that are not necessarily connected to the drama in progress are often played to fill time when sets are being changed for the various acts. Photo: Vivek Muthuramalingam

At 3 p.m. on a Saturday, while Panjim is taking a siesta, the Kala Academy performing arts complex on the river front is swarming with people. There are small children, senior citizens, Catholic priests in mufti, and nuns from at least six different orders. They’re here to be entertained, to watch a performance of tiatr, the song-and-drama form that has been popular in Goa for over a century. The word tiatr is derived from the Portuguese word teatro, which means theatre, in this case one that has plenty of music.

The day’s attraction is Taka Khursar Mar!, a Lenten tiatr whose title means “Crucify Him”. It has been directed by a Catholic priest, Father Nevel Gracias. For three hours after the curtains go up at 3.30 p.m., Father Gracias preaches and entertains through skits and songs.

Usually, tiatr is a heady mix of drama, music, comedy, and improvisation, but I didn’t expect too much laughter in this one. If 15 years of tiatr-going have taught me anything, it’s that Lenten dramas tend to tone down the humour. Not this one, however, even though the jokes were intended to provide moral instruction. Taka Khursar Mar!  featured some of the Konkani stage’s top comedians and the audience loved it—the lady next to me chuckled and clucked like she was laying an egg.

Lenten or regular, a tiatr usually progresses like this: A main plot is divided into six or seven parts (called pordhe), separated by songs, called cantaram; there are around 10-15 cantaram in each tiatr. While the main tiatr deals with one theme, the songs deal with others. Between the stage and the audience is an extremely loud brass band. Even in the drama segments, the band chimes in every now and then to underscore the importance of the spoken lines. While many people are obsessed with getting front row seats, those of us who value our eardrums try keeping a safe distance.

Storylines usually back the underdog: poor against rich, or mundkar peasants against the bhatkar landlord. In Taka Khursar Mar!, Father Gracias plays a villainous businessman. As Goans are seized with the idea that their state is being destroyed by people from other places, many tiatrs have begun to talk about maintaining Goan identity, and chastise Goans for selling their ancestral land to the highest bidder. Migrants—disparagingly referred to as ghantis or bhingtas—may be cast as monsters of whom Goans must beware.

Goa tiatr

Goa’s Tiatr Academy actively encourages children to learn “blowing” instruments. A band like this one is an essential ingredient of tiatr. Photo: Vivek Muthuramalingam

For most Goan Catholic kids like me, tiatrs were ubiquitous. No parish feast is complete without one. In the villages, and to a lesser extent in cities, political leaders are lampooned during the comedy interludes, the irreverence sometimes veering dangerously close to defamation. If a politician blunders, his entire family could land in the tiatrist’s crosshairs. The loudest applause is reserved for the singers who scream out loud the opinions that are whispered in Goa’s many village taverns. Francis de Tuem, for instance, is known for his bitter, strongly-worded diatribes against politicians. In Bardez, along the tourist beach belt, tiatr legend Tomazinho Cardozo, was elected to the state assembly, and even served as speaker for four years from 1995.

A tiatr is entirely in Konkani, with sporadic English references. Funnily, even the villainous outsider speaks fluent Konkani, perhaps reflecting the fact that many Goan Catholics have only a shaky command of Hindi. While the main storyline uses the free-flowing Bardez dialect of Konkani, the comedy interludes often rely on the Saxti, which is slightly gruffer and more expressive.

Since the expulsion of the Portuguese from Goa in 1961, tiatr has been the most significant warrior for the cause of the Konkani language. In the 1980s, cantarists (singers) would extol audiences to stand up for Konkani, so that it became one of India’s official languages.

The show of Taka Khursar Mar! has around 600 people in the audience, but that’s on the low side. In recent years, the popularity of tiatr has exploded, and even performances in Kala Academy’s 1,000-seater auditorium are routinely sold out days before. A few years ago, there were two seasons for tiatr—March to May (Lenten), and October to February. But that distinction has faded, with tiatrs going houseful throughout the year.

The man most often associated with the rise in popularity of tiatr in the last two decades is Jacob Fernandes. “Prince Jacob”, as he is known on stage, has organised over 4,000 shows over the past three decades. His 55th production, which premiered in 2013, was the first-ever “democratic” tiatr—the audience decided the course of the play. This wasn’t his first innovation. Around a decade ago, he introduced magic, and later, illusions, such as disappearing from stage and simultaneously showing up at the back of the hall. In an effort to include more Marathi-speaking Goan Hindus, he translated Bharat Jadhav’s Marathi epic, Sahi re Sahi, into Konkani.

Prince Jacob isn’t the only tiatrist with such a record. The sleepy village of Benaulim, a treasure-trove of tiatrists, is where the formidable Antonio Rosario Fernandes (stage name: Roseferns) lives. His tiatr Thapott (The Slap) hit 230 shows, and he was given the sobriquet “The King of Centuries”.

The exploding popularity of tiatr today means there are more directors staging their own shows. Originality is often a casualty, and many comedy segments are based on old Internet or magazine jokes. So too with the music. In Taka Khursar Mar!, the band played segments of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White”, and the theme from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Such instances are the rule rather than the exception, a fall from the days when tiatr’s greatest composer, Chris Perry, infused elements of jazz into Konkani music and gave it a completely fresh sound.

Goa tiatr

Unlike pre-liberation years, tiatr today is hugely popular with the Church establishment in Goa. Photo: Vivek Muthuramalingam

One of the reasons for the rising popularity of tiatr, according to Prince Jacob, is pricing: “We cater to the common man,” he told me. “A tiatr ticket costs around ₹70. Compare that with a Marathi natak, which costs around ₹300-500.” He also says that at the beginning of every month, a Goan family puts aside an entertainment budget for tiatr. Long-time patrons of Goan theatre will also tell you that while Marathi nataks are usually frequented by husband and wife only, tiatr is entertainment for the whole family.

The form of tiatr is now over 120 years old. Strangely enough, the first-ever tiatr was staged not in Goa, but in neighbouring state of Bombay, where large numbers of Goans had emigrated in search of a better life. One of these was Lucasinho Ribeiro from Assagao, who became a member of one of the Italian opera companies that frequently toured India’s big cities in the 19th century. When the troupe left, Ribeiro bought the costumes, and adapted the play for Konkani and the first tiatr, Italian Bhurgo (Italian Boy) was born, on Easter Sunday in 1892.

Watch a Tiatr

While tiatr is best enjoyed in the festive revelry of a village church feast, it’s not always possible to attend those. Tiatrs are held throughout the year in Goa’s villages, and in the main towns—Panjim, Mapusa, Ponda and Margao. While there’s no single resource for information regarding tiatrs being staged, the Tiatr Academy of Goa (Campal; 0832-2230738, 2230739) is a good starting point. Locals rely on the Herald, a century-old local newspaper, whose last few pages are filled with brightly-coloured advertisements, to tell them about which tiatr is being staged and where.

Buy the Music

V.P. Sinari’s and Sons on Panjim’s central 18th June Road is a treasure-trove for old and new Konkani music. Chris Perry, H. Briton and M. Boyer comprise the holy trinity of Konkani music. Some great albums are Unforgettable Lorna by Lorna Cordeiro, the “nightingale of Goa”, Cu Cu Ru Cu Cu by Chris Perry, Golden Goa by M. Boyer, Duets by C. Alvares. For Goan folk music, try Oslando’s Boas Festas and Nostalgia. While there are shelves upon shelves of contemporary tiatr DVDs and VCDs, two of the oldest ones are Girestkai and Ekuch Mati.

First appeared in the April 2013 issue as “The People’s Theatre”.

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