How a Parsi theatre group in UP’s Dankaur has been weaving social fabric for nine decades

As the Drona Natya Mandal inches towards 100 years of existence, it has become an intrinsic part of the town where children watch the show spellbound with stars in their eyes

Purblind to the shimmer of metropolitan cities and away from modern-day art spaces, a Parsi theatre group in Dankaur, a small town in west Uttar Pradesh, has been cultivating a culture of theatre among its people and weaving in social messages through their performances for over 90 years.

Every monsoon, during Janmashtami, Hindus and Muslims sit with each other inside the premises of a temple to cheer for the artistes of Drona Natya Mandal, the local Parsi theatre group, which has enthralled audiences with its social, historical and religious plays over the years.

To reach Dankaur, one has to take a left turn towards a service road, about 15 kilometres after entering the Yamuna Expressway from Zero Point in Greater Noida, which leads to a dilapidated archway — welcoming you to the sleepy town. Dankaur, like many other small towns in India, remains relatively unknown, much like the vibrant culture of its people and the rich tradition of its performance arts. Here, the two communities bond over festivities and music as the town, with a population of about 15,000-16,000 people, cherishes the handful of artistes who have become local celebrities in their own right.

“The people of Dankaur have been anchored to each other since centuries and it has been made possible due to the common culture of music and performing arts. The theatre group continues to escalate that legacy and does the important job of bringing communities together,” says Qadir Khan, a resident and social activist from Dankaur.

The theatre group organises five plays every year during the 12-day Janmashtami celebrations at the Dronacharya temple. The temple complex, consisting of five to six smaller temples and a large temple for Guru Dronacharya, is the principal community centre in Dankaur, where people from all communities come to celebrate festivals. It was in the news recently when police officers had to be deployed after the district wing of the Hindu Yuva Vahini had objected to the long-standing tradition of organising Qawwali inside the temple premises.

“We try to keep the content (of the plays) relatable to our audiences because of the mixed population, which is why our historical and social plays set in the Mughal or the British era are people’s favourites. Among our famous plays are ‘Veer Haqiqat Rai’, ‘Sikandar Poros’, ‘Amar Singh Rathod’, ‘BA Pass Mazdoor’ and ‘Danveer Karna’. One of our most memorable characters has been a Qazi in the play ‘Veer Haqiqat Rai’ — people have memorised the character’s sublime dialogues,” Manoj Tyagi, president, Drona Natya Mandal, says.

The theatre group, comprising 25 members, all men from Dankaur, has performed over 150 different plays since its foundation in 1923 by late Mangat Ram, who hailed from Sikandarabad and has worked with Prithvi Raj Kapoor in erstwhile Bombay before returning to his roots, as per credentials seen by HT.

Parsi theatre art form was introduced by Parsi artistes in India in the mid-19th century where larger-than-life sets and cut-outs were used and epics were enacted for long hours. The Mandali boasts of being one of the rare surviving Parsi theatre groups in the era of modern, nihilistic performance art forms.

“We strictly follow the basic layout of the Parsi theatre art form, where details such as width of the stage, height of the pillars, number of curtains and chandeliers, wooden cutouts as well as timing of each scene are predefined. We need an interval of at least 15 minutes after each scene as changing sets is an arduous task. We are continuing the tradition started by Mangat Ram. Today, theatre is in the veins of Dankaur,” says Tyagi.

However, all members of the group have day jobs.

They work as clerks, accountants, shopkeepers, entrepreneurs, advocates and farmers. However, when it comes to casting for the plays or day-to-day management of the group, their dedication is unwavering.

One such local celebrity is Mukesh Jain, a bespectacled man in his late forties, who works as a clerk in the town’s postal department Monday to Saturday, 10 months a year. For the other two months, he is a senior artiste in the Drona Natya Mandali, where his job is to supervise the group as its treasurer.

“We maintain the running cost of the theatre group out of our own pockets as this is something embedded in our culture. The cost of costumes, make-up, props, sets and backgrounds, sound system, is borne by us. Every year, we deliver performances that become the talk of the town,” says Jain.

Similarly, 50-year-old Shalendra Govil, whose who runs a clothes showroom, screens potential artistes.

“The core team begins practising in public two months prior to final performance. This attracts a huge crowd, including people interested in theatre. We select new artistes from the lot and train them for two hours every day. I decide the roles for them,” says Govil.

Each member of the core team has his own tale to narrate as to how he came to join the theatre. All the stories have a pattern — they were attracted after watching the veterans of Dankaur perform on stage. Soon, they were trained by the older generation.

“I started watching plays in Dankaur at the age of four and was hooked. I decided to join the theatre group. My first role was at the age of 10. I played the character of Shabari, the woman who fed fruits to Lord Rama in the jungle. I have been part of this group since then and my friends recognise me by the characters I have enacted so far. This is how we inculcate the culture of theatre in the kids,” says 27-year-old Sandeep Bhati, who works as an insurance agent.

The theatre group has its own set of in-house rules.

“It is compulsory for each debut artiste to perform the role of a woman character. We believe when a man enacts a woman on stage, he shreds all hesitations and opens up. We want that from our artistes,” says Tyagi.

Women of Dankaur, however, have not made it to the core team of the group yet as the Parsi theatre form has long held the “tradition” of male artistes performing female roles. “We invite women artistes from Delhi whenever the character demands mature treatment. The smaller female roles are still given to our male artists,” adds Tyagi.

The artistes say they have immense respect for the departed members of the group. The theatre group office has several portraits of veteran artistes who worked with Mangat Ram. “We consider Narayan Das Manglik our inspiration — his versatility is unmatched. Other artistes such as Gopal Krishna Gaur and Mohammad Illiyas have also left a mark. Today, people remember the departed souls of Drona Natya Mandali by the roles they played,” says Purshottam Singh, an elderly member of the group.

One of the key elements of the Parsi theatre style is the energy with which artistes deliver their dialogues. “It’s almost unbelievable how one man started the tradition of theatre in Dankaur. Since then, we have taught this art form to children without any formal training. The former members of the theatre group have trained us to deliver dialogues without sound systems and we continue training the children that way. They have left a legacy behind and we manage to fill that void,” says Tyagi.

As the Drona Natya Mandal inches towards 100 years of existence, it has become an intrinsic part of the town where children watch the show spellbound with stars in their eyes, men whistle for their local heroes and women bond over shared festivities.

Published on Hindustan Times