Nowadays, when Prince Jacob steps out and runs into a neighbour or an acquaintance, it often leads to a conversation that’s become pretty familiar by now. “They come up to me and say, ‘No Tiatr all this time, we’re so fed up! We have seen all your performances, not missed a single one.’ I tell them to hope and pray we are able to perform soon,” he shares. One of the undisputed stars of Tiatr (Konkani musical theatre), Prince Jacob isn’t the only one confronted with such queries.
The ongoing pandemic has not spared the 128-year-old musical theatre tradition of Goa, which came to a standstill this March. With no live shows, approximately 35-40 Tiatr production companies with 25-28 artistes in each group, are facing a hard time surviving without a source of income or any kind of financial assistance from the government. It’s with a heavy heart that noted director Mario Menezes, who is also the Vice President of the Tiatr Academy of Goa (TAG), tells us, “While a few artistes have other full-time jobs, nearly 75 per cent of them depend entirely on income from Tiatr. They are now surviving on their savings, while some have taken to selling vegetables or fish.”
An intrinsic part of Goan culture
Ask a true-blue Tiatr fan and he will tell you that no blockbuster movie or football match holds the same fascination and charm of the vibrant spectacle that Konkani musical theatre offers. Staged daily – sometimes twice – through the year, watching Tiatr on weekends is something of a family tradition, entwined with the Goan way of life. From tragedies to comedies and satires, there is nothing that escapes the Tiatr stage. Songs – an intrinsic part of Tiatr – are often used as a tool to comment on the current socio-political scenario. Citing proof of their popularity, Jacob tells us that if a show clicks with the audience, they sometimes end up performing 30-40 housefull shows, even at Ravindra Bhavan, the largest auditorium in Margao that has a seating capacity of 1,000.
Alister Miranda, a journalist with The Times of India, Goa, has fond memories of watching Tiatr shows as a kid with his family in tow. “At that time, all shows would be held late into the night, going on till 2 in the morning. We would hire a cab to go and watch them. Some villages would hire entire buses so that all of them could go and watch the show. The buses would wait for the Tiatr to get over and take the villagers back,” he recalls.
The Tiatr tradition dates back to Easter Sunday, April 17, 1892, when the first documented performance of a modern Konkani Tiatr was staged in Bombay at the New Alfred Theatre at Marine Lines. The drama titled Italian Bhurgo was composed by Lucasinho Ribeiro, who was influenced by the Italian opera, Italian Boy. Along with Ribeiro, the other Tiatr artistes who are considered the original greats, comprise Joao Agostinho Fernandes (also regarded as Pai Tiatrist or Father of the Tiatr), ‘melody king’ Alfred Rose, M Boyer, who was the only tiatrist to be conferred with two prestigious national awards – a Padma Shri from the Indian government and an award from the Sangeet Natak Akademi, and ‘evergreen hero’ C Alvares.
In its span of 128 years, despite the art form seeing many ups and downs, it has always managed to both survive and thrive. Tiatr, taken from the Portuguese word teatro meaning theatre, is now a flourishing industry with actors, musicians, directors, set directors, technicians and producers, involved in releasing over 400 productions in a year alone. Apart from Goa, Pune, Mumbai and Gujarat in India, Tiatr is also performed in many parts of the world including UK, Canada, Middle East, USA and Australia.
With the Easter season coming up in April, most of the production companies were in the midst of rehearsals when the country-wide lockdown in March this year put a full-stop to their activities. Menezes, who usually brings out three productions in a year, was readying for his 53rd Tiatr Ho Mog Koslo when the pandemic struck. “I was also supposed to perform six shows in the UK in May, which we had to cancel. The year 2020 is a big zero for me,” laments the veteran artiste. With approximately 25 people in his group, Menezes says it hurts to see his fellow performers suffering due to lack of money. “Ninety per cent of them are dependent on Tiatr alone and they are surviving on insufficient savings,” he says. And while the TAG has almost 40 schemes for tiatrists which include school competitions and workshops, the lack of funds means there is nothing in terms of financial assistance, he adds.
In the pre-pandemic scenario, if a show performed well, an artiste was capable of making a tidy sum of Rs 30,000-Rs 40,000 on an average per month. While they are part of their regular groups, the artistes are also free to perform for other producers, giving them a chance to earn extra bucks. All that though, is a thing of the past.
Financial aid from the government is neither expected, not forthcoming, says Jacob. Prod him further and he says, “Tiatr is a mirror of society. For instance, if the government takes a decision today which the Goan people are not in favour of, then you will most likely hear the topic in a song tomorrow on stage. The government has never supported us because we are critical of them,” he says, adding that they prefer it to keep it that way. “We have never bowed our head in front of the government” he states simply.
One would think that with the Centre’s permission to open theatres and auditoriums at 50 per cent capacity is a good sign for the Tiatr community but in reality, the possibility of a live show still seems to be a distant dream. “I’m not ready to put my audience at risk – they are our bread and butter,” says Jacob, adding that for all practical purposes, it is not possible to put up a live show at the moment. “It is not feasible for the actors to be on stage and maintain a six-feet distance,” he states.
Menezes seconds his opinion. “Doing a Tiatr in today’s scenario would involve sanitising the auditorium and maintaining social distance among other precautions. Even if we do perform one in an auditorium with a capacity of 700 and get 350 people – with salaries and hall costs – we will not even manage to break even,” he says. The question of increasing the existing ticket rate from Rs 150 to anything more does not even arise. “We increased the rates three years ago and that adversely affected our shows. We cannot do that to our audience who are anyway reeling under financial stress,” he adds.
There is no doubt that the internet has made the world a much smaller place, and has proved to be a boon, especially for those in the performing arts. In the early days of the lockdown, the online space became a performer’s best friend, allowing him or her to share their art with the audience as well as to stay connected with their art. In the recent few weeks, ticketed shows have made an appearance, allowing viewers the chance to watch their favourite plays on their computer or mobile screens. In the absence of live shows, a few tiatrists have also taken to digital platforms to upload their original compositions.
Five months ago, Utorda-based Francisco Fernandes, popularly known as Francis on the Tiatr stage, uploaded his first song Sant Anton on his YouTube channel. Since then, he has uploaded over 50 original compositions, some old, others new. “The response, from day one, has been overwhelming,” he shares, adding that he has also uploaded his popular Tiatr production Reporter in six parts. “Goan people are very fond of Tiatr. With no live shows since March, I thought this would be a good way for them to watch our performances and keep that bond alive,” says the actor and singer.
However, putting up an old or even new Tiatr with the purpose of monetising it, isn’t something that has crossed their minds. “Our audience wants to watch us perform live along with live music. They don’t appreciate it even when we use recorded music for our shows, so watching it online will give them no pleasure,” says Jacob. Drama, after all, unlike movies, is to be experienced live, adds Menezes.
The way ahead
While Menezes says they are contemplating a proposal to send to the government to aid tiatrists who are really suffering due to lack of income, noted director Mariano Fernandes, who is credited with reviving Tiatr back in the ‘90s, believes there is a lesson to be learnt from this situation. “One can’t just blame the government, even we (tiatrists) have not done anything about it. If we had kept aside a corpus fund, it would have come in handy during a crisis such as this or if some artist requires financial assistance for medical purposes. We have to come together and help each other out,” reasons the doyen.
As for when Tiatr might actually be feasible to perform again, the veterans of the art form are hopeful but guarded about what the future holds for them. “Entertainment is not a necessity at this time for people, filling their stomachs is. I think it will be another year until things start looking up,” says Jacob. Menezes is slightly more positive, hoping that they might be able to pull off something by Easter next year. The last word belongs to Fernandes who says, “Only when people are able to enjoy without fear, will they come to watch Tiatr. I believe we will have to wait till the vaccine comes and the fear from people’s hearts manages to go away. We can just pray for the good times.”