Quintessential Goans share a love for fish curry and rice, football and, above all, weekend trips to tiatr with family. A homegrown form of theatre that blends drama, comedy, tragedy and music, tiatr has been a crucial part of Goan life for around 125 years – a landmark that’s being celebrated with a new book of caricatures of tiatr artists.

In Goa, tiatr is staged almost 365 days of the year, sometimes twice a day. These plays are staged in Konkani in auditoriums, on playgrounds, compounds and are not restricted only to Catholic audiences. Tiatr is now part of Ganesh Chaturthi festivities, too.

Incidentally, Italian Bhurgo, the first tiatr (which is the Portugese word for theatre) was not staged in Goa but in Bombay on April 17, 1892. Its creator, Lucasinho Ribeiro – considered the founder of tiatr – was influenced by Italian operas which were performed in Bombay at the time. Ribeiro worked backstage on these productions and his first tiatr was based on the Italian opera, Italian Boy.

It was Ribeiro who introduced songs, or kantaram, in the tiatr, as he realised that the time it took to change stage settings between scenes bored the audience. Performers singing in front of the drawn curtain during pauses in the play is now a defining feature of tiatr.

In 2017, as tiatr turned 125 years old in April, the Goan government joined in celebrating the tradition. Commemorative events were organised through the year, and on this April 17, a postage stamp on tiatr was released, as was Caricatures of 100 Great Tiastrists, a book by Alexyz, Goa’s veteran cartoonist. The 125th Anniversary of Tiatr Celebrations Committee will soon release two commemorative volumes – one profiling veteran tiatr artists and the other listing all the artists working in tiatr today.

Tiatr posters at Ravindra Bhavan in Goa. Photo credit: Fredericknoronha/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-SA 3.0 Unported licence].
Tiatr posters at Ravindra Bhavan in Goa. Photo credit: Fredericknoronha/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-SA 3.0 Unported licence].

“Tiatr has not only grown as an established form of entertainment in Konkani and a lucrative profession for many, but it has also grown within the psyche of the Goan,” said Willy Goes, a tiatr reviewer and writer. “It has become one with Goan culture. If one looks into the history of tiatr, there was a peak, then a plateau and maybe a brief slide somewhere, but tiatr lovers made sure it was kept alive and kicking. Today it is thriving.”

Tiatr is now staged in the Middle East, UK, Australia, USA, Canada and wherever else there is a Goan community.

“The creative genius of tiatrists is unthinkable,” said Alexyz, an adman-turned-cartoonist who has spent more than 30 years drawing caricatures on Goa. “Almost every actor is a director, singer and producer who can enact a tragedy or comedy.” It was to acknowledge the talent of tiatrists that he embarked on Caricatures of 100 Great Tiatrists. The book highlights the lives and stories of tiatrists, many of whom are writers, journalists, footballers, and almost all are musicians and singers.

Alexyz, who spent his formative years in Mumbai, was drawn to tiatr because his uncle would sing popular Konkani songs by tiatrist Kid Boxer at every party. “Kid Boxer, during his tiatr in Mumbai, sang pro-Portuguese song and because of that was jailed for six months in Nagpur,” he said.

A scene from a tiatr.
A scene from a tiatr.

Every tiatr company has its own band and every tiatr has at least 12 songs that are presented as solos, duets, trios, quartets and so on. Not related to the main plot, the songs highlight current issues and the topic of every song is different. The tiatr also includes kants, which are short verses related to the play. “Sometimes, if the tiatr does not have a very convincing plot, it is the kantaram and music which holds the fort,” said Goes.

Alexyz believes it was because music was compulsorily taught in every church of Goa during Portuguese rule that Goans were introduced to and found affinity for Western classical music. Also some of these tiatrists were a part of the film industry in Bombay.

Ermelinda Cardozo, for instance, acted in 40 silent films, including with Prithviraj Kapoor. Others like Miss Mohana and Prem Kumar too acted in movies, while musicians like Frank Fernand arranged music for Kalyanji-Anandji. Fernand played many instruments such as the violin, guitar and piano and was the only Indian to play harp. The other well-known tiatrists were Anthony Gonsalves, who is still considered vital to Bollywood music, and Chris Perry, a music director who is remembered for immensely popular songs sung by Lorna Cordeiro. He also acted in more than 50 tiatrs.

A scene from a tiatr staged by dramatist Tomazinho Cardozo.
A scene from a tiatr staged by dramatist Tomazinho Cardozo.

Tiatr is one of the few art forms in Goa that speak about the state’s socio-political climate, though some tiatrists have come under the scanner for that. “Tiatr has educated the masses on issues ranging from suppression of certain classes to alcoholism, drugs, pollution, gender bias, communal disharmony, etc.,” said Goes.

Tomazinho Cardozo, a tiatr veteran and president of the 125th anniversary celebrations committee, suggests that tiatrists must now focus on authentic presentation and give something new to the audience. “Today’s tiatr is not catering to younger audience. It is just 20% to 25%. In every village there are feasts and tiatr is a must. In my village of Candolim, we have 11 feasts throughout the year and thus 11 new tiatrs were produced and in turn new talent was born. Now we have professional tiatrists performing at such festivals. We need to bring in new talent in order to make it real stage of Goa.”

The Originals

These five tiatr artists who are a part of Caricatures of 100 Great Tiastrists by Alexyz are considered to be the most influential in their time.

Lucasinho Ribeiro

Lucasinho Ribeiro by Alexyz
Lucasinho Ribeiro by Alexyz

Ribeiro staged the first Konkani tiatr Italian Bhurgo in April 1892 at Alfred Theatre, Bombay. What followed was an amazing history of Konkani tiatr under the banner of Goa Portuguese Dramatic Company. His tiatrs were mostly adaptations of European classics, and some of the popular ones were Aladdin, Alibaba and Carlos Magos. Ribeiro also staged the first tiatr in Goa on January 1, 1894.

Joao Agostinho Fernandes

Joao Augustinho Fernandes by Alexyz
Joao Augustinho Fernandes by Alexyz

Fernandez had many firsts to his credit. He was the first to write and stage an original tiatr in Konkani. To introduce a female artist on stage – Regina Fernandez in 1904 in Bombay. To produce a gramophone record – Mirmirancho Mog – on HMV. And to publish a tiatr as a book. Known as Pai Tiatrist, his well-known productions were Sundari Cavelchi and Kunbi Jaki. His tiatrs were based on injustices in Goan society – the evils of caste system, dowry harassment, among other things.

Alfred Rose

Alfred Rose by Alexyz
Alfred Rose by Alexyz

He was called the “Melody King” in Konkani-speaking world, for having composed and sung over 3,000 Konkani songs and 800 English songs. Rose sang many popular duets with his wife Rita and was also a fine musician and arranger.

M Boyer

M Boyer by Alexyz
M Boyer by Alexyz

Boyer 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. He wrote, directed and produced more than 35 tiatrs, participated in more than 5,000 performances, and composed and sung over 1,000 songs.

C Alvares

C Alvares by Alexyx
C Alvares by Alexyx

Alvares was among the greatest tiatrists and called an “evergreen hero”. His contribution as actor, singer, writer, director and promoter was legendary – he staged over 100 tiatrs and was active on the Konkani stage for over 50 years. Alvares also acted in Konkani films such as Nirmon (1966) and Amchem Noxib (1963).