Another year of the Prithvi theatre festival brings all of India to the stage. Six decades ago, when Zohra Sehgal asked Prithviraj Kapoor why his traveling theatre company was called Prithvi Theatres, in the plural, he explained that his dream was to have a theatre in every town in India. Today that dream may remain unfulfilled, but Prithviraj’s vision has taken shape in a different way – in the form of the Prithvi Theatre in the suburban Bombay neighbourhood of Juhu. Here, the gates are never closed, and in fact there are no gates to close.
The Prithvi Theatre, set up in 1978 by Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendall, hosts over 400 performances by over 50 groups throughout the year, providing them with complete professional and technical facilities. The policies of this intimate 200-seat playhouse – its scaled leasing practices and reasonable ticket pricing – have long offered great support to Bombay theatre. In all, around 65,000 viewers come to see plays at Prithvi every year, and not just for the celebrated Irish coffees at the theatre’s café. hree and a half years before Independence, Prithviraj had started a professional theatre company with the motto Kala desh ki seva mein, “Art in the service of the nation”. With 2006 being Prithviraj’s birth centenary, this year the annual Prithvi Festival adopted Prithviraj’s motto for its theme.
For three weeks in November, the festival brought together 28 productions and 45 shows, as well as free platform performances in the Prithvi courtyard and discussion sessions with playwrights. Spread over four venues – the buzzing Prithvi stage itself, the magical Horniman Circle Garden at the other end of the city, the amphitheatre at Land’s End in Bandra and the Yashwant Natya Mandir at Matunga-Dadar – the festival kept the spirit of theatre burning bright in Bombay. But Kala desh ki seva mein is a difficult motto to work with in 2006. What do these words mean for us today? “60 years down the line,” wonder organisers Sanjna Kapoor and Sameera Iyengar in the festival bulletin, “what role do theatre artists and their art play? What role do we want to play, as theatrewallahs, as citizens of this country?”
Some answers were provided in the choice of productions hosted during the festival. Take the Arpana theatre company’s “Cotton 56, Polyester 84”, a play written by Ramu Ramanathan, translated by Chetan Datar and directed by Sunil Shanbag. This rich and textured story set in Girangaon, Bombay’s textile-mill district, pays tribute to the labour of the mill workers. The festival bulletin quotes Parvatibai Mahadik, the widow of such a worker, in conversation with Hridaynath Jadhav, who plays a mill worker in the production: “My husband worked for 13 years before the mill closed down. He would come home with vegetables or fish, just like Bhau Rao in the play. I would also examine his dabba to see if he had eaten everything.
That’s how my life was. That’s why I liked the play.” Another well-known Bombay play, Manoj Joshi’s “Shobhayatra”, written by Shafaat Khan and directed by Ganesh Yadav, is a dark and energetic romp through textbook and contemporary history. “Kashinama” by Usha Ganguly’s troupe Rangakarmee, inspired by Kashinath Singh’s “Pandey Kaun Kumati Tohe Lage”, is set in the ghats of Benaras and is a paean to, in Ganguly’s words, the “shyness, simplicity, carelessness” of this holiest of cities. “Parkadal” (“The Milky Ocean”), a Tamil play with English subtitles performed by the young members of the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam, uses a combination of different media, theatrical as well as technological, to tell the old story about the churning of the ocean. P Rajagopal, the director, explains his objective: “Perhaps we – the collaborators in this production which cuts across ages, beliefs and backgrounds – wanted to emphasise that, in spite of ‘modernity’, the universal themes of peace, identity, responsibility, sharing and compassion that enable life have not really changed.”
Other productions included Abhijat Joshi’s “Aanthma Taranu Akash”, Ahmedabad-based Fade In Theatre’s fresh and daring Prithvi debut; Bangalore’s young Harami Theatre’s “Butter and Mashed Banana”, a wry take on censorship; “Bhagavadajjukam”, by the Abhinaya Theatre of Thiruvananthapuram, a classical piece given a contemporary treatment; Nilu Phule’s lively tamasha “Kunacha Kunala Mel Nahi!!!” and Satish Alekar’s “Mahanirvan”. There were also productions that attempted a direct response to painful contemporary issues such as communal violence. “Hidden Fires”, written by Manjula Padmanabhan and directed by Jayant Kripalani, was a series of monologues that dealt with the Gujarat riots; and “Kharaashein”, directed by Salim Arif, was based on Gulzar’s writings on communal riots. In reference to the ironic silence after the violence, the play reads:
No one was killed in the city,
They were only names.
No one was beheaded
They were mere caps with heads inside
And this blood stream on the streets
From the voices slaughtered.
The high point of the entire festival, however, was Kanhailal’s classic “Pebet” (See picture), performed by H Sabitri and the Madras-based Kalakshetra team in the dreamlike venue of the Horniman Circle Garden. In more than three decades of its performance, the play has lost none of its relevance or its angry intensity. Folk-theatre legend Habib Tanvir led the standing ovation at the end of the riveting performance. For Kanhailal, the play is part of his ongoing effort to discover a new theatre in the indigenous Manipuri context, “that could shatter the ways of seeing and doing of the city theatre convention … ‘Pebet’ was created for the spirit of resistance that is incarnated in the being of the actor without assertion or ideology.”
This is how it was
A Tagore festival, brought to Bombay in partnership with the Calcutta-based Happenings, consisted of four plays: Naya Theatre’s “Raj-Rakt”, Sopanam’s “Raja”, Kalakshetra’s “Dakghar” and Trityo Sutra’s “Raktakarabi”. Curated by Habib Tanvir in Calcutta in August 2006, this project, which attempts a rediscovery of Tagore as a playwright, brought together such celebrated directors as H Kanhailal, K N Panikkar and Tanvir himself. “Raja”, performed by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Sopanam, is about a king who has never been seen. Panikkar uses the folk-ritualistic art form of Theyyam to represent the king shrouded in darkness. “Raj-Rakt”, Naya Theatre’s most recent production, is a powerful depiction of the struggle between religious and secular power. By adapting Tagore’s 1890 play “Visarjan” and melting it with his 1887 novel Rajarshi, Tanvir dramatically restructured a play that was flawed and difficult to perform (both Tagore’s and Shombhu Mitra’s later stagings being considered failures) to create a truly effective dramatic collision between the will to sacrifice and the will to preserve. Kalakshetra’s “Dakghar” is a multilingual production in Manipuri, Bengali, Assamese, Rabha, Bodo and Tripuri. “Dakghar” became for Kanhailal “an instinctive choice as it depicts what it is to be natural with nature and human with human society …
Through destruction and reconstruction of the text, I created a performance text which centres around the ‘inner action’ of the actors, that leaps to ‘controlled ecstasy’ in evocation of a dream in tune with Tagore’s sensibility and aesthetics.” Not only the success of the festival, but also the health of theatre in India, can be gauged from the sheer diversity and varied experience of the theatre groups that participated at the Prithvi festival. The Rangakarmee troupe, for instance, which has completed 30 years of existence this year, leads the Hindi theatre presence in Calcutta. Set up in 2002 as a residential school for underprivileged rural children, the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam of Tamil Nadu seeks a balance between maintaining the creative spirit of the Kattaikkuttu theatre tradition and finding ways to survive in a changing world. And Manipur’s Kalakshetra, set up in 1969, is a research theatre that has continuously sought to create a new theatre idiom – a physical language based on sound and movement and impelled by the force of live theatre in its indigenous context.
Based in Imphal, the group has constantly shifted locations within the city. Since 1997, it has been working in the Langol Laimanai neighbourhood, where it now has its own land, with kutcha sheds for office, work and performance spaces. Free platform performances ran every night of the Prithvi festival. These included songs by Nageen Tanvir, performances of Naya Theatre’s Ponga Pandit and Sarak, poetry readings by Naseeruddin Shah, and renditions by the sweet-voiced young choir of the Indian People’s Theatre Association. The Prithvi festival is truly a festive occasion, when Bombay neighbourhoods are adorned with paper lanterns, glittering masks, silver and gold tissue, and many welcoming faces. In a city of punishing distances, and one where so many things happen at once, the festival is one of those events during which members of the audience are forced not only to make time for theatre, but also to choose between equally compelling productions that are being performed on the same evening in different parts of the city.
Invariably, impossibly, we make the time. And then, when it is all over – not only the crazy, exhausting, zigzag commutes across town, but also those intoxicating moments when drama unfolds gloriously, magically before one’s eyes – we begin to look forward to the next year’s festival. We recall the words of Parvatibai, the mill worker’s widow, after she saw “Cotton/Polyester”: “I started crying while watching the play. My friend asked why I was crying, and I said, ‘I see everything – Bhau, his Muslim friend, the drinking, reading newspapers, their son, the mother who is afraid she will lose everything.’ I remembered my life … this is how it was.”
~ Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is in the Indian Administrative Service and based in Bombay. Her writings can be found at www.indianwriting.blogspot.com.