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Prithvi theatre turns 40

Friday, November 02, 2018

The iconic institution expands its festival footprint with new and vintage plays. Ronita Torcato rejoices

Shakespeare. Sophocles. Moliere. Chekhov. Ibsen. Beckett.  Tennessee Williams. Arthur Miller.  They stirred something within us that is universal, that we could instantly recognise and feel, ”There but for the grace of God, go I.” They helped us to understand things that are greater than ourselves, and imagine life through others.  Meaning others, like conflicted Hamlet. Alyque Padamsee’s Willy Loman made me cry.

 The Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde regarded theatre as “the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” This could well be true today in an age when the arts and entertainment are  consumed through live-streaming,  computers, television, tablets and even the mobile phone. But they all miss out on one crucial thing. The amazing atmosphere that only live theatre (like a spectator sport) can give.

All the more reason to rejoice at the iconic Prithvi Theatre’s completion of 40 years! And it is celebrating the occasion by expanding the Juhu  footprint of its much-loved Festival to two  theatres downtown with new productions and a revival of the pater familias Prithviraj Kapoor’s play Deewar, which employed the metaphor of a joint family to sound a cautionary note to  a nation threatened by Partition.

Aiming to excite everyone involved in or interested in theatre, the  Festival  will open with Deewar on Prithviraj’s birthday, November 3, at the Royal Opera House, where it originally premiered way back in 1945. The  grand finale will be held on November 12 with a performance by the NCPA’s  Symphony Orchestra of India after a 10-day  mix of theatre performances, discussions, music  and poetry.

 Another memorable date from the Prithvi Calendar: On November 5 in 1978, Prithvi Theatre  had premiered  Majma’s Udhwast Dharmshala, starring Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah. This November 5, 2018, the Festival will kick off at  the Prithvi  with Motley’s The Truth, starring Naseeruddin Shah.  The very first edition of the  Prithvi Theatre Festival  though was held  when the theatre turned five in 1983. 

Like always, Prithvi Theatre aims at creating a memorable experience for the audience. This year’s Festival  includes  three premieres, platform performances, nine Fringe Theatre productions, five  discussions with eminent theatre practitioners and a PEN@Prithvi  Literary Encounter.

Theatre troupes  participating in the Festival are – Motley, Ikigai, Arpana, Harkat Studios, The Phoenix Players, Ansh Theatre Group, Tamaasha Theatre, Utopia Communication, Playtrix, Play On, Rangshila Theatre Group and Manhar Gadhia Production. Prithvi Theatre is also partnering with groups like STORYTELLING@PRITHVI by Maulshree Kalothia, Chai&Why@Prithvi (which discusses interesting scientific issues), Thespo@Prithvi (theatre by youth, workshops for youth) PEN@Prithvi (Literary encounters) Vikalp@Prithvi (documentaries and short films) Mehfil@Prithvi (A mehfil of  a team of Urdu lovers) AllianceFrancaise@Prithvi,  MMB@Prithvi (A Max Mueller Bhavan initiative) UDAYSWAR@Prithvi and SOI@Prithvi.

Prithviraj Kapoor  began the original Prithvi Theatre in 1944, while he was at the height of his film career. While his first play was Shakuntala, his subsequent plays addressed concerns of the times, and were written especially for his repertory company which  performed plays in Hindustani across the country for 16 years. When he was forced to close down due to poor health, he continued to give enthusiastic support to any theatrical ventures by ex-members of his company. Four years after his death on May 29, 1971, a Trust was formed by his youngest son, Shashi Kapoor and daughter in law Jennifer to continue his legacy. The Trust constructed the now renowned Prithvi Theatre  on the original site Prithviraj had built a modest theatre and home for himself. The theatre company visited 112 towns all over the country notching up an astonishing 2,662 shows in 5,982 days. Prithviraj Kapoor played the lead in every single show. Performance venues were mostly cinema halls, as they were cheaper to rent. In the absence of electric fans, each audience member was given a hand fan. (Theatre and theatrical spaces have come a long way since then!)

British actors Geoffrey  and Laura Kendal’s repertory company Shakespeareana crossed paths with Prithvi Theatre in Calcutta, where they were invited by Prithviraj Kapoor to watch one of  his shows. It was  here that Shashi spotted Jennifer through the curtains sitting in the audience. The two would marry in 1958. (This correspondent is unable to say whether Jennifer’s sibling Felicity who also toured India performing Shakespeare with the family, was in England at the time.) The Kendals were part of the first Prithvi Theatre Festival in Juhu in 1983.

No single theme  has dominated this annual revelry of theatre—the Festival simply celebrates theatre in its diversity—local, national, international; old traditions, new forms, cross-currents.

The focus of the Festival varies from year to year. It has hosted groups from Mumbai, India and  abroad.  Some festivals have  been theme based— the 2007 Festival featured musicals by Mumbai groups, while the 2006 Festival, celebrating Prithviraj Kapoor's birth centenary, took as its theme his theatre company's motto, Kala Desh Ki Seva Mein, and invited groups from across India dealing with contemporary socio-political issues in their work. The Festival also includes exhibitions on a theatre personality or movement every two years:  2004 showcased an exhibition on Habib Tanvir and Naya Theatre, the  2006 exhibition  spotlighted Prithviraj Kapoor and Prithvi Theatres, 2008 exhibition was on Satyadev Dubey. Every exhibition gets turned into an exciting yearbook, which is available at the Prithvi Bookshop, Prithvi Theatre. In summer, Prithvi focuses an entire season for children during the summer holidays with various activities for the young between the ages of three and  100!  Held since 1991 the objective is to build a future audience for theatre and unleash creativity in youth.

The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) is training  students to be artists.  Lest we forget, theatre preceded democracy in ancient Athens, the site from the fifth century onwards, of the world’s first ever theatre festival, the Greater Dionysia.

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