Sanjna Kapoor, a panellist at one of The Hindu Lit for Life sessions today in Delhi, talks about adapting literature to the stage and the pressing need to create more spaces for performance.

There is an untiring energy about Sanjna Kapoor as she strides into Prithvi café and orders coffee. She is part of the India Theatre Forum (formed in 2006), which will generate data that can impact policy. Sanjna's project — and concern — is on the need for arts management programmes. “There is a need to come together in one voice. This time the theme is spaces for theatre, not only physical but also in a metaphorical sense.” 

This network is born out of an enormous sense of isolation, she confesses, and the need to connect to each other. “We need to strengthen ourselves and to also stop complaining. We are great at complaining. You need to say it's your right and you need to get off your ass,” she grins.

Shrinking spaces

She despairs of the shrinking spaces for theatre and misses public places where one can do his/her thing and feel comfortable. “I used to be asked ‘what is the greatest lacuna in theatre?' I think it's spaces to perform, where the audience is comfortable and feel it is their space... but it's also about management. In Shimla, Ved Segan, the architect who built the present Prithvi theatre, restored the old Gothic Gaiety theatre. It took six years but nobody thought it important to put a management plan in place. Now the engineer who worked on the reconstruction/restoration is the manager. I was horrified.”

On the positive side, she points out that there has been an interesting trend in the last few years as more people have adapted literary pieces to theatre. Sadat Hasan Manto was done by Chetan Datar in Marathi. “I think what is remarkable is what Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) did to bring Ismat Chugtai to theatre. He knew her during the shooting of ‘Junoon' and thought she was a wonderful woman, but he never read her work till much later. And he was completely struck by her brilliance and how she was ahead of her time. I think he's done a huge service to bring her words alive and her literature to a wider, broader audience who may have never had access to her writing otherwise.  Even Mahashveta Devi's story The Why Why Girl was adapted by a group dedicated to children's theatre.”

In Mumbai there have been many productions based on literature but there's a danger in this, she feels. It's a huge skill to do justice to literature and transform it into another form like film or theatre. The good thing is that now more people are writing for theatre. They are writing stories of the here and now. “We need to push ourselves more; we need to demand better work; good literature will come with more work, but it may not be always true though,” she laughs.

For her the most exciting thing at Prithvi has been the infusion of enormous energy and focus of young blood in the last six-seven years. “It's not as if groups performing earlier didn't take theatre seriously; it was more of an amateur engagement. The change now is that the younger generation is actually wishing, hoping, dreaming of making it their profession,” she says.

One angst

While the younger generation wants to train, learn and make this their life, her “one angst” is that they don't want to engage with the idea as much as they want to engage with the body. “We still don't want to scratch below the surface. They don't have the capacity for that and I don't see too much work like that.”

Mumbai has also seen works like Rebecca and Peter Pan and some of Gulzar's short stories and poetry adapted to theatre. She is proud of prolific playwrights like Makarand Deshpande (who has been around for 20 years), Manav Kaul, Ram Ganesh and others. However, she wishes for “a better mahaul (atmosphere) for critique, which is not pulling you down but about engaging with the idea and pushing you to your limits. That's one thing I miss here and it's tough to do artificially. It needs to come organically but I think if there are enough of us who feel that way, we will find an answer.”

Her one regret? “The saddest thing is we come from a country where successes are picked up and imitated. This is a model (Prithvi Theatre) that, I think, can be and should be duplicated. There is one Ranga Shankara in Bangalore again by the madness of one woman and her sheer determination (Arundhati Nag) but there's nothing else. Some years ago, the Planning Commission asked for our story as an example of success. I refused to do it. Neither the government nor anyone else has imitated us; it's not really a success. We are an exception, a lunatic exception, we are mad people sitting on prime property (in Mumbai)…but I say that out of frustration. I do believe that's changeable because more people are coming up to us and saying we need these spaces in Pune, in Pimpri Chinchwad and elsewhere, so how do we do it? We have the software, we have the capability, we have a theatre... It is getting interesting, quality has to be developed but quantity is there.”

Her sustaining belief is that there is an audience; there are audiences everywhere who need this extraordinary live interaction that only theatre can provide.