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High drama in Prithvi Theatre


Fundraising, children's theatre, experimental theatre, local theatre, the Prithvi Theatre festival ... Sanjana Kapoor has a lot on her plate.

Keeping Prithvi together: Sanjana Kapoor. Photo: Vino John

AT the Prithvi Theatre, a small, cosy place tucked away in a by-lane adjacent to Juhu Beach, a place home to some wonderful drama since 1978, you find Sanjana Kapoor, hurrying about with tons of papers, dishing out instructions, making a mental note of which theatre group is rehearsing and when, enquiring about health of friends, complimenting and scolding two different people in same breath. All with a twinkle in the grey-green eyes and a gurgling smile.

Keeping a promise

This is the second day of the Prithvi Theatre Festival, which means high drama in and out of the auditorium. She is synonymous with Prithvi Theatre since 1993 when she took up the job of keeping the promise that the theatre had made to theatre lovers in Mumbai.

Sanjana settles down in the Prithvi Café, again a place where scores of theatre celebrities are spotted interacting with each other, while genuine as well as wannabe theatre enthusiasts sip their Irish coffees.

The first question inevitably is about Complicite, the British theatre company known for its "new and path-breaking" work. How did it finally happen after seven years of persuasion?

"Seven years ago I met with the producer of the company in London. I had heard that the company was doing new, path-breaking work. There was something incredibly important about this company. I introduced Prithvi to them. And then the correspondence started. Actually they were supposed to come in 2000 but their tour went in the other direction. We were expecting them to come next year but it worked out this year. It is not the production ("Measure for Measure") exactly we are bringing; it is the company. We hope to start a relationship, build it. We want them to come again and again and again," she says animatedly.

Clearly she is very keen to bring the international theatre companies who make a difference to India but her response changes when one asks about plans of taking Prithvi to the western world. "Strange as it may seem, that is not our idea. At the most we may go there for a learning experience or income generation but clearly my work is here. We are a catalyst. I don't have to be a catalyst there. They have got audiences there, theatres there. My work is here."

Spirited movement

Starting with fundraising, her work ranges over children's theatre, providing a platform for experimental theatre, establishing the Prithvi theatre festival, building relationships with local theatre groups and so on. Surely, that is a lot of work and in keeping with her grandfather Prithviraj Kapoor's dream of a spirited theatre movement. But a lot remains to be done as well.

"In Karnataka, there is this group that takes plays from village to village. There the villagers watch Ibsen and Beckett and so on. We restrict our audience ourselves by building structures. In villages, theatre is in the open. Everybody can participate. It also has to be with the theatre fraternity. In a city we get a little cushy and spoilt and we don't think we need to do much work. Just put advertisements and that's enough. But I don't think that's enough. We need to do lot more work. We need to reach out more."

One way of reaching out and ensuring extensive involvement is active participation of local groups, which Prithvi Festival made possible through "Theatremania" this year. This segment of the festival had several local groups perform in four languages — English, Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. However, these changes have not happened overnight. It took her several years to make the transition from being very hard to please and particular about the local theatre to involving them at all levels.

"In the initial years, the festival used to choose the best of what local groups have done in a year. For many years I did not include the local groups. I was being incredibly critical and judgemental. However, in 1999 we had quite an unusual festival celebrating Bombay theatre and 22 local groups premiered. It was a lovely, lovely festival. For the last two years we pulled in local groups. They are how we exist. We exist from our local talent. That is the reason for our being here. We want them to feel involved." For someone who's efforts are to make theatre accessible, how does she react to Shakespeare's journey from being a genius but a popular playwright when he captured the audience in 1600 to presently being reduced to elite audience in select circles. She says it is largely our own doing.

Taking a stand

"That was the beauty of the time. For his play you would get the local chaiwala, panwala along with the king and the queen. I mean in this context you would have Sharad Pawar and all the other ministers and the rest of the audience as well. Today we only get to that level in Ramleela. It has always been intriguing. Why can't we get those people to come watch plays as well! I think we need to design a play that reaches out."

Reaching out however does not mean appeasing or popular. Be it productions as part of GRIPS theatre for children or presenting "Measure for Measure" as a relevant comment on our times or political nature of any creation, she firmly believes in taking a stand. "Anything you make is always political. There are people who think you can be apolitical but I think you have to take a stand. For example, the form of children's theatre called GRIPS, which Mohan Agashe introduced here, is very political. It talks about communalism creeping into middle class lives... "

She goes on to elaborate about a play produced by Prithvi two years back that dealt with the issue of communalism. Present issues of concern cannot be left out of the creative orbit.

It is in this context that "Measure for Measure" means so much to her.

"`Measure for Measure' is a very political play and relevant to our times. Conservatism is spreading across the world. We are having moral police everywhere, whether it is abortion in the U.S. or dance bars or the smoking and no smoking on screen. It's absurd. Absolutely unbelievable! When I saw the play the only thing I kept thinking was Shakespeare was such a genius."

She refers back to Shakespeare, who saw and wrote about things that are seen and experienced today to the extent of spooky. She pushes the scope of horizon on international front with getting a London-based theatre company here.

At the same time, she nurses a constant nagging thought about need for work in less accessed areas. The way things are going, few years down one can see Sanjana in the same tearing hurry and in the midst of similar chaos allowing several more crazy creative experiments, reaching out to more and more people and taking the message of Prithvi Theatres far and wide.

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