Prithvi Theatre: four decades of pure drama

Forty years since it first opened to the public with a performance of G.P. Deshpande’s Udhwast Dharmshala, Prithvi Theatre remains one of the city’s influential cultural landmarks. Named for the theatre group Prithviraj Kapoor started in 1944 — the Prithvi Theatres — the venue was inaugurated in 1978 by his son, Shashi, whose flourishing commercial movie career sustained its early years. His wife, Jennifer Kendal Kapoor, became one of Mumbai theatre’s prime movers before their children, Sanjna and Kunal Kapoor took over the reins of running the space. In the 1970s, the centre of the experimental theatre scene was a nondescript but whirring community hall in a school building — the Chhabildas hall run by Awishkar theatre. Architect Ved Sagan’s professionally designed environs and Jennifer’s determined supervision ensured that the new space soon became an important centre for theatre in the city, slowly supplanting the institutions that came earlier.

Now, even as alternative spaces mushroom across the city, Prithvi Theatre retains its allure of primacy even as it faces up to manifold cultural shifts itself. Its annual theatre festival is a show of strength that attracts legions of theatregoers and practitioners alike for a two-week vibrant whirlwind of activity across the city.

Old work, new insight

This year’s pièce de résistance opening act is an adaptation of Prithviraj’s 1946 play, Deewar, directed by recent Sangeet Natak Akademi Awardee Sunil Shanbag. The vicissitudes of fortune that visit the joint family at its centre, including the machinations by ‘outsiders’ that wreak havoc on familial harmony, became a powerful allegory for colonialism at a time the yoke of British imperialism has yet to be shaken off. Written by Inder Raaj Anand and Prithviraj, it was a play that captured the contemporary anxieties of a people staring at the face of an imminent Partition, and its tale of a zamindari family riven apart by forces of alienation has particular significance in these polarised times. In the hands of the perspicacious Shanbag, the play’s politics of class, particularly in a valorised feudal setup, might well be upended to bring forth new insight and revelations better fitting today’s zeitgeist.

When not touring, the local home of the Prithvi Theatres was the historic Royal Opera House (ROH) at Charni Road, which reopened in 2016 after a hiatus of more than two decades. The premiere performance of Deewar at the ROH that will mark the forty-year signpost, is therefore very much a homecoming.

Historical milestones

Although Deewar’s place in history is perhaps understated given the niche theatre has always occupied, memories of its run has yielded piquant anecdotes that pepper many an actor’s biography. Raj Kapoor essayed a small part in the play, as the servant Ramu, even singing two songs. In Madhu Jain’s biography, he is quoted as saying, “On the opening day, I was discovered as an actor after ten years of acting in the film industry.” In his autobiography, Rishi Kapoor talks of his own acting ‘debut’ as a five-year-old who lay in his stage mother’s lap during a wedding scene in Deewar.

The biographies of Shaukat Kaifi and Zohra Sehgal provide much more detailed accounts. Sehgal’s sister, Uzra Butt, had starred in Prithvi Theatres’ first production, Shakuntala, and Sehgal was finally roped in for Deewar’s dance direction after dogged attempts to join the company. Substantial parts in subsequent plays by the group followed. Similarly, it was after being introduced to the group by Sehgal, after a performance of Pathan, a parable for Hindu-Muslim amity, that Shaukat joined the group, at a time when daughter Shabana was just four months old. A chapter in Shaukat’s book, Kaifi and I, is devoted to this tumultuous and satisfying phase of her life.

Fresh lease

Apart from Shanbag’s revival, the other legacy production that has been announced is Bengaluru auteur Abhishek Majumdar’s contemporary take on Kisan. The play is a searing feudal drama which first opened in 1956 and was Prithvi Theatres’ final production before the group hung up its boots and breeches in 1960 after 16 long years, owing to Prithviraj’s declining health. Majumdar will take on the agrarian crisis head on, with cultural references drawn a variety of sources, ranging from Dalit science fiction to black comedies. Kisan is slated to open in June next year, and in the pipeline are five more revivals, such that the Prithvi Theatres’ complete roster of seven original plays will have all received a fresh lease of life on the very turf on which they had once been harbingers of a innovative cultural vision.

Over the years, the Prithvi Theatre Festival has vacillated between setting the cultural agenda and holding fort as the last bastion for the old guard. The early editions were not necessarily theme-based, and staged plays in Hindi, English and Gujarati. Cigarette companies like the Hyderabad-based VST Industries Ltd and ITC, through its brand Gold Flake, were a few of the festival’s initial sponsors. The 2004 edition’s array of productions was spread over six venues across the city. Its personality-driven focus was Habib Tanvir and his Naya Theatre, with six of their iconic productions staged, including both Agra Bazaar and Charandas Chor. The redoubtable Sehgal, a nonagenarian at the time made an appearance with the play Aik Thi Nani.

The next edition, in collaboration with the British Council, featured a six-show run of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, by British group Complicite, with Indian groups playing second fiddle — much like this year’s NCPA Season. Spearheaded by Sanjna, it was the 2007 edition that has had a lasting impact on the local theatre scene. Under the banner of Mumbai Musicals, a slew of commissioned productions presented what was then a rarity — a homegrown stage musical rooted in Indian musical traditions. Memorable plays like Vaikom Mohammad Basheer’s Me Grandad ‘Ad An Elephant! and Chetan Datar’s Mastana Rampuri urf, Chappan Chhuri, directed by Shanbag, received an airing at the festival. The genre of the Hindustani musical is much more widespread now. The next edition was once again focused on a single personality — enfant terrible Satyadev Dubey, billed ‘the most loved and most hated man of modern Hindi theatre’. This year’s focus on Prithviraj’s works, albeit with a single signature production, marks the second time the grand old man was at the centre of the festival — the first time was in 2006, on his birth centenary.

Contemporary takes

This year’s festival will flag off what is likely to be a long run of The Truth (La Vérité in French), the play by Florian Zeller, presented once again by Naseeruddin Shah’s Motley troupe after their long tryst with Zeller’s The Father. This new production is a clever take on modern-day relationships and infidelity that arrives in India very soon after its international run, having opened in the UK in 2016. The English translation is by Christopher Hampton. Apart from the ROH, the latest edition of the festival includes showings at the G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture, where such plays like Gagan Dev Riar’s adaptation of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist satire Rhinoceros, and Avneesh Mishra’s The Sun Sets in the East will premiere.

The festival will commence this evening at the Royal Opera House followed by shows at Prithvi Theatre from November 5-12; more details at

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2021 11:02:31 PM |

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