Prithvi Festival: Audacious Act

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This year’s Prithvi festival saw both masters and amateurs at their experimental best

IT’S A COLD morning in Haryana’s Indri village. On a patch of dry land next to the local school building, we see a small group of young theatre practitioners trying to devise a scene. Four of them are exploring their bodies to communicate man’s hunger for intimacy. A few local inhabitants halt their daily chores to watch them work.

In a dusty studio in suburban Mumbai, 1,500 km away, another set of performers share a joke over chai. The studio walls are covered with a long black cloth, which lets little light enter. Before they start their rehearsal, their director subtly drops a tip. “Poetry is never serious or heavy. We don’t need to play it like that,” he says. After a split second of silence, the female actors form a diagonal line, stare into space pretending to be puppets around the men. A lone journalist and boys who help backstage watch silently.

A little further away, two performers argue over the depiction of humour on stage; one a veteran, the other a novice; one a director and the other an actor; one a father and the other his son. Very soon the senior one gives up. Experience paves the way for experimentation. The wife and mother, also an actor, nods in amusement.

These are all vignettes from plays performed at Mumbai’s theatre haven. Around this time every year, amidst all the festivities, one corner of the city’s suburb of Juhu pulses with new energy and newer stories. Performing artists from across the country congregate to create a hub of live art on Mumbai’s oldest stage, Prithvi Theatre. From actors to musicians, dancers to storytellers, they gather under a roof of gleaming bulbs to experience and critique a set of new plays put together by old and young theatre practitioners. Despite the steep ticket prices, it can safely be said that this is probably the only time in the entire year when movie-goers actually pay to watch plays in the city. “A legacy lasts a while, but what keeps the Prithvi festival going is the people who make the festival. Every year, there’s a new wave of ideas that are presented in the form of plays, poetry readings, concerts, etcetera, and that’s a culture that needs to keep growing,” says Kunal Kapoor, the man who helms Prithvi currently.

This time though, amidst the smell of Irish coffee and whiffs of maska on buns, a group of stage artists broke boundaries. Like Jyoti Dogra, who after nine years of working in isolation came up with Toye (Sanskrit for ‘water’), a play devised entirely in a Haryana village by a group of Chandigarh students doing MAs in Theatre. Before they got to Mumbai, the sets of this play were transported on local buses from venue to venue, and their lunch-breaks would typically include a round of bhakri roti and sabzi.

“I met them last year when I visited their college as faculty and I asked them to reach out to me if they had a piece they wanted to work on. To my surprise, in a year, they had something they wanted me to direct, and due to a lack of resources we worked out of Indri, which was home to one of the actors and eventually became our home as well. We practically had very little money. I was living in the headman’s house and it was like 15 of us were adopted by the village for two months. Our food, costumes, our set, everything [came from] the village and its people who became part of our process, ” she says.

Dogra, last known for her spectacular solo-piece, Notes on Chai, had little idea what to expect when she decided to use Girish Karnad’s mythological text Agni aur Barkha as a starting point for their exploration. “The text is set in the time of the Mahabharata and has very strong Vedic elements to it. It is driven by a human being’s insatiable hunger for power, money, sex, knowledge and love against a backdrop of famine. I wanted to depict it through natural physical impulses and by movements which are present in the body,” says Dogra, whose play is a hard- hitting wake-up call to humanity with its performers using voice and movement to drive home their point. The play had a life of its own even before it came to the festival, and that shows. “Just a day before, we performed it at the village for the first time. Some RSS activists came and started questioning the theme of the play, threatening to shut it down. What was beautiful was that we went ahead and premiered it in the village nevertheless, and with an audience that really seemed to understand the root of the play,” she adds.

I have never gone in search of a script, I believe that the scripts have always found me. Leacock's works are a comment on society's ways and they hold true even today

Almost in stark contrast is Manav Kaul’s Chuhal, a love-story of sorts, a jugalbandi between a free-thinking woman and an ordinary man bound by shackles of his own conditioning. This is Kaul’s return to theatre after a decade. He had almost renounced the medium with which he started his career in the city. Less than a year ago, Kaul said he may never return to theatre, but Chuhal changed his mind. “You always go back to where you belong. My stories come alive nowhere better than on the stage, though after this play I may again vow to never return to theatre. It’s like a bad habit which I cannot quit,” says Kaul sipping black coffee outside his studio. For anyone who is familiar with Kaul’s writings, it’s impossible to escape a philosophical quality inherent in his work that pushes one to question the purpose of life.

Woh ek hoga jiske saath mein apna poora jeevan bitaa doonga, pyaar ‘hai’ nahin kabhi bhi, woh hamesha ‘hoga’ (There will always be the ‘one’ I will spend my life with. Love is never just present, it will always ‘happen’) ,” his protagonist says in Chuhal. “I have always been fascinated by a human being’s need to be with someone. We are not conditioned to be single, and it is now in today’s urban and some rural spaces that I see people making a choice to be with themselves only. Men have that luxury, but Chuhal is about a woman who by choice wants to spend her life with no one but herself,” he says. Women have been at the centre of his stories in the past too, but here it is she who drives the story. Set in a contemporary context, Chuhal is purely the point of view of an independent single woman who is seeking love just to seek it, and not to feel complete. “I see married people lonely as hell, and vice versa. But Aarti in my play is ready to take that chance. She doesn’t want to reach anywhere. She’s happy in her journey,” he adds. Watching the play, one sees poetry in its silences and honesty in its impudence, and it makes one want to take a chance with life and love.

However, if one looks beyond experimentation in theatre and poetry in motion, one sees a legacy that plays out on stage, as if it always belonged there. It was what made Naseeruddin Shah’s latest play, Riding Madly Off In All Directions, a stand out. For the first time, we see the entire Shah family together on stage. Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak, Heeba, Vivaan and Imaad sashayed to the prose of popular humourist and Canadian writer Stephen Leacock—sometimes together, and sometimes alone.

Jokes about the futility of Xs and Ys in math problems, or the drudgery of yet another card trick or even man’s incessant need to complain were depicted with fine sarcasm, as the Shahs played off each other on stage. “I have worked with my family ever since I started doing theatre, but to be on that stage with all of them together was the best moment of my life,” says Vivaan Shah who was impressive in his comic timing and candour. Of course, with his father at the helm, there was little he says that could’ve gone wrong. “Dad allows us to experiment, but as long as it works within the periphery of the play. I never really regretted not going to acting school, because with mum and dad I really have an entire school of experience to learn from,” he adds. This play diverges from Motley’s previous work, as it is less a play and more sketches performed on stage. However, apart from the thrill of two generations coming together, it was the experience of watching Naseeruddin Shah perform live that was special. The play concludes with a piece where he is transported into a world where death has been defeated by humans, and men become replicas of walking-talking machines. “I have never gone in search of a script, I believe that the scripts have always found me. Leacock’s works are a comment on society’s ways and they hold true even today,” he says.

For those who could not make it to the many houseful shows at the festival, the plays were brought live onto phone screens through a virtual reality (VR) experience. “It was brilliant to see how an international production looks, that too in 360 degrees. We have a very different style of performance here in India, and I think it’s imperative for artists toexpose themselves to such art for their personal growth,” says Ananya Dasgupta, a student of Arts at St Xavier’s College and a Prithvi regular.

Apart from the long queues, the overcrowded café and the regular suspects who never fail to participate, this year’s was a festival of firsts. Be it Dogra’s initiative in grooming amateurs and making them create a bold piece, or Kaul’s poetic genius brought alive by a group of fine actors, or just the Shahs doing what they do best, it was a triumph of the arts. “I don’t know what theatre is to me till today because it’s a mystery to me even now. After 20 years of doing this, it plays me like I’m a little child, and that’s the beauty of theatre,” Kaul says.