Pia, who plays Dorothy in The Shehenshah of Azeemo, an Indian adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, was surprised to find an eight-year-old girl sneak backstage during a performance and ask her point blank, “Is the story real?” In five minutes, Pia tried to explain to her the nature of fiction, how stories are made. After the show, the girl returned to ask Pia if she could teach her how it’s done, how drama is created. Before Pia could reply, the girl vanished, and Pia was disappointed.
Shehenshah of Azeemo premiered at Prithvi Summertime, a festival organised by Prithvi theatre to showcase plays and workshops for children. Since then, the play is such a hit with kids and adults alike that it returns each year, and has an audience that has seen it many times. The little girl Pia had spoken to also returned the next year, promptly with her parents. But parental disapproval prevented Pia from training the little girl.
Such is the power of Prithvi Summertime; of Ruskin Bond plays and workshops on comic books on developing minds. Taking place for the third consecutive year, from 17 April to 6 June in Mumbai, Prithvi Summertime has dedicated audiences and professionals who love participating in the event again and again.
Anshumani Ruddra, a children’s writer, has been conducting various workshops on speculative fiction, comics and manga comics and the relationship between science and poetry. “You’d be surprised to know that last year I had 14 girls and six boys in my workshop on comics and manga,” he says. “The girls knew all about superheroes, DC and Marvel comics.”
But all isn’t hunky dory for the organisers at Prithvi theatre. This year, the festival is taking place in additional new venues in Matunga and Kandivali, besides the usual Prithvi theatre and Horniman circle. “Our new venues are in sync with our philosophy. But since we are not flush with funds and marketing, it’s a huge challenge to popularise these alternative venues,” says Sanjana Kapoor, who runs Prithvi.
Besides the usual popular plays like Shehenshah of Azeemo and A Special Bond based on Ruskin Bond’s short stories, six plays will be staged for the first time in the festival this year. Junglenama is a play about animals coming together to fight a human invasion, and uses shadow puppetry and a nautanki style of performance. Suar chala space ko is a comic play about a stinky pig who’s shot into space.
Shehenshah of Azeemo continues to be a crowdpuller. It premiered at Summertime two years ago, and has had 30 performances since, including at posh birthday parties. The pace of the play is just right, and new characters come along even after the interval. The songs, adapted into Hindi, are catchy. In Horniman Circle, an outdoor venue, the evil witch actually sits on a tree. So involved are the kids that when the evil witch asks who killed her sister, voices from the audience yell Dorothy. Shivani Tanksale, the co-director who also plays the wicked witch, smiles, “Children think my crooked nose is real, and are very afraid of me.”
Though the moral of this play is that there is no place like home, morals are generally wasted on kids. Kids can tell good entertainment from an opportunity to preach. Which is what makes Prithvi Summertime special. It is wholesome fun and a chance to learn something new. If you would like to know how the proverb ‘make a mountain out of a molehill’ came about, and happen to detest your Hindi schoolteacher, you could attend the workshop ‘Hindi ki chindi’ on Hindi proverbs and enact the story behind it. Or, paint it on a T-shirt.