I vividly recollect the time when, as a six year old, I and my little friends used to sit in the back-stage of Prithvi Theatres and indulge in our innocent gossiping, at times creating a minor racket. Occasionally, when Papaji passed by us, he would rap us on our heads - thus we learnt our first lesson in professional discipline. It was, of course, only years later that I fully understood the term and realized its serious implications , which lead to growth and the feeling of discipline involvement.
The Theatre, with Papaji, was a passion that meant everything to him. He inspired everyone around him with a love for it. Styled after several theatre repertories in England, Prithvi Theatres was an actor manager troupe. In other words, its central player also owned and managed the whole show. Roughly, we had some 125 members, including the back-stage crew. We travelled all over the country staging shows from our repertory of eight full-length pieces. Prithvi Theatres was on the move for seven to eight months in a year, punctuated as it were by Papajis call to duty as a Member of Parliament. Whenever Panditji (Jawaharlal Nehru) assigned him a responsible task, Papaji would readily respond by accepting and executing it with his infectious zeal, whether it was a Good-Will Mission to China or something of similar nature. I must digress to add that though Panditji was Papajis friend, Papaji never took advantage of him by way of gaining Governmental favours for the furtherance of his Prithvi Theatres.
Whenever Papaji was away, Prithvi Theatres did not perform any show, as all the plays centred around his leading role. He had two under-studies in Ramesh Siagal and Premnath but somehow, performances without Papaji lacked the original punch and things did not work out satisfactorily. For sixteen years Prithvi Theatres extensively toured the country, and everyone of its members still retains found memories of the trips. We did not earn much, or even enough to sustain ourselves, but we had great fun with theatre as Papaji aptly put it. In 1960 Papaji lost his voice and that spelt disaster for the Theatre. Prithvi Theatres closed down abruptly. After an operation, his voice returned but was devoid of the original thunder.
Papaji was the greatest driving force behind Prithvi Theatres and also its in-built flow. He was the pivot of its every activity. Prithvi Theatres was a personification of his persistent love for the stage. Everything he had he gave to it, yet when people paid tribute to his unstinted contribution to Indian Theatre, he modestly maintained that it was insignificant. Thus the Hindi Filmworld gain from Prithvi Theatres defied imagination, (such talented artistes like Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, Sajjan, Premnath, Rajendranath, Ravindra Kapoor, Kamal Kapoor, Zohra Saigal, Sudesh Kumar, Ramesh Saigal, Mohan Saigal, L. V. Prasad, Ramanand Sagar, Music Directors Ram Ganguly, Sardar Mullick(Anu Mullick's father), Shanker and Jaikishen, Ramlal, Dance Directors Satyanaryan, Suresh Bhatt, and many more, hence its closure. The rest of us realised that we could not live by theatre alone and were gradually lured away by cinema too.
It is wrong to say that a theatre audience does not exist in India. it does. Only, it is still to be tapped professionally. The Bengali, Marathi and Tamil Theatres thrive because of provisional support. The IPTA, Naya Theatre and Dishantar are making noteworthy contributions towards the Hindi stage, but the potentiality of the both as an art form and a source of entertainment has not yet been thoroughly explored. Perhaps we lack in organisation or we need more dedicated workers with a lot of guts to boot. Again, it is incorrect to argue that Film and TV will sweep the Theatre off its feet in the ensuing years. Look at Europe, USA and other advanced countries where both TV and Cinema have developed to a saturation point. Theatre exists there gracefully vis-a-vis all forms of entertainment as a form of art.
With Shakespeareana, my Father-in-laws theatre troupe, I travelled nearly all over the world, and the response everywhere was heartening. Once I was in NY in connection with the release of Siddartha and wanted to see Mike Nichol's stage presentation of Uncle Vanya. But I had to get the tickets for it in the black market, and that too all the way from California. This fact, let me add, is true of Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-off Broadway. Do you need any more assurance that the Theatre can sustain itself against the onslaught of Cinema and TV ? If the Theatre is to be made ever-lasting in India, I feel that we need many more devoted men like Prithviraj Kapoor, whose love for it had to be felt to be believed.
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