Report: The Prithvi Theatre Festival 2022
The plays, poetry readings, talks, dance performances, and music concerts presented at the festival gave audiences a taste of the magic of live performances
Prithvi Theatre is one of Mumbai’s most iconic cultural spaces. Its long history of being a training ground for the city’s actors, the charming ambience, and intimate performance space, make this Juhu locale the treasure it is. No wonder it was packed to the brim with audiences when the Prithvi Festival – once an annual affair – returned in 2022 after a two-year hiatus. The Covid-19 pandemic led to the forced break. Thankfully, things are back on track now.
From November 3 to 14, the festival offered a line-up of plays, poetry readings, talks, dance performances, and music concerts across a range of languages such as Hindi, Marathi, English, Tibetan, Gujarati, Urdu, and Persian. This diversity gave audiences a taste of the magic of live performances – something that films, television, and web series cannot match. Several theatre groups from across the country, including Motley, Adishakti, Ansh, Akvarious, Water Lily, Ideas Unlimited, B Spot Productions, Naya Theatre, Afsana Theatre, Storia Senza Storia, and D for Drama, presented their work at the festival.
It was particularly exciting to witness how theatre, an ancient art form, was approached and interpreted by different playwrights, actors, directors, costume and set designers and lighting technicians.
One of the highlights this year was Pah-Lak, a play in Tibetan with English subtitles, that was a collaboration between Tibet Theatre and the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. Originally written in English by Abhishek Majumdar, and translated into Tibetan by Lhakpa Tsering, who also directed the play with Harry Fuhrmann, it tells the story of Deshar, a Buddhist nun who lives in eastern Tibet. It gave audiences an insight into the complexities of the Tibetan struggle to gain freedom from Chinese occupation, engaged with debates around whether self-immolation is a non-violent form of protest, and whether people viewed as oppressors are worthy of compassion.
“Theatre is a powerful tool of communication. It gives us an opportunity to tell our story to the world in a way that goes beyond headlines. It goes to the heart of the matter: human suffering,” said Tsering. Pah-Lak incorporated ritual chanting, the projection of images and footage of real-life Tibetan protestors who have risked their lives for their country. It also included elements of Tibetan opera such as the Ngonpa dance that purifies the stage, and used the dranyen, a Tibetan musical instrument.
The Verdict, a play in English and Hindi directed by Akarsh Khurana and adapted from Margaret May Hobbs’ play of the same title, dealt with human rights in the covering up of medical malpractice in a hospital run by a powerful religious leader. The play also dramatized the conflict between two kinds of lawyers – one who uses his knowledge of the law to find loopholes and help the rich go scot-free, and another who prioritizes ethics and integrity.
“It is set across two hospitals and three distinct offices besides the courtroom, judge’s chambers, and the bar. Light design helps but what really worked for us was a comprehensive sound design,” said Khurana. Varrunn Bangera, the sound designer, gave each setting a unique soundscape – “obvious in some places, and subliminal in others” – and this helped the actors be aware of the spaces they inhabited on stage and the transitions from one to another.
Sound also played an important role in The Greatest Show on Earth, written and directed by Vikram Kapadia. It had a chorus, and live music with the guitar, keyboard, and percussion – which served to heighten the emotional intensity and also provide comic relief in tense moments. The play, which uses forms like rap music, dance, advertising jingles, and striptease addressed the challenges that storytellers face in a world constantly hungry for content. It also critiqued the creative bankruptcy of production houses that make television shows. The musical satire revolves around a reality show that tries to grab eyeballs by showing a suicide attempt live and does not hesitate to capitalize on communalism to increase its viewership.
When asked whether playwrights face similar challenges in creating original work, Kapadia said, “If one spends hours staring at a blank screen or page, at some stage the finger hits a letter of the alphabet and the journey begins. My challenges are more about production, finance, budgets, rehearsal spaces, venues to perform, and ticket prices that are ridiculously low.”
Nevertheless, Kapadia continues to be committed to the form. “Theatre is incompatible with OTT, phones, and cinema. It is the only form in which the actor and audience breathe the same air. It creates a sense of community that is harmonious.”
Akriti Singh, who directed the Hindi-English play Bull**it Jobs, and also co-wrote it with Shaurya Agarwal, is not troubled by the competition that theatre faces from other forms of entertainment. “If a person is lost to Instagram reels, it is their issue to fix. I cannot teach anyone how to focus, though they can try meditation. As an artist, my audience just comes towards my art,” she said. Not having an audience is not a dilemma Singh encountered. She had three houseful shows in a day.
Her play explored why humans today are so busy with work, even more than our ancestors, when automation was supposed to make lives easier. Set in an elevator, it is structured around conversations between three men who occupy leadership positions in a company and the elevator operator whose job it is to push buttons. “I wanted to write about a job that is not needed and is painful for the person doing it,” Singh said. The setting allowed an exploration of what it’s like to be trapped – literally and metaphorically – in a workplace. “The elevator also lent itself to the illusion of going somewhere – upward – in life,” she added.
Bull**it Jobs grew out of Singh and Agarwal’s experiences and observations, and from reading essays about the modern economy. It offers a sharp commentary on the tragedy of urban lives with a zany sense of humour. Singh poured her own angst into the script. When she was recently asked to write for a television channel, she found that “managers are in the game just to ruin the creativity of the artist and reduce everything to well-defined compartments.”
Vinay Kumar, who directed the English play Bhoomi adapted from Sara Joseph’s Malayalam play Bhoomirakshasam, turned his gaze towards violence of another kind – physical aggression directed towards women at multiple times in history and the patriarchal responses to it. Inspired to work on the subject given its contemporary resonance with public debates around accountability, justice, and retribution due to the #MeToo movement, he wanted to reflect on whether current responses to violence enable deterrence and change things for the better.
Bhushan Korgaonkar, who wrote and directed Lavani Ke Rang performed in Hindi and Marathi, intended to demolish stereotypes about Lavani performers that are a result of the way the form is presented in films and on television. “They are labelled either as victims or villains, either as exploited and abused, or as money-minded sluts,” he said. Apparently, choreographers who believe that “slower movements, singing, adakari, personal engagement, and nuanced performance style may not work with the masses” tend to showcase only “a high energy, naughty performance” with “superfast steps, jumps, and all sorts of acrobatic movements”. Instead of dholki fadacha tamasha, which is presented as mass entertainment, Korgaonkar prefers to work with artists from traditional sangeet bari theatres. “Prithvi Theatre works wonderfully; while it has a large auditorium, it still has an intimate feeling,” he said.
Makarand Deshpande, Saurabh Nayyar, Shishir Ramavat, and Rana Pratap Sengar were some of the other playwrights who presented at the festival. The event also featured conversations with theatre personalities like Adil Hussain, Shefali Shah, Piyush Mishra, Jim Sarbh, Radhika Apte, Ali Fazal, and Anurag Kashyap.
One of the highlights was an evening of poems and short stories with Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Heeba Shah, and Kenny Desai reading from the work of four writers – TS Eliot, Robert Browning, Vikram Seth, and James Thurber.
The Sufi concert Rangreza featuring Pooja Gaitonde and Suhail Warsi was remarkable too. While Gaitonde sang songs like Piya Haji Ali, Saanson Ki Maala Pe Simroo Main Pi Ka Naam, Khwaja Mere Khwaja and Chhap Tilak, Warsi told stories of Mirabai, Rabia Basri, Nizamuddin Auliya, Amir Khusrau, Moinuddin Chishti, Baba Farid, and Bulleh Shah. It was an inspired gathering; the immediacy was underlined by the fact that there were no microphones. The listeners listened with rapt attention, swaying to the music and contemplating the mysteries of this vast universe.
Some of the other excellent performances were Pelva Naik’s dhrupad concert, a jazz concert by Gino Banks, Bijayini Satpathy’s Odissi piece and the Kathak collaboration by Aditi Bhagwat, Viveick Rajagopalan, and Swapnil Bhise. The festival concluded with a stunning presentation of Western classical compositions by Indian composers like Vanraj Bhatia, Pradhamarao Gadi, Aaliya Ramakrishnan, Deon D’souza, Upamanyu Kar, Prayash Biswakarma, Shruthi Rajasekar, and Pyarelal Sharma performed by musicians from the Symphony Orchestra of India.
After enjoying such a platter of delicacies, punctuated by cups of masala chai and bun maska at Prithvi’s picturesque cafe, it will be hard to go back to online browsing and doomscrolling. Theatre has a calming effect, especially if you watch plays at Prithvi, which has strict rules including no phones, no photography, and no late entry. They can seem excessive to some but those rules go a long way towards creating a viewing and listening atmosphere that is focused, immersive and fun.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer
The views expressed are personal