A piece by Sanjna Kapoor in the Indian Express a few weeks ago took my mind 55 years back when I was doing Intermediate. In those days, there were no higher secondary classes; we were in 10+2 system – one had to do intermediate after matriculation and before graduation.
Sanjna, as is largely well known, is the daughter of Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal, both being steeped in the tradition of theatre. Sanjna runs the Prithvi Theatres established by her grandfather Prithviraj Kapoor who would call it Prithvi “Jhonpra”, (hut). She wrote the piece eulogizing Prithviraj Kapoor and Geoffrey Kendal, grandfather from her mother’s side on behalf of “Not In My Name” as a measure of protest against the current intolerance that is all too visible in Indian society.
Sanjna’s reference to her paternal grandfather reminded me of the day when Prithviraj Kapoor visited our Victoria College in Gwalior sometime in the early 1950s. Our Principal was one Prof. DN Bhalla, a Cambridge graduate, who used to know Prithviraj and had invited him to the College to speak to the students. The impressive Union hall was overflowing with boys and girls. Prithviraj arrived in his trademark white kurta-pyjama with a black shawl draped round his neck. He looked every inch a man from show-business. Tall like most Pathans, he was very well built and had a very handsome and expressive face
His address was full of humour. Speaking in English with an educated accent, he floored everybody in the audience. The boys knew that while he was a renowned Hindi theatre artist he was also very good in enacting English plays, especially those of Shakespeare. Soon enough there was a request for him to recite the cry for revenge from Shakespeare’s play “Othello”. And he readily obliged. I still remember how the word “revenge” that was uttered twice in high pitch with the last ending up at a very high pitch. It became more effective because of Prithviraj’s booming voice.
Though those were the sunset years for the travelling theatre, he was still going strong travelling III class with fifty to sixty artists with all the props. Having migrated from Punjab in the early years of the 20th Century he joined the fledgling Indian film industry during its “Silent era”. A handsome man as he was, he was highly successful in the world of celluloid. However, by 1944 he temporarily gave up his film career and took to his first love – theatre. He produced some politically and socially relevant plays. His was a travelling theatre mainly to inspire the audiences to participate in the Indian Independence Movement.
A play depicting Hindu-Muslim unity called “Pathan” was highly successful and was reported to have been staged more than 600 times in Bombay (now Mumbai) alone. Along with “Deewar”, “Ahooti” and “Gaddar” the plays constituted the “Partition Quartet” in which Prithviraj not only displayed his prescience in so far as the consequences of Partition were concerned, he also fervently pleaded for Hindu-Muslim friendship or bonhomie, whatever one might call it. At the end of every play he would deliver a speech to promote his favourite themes of Independence Movement and Hindu Muslim Unity. Later after the plays he would stand near the exit door of theatres with his black shawl spread seeking donations for the welfare of those who were uprooted from their hearths and homes as a consequence of Partition.
Sanjna’s maternal grandfather and grandmother, too, were distinguished theatre artists. Her grandfather Geoffrey Kendall was a member of travelling theatres in England before his troupe was asked to entertain the British troops in various corners of South-East Asia during the World War II. Travelling through various countries, he along with his troupe that included his wife Laura Liddel and daughters, Jennifer and Felicity landed up in India during the 1940s.
He came and fell in love with the country – a case almost of love at first sight. He organized a few artists who were British as well as Indians and created the theatrical outfit called “Shakespareana”. He along with his family and fellow artists travelled the entire country staging plays of Shakespeare. With his perfect stage sets, props and innovative lighting the plays were effective in evoking the times of Shakespeare’s plays.
During his travels he hit Gwalior in 1952 or 1953 and staged plays in our college, the local girls’ college, Scindia School and even the local club associated with the Scindias. We would see the party arrive in tongas with boxes full of equipment – dresses, drapes, period furniture etc. They made quite a stir among the College boys as none of us had ever seen so many white people all at the same time and at the same place. If I recall, Shashi Kapoor had not joined the outfit till then. The plays were ticketed and my parents had no reservations about parting with the necessary money.
I was lucky to have seen two plays – Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” and “Arms and the Man” of George Bernard Shaw. Both of them were being taught to us as parts of our English courses. Geoffrey Kendall played the role of Shylock the Jew and most of us were taken in by his enactment of the role I still remember his scream of “oh my daughter, oh my ducats” when he realized that his daughter Jessica had eloped and gone away. He brought to Gwalior for the first time new ways of preparing realistic sets and effective lighting. I still remember how cleverly moonlight outside a window was created by using blue light in “Arms and the Man”.
Having seen such emancipated men like her two eminent grandfathers Sanjna has every reason to bemoan the prevailing radicalism in the society which has only engendered pervasive reign of fear extinguishing the light of freedom of expression and speech. Sanjana is right; in a mere half a century we have fallen steeply from lofty heights only to become puny, narrow-minded men straddling this once-noble country.