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Theatre as temple

Why I believe in the capacity of theatre to transform individuals, build communities

Written by Sanjna Kapoor | Published: August 18, 2017 12:28 am
Actress Jennifer Kendal in film 36 CHOWEINGHEE LANE. Express archive photo

My mother Jennifer Kapoor once wrote of her childhood, “In my birth certificate my father was described as an actor with no fixed abode. I always found this romantic and something to be intensely proud of… My first memories are of the smell of grease-paint, dust, the perspiration of terrified actors.” This was the family I grew up in. A family whose “founding pillars” were Geoffrey Kendal and Prithviraj Kapoor, both adventurers who lived life on their own terms and were passionate about theatre.

Geoffrey Kendal, my British pacifist grandfather, experienced India in his thirties with ENSA (Entertainment National Services Association) which entertained the troops during the Second World War. And fell in love with it. He made India his home for the next 30 years, travelling with his theatre company across the length and breadth of the country with his actress wife Laura Lidell and daughters, Jennifer and Felicity.

I adored my grandfather, Geoffrey. He wrote in his autobiography, Shakespeare Wallah, “Being an actor must be the best job in the world. It combines all the things that a person need look for: Health, romance, travel, the fun of the lottery, the positive tragedy of failure, and the will to overcome it. It provides good companionship, and interest in literature, architecture, music, and dancing — in short, just about everything that most people strive for.”

My mother was brought to India aged 13 by her parents with their itinerant theatre company Shakespeareana. She went on to make India her home with her marriage to my father, and lived the rest of her life here. My mother always told me of her deep love of India, because as she put it, “Every 20 km you would come across a change in language, food, dress, customs, stories, songs, buildings, even the design of the bullock carts and look of the cows changed.” This immense variety, this richness that ran through the expanse of India is what she loved more than anything else. And that there was still a thread of familiarity that wove itself through this dazzling un-sameness made it all the more attractive.

Sadly, today I believe this “un-sameness” that my mother celebrated, is what the powers-that-be are using to breed hatred, fracturing the very core of our country.

But this fear and hatred towards the unfamiliar is not something unique to India. Look across the globe and one finds right-wing chauvinism, xenophobia and phony nationalism growing at an astonishing pace.

The world needs a new world order. It also needs its philosophers, its storytellers and its poets who show us ways of being beyond the mundane and banal. Who shine the light on the great achievements of modern mankind and yet equip us to deal with the dark side, the inevitable fallouts of technological advancements, globalisation, political machinations, media manipulations, as well as to embrace our fears, to have moral courage.

Violence and hatred are so much easier.

Both my grandfathers loved India dearly. Prithviraj Kapoor hailed from the North West Frontier Province, from Peshawar. He made Bombay his home, where he entered the film industry and became the patriarch of the Kapoor family in Indian cinema. But few people know that at the height of his stardom in 1944, Prithviraj Kapoor responded to the need of the hour by reaching out to the people on a variety of issues and concerns that needed to be urgently addressed.

He chose to do this, not through cinema but through theatre, which he believed could touch the lives of people more directly than cinema could. Thus was born Prithvi Theatres. This professional travelling theatre company produced plays on issues ranging from the plight of farmers, to predicting Partition and its consequences, the relationship between Hindus and Muslims, the role of the arts in a new India and so much more. The motto of the theatre company was Kala Desh Ki Seva Mein. Arts in the service of the nation.

You can imagine India in 1944, the political fervour that gripped the nation. And here was this colossus of a film star travelling with his theatre company in third class train compartments across India, spreading his beliefs and igniting the imagination of his audiences towards nation-building.

Over a decade later as a Rajya Sabha member (where he served two terms as the President’s nominee), he spoke fervently of the need to create spaces for the arts across the country. This is what he said in the Rajya Sabha, “Theatre is a wonderful thing. It is the greatest temple on earth. In that temple, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Sikh and Parsee, all get together. Nobody comes and asks who is in the next chair. A Pandit sits with a Mullah. A Communist friend may sit with a Socialist friend. All sit together. It is a beautiful way of bringing people together and teaching them how to behave. They would laugh together, cry together. It is the biggest temple that could be built for the benefit of the nation.”

Today we are still far, far away from realising this dream.

I am committed to working towards realising this dream, in whatever small way within my power. Not only because theatre gives me joy but because I know and understand its immense capacity to transform individuals and thereby build communities.

I know I belong to the minority and am swimming against the tide. I also know I live in fear, in this new India, because I am a woman, I eat beef, I drink alcohol, I follow a faith that gives me solace and helps me make sense of the world around me. I wear clothes that make me feel good, I believe who I choose to love is my own business, I value debate and discussion and opposing views as long as I am not intimidated and dictated to, and I believe all this does not make me anti-national. But in today’s India, I may be very wrong.

Sadly, I cannot say I live in a 70-year-old India today that is moving towards an enlightened civilisation that I am proud of. My reality is one of great privilege in this country and is yet wrought with fear and uncertainty and struggle. All I can say is that the time has come to break the silence and unite with others who too stand up against this insidious devouring of our values. And to quietly, bravely yet firmly say, Not in My Name.

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  1. Patrick Wilson
    Oct 3, 2017 at 8:49 pm
    Thanks Sanjna Kapoor. A thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. I had the pleasure of seeing "Shakespereana" in School in Naini Tal. ... and in Dehra Dun....your g mother was the scariest Lady Macbeth..! Keep working towards that dream, and so should we all in whatever small way. Patrick Wilson
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    1. Dipak Kumar Bhattacharya
      Aug 22, 2017 at 5:13 pm
      This a wonderful beseeching story poignant beseeching for all people. Coming from a great linage from Prithviraj Kapoor Shashi Jennifer, Sanjana Kapoor has a great story to tell. I endorse her view in its entirety. This has an international spirit.
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        pankaj
        Aug 19, 2017 at 12:02 am
        For islamists at indian express..... hiding your or anybody else's intellect from truth can only delay defeat of lies, but such delay will also ensure that defeat will be more complete... so you deleted my comments, they came back again... there are thousand different ways to get same ideas that i give here.. someday people will be able to read Schopenhauer and Goethe's own words... and so you and I won't even be intermediaries..
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          Babli
          Aug 22, 2017 at 1:18 pm
          Thank you for mansplaining. Get well soon. Bharat Mata ki Jai.
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            pankaj
            Aug 22, 2017 at 9:07 pm
            Any good idea to those who care for islamists, will seem like mansplaining. When you believe 3/4th of humanity is "others" and believe in inhumane values, any idea of human value for you is superficial and g standing. But think what you to explain your ideas and your values- when you use deceit and lies ignoring whether anyone can be fooled by them or not, you are just ensuring self deception in order to stay with your foolish ideas.
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          pankaj
          Aug 18, 2017 at 11:34 pm
          Dear Sanjna you wrote this: ... [[ The world needs a new world order. It also needs its philosophers, its storytellers and its poets who show us ways of being beyond the mundane and banal. Who shine the light on the great achievements of modern mankind and yet equip us to deal with the dark side, the inevitable fallouts of technological advancements, globalisation, political machinations, media manipulations, as well as to embrace our fears, to have moral courage. ]] ............................................................................. Sadly, you haven't been reading things that already exist, primarily because you have a disconnect from India despite being indian................................... Do you by any chance know that Panchtantra is most translated work ever, do you know that these many thousand years old stories are first stories ever written and they taught world how to tell a story, read about it girl. Read some of them stories and learn a bit about Panchtantra.
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            pankaj
            Aug 18, 2017 at 11:41 pm
            Now if you would have read a bit about why German Scholars were fond of Upanishads or what Schopenhauer, Mark Twain, Will Durant, Voltaire, Schrondinger say about Hindu philosophy, you would know what you missed and trying to search in some arbitrary new philosophy. Did you read a bit on Bahgvad Gita, know about Patanjali's Yoga Sutra. .... .. The German Philosophers wrote most of the modern philosophy and guess what, while British won't go beyond Greek, the German philosophers and Greeks themselves considered Hindu philosophical ideas to be wisest. ... Heard about Alexander meeting Dandamis or Dani Swamy as written by Greek historians? Nope, you get to know what kind of ideals they were teaching.. ................. If you do not read what all is available and start asking for more, who can help you?? Sanskrit has best grammar in any natural language, so much so that modern programming languages are based on this gramar now called Backus-Naur-Panini Grammar, people like Chomsky read
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              pankaj
              Aug 18, 2017 at 11:46 pm
              Panini was the Brahmin sage who wrote this Sanskrit Grammar, and guess what Chomsky read it, and the German linguist that everybody including Chomsky will read, Ferdinand de Saussure, derived his theory and was all in praise of this Sanskrit Grammar... do you what Mahabharta is compared to Iliad/Odyssey, well it is 10 times larger and 1000 times more profound and interesting.... Sanskrit and its literature is as good compared to any other language even though nobody even write in Sanskrit for so long. .... Do you know about Kalidas or his MeghDoota or his Shan la.. those are first plays translated by Germans... read how Goethe feels about Kalidas/Meghdoot and hindu philosophy... first check what your westerners considers about the names I am giving you.. and then check their original words.... guess what ORIGINAL WORDS OF PRAISE BY GOETHE/SCHOPENHAUER ETC ARE GOOD THAT NO HINDUTVA GUYS CAN EVER BE SO MUCH IN PRAISE...but you can't understand it till you read those words... read it
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                pankaj
                Aug 18, 2017 at 11:56 pm
                Lastly, Sanjna, you have to be brave enough to learn truths and accept them, being an artist doesn't give you any right or duty to not to learn truths outside of your known periphery. You belong to this world, experience all that makes sense, not just theatre, not just english heritage because you mother belong to UK, not just Indian heritage because father belongs to India. If you can belong to world, you will find your own way to understand what you are missing and why you do not understand that there is no new philosophy that you or anyone needs. What you need is a mind that is philosopher and the first and more important part of being philosopher is to be curious about truths and honest enough to accept them. What all I have written above is not enough praise about Hindus philosophy..... here is the best part.... the secularism that your mother likes in India was created in 1000s of years by these Hindu sages, they weaved it through mythology, through Upanishadsm through Panchtant
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                  pankaj
                  Aug 18, 2017 at 11:59 pm
                  through panchtantra, through ramayana, through philosophy, through their nirguna god, through their million saguna god and what not....... there is no place on earth but india and no other religion but hinduism that took so much pain to constantly refine ideas and to guide people to respect truths and improve their understandings.... if missionaries and islamists were truthful and courageous, the first think they would do while coming to India will be to pay respectto these hindus as they bring something profound to world but in very humble ways... there is no book or ideology more humble than what Upanishads preach.... learn to respect truths and help your low iq liberals as well who read only shakespeare in their MAs and nothing else
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                    Babli
                    Aug 22, 2017 at 1:23 pm
                    Dear Pankaj, my cow has already taught all this in great detail. She sends her regards to you.Don't forget your energy drink! Ofcourse you and your beliefs are superior to everything and everyone else in the world. That is the true essence of gyan as well as ahimsa.Bharat Mata ki Jai.
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                      pankaj
                      Aug 22, 2017 at 9:00 pm
                      Fake Babli, i know you guys like tweeter and facebook and can read and write a lot there making you feel you know everything worth knowing. And I can understand you find it difficult to come out of your go-mutra and cow-dung spell because while you have never used cow-dung to cover floor (and to know how good or bad that covering is) you definitely have covered your mind with cow-dung. ..... Read a little bit on Upanishads and names I mentioned... read about Schopenhauer, Goethe and other German philosophers, i know you do not like anything other than Shakespeare because he for you is greatest philosopher of all time. As I said you can fool yourself, but your next generations will not be fooled by you unless you move to some islamic world.
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                    Hemant Kumar
                    Aug 18, 2017 at 11:18 am
                    These English writers copy western norms and want to transplant it on the soil of India which is not suitable for it. Without asserting our nationalism, benign conservatism, spiritualism, culture and liberal Hinduism, India cannot become a strong nation as Indians have great affinity with these beliefs unlike West being untraditional, believes in permissiveness, materialism and ual freedom of women.
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                    1. Chirag Shah
                      Aug 27, 2017 at 5:49 pm
                      "West being untraditional".... I see Indians celebrating their culture in America. I see Chinese celebrating their culture in America. Same with every other culture in America. They value freedom more than forcing one culture upon everyone. Same applies to the U.K....Sorry, but Delhi guys and gals and general metro folks in India are MUCH more materialistic than most people in the U.S or UK. Have you been to Indian weddings? It's all about showing off your wealth and power. So don't give any lecture on materialism please. While America has Trump right now, trying to turn US into a pure white nation, we see white people also protesting in favor of the minorities. There are two sides. Meanwhile in India, things are divided from top to bottom, left to right. Why not embrace Indias diversity instead of trying to control everyone? Religion, forced nationalism and dirty politics will most probably destroy India at some point unless people wake up.
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