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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