All the world’s a festive stage

Mahesh Dattani | Updated on November 14, 2019

Gala in the city: The Prithvi Theatre Festival in Mumbai is a cultural landmark, expanding to include new venues and audiences - Emmanual Yogini   -  The Hindu

From winter to early spring, the cultural calendar is filled with overlapping art, theatre and literature festivals

About 30 years ago in the US, in the arts-driven city of Portland, Oregon, a group of gallery owners announced the first Thursday of every month as an art day. Galleries were open to the public and live music played on the streets. Even now, the first Thursday of every month draws an enthusiastic response from locals and tourists. A Portlander friend of mine remarked that though the galleries are open to the public throughout the week, they appeared out of bounds to many who considered art galleries as exclusive spaces meant for the artsy and rich alone. All they needed to make the public feel included was an announcement of a festive day in the month.

Everybody loves a good festival. A festival, by nature, is inclusive and celebratory. A feast for the senses. Christmas is not the same without wine and cake. Deepavali is an orgy of sweets and sounds. The oil bath at 4am on the day of Deepavali is a ritual of the past now, a tactile memory that still lingers. Among my fondest childhood memories is that of the heady aroma of biryani fresh out of the handi, marking the start of Eid celebrations. Last month, we saw an imported festival — Halloween — being celebrated by some in Mumbai, just to include themselves in its exclusivity, I am sure.

Religion and art have this in common — it is able to evoke a festive spirit to attract more people into the fold, not always to convert but mostly to include those perceived as outsiders. The famed Chennai Margazhi kutcheri season, the confluence of dance rasiks at Khajuraho or Konark, the numerous theatre festivals that bring a range of dramatic forms and aesthetic traditions all have one thing in common — they offer a palpable emotional excitement otherwise imperceptible to whoever considered themselves outside of the charmed inner art circle.

From winter till early spring, one sees many overlapping festivals. Literature festivals are now high-profile business ventures compared with the more modest theatre festivals such as the recently concluded Prithvi Theatre Festival in Mumbai. Tickets were sold out well in advance and I barely managed to get my tickets to a few of the plays. The festival opened with a concert by singer Gurdas Maan and the invitees had to brave unexpected wet weather in the city. But that didn’t stop people from attending it. Such is the draw of a festival. Being there is all that counts, underlining a primeval urge to partake in the ritual dance around the fire.

First held in 1983, the Prithvi Theatre Festival is now an eagerly awaited annual event, with a growing list of celebrities in attendance, adding to the excitement and allure. Yet it retains its modest profile of being an arts-driven event.

Over the years, the festival has expanded to include venues other than its home, the cosy 220-seater theatre in the heart of Juhu. The Royal Opera House in South Mumbai, a fabulous and faithfully restored building complete with gilded friezes and wooden bannisters, is one of the additional venues of the festival in the past couple of years.

Last year, I had the privilege of seeing a revival of Deewar, one of Prithviraj Kapoor’s plays. Written at the time of the Partition, the allegory of two separate brothers, divided by political interests without directly referring to British rule, has an astonishingly eerie relevance in today's scenario. Yet another privilege the festival offers is a premier production from Naseeruddin Shah’s theatre group, Motley. For the past few years, his plays, including a solo performance on Albert Einstein, and many adaptations of stories by Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai, are the big ticket events.

The true growth of the festival, in my opinion, is is the inclusion of young theatre groups such as Betaal, Afsana and Rangshila headed by talented theatre professionals such as Abhinav Grover, Jitendra Singh and Avnish Mishra. It all started with what they called “platform theatre”, mini-plays performed every evening before the main event on the steps of the theatre. This theatre has been the vehicle for many young performers realising their talent and discovering their audience for the kind of work they do.

Now the concept has grown to become the “Prithvi Fringe” theatre. In a compact hall on the second floor of a building called Prithvi House, performances proudly display the ‘sold out’ board at the entrance. Many young artistes, some of whom I have worked with, make new theatre happen. They are assured of a festival audience. An audience that may well become their followers in the years to come, shaping their art in the direction the artistes wish it to grow.



Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and stage director

Published on November 13, 2019

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