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Brecht and Piscator Author(s): Leo Kerz Source: Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Oct.,

Brecht and Piscator Author(s): Leo Kerz Source: Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Oct., 1968), pp. 363-369 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3205177 Accessed: 19-03-2018 01:09 UTC

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- L E O K E R Z Bxecht anal Pitcato} Theatre; a place or
-
L
E
O
K
E
R
Z
Bxecht anal Pitcato}
Theatre; a place or regioeD wSere events,
especially of importance, are enacted; a
sphere of operatioxns: as, a theatre of srar.
TWICE, PISCATOR, ERWIN, THE THEATRE-MAKER, HIMSELF IGNITED BY THE TIME,
set fire to every stage worthy of the description all over this planet. Once in
collaboration with Bertolt Brecht at the Theater am Nollendorfplatz, Berlin,
with electrically charged productions of, among others, Hoppla, Wir Leberw and
Die Aberwteuerw Des Braverw Soldaterw Schwejk. That was in 1927-1928-1929.
The second time it happened in 1963 when, again in Berlin, he produced and
staged the world premiere of Hochhuth's Der Stellvertreter ( The Detxty ).
Brecht, after establishing an international reputation for his theatre, The Berliner
Ensemble, had already died on the other side of The Wall. And, having re-
established hls own attitude and position as the leader of a theatre revolutlon
which has yet to run its full course, Piscator caught up with his former col-
laborator, Bert Brecht. He died on the 30th of March 1966. The Senate of West
Berlin gave him a State Funeral at which Heinar Kipphardt, whose Irw The Alat-
ter of J. Robert Oppenheimer Piscator had also produced for the first time,
delivered the shortest oration in behalf of many assembled authors who were
unable to speak. "We all come from your theatre," he said, raising his hand a bit,
"So long, Erwin."
Piscator's greatness as a theatreman (only he and Brecht have had a decisive
influence on theatre in this century beyond the German-speaking territory) lies
in the finality with which he exploded the concept of theatre as an entertainment.
The fact that Piscator's concept of "Total Theatre" is sadly disregarded in our
theatre in favor of Brecht's more naive formality is one of seLreral reasons why
Leo Kerz has been an active set dl7 lighting desigaler in t/e New York theatre and abroad
since I943. His work has also been see71 at the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera,
and the San Francisco Opera; as art directo1 he collaborated zvith FredC Zinneman, Robert
Wise, and Paddy Chayevsky on films like Teresa, Odds Against Tomorrow, The Goddess, and
Middle of the Night. He produced Marcel Syme's Clerambard oft-Broadway and lonesco's
Rhinoceros on-Broadway, giving Zero lMostel his f rst starting role in I96I. For Erich Leins-
dorf he staged and designed Susannah at the Nezv York City O pera and received the N. Y.
M2zsic Critics' award.
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364 LEO KERZ the production of his plays is so singularly untheatrical and ineffective in
364
LEO KERZ
the production of his plays is so singularly untheatrical and ineffective in this
hemisphere. You cannot successfully produce llvtter Co?rage ?zznd Ihre Kirwder
or Der G?te Merwsch Von Sez/uan or Herr Puntilla ?nd Sein Knecht Matti (by
successful I mean theatrically effective) without knowing your Piscator. Brecht
knew his Piscator and knew it first hand and so did Hans Eisler, Ernst Busch,
Helene Weigel, Erich Engel, and Paul Dessau.
They all, as Kipphardt put it, went to
school with Piscator. The Theater am
Nollendorfplatz and its Studio was the
: _ birthplace of Epic Theatre as it was the
0 _ testing ground of other ideas that have
t _ often been developed and used by de-
_ | _ signers and stage directors who don't
_ give much thought to their original.pur-
pose anymore. Which iS what happens in
_ Fj_ the theatre. Who cares that Piscator was
the first stage director to logically employ
_F1F_ the mixed media of film and live perform-
It remains unexplained why this rev-
olution? which Piscator and Brecht
caused in the thirties, has not funda-
mentaily changed the concept of theatre,
playwriting, acting ( "The Method" in
Stanislavsky's), and set designing in the
United States as it did abroad.
Yes, we admire Brecht, and Eric Bent-
| ley translates him well, and we keep
Erwin Piscator talkint, to Rolf Hochhuth. dropping words like "epic theatre" and
"Verfremdung" as if our professional
status depended on it. Mie even "explain" Brecht, and yet we remain, by com-
parison with the theatre in other countries, astonishingly inept when we produce
his plays. By some obscure process of reasoning we separate the text from the
very technology of directing and design which make his plays such an extraordi-
nary experience in West Germany or East Germany, in Poland, France, or even
in Israel. They know their Piscator. To begin with, they know there is more to
exciting theatre than a good play and good acting. Until we recognize it, learn
it and teach it, we may have occasionally exciting performances of a play but
we won't have that kind of theatre.
As a matter of fact, the question arises do we really want it? Walter Kerr,
reviewing Marat/Sade, stated that it was effective theatre but wondered where
the play was. It's like "admitting" that Beethoven's Ninth is great music but
qualifying the praise by asking whether it could be called a symphony.
Piscator was after theatre; total theatre. A theatre of awareness that could
comment and communicate beyond the linear progression and fragmentary story
of the page-play itself. Brecht agreed with him. Piscator felt strongly that the
theatre was a forum that could and should deal with questions that were
politically tabu. Brecht, after the second world war, in East Berlin, couldn't
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BrecSlt and Piscatar 36s afford to embarass the authorities which subsidized his theatre. Piscator re-
BrecSlt and Piscatar
36s
afford to embarass the authorities which subsidized his theatre. Piscator re-
mained angry and his theatre's artistic sparks caused just as much political furor,
often among those who refused to see his shows on both sides of the wall.
Piscator's conception needed the mobility of a stage and a mechanical sensi-
tivity to receive messages as well as to send them, a flexible stage that could
integrate photographic images, films, and drawings with live performances. But
his architects and designers were ill prepared. He was saddened to the very end,
even after he moved into the new theatre which the Neue Freie Volksbuehne
built for him a few years ago, that neither Walter Gropius' concept of "The Total
Theatre" which was designed in 1929, nor my own blueprint for a mobile, Peri-
pheral Stage was considered as a practical possibility until now. It has not yet
occurred to the specialists, architectural consultants, and technical experts that
we need more than patented innovations and clever architectural elegance which,
frankly, keep compounding a stage technology that was already obsolete when
Thomas Edison introduced the electric bulb. Piscator's actors were caught
between this strangely universal baroque proscenium opening and a stage man-
agement that demanded mobile bridges moving up and down between scrims and
motion picture sheets, hanging over treadmills that revolved on turntables. They
felt "uncomfortable" and accused Piscator of lacking understanding for the
problems of actors and of a passion for nachinery. This is not true, of course.
In The Messirgkauf,l Brecht accurately states the case.
Piscator is one of the greatest theatremen of all times. He has electrified the theatre and has
equipped it so it can handle important subject matter. His interest in the art of histrionics is
not as little as his enemies maintain; on the other hand it isn't as great as he says it is. Per-
haps he does not share the problems of actors because they refuse to share his problems. At any
rate he didn't exactly create a new style of acting, although he played some of the roles for them
during rehearsals and rather well-especially the small but nevertheless important character
parts. He obviously thought it was easier to solve certain aspects of a theme by means of in-
genious production design than to rely on the variable quality of an actor's performance.
Piscator got involved with political theatre before this playwright did. He was in the war,
this playwright was not. The turmoil in 1918 in which both were involved disappointed this
playwright and made Piscator politically aware.
When the two began their collaboration Piscator had his own theatre and this playwright
had his, where he trained actors. This playwright edited most of the big plays for Piscator and
rrote many new scenes, once an entire act. He wrote all of Schweik for him. On the other han(l
Piscator came to rehearsals of this playwright and gave him support and encouragement. Both
liked to work collectively and shared their collaborators, George Grosz and Hans Eisler.
Although Piscator never wrote a whole play or even a scene by himself, I would call him
the only competent dramatist apart from myself. Didn't the man prove that you can stage a
drama by mounting an impressive theme with technical ingenuity, inspired by the collective
effectiveness of the theatrical media? This playwright claims credit for the basic theory of the
non-Aristotelian tbeatre and for developing the V-effect. But Piscator applied much of this prin-
l Der Messinghauf (The Brass Deal) written over a period from 1937-1951, published by
Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, exactly formulates Bertolt Brecht's philosophy and theory
about theatre in general and its various departmental disciplines specifically. It is written as a
play with dialogue, interspersed with speeches, poems, and amendments. It has a cast of five:
The Philosopher, The Actor, The Actress, The Dramaturg, and The Electrician. (The play is
divided into "four evenings" instead of acts.) The Philosopher says at one point that he feels
like a man interested in buying brass among members of a brass band who are unwilling to sell
their instruments with which they create music. The Philosopher isn't interested in music and
the brass band isn't interested in brass.
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366 LE0 KERZ Set Design by Leo Kerz for The Deputys directed by Erwi7z Piscaltor.
366
LE0 KERZ
Set Design by Leo Kerz for The Deputys directed by Erwi7z Piscaltor. Berlin World Premierev
I963 .
ciple also alld independently alld ill his own manner. Giving the theatre a sharp turn toward
political awarelless is entirely PiscatorJs achievement. Without that turn the work of this play-
wright is unthinkable.
As to the matter of form or style: Piscator, dramatizEng important social
questlons and problems of a democracy threatened by political reaction, the rise
of the Nazis in the face of middle-class apathy or sympathy, did not take the
laborious detour in search of an artistic form which Rrecht followed with infinite
patience and stubborn, logical consequence. Piscator remained loyal to the
Dada-motto: ';Kunst ist Scheisse!; which started both careers.
Brecht never concerned himself with problems of technical fluidity and never
looked for a stage design that provided more than environment. He felt that
whatever 44action a play required should be performed by the actors and not by
dramatic, mechanical devices. He never really participated in the debate over
proscenium or thrust stages which, anyway, by their very thrustn seem to em-
phasize the picture frame they are supposed to 4sexplodew The Berliner En-
semble, in fact, seems to perform very comfortably within the old-fashioned
proscenium of the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm which they rebuilt exactly the
way it was before the war. Moreover, the proscenium is important as a symbol of
architecture which the 8 foot high linen cafe curtain, strung across the stageS keeps
mocking. It keeps reminding one that one is in a theatre a theatre of reality (in
which every performance- every prop must prove its truth in the brightest
attainable light). Brecht insists the stage and audience relationship is the most
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3G7 Brech t ana Pisctor important realityX nc}t to be forgotton. These principles are not
3G7
Brech t ana Pisctor
important realityX nc}t to be forgotton. These principles are not subject to
individual interpretation. Whenever they are obeyed they work. They worked
for Brecht and ( if anyone is interested ) they always work for his theatre;
whenever they are interpreted" or revised for the sake of 4'method' actors, we
have the all too familiar catastrophies on and oS Broadway.
Committed, impatient, and agitatedn Piscator was burning to throw the subject
matter at his audience with immediate and electrifying forcefullness. He couldn't
be bothered with aesthetic questions that might delay or sidetrack what seemed
to require an immediate and clear statement. The fact that his approach turned
out to be-and was at once recognized as a new fc}rmula of theatre that could
also be debated as an artistic experience, proved the validity of Piscator's concept,
but was not his immediate concern. Aesthetic questions of perfection or matters
of finesse were deliberately subordillated to the possible potential of an ideae
And indeed this potential was often more convincing than the final result wlth
Piscator's productions.
Brecht, on the other hand, cautiously taking a circuitous road toward an
aesthetic formulation, will years later succeed in building an artistic shrine The
Berllner Ensemble. Piscator's theatre leaving bits and pieces of unfinished busi-
ness, will eventually crystalize into a more important legacy Because it did not
freeze into didactic formalssm it is applicable to every pllase of progression
towards tlle theatre of tomorrow.
In 1931, Piscator goes to Russia to film Anna Seghers novel The Uprising of
St. Barbsras Fishermerl. After several years of filming it remains a fragment.
Piscator used to tell the story of his wrangling debates, and attempts at per-
Scene from Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy) by Rolf Hochhath. Director: Brwin Piscator. L)e-
sZgned by Leo Kerz.
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LEO REE suading Soviet film bureaucracy to let him complete the in Moscow's Hotel Metropole,
LEO REE
suading Soviet film bureaucracy to let him complete the
in Moscow's Hotel Metropole, a tall, white-haired gentle
Edward Gordon Craig. He has just come from Berlin and has talked with
Goebbels, who wants Piscator back. Even Heinrich George, Craig says, whose
former Communist affiliation was an open secret, llas been embraced by the Nazis,
and Piscator never joined the Communist Party. He answers: "Tell Goebbels,
I'll be back when he's gone."
A refugee, like Brecht, Piscator arrives in STew York and inaugurates, together
with his wife Maria Piscator, The Dramatic Workshop at the New School
for Social Research. Contact with Brecht, who was then in New York, and
Helene Weigel in Santa Monica was kept up, and I heard Eric Bentley's name
mentioned for the first time. Brecht showed us a sample of what "dieser junge
Student" had translated and he wanted our opinion; other adaptors had proven
to be quite unsatisfactory. Piscator had started to work with Brecht on a new
version of Schwejk irw Zzueiterw Weltkrieg and he thought that Zero Mostel, whom
he'd seen in a nightclub, might be a "possibility" for Schwejk. I was supposed to
design the settings and was absolutely awed by the versatility of Brecht who pro-
ceeded to demonstrate with pen and brush and a few water colors some tech-
niques which he himself had learned from Caspar Neher, who had designed al-
most all of his productions until then. I have since used every trick he showed
me, to great advantage, I confess.
For one reason or another this, like many other exciting projects, didn't ma-
terialize; but I do remember Piscator's annoyance when he heard that Brecht
went ahead and completed the Schwejk version on his own. I saw it several years
ago performed by his Berliner Ensemble. Marvelous. Piscator never quite forgave
Brecht for this.
Despite the great success of the Dramatic Workshop in New York, the Ameri-
can theatre didn't take much advantage of Piscator's talent and availability.
Brecht, apart from his hilarious appearance before the Un-American Activities
Committee, as a "friendly" witness, was treated with the same indifference by
the "pros" until Broadway suddenly "discovered" Brecht a few years ago. His
plays still remain to be produced by those who will accept the artistic discipline
which his theatre imposes.
It's ironic that Brecht, the realist, the sly one, the dialectician, returns to East
Berlin where he holds on to his Communist utopia that gives him a theatre and
the financial means to experiment and to develop his ideas and to formulate
them. Piscator, the idealist, the "political agitator," couldn't bring himself to go
there. Friedrich Luft, today Germany's senior drama critic, met him in New
York in 1949: "He hesitated to return to Germany. His old friends were in East
Berlin. He couldn't join them politically anymore. West Germany didn't exactly
beg him to return. He toyed with the idea of going to Israel because McCarthy's
America made him feel uneasy."
But he did return to West Germany, which did not treat him with generosity.
The theatre was in the hands of people who had managed to live longer than the
Third Reich. He made his home in Dillenburg where he was born, and he ac-
cepted occasional jobs as gllest director. To put it gently, he was treated as
'<The Grand Old Man" who had outlived himself.
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Brecht and Pscator And then it suddenly happened. Piscator, at seventy, starts a dramatic wave
Brecht and Pscator
And then it suddenly happened. Piscator, at seventy, starts a dramatic wave
that rocks the planet. It will keep every theatre rocking for a long time to come
with ever accelerating force. Perturbed over the fact that every German theatre
refuses to perform Rolf Hochhuth's script attacking God's Deputy, Pope Pius
XII, for remaining silent in the face of organized mass murder of millions of Jews
in Germany, or rather unperturbed over the fact that this script had been re-
jected by every single theatre in Germany, he accepts it for production. He had
never been afraid to raise a provocative question even though it was politically
dangerous to debate it publicly. In August 1962 Piscator wrote me: "I need you
here to design a play by an author who has not written for the stage before; his
name is Rolf Hochhuth. The publisher, Rowohlt, will send you galley proofs
of the play which will not be published before it opens. You will see yourself that
the subject matter has to be treated delicately. While the scenic elements must be
accurate in every detail, the setting must assist me to go beyond documented
reality."
Piscator's production of The Deputy, apart from becoming the biggest post-
war theatre event and because of it, started a debate which affected and revised
the views of philosophers, clergy, politicians, and historians in every corner of
the world. It touched upon the conscience of the Catholic Church and, without
a doubt, influenced what happened at the last Ecumenical Council. Piscator had
caught up with Brecht and proved that the theatre can contribute to the shaping
of history as well as being shaped by history.
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THE INDIAN PEOPLE'S THEATRE ASSOCIATION: ITS DEVELOPMENT AND INFLUENCES Author(s): Michael L. Waltz Source: Journal

THE INDIAN PEOPLE'S THEATRE ASSOCIATION: ITS DEVELOPMENT AND INFLUENCES Author(s): Michael L. Waltz Source: Journal of South Asian Literature, Vol. 13, No. 1/4, MISCELLANY (FALL-WINTER- SPRING-SUMMER 1977-1978), pp. 31-37 Published by: Asian Studies Center, Michigan State University Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40873487 Accessed: 19-03-2018 01:15 UTC

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Conditions of Use, available at http://about.jstor.org/terms Asian Studies Center, Michigan State University is

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Michael L. Waltz THE INDIAN PEOPLE'S THEATRE ASSOCIATION: ITS DEVELOPMENT AND INFLUENCES An important interlude
Michael L. Waltz
THE INDIAN PEOPLE'S THEATRE ASSOCIATION:
ITS DEVELOPMENT AND INFLUENCES
An important interlude
in the history of modern
Indian theatre
Compared with the Washington Square Players, the Théâtre Libre, or
twentieth-century American and European amateur theatre movements and companies,
the Indian People's Theatre Association, which existed as an influential enterprise
for less than a decade during and after World War II, would seem to be a rather
insignificant endeavor. To grasp fully how great the significance of this group
truly is toward the development of a modern, indigenous Indian theatre, one must
look not only at the state of the Indian drama and theatre, but also at the political,
economic, and social conditions and attitudes which enormously affect the arts in
any nation.
Quarreled over and ruled by various European powers since the Portuguese
discovered a water trade-route in 1498, India has been, according to some critics,
a politically passive nation, more concerned with caring for its poverty-stricken
masses than with developing its arts. For centuries, it was easy for the Portuguese,
Dutch, French, and English to exploit the nation economically, politically, and
culturally. But when British efforts in World War I greatly intensified the poverty,
the Indian National Congress, a restricted body established to appease the desire for
self-government, reflected growing anti- imperialism with a move to the political
left, which threatened to precipitate a revolutionary war. When Mahatma Gandhi
became leader of the Congress in 1920, he began a series of non-violent campaigns
aimed at increasing "home rule11 through boycotts and passive resistance. Gandhi's
leadership also inspired a sense of Hindu-Muslim unity which had not previously
existed. Unfortunately, the British concessions for local government that Gandhi
attained were destroyed when England carried India into World War II in 1939.
Discouraged and angered by its losses and by its inclusion in a war that was,
nationally, of secondary importance, India moved further left politically, intensify-
ing the anti-imperialist and anti-fascist sentiment.
In any nation political, social, and economic conditions and attitudes are
expressed and reflected in the arts. India had remained largely passive under foreign
rule, concerning itself socially and economically with the survival of the masses.
Therefore, it is not surprising that the few existing theatrical enterprises as known
in the West were dominated by importations and translations of such as Chekov, Ibsen,
or Shakespeare, intended to satisfy English officials and a small group of European
and English-educated Indians. The ancient indigenous Sanskrit drama had lost any
value for the populace and, by the twentieth century, was no more than a cultural
artifact. Furthermore, India has always been culturally and linguistically divided
into distinct regions, and, consequently, any existing folk dramas were, by and large,
highly localized, immobile rituals. Finally, the small indigenous middle class was
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- 32 - located almost entirely in the metropolises; any desire this group had for
- 32 -
located almost entirely in the metropolises; any desire this group had for
native entertainment was readily satisfied by the growing Indian cinema which
had existed since 1898. *
As Gandhi led the nation to an increasing degree of self-government, there
was an analogous growth of "progressive,11 or "leftist,11 thought seen in a new
theatre which was variously opposed to imperialism, fascism, and nazism. Using
western dramatic forms and techniques, the earliest playwrights in the 1920 f s
dealt with local themes in "solution" plays, which presented both a social problem
and a plausible remedy. 2 Although British censorship ruthlessly suppressed
these original plays, 3 the few written lifted Indian drama from myth and super-
stition to political consciousness, even though they were rarely produced. By
1930, with more important political issues consuming the officials1 time, there
was again a political-social Indian drama, primarily in the one-act form, and pro-
duced almost wholly on the college campuses.^
The progressive theatre movement remained ineffective throughout the thirties
not only because of censorship, but because factions within the movement were allied
with different political ideologies. The "leftist" movement as a whole, however,
admired Russia as the model for the overthrow of an oppressive government by the
masses; consequently, when Germany broke its pact and invaded Russia in 1941, Indian
communist and non-communist anti-imperialists, finally aware of their mutually
dangerous position, joined in support of the British, thus gaining at least a
modicum of government approval. Out of the resultant group of artists, who realized
that both democracy and socialism were endangered, the first significant native
theatrical venture was formed as the Indian People's Theatre Association (I
The organizing group "was an odd spectrum - ranging from deepest Red to the
bluest Blue blood! "° The IPTA governing body included the director of the Hoffkine
Institute, a philanthropic socialite, the daughter of a Ceylon minister, a university
professor, a lawyer, a critic, a musician, a journalist, and representatives of
students' and workers' groups. ^ According to Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, one of t
original playwrights, the enterprise was inspired by the popular, active Little
Theatre groups in England, the WPA theatres in the United States, similar projects
in Russia, and, principally, by theatre in Communist China, where strolling players
"educated" the peasants. Although the IPTA was led by intellectuals, it was
intended to serve the uneducated masses. Hence, it relied on age-old indigenous
institutions, including religious and mythological plays, wandering bards, folk
dances, and village mimes and clowns, used in a direct, simple approach intended
"to propagate anti-fascist ideology and espouse the cause of world democracy. "8
Although previous similar attempts, like one in Bombay in 1941, had failed, Abbas'
description of the IPTA' s May Day performance at Bangalore in 1942 shows that the
time was now right for such an endeavor: over 600 millworkers, who had received
free tickets, mixed with a hundred intellectuals, journalists, and art critics,
and a few of the socially elite, to watch what was, in essence, a propagandistic
spectacle. The May Day production, which used "histrionics for the entertainment,
instruction and inspiration of the Masses, "9 was such a success that it was
decided to carry the work throughout the nation, thus making the enterprise an
"all-India" project.
The plays produced during the first year showed the IPTA' s purposes of
elevating and instructing the common man. The May Day, 1942, production was Dada
(Brother) y written for the occasion by T. K. Salmarkar, a millworker. Abbas
describes it as filled with "Topical allusions to Prohibition, War, Congress,
Ministries, [and the] Trade Union Movement"; it ended with an appropriate May Day
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- 33 - speech "explaining the significance of the present war.11 Within the first three
- 33 -
speech "explaining the significance of the present war.11 Within the first
three months the IPTA also produced an up-dated version of the Russian play
Roar China (1924) , which deals with the persecution of peaceful Chinese by
Japanese imperialists. It was followed by Four Comrades (1942), written jointly
by several IPTA members, with a theme of "simple anti-fascist propaganda. "H
Adapted into English for the initial IPTA performances, these plays were almost
immediately translated into nearly a dozen provincial languages and toured in
the provinces by divisions of the company.
In an attempt to break through the general apathy of the Indian peasantry,
touring became an integral part of the IPTA1 s activities. At the height of
activity, between 1943 and 1948, the various troupes traveled from village to
village with a series of one-acts and full-length plays, and ballets. Using
scripts, as well as highly improvisât ional works, productions were crude, at best.
Balwant Gargi described one of the touring performances: a haggard group of actors
performed against a black backdrop without sets, properties, or costumes. The
thrill of the performance came not from spectacle, but from the combination of
music, dance, drama, and unconventional acting techniques which conveyed the feel-
ing of the famine and poverty which was ravishing rural India .1^ Despite suc
favorable response by the intellectuals, the peasants, for whom the IPTA was
really intended, were less enthusiastic.
The theatre's first great effect on the general populace came when the
progressives blamed imperialist policies for the attrocities and starvation that
resulted from the Bengal famine of 1943. Breaking partially from its original
purpose of attacking fascism, as explained by Abbas, 13 the IPTA immediately
adopted the famine as the subject of numerous improvised or quickly written plays,
thus affording the Indian public as a whole some consolation from the horrors .14
At least one drama and dramatist of note emerged from the mass of material on
the subject in Bijan Bhattacharya's Nábanna (New Harvest, 1944), which depicts
the life of a starving Bengali peasant during the great famine. Perhaps partially
because of the skill of Sombhu Mitra, who is still one of India1 s leading
directors, the production of Nabanna also assured the IPTA1 s popular success.
Although the famine could not be a lasting source of inspiration, it had
established the IPTA as an important nationalistic endeavor. Both the number and
variety of its offerings rapidly increased. In Andhra Pradesh the IPTA exploited
the popular burrakatha, as the central narrator wove into an historical story the
satiric attacks interspersed in comic vignettes by the two accompanying drummers.
In Maharashtra the company used the popular, bawdy tamasha, commonly known as l
natya, or people's drama, to present social criticism and propaganda. 1" Annab
Sathe made a significant contribution by revitalizing the ancient powada, a recita-
tion of an epic poem by two singers, in Akle ¿he gosht (War of Wits), a contemporary
satire about a moneylender and a peasant. Relying on realism, broad humor and
local idiom, Akle che gosht was, for provincial India, the equivalent to the social
criticism of Clifford Odet's Waiting For Lefty and Arthur Miller's All My Sons,
which were captivating the metropolitan intellectuals at the time.
Dance gained importance as a means of nationalistic propaganda when the
Central Ballet Troupe of the IPTA, under the leadership of Shanti Bardhan, produced
India Immortal in 1945. Encompassing the last 2,000 years of Indian history, the
ballet was an expansion of an earlier work, The Spirit of India. India Immortal
soon became the IPTA' s "tour-de-force, " appealing to all classes as a representation
of the common man's ability to overthrow foreign oppression. 18
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- 34 - Unlike Akte ohe gosht and India Immortal, most productions did not have
- 34 -
Unlike Akte ohe gosht and India Immortal, most productions did not have
broad appeal because they dealt with the social and political problems of a
particular city or province. Not until the internal strife and horror of
the partition in 1947, when Muslim-Hindu tensions exploded into war, was there
another sizeable body of hastily written but popular scripts. At least two of
these works, however, had lasting significance as well-constructed, thought-
provoking dramas. Khwaja Abbas1 Main kaun him (Who Am X?, 1947) deals with a
wounded soldier who wanders between Hindu and Muslim camps. Unable to remember
which side he fought for, the soldier receives further injuries from both armies.
When his memory does return he does not identify himself, but leaves all of his
persecutors with their guilt. Equally poignant is R. Ghatak's Dolil (The Written
Deed, 1947), which depicts the slaughter of innocent refugees who are preparing
to make a march for their grievances. Because they were well-constructed and used
a specific incident to make an appeal to humanity rather than merely attacking or
supporting one group's position at a given moment, Main kaun hun and Dotil are
lastingly significant products of the IPTA's playwrights. All too few of the plays
produced accomplished this and their topicality was a major factor contributing to
the eventual failure of the organization.
Because the IPTA was a propagandist ic tool, the rapid preparation of
entertainments was essential to the realization of its goal of "educating" the
masses about current affairs. Although low quality scripts were a major factor
in the demise of the IPTA, 19 they surely were not the only cause. The hurri
staging of works also affected the quality of the Central Ballet Troupe, eventually
leading to internal dissension and the dissolution of this branch of the company.
Likewise, inadequate, poorly organized rehearsals continued to lower the production
quality of the dramas.
Given the IPTA's main purpose of social-political criticism, such a
lessening of quality was almost inevitable. In addition, after the end of World
War II and the peaceful dissolution of the Indian empire in 1947, the only major
conflict which could serve as subject matter for the performances was the
partition. Hence, the theatre's major objects of attack had disappeared and the
topics of the dramas became more localized and even more transitory than before.
Finally, with the end of the war, the artistic alliance between communist and
non-communist factions no longer had a basis. In effect, its raison d'etre
was lost and, as the communist members gained control of the IPTA, it became a
party rather than a nationalistic instrument. Its finest members, like Abbas
and Bardhan, left to do independent work or to join other theatrical ventures.
Enough skilled, conscientious artists remained involved in the IPTA, however, to
continue its existence; indeed, Mulk Raj Anand, after viewing performances by
the troupe in Andhra in 1950, still felt that the company was a vital part of
Indian theatre. Although the critic admitted that the western- inspired theatres
in the major cities were still producing the most significant dramas, primarily
through importation and translation, the IPTA was nevertheless import
"taking simpler forms of drama from the peasantry and giving them to the peas
Anand hoped that such efforts would combine with the western tradition to develop
a high quality, indigenous theatre and drama.
Although the organization continued in name, one can consider the IPTA as
truly fulfilling its intended function as a national, popular theatre only from
the May -Day performance of 1942 until 1948, when many of the major artists abandoned
it to the communists. Even though short-lived, its significance and influence on
Indian drama and theatre were enormous. Among its major contributions was the
lessening of India's rigid moral strictures. One reason for the retarded develop-
ment of Indian theatre prior to World War II was the common brief that any
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- 35 - involvement in the arts was morally wrong. As late as 1943 a
- 35 -
involvement in the arts was morally wrong. As late as 1943 a report on a
conference of progressive writers in Bombay revealed that men who wrote about
sex or religion were at times physically attacked and beaten, while any woman
involved in such activities was warned that uher nose would be chopped off as
."22 Likewise, that year a native Marathi-language film which
shows a kiss created an enormous public scandal. 23 Such attitudes, resulting fro
centuries of conditioning, are not erased in a few years; but the subjects and
techniques of the IPTA productions did much to relax public opinion. In
addition, the Indian theatre had had almost no governmental support. Indeed,
more often than not, political attitudes have been hostile to native theatrical
endeavors. At the outset the IPTA, distrusted by both British authorities and
Indian nationalists, was often subjected to censorship and harassment. 2
taking advantage of conditions, the organization proved, however, that drama
could serve as a political tool, thus establishing a less antagonistic attitude
within the post-war government. Understandably, such strong moral and political
opinions against the theatre had discouraged most Indians from being involved
in any way, and, consequently, the modern theatre belonged entirely to foreign
inhabitants and foreign-educated Indians.
Although it may have produced few lastingly important dramas or dramatists,
the IPTA contributed to the Indian theatre by providing a place for the courageous
to develop their artistic inclinations and talents. By taking advantage of the
fact that the nation was more concerned with the world war and internal strife
than with the enforcement of the rigid moral code, numerous young progressives
began semi-professional careers, which they continued in an increasing number of
local, native theatre groups. In fact, after 1948 many moved to the Indian National
Theatre, which, from its establishment by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay in 1946 until
it merged with the amateur group, Yatik, to form the Center for Performing Arts in
Delhi in 1969, carried on the IPTA1 s original philosophy of evolving a national
theatre and drama. India still has no permanent, professional theatre for the
average man, and the quality of its existing semi-professional companies is low;
but the recent stride forward, led by the IPTA, has been so great that many artists
now have hopes that professional, continually functioning enterprises will soon
exist. 25
The most important contribution of the IPTA is that it has awakened people
from all levels of society to the fact that India can and should develop a modern
indigenous form of drama. Recent colloquia and studies, such as the 1971 Natak
Akademi Seminar and the 1972 All-India Drama Competition, 26 have proven that
indigenous, rural drama has no appeal by itself for metropolitan audiences, 27 wh
at the same time the western-tradition theatres do not serve the rural populace's
need for serious, localized, social drama. 28 Repeatedly, hope for a form that wil
satisfy the needs and desires of both groups has been seen in the possible
amalgamation of rural, ancient forms of drama and dance, modern indigenous subject
and the western tradition of production techniques. The Indian National Theatre
absorbed many of the goals and people from the IPTA, and, because of a greater
diversity, succeeded in disseminating and encouraging these ideas throughout the
Indian art world. Therefore, the Indian National Theatre's statement of purpose
also concisely expresses the goals of its predecessor and of many current semi-
professional companies:
to establish new traditions and standards, seeking
inspiration from the past and utilizing the techniques of the present. "29 Ob
despite the brevity of its effectiveness and its numerous shortcomings, the IPTA
was the spark that ignited a new attitude in India which will eventually result in
a viable national drama.
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FOOTNOTES 1. Som Benegal, A Panorama of Theatre in India (New Delhi: Indian Council for
FOOTNOTES
1. Som Benegal, A Panorama of Theatre in India (New Delhi: Indian Council
for Cultural Relations, 1967), p. 97.
2. Adya Rangacharya, The Indian Theatre (New Delhi: National Book Trust,
1971), p. 130.
3. Farley Richmond, "The Political Role of Theatre in India, ff Educational
Theatre Journal, 25, No. 3 (Oct. 1973), 321.
4. Ibid.* p. 133.
5. Benegal, p. 103.
6. Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, I Write as I Feel (Bombay: Hind Kitabs Ltd., 1948),
p. 30.
7.
Ibid., p. 31.
8.
Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, "Indiafs Anti-Fascist Theatre," Asia, 42 (Dec. 1942), p.
711.
9.
Abbas, I Write as I Feely p. 30.
10. Ibid., p. 31.
11. Abbas, "India1 s Anti-Fascist Theatre," p. 712.
12. Balwant Gargi, Theatre in India (New York: Theatre Art Books, 1962), p. 189.
13. Abbas, "India1 s Anti-Fascist Theatre," p. 711.
14. Rangacharya, p. 138.
15. Richmond, p. 323.
16. Ibid., pp. 324-325.
17. Gargi, pp. 190-191.
18. Benegal, p. 104.
19. Gargi, p. 191.
20. Benegal, p. 104.
21. Mulk Raj Anand, "Survival of Folk Tradition in the Indian Theatre," Arts and
Letters: The Journal of the Royal India, Pakistan and Ceylon Society, 24,
No. 1 (1950), 31.
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- 37 - 22. Abbas, J Write as I Feel, p. 87. 23. Ibid, y
- 37 -
22.
Abbas, J Write as I Feel, p. 87.
23.
Ibid, y pp. 85-86.
24.
Abbas, "India's Anti-Fascist Theatre,11 p. 712.
25.
Rajinder Paul, "Enactment 32-33," Enact, 32-33 (Aug. -Sept. 1969), n.p.
26.
J. N. Kaushal, "Last Month in Delhi: Annual Drama Festival," Enact, 67
(July, 1972), n.p.
27.
J. N. Kaushal, "Folk Theatre," Enact, 20 (Aug. 1968), n.p.
28.
J. C. Mathur, Drama in Rural India (New York: Asia Publishing House, 1964),
pp. 80-83.
29. Benegal, p. 105.
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Theatre and Activism in the 1940s Author(s): ZOHRA SEGAL Source: India International Centre Quarterly, Vol.

Theatre and Activism in the 1940s Author(s): ZOHRA SEGAL Source: India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 2/3, Crossing Boundaries (MONSOON 1997), pp. 31-39 Published by: India International Centre Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23005429 Accessed: 19-03-2018 01:18 UTC

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ZOHRA SEGAL Theatre and Activism in the 1940s* writers who formedthemselves into the Progressive Since
ZOHRA SEGAL
Theatre and Activism in the 1940s*
writers who formedthemselves into the Progressive
Since the early 1940s Bombay had a nucleus of talented
Writers' Association. Its glitteringstars were Khwaja
AhmedAbbas, MulkRaj Anand, Sardar JaffreyandRajinder
SinghBedi. Amongthis groupwas a youngjournalist fromBan
galore, Miss Anil de Silva, who had the brainwave of starting a
people's theatre movement. The idea caught on like wildfire, and
the IndianPeople's Theatre Association(IPTA) was born.
IPTAwas a non-profit voluntaryorganisationwhose aims
were to raise artistes' voices against the injustices of the country's
present rulers. Songs, poems, ballets andplays were all directed
towards this goal and every artist of any significance became part
of IPTA. The association drew talent like honey does bees and
every branch of art was represented by the most honoured in the
land.
Among the stage actors and actresses were Prithviraj Kapoor
(twice nominated IPTA's president), Balraj and Damayanti Sahni,
Chetan and Uma Anand, Uzra and Hamid Butt, Dina Gandhi,
Habib Tanvir, Krishan Dhavan, Safdar Mir, Hima Kesarkodi,
Romesh Thapar, Sarju Pandeyu, and Shaukat Kaifi. Apart from
the writers mentioned earlier, IPTA's membership boasted of
Krishan Chander, Ismat Chughtai, Kartar Singh Duggal, Vish
vamitter Adil, Balwant Gargi and many more. Amongst the dan
cers were Shanti and Gul Bardhan, Narendra Sharma, Shanta
Gandhi, Debendra Shankar, Sachin Shankar, Prabhat Ganguly,
and the musicians included Ravi Shankar, Salil Chowdhry, Sachin
Dev Burman, Sisir Sovan, Nagen Dey, Jatindranath Goloi, Abani
Das Gupta and a host of others. The film world was represented
by such celebrities as David, Mubarak, Shahid Lateef, Shyam,
*Excerpted from Stages: The Art and Adventures ofZohra Segal by Joan L. Erdman with
Zohra Segal, Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1997.
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32 / Theatre and Activism in the 1940s Agha, Sajjan, and Khan. Poets dedicated their
32 / Theatre and Activism in the 1940s
Agha, Sajjan, and Khan. Poets dedicated their work to this cau
and included Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, Faiz Ahmad Faiz
Niaz Haidar, Akhtarul Iman, Miraji and Prem Dhavan. Fo
singers like Binoy Roy and his sister, as well as Amar Sheikh hel
mass audiences spellbound with their powerful voices. In shor
every artist who lived in Bombay between 1940 and 1950 wa
connected with IPTA in one capacity or another.
The organisation was left-oriented and, as was fashionabl
in those days, many members were Communists, but only t
Cultural Squad was supported by the Communist Party. A centra
committee planned the day to day affairs of the association a
nominated a president and vice president who were chang
every two or three years. We all met in the evenings after o
regular professional activities. Such was the zeal of IPTA's me
bers that no one begrudged the extra hours devoted to this ta
Sometimes, if we were lucky, we performed in a regular thea
but most of the time the performances took place in halls, si
they were cheaper to hire. A great number of shows were he
anywhere in the street or neighbourhood where an audie
could be assembled. The novel idea of a theatre of this kind soon
mushroomed in all the main towns of India. Calcutta's IPTA
became one of the foremost—Utpal Dutt, Shambu Mitra a
Tripti Mitra were outstanding
examples of its acting and
directing talent. Just as IPTA in
Bombay had used the folklore
of Marathi theatre, taking
tamasha and pawada as forms
of expression, so the Bengali ar
tists employed jatra, their
provincial folk theatre, as their
medium.
With India in the last
stages of the freedom struggle,
song and play themes were
radical and left-oriented, in
spiring and uniting us to action.
Having joined IPTA almost as
Zohra as "the Foreign Woman" in the
soon as I arrived in Bombay in
Prithvi Theatres' production, Deewar,
1945, I took an active part in
1946 (photo by Raj Kapoor)
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ZOHRA SEGAL / 33 these plays. In 1947, during the Interim Government when Jawaharlal Nehru
ZOHRA SEGAL / 33
these plays. In 1947, during the Interim Government when
Jawaharlal Nehru was appointed vice president, some IPTA
branches were harassed by government bans which censored
certain plays and called for the arrest of their performers. I had
recently been nominated vice president of IPTA and wrote a most
foolishly presumptuous letter to Pandit Nehru, "I am writing to
you as one vice president to another
"
describing the harassment
and requesting his mediation. Just imagine the cheek! He wrote
back in a most considerate manner, saying he was not aware of
the harassment and would see what could be done about it. And
sure enough, the aggravation stopped after some time.
Gradually the impact of IPTA declined, perhaps because a
number of its artists became popular in Indian films and were no
longer inclined to slave away without monetary compensation.
' Or maybe quite a few of them felt the organization was influenced
by the Communist Party of India and because they had different
political convictions, decided to leave IPTA. Or possibly, because
the country had gained freedom and the imperialists been ex
pelled, there was no longer a rallying cause!
To my mind, the two outstanding achievements of the Indian
People's Theatre Association of that period were the Cultural
Squad and a film, Dharti ke Lai (Children of the Earth). It dealt
with the Bengal Famine, and was written and directed by K.A.
Abbas with a stupendous cast and technicians composed entirely
of IPTA members. The Cultural Squad was a troupe of dancers
and musicians, housed in very reduced circumstances in subur
ban Andheri, who toured all over India with a marvellous ballet
called Discovery of India, based on Jawaharlal Nehru's book of the
same name. In 1946 PC. Joshi, secretary of the Communist Party,
had asked me to take charge of this troupe but I had to refuse, as
I could not simultaneously continue working with the Prithvi
Theatres, my primary commitment.
been ideal was for me to stay home and look after husband
From my family's point of view, what would perhaps have
and children. Since we had ayahs and servants I could
manage the household fairly well when I was in town, but the
familywas definitelydisruptedwhenourtours began, and
Kameshwar was not at all happy about it. As a result there was
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34 / Theatre and Activism in the 1940s constant tension in the house. Considering that
34 / Theatre and Activism in the 1940s
constant tension in the house. Considering that my career cam
before anything else, I gave as much as I could to the children
looked after them and had them with me wherever I could—but
I did go on those tours, except when I was expecting my second
child, or if I had to act or direct a dance in a film. Of course there
was the other side of it: absence makes the heart grow fonder!
Whenever I came back our reunions were wonderful.
For the next fourteen years, my life was in acting. I was like
a sculptor taking a rough sort of clay and moulding it into a certain
shape. A lot of snobbish nonsense fell off me during this period
because of Prithviraj. Rather than teach anybody he related anec
dotes and stories, and by his sheer presence and example one
learned a way of living. With Uday Shankar I had been treated as
u star, always travelling first class in India, staying in the best
hotels. All this ended when I joined Prithvi Theatres. Prithviraj
travelled with his company in the third class compartments
engaged for the troupe. In spite of the fact that he had a first class
pass as a Member of Parliament, he still travelled with us. All our
food was cooked together and he ate exactly what we did. We all
slept in dormitories on the floor when we were touring, either in
rented accommodation just above the theatre, or a rented house.
I started to appreciate these things and thought, wonderful, this
is the true way of living.
Other adjustments also had to be made. I thought I had my
own views about theatre and drama, though I was quite naive.
From whatever concepts or theories I'd developed, I disagreed
with the length of the plays, thinking some too long. Up to a point
improvisation is all right, and our improvised dialogue was in
corporated in the text of the play, but sometimes I felt Prithviraj
himself would go on for hours and hours, so that the play
stretched from two and a half to four hours! My acquired concern
for punctuality did become an example for the company, though
some remained immune to it.
A whole book could be written on Prithviji and his extraor
dinary effort in keeping his theatre alive, almost single-handed,
for sixteen years. His work inspired me to write magazine articles
on this period of my life and this great character who taught us
not only the art of acting but a way of life. No man is perfect—if
he were then he would be God—but I have yet to come across a
single person with so many godly attributes, while at the same
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ZOHRA SEGAL / 35 time being so human, lovable, humble, sincere and solid as a
ZOHRA SEGAL / 35
time being so human, lovable, humble, sincere and solid as a rock,
physically and morally.
village estate called Samundri, in the Lyallpur district of
The seed of Prithviraj Kapoor's career was planted in a little
the Punjab. Young Prithvi Nath, grandson of a Hindu
Pathanzamindar, enactedanecdotes fromthe epics Ramayana
and Mahabharata inside the buffalo shed. Most of us have put up
such curtains in our childhood, performing for relatives and
friends, but how many have become a Natya Ratna (Jewel of
Dramatic Arts) and received the highest title and award for an
artist in India, the Padma Bhushan? The grand old Diwan Saheb
was a strict disciplinarian, instilling democratic values in his kith
and kin as well as in his large retinue. Each evening, little 'Prithvi'
was made to polish and light the innumerable kerosene lamps of
the entire estate. He would rub shoulders with the sweeper's son
while playing kabbadi in the fields. This was the foundation of his
love for the outdoors and sports, and it inculcated in the young
man the belief that all men are equal in -the sight of God. Later he
went to college in Peshawar and Lahore, where he was always
the first to thrash out any communal ill-will. His great love was
the theatre and he set himself the task of learning passage after
passage of Urdu and Hindi poetry in order to strengthen his
memoryandperfect his diction. Beingslimandextremelygood
looking, he was usually cast in female roles, something one could
never imagine, seeing him in later years when he had developed
his physical powers to the utmost.
Contact with personalities such as Mrs. Nora Richards, wife
of his school principal, nourished dreams of having a theatre of
his own. She initiated him into the world of the great western
plays, always encouraging himin his acting. This great old lady
later became a recluse living entire on her own in the Kangra
Valley, but she took an avid interest in all Prithviraj did and,
indeed, all that transpired in the theatre in India and the world.
The other person who provided timely guidance to Prithviji was
his old teacher, Professor Jai Dayal of Edwards College, Peshawar,
whodevelopedhimintoa versatile actor, polishingthe many
facets of his talent and helping him choose his career. Naturally
Jai Dayal was the happiest of men when Prithvi Theatres was
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36 / Theatre and Activism in the 1940s launched and his favourite pupil received national
36 / Theatre and Activism in the 1940s
launched and his favourite pupil received national recognition
In his book, I go South with Prithvi Theatres, Jai Dayal wrote, "I ha
hoped that an actor-manager would appear who would brin
about a revolution in the minds of men by his plays and his acting,
who would hold the stage to the people as a mirror in which t
behold themselves, one who would have the courage to say to the
people This is YOU!' This man was my dream. It has foun
fulfillment in Prithvi."
After graduating from Lahore, Prithviraj joined the films
taking his young wife, Rama, with him to Calcutta. Though his
acting ability was never questioned, it was an uphill struggle.
Films were made in double versions, in Bengali for Bengal and in
Hindi for all-India distribution. Invariably a Bengali actor
replaced Prithviji for the regional version. Perhaps he was too
outspoken for directors in Bengal, expressing his own ideas about
the art of acting; so after making some memorable films he left
Calcutta to fill an opening in the company of Grant Anderson, an
English director-manager who toured with a small group of
Indian actors performing the plays of Shakespeare and Shaw. This
experience gave Prithviji a taste of the touring life, though many
days he went without sufficient food because box office returns
were low.
Having toured in several towns Grant Anderson finally dis
banded the enterprise in Hyderabad, and Prithviji went to Bom
bay to try his luck there, starting again from scratch. He joined
films as an extra and was spotted immediately for his personality
by Ermeline, reigning beauty of Ranjit Talkies. She asked the
owner-producer, Seth Ardeshar, to let this handsome young man
play opposite her. From that moment his name caught on and he
starred in one success after another, reaching the height of his
popularity in Sikander (Alexander the Great). Although he had
always loved the stage and dreamed of having a theatre of his
own, he never actually planned one, being a believer in fate and
saying, "Nature determines the right moment for everything."
Eventually he was almost pushed into it when a writer friend
came to him one day in distress. He had written a play, Shakuntala,
in Hindustani, but the director who had commissioned it had
rejected the script. Prithviji said he would produce the play
himself and paid Betabji, the playwright, a thousand rupees as an
advance.
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ZOHRA SEGAL / 37 vi Theatres came into existence on January 15,1944. Actors, So it
ZOHRA SEGAL / 37
vi Theatres came into existence on January 15,1944. Actors,
So it happened that without any previous preparation Prith
dancers, actresses, musicians, singers, make-upmen, tailors
and carpenters attached themselves to this venture. Because
Prithviji could never say no to anybody they were all welcomed,
until he had a collection of about sixty people! Rehearsals for the
play began, conducted by an assistant director since Prithviji
was
busyhonouringhis filmcommitments. Sixmonths laterwhen
Uzra Mumtaz was discovered playing Zubeida in Ahmad Abbas'
play of that name for the Indian People's Theatre Association, a
heroinewas finallycast.
The first performances of Shakuntala on March 9, 1945
resulted in a financial loss of nearly a lakh of rupees, but to
celebrate this first show Prithviji paid a bonus of two months'
salary to the entire cast and management fromhis own resources.
All his earnings fromfilmcontracts wereputintothetheatre.
"What next?" was the question. The existing Sanskrit plays he
foundtoolongandimpractical forstageproduction, despitethe
beauty of their language and minute detailing of character. The
more modern plays of Agha Hashar were mostly adaptations of
westernclassics andhadoutlivedtheirimportanceforcontem
porary theatre-goers in India. So he decided to have new plays
writtenforhis theatre.
Prithviraj Kapoor and Zohra in Pathan, as 'Sher Khan' and 'Khairunissa', Prithvi
Theatres production, 1947
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38 / Theatre and Activism in the 1940s Sitting with writers Prithviraj disgorged his ideas,
38 / Theatre and Activism in the 1940s
Sitting with writers Prithviraj disgorged his ideas, his plots,
his experiences. The plays were to be understood all over Indi
and have essentially Indian themes. His nationalism yielded a
play in the form of a warning. Deewar opened on Augusts, 1945
and pointed to the impending partition of India. The play'
allegorical theme portrayed a wall of enmity created by a foreign
vamp between two brothers, who had until then lived in complete
harmony and trust. She plays the emotions of one brother against
the other until they can no longer bear to live in the same house.
Their daily bickering reaches its culmination in the partitionin
of the joint property by a wall. In the final act a united revolt of
peasants and women of the country pull down the hated wall
while the two brothers realize their mistake and are happily
reconciled, allowing the foreigner to stay in the capacity of frien
rather than enemy. Alas, such an ending was not to be, and th
wall has become a permanent fixture. The dialogue of the brother
and the vamp consisted, in part, of exact translations of the
speeches of T.B. Macaulay, Gandhiji and Mohammed Ali Jinnah
When I first saw the play, a young and talented actress,
Damayanti Sahni, was playing the foreign vamp, but this attra
tive girl was soon snatched up by films. I was already installed as
the theatre's dance director and offered myself for the part, whic
I played till the very end of my employment with the theatre.
Eventually the company was installed at the Royal Opera
House, a cinema with a large stage. But our performances coul
only be given in the daytime and then too, just on holidays an
weekends since the cinema was used for film shows every afte
noon and evening. Gradually a work schedule evolved from our
daily morning meetings, beginning at ten with an hour of singin
and voice production, an hour of dance practice and an hour of
classes in Hindi and Urdu. We all called Prithviji 'Papaji', whic
means elder brother, and when he was not filming he would take
the voice production class himself. Otherwise Ram Gangoli, th
music director, rehearsed songs from the various plays with th
entire cast. The dance class was taken by me: half an hour each of
limbering up and dance composition, either connected with th
forthcoming play or simply to ensure correct deportment on stag
for the cast. After this preliminary work we had actual play
rehearsals for about two hours.
Before starting rehearsals each play was read to the entire cast
and company technicians, inviting suggestions and criticism.
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ZOHRA SEGAL / 39 Except for Shakuntala all the plays were inspired by Prithviraj, partly
ZOHRA SEGAL / 39
Except for Shakuntala all the plays were inspired by Prithviraj,
partly dictated, sometimes written and mostly added to in the
form of extempore dialogue by Prithviji. They were truly his
creations, a product of his imagination, voicing his lament for
injustice and the ills of his motherland, and showing ways of
rising above it all to a glorious future. The themes of the plays
were uncomplicated, the language predominantly Hindustani, a
simplified combination of Hindi and Urdu understood all over
north India, and their style was naturalistic, with melodrama
overtaking some of the climaxes.
After an extremely successful run of Deewar in Bombay, we
took this play and Shakuntala on a tour of some neighbouring
towns, creating an unprecedented sensation wherever we went.
Carrying along our own cooks and utensils, we stayed in rented
houses, younger children and their ayahs travelling with moth
ers. During the holidays even school kids joined the cavalcade, so
my daughter Kiran took part in almost all the plays when on tour
with me. One tour followed another and as the years progressed,
we collected humanity to this nucleus like a massive avalanche
poets, writers, convicts or mere observers, all were welcome.
Prithviji was never able to deny anyone anything.
What I tried to bring to the troupe was the professionalism I
had learned with Uday Shankar. His punctuality, the seriousness
of applying our make-up, and exercising before the performance.
For a theatre troup we naturally didn't have any dance or physical
limbering up before the show, but Prithviraj incorporated regular
dance classes in the routine so that whenever we went to a new
town, we all assembled at a certain time in the morning after our
baths and breakfast, and began with my dance class. Classes in
Hindi and Urdu followed—an excellent addition because we had
to have perfect diction and pronunciation for the Hindi—and
sometimes Sanskrit (at which I was terrible). Even my Urdu was
pretty bad in those days, but eventually all these things were
corrected. Our language class was taught by an excellent scholar
called Manik Kapoor who knew both Hindi and Urdu, as well as
English. His written record of each performance as it went on gave
us an account of all the plays, their chief.actors and understudies,
where each was performed, the number of performances and how
many towns we visited in which year. This record was made into
a chronology by one of the actors, Sajjan, as a gift to Prithviraj for
his 60th birthday, which is how I have a copy.
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