The Prithviwallahas by Shashi Kapoor, Deepa Gahlot


The Prithviwallahas by Shashi Kapoor, Deepa GahlotIn my series of biographies, this one The Prithviwallahas is of a different kind. As this is not a biography of a person, but of a movement called Prithvi theatre. It’s a story of three generations and the Prithvi Theatre. The first generation dreamed about the theatre, the second one gave a shape to the dream and the third gave it the wings.

It is a coffee table book written by Shashi Kapoor, who belongs to the second generation. And was instrumental in giving shape to the theatre along with his wife. He also happens to be the right person to write this. As he has been a part of both the earlier and the next generation. Someone who has seen both the seeds being sown and the wings being spread. Being a coffee table book, there are lots of pictures right from the first play by Prithvi to the last festival held when the book was published. The pictures are all black & white, giving the book itself a very theatrical look and feel.

The story of Prithvi theatre was born with Prithviraj Kapoor starting the Prithvi theatres in the 1940s. Where the troupe traveled across the length and breadth of the country giving 2000+ performances. His extended family was a part of the troupe and those who were not, became his extended family. Theatre was not a commercially viable channel in those days. And hence it was usually funded by Prithviraj Kapoor’s earnings from the films. The book talks in detail about the passion that he had for theatre. He believed that his actors and other associates should be treated well so that they can continue to do theatre. This was the time when films as a medium of entertainment were evolving. And after some years it did become a competition for the theatre.

Prithviraj gave up the theatre in 1962 after he lost his voice and could not act anymore. His popularity with his audience was such that they would want to see him even without his voice. And that’s how he performed in few of his last performances.

In the 1970s, his son Shashi and daughter-in-law Jennifer, who came from the theatrical background and had been associated with Prithvi for a long time, decided to create a physical theatre that can be a place to nurture theatre movement and artists in Bombay. There is the story of their struggles, which were not only financial but also in defining what the theatre stood for. Was it to make profits, was it to promote good theatre, was it to be a platform for nurturing new talent? This phase of theatre ended with Jennifer’s death in 1984. Post which her son Kunal and actor Feroze Khan took reins of the theatre. And they took some hard decisions to stick to the original vision with which the foundations of the theatre were laid down. After some time, the responsibility of the theatre came on Sanjana, daughter of Jennifer and Shashi Kapoor.

With Sanjana, the theatre entered the third phase as it also came into the hands of the third generation, where it spread its wings and started flying. It became the hub of theatrical activity not only in Bombay but in the country. It became a platform that almost all groups wanted to be part of. Prithvi also went beyond its physical space and became the cultural hub that everyone looked up to. The opening of Rangashankara in Bangalore is a tribute to Prithvi. And probably the first step in the Prithviraj Kapoor’s vision of having a theatre in every small town of India.

The book The Prithviwallahas makes an interesting reading. And quite informative for someone who has not been a part of theatre except being an audience. Though it keeps the focus strictly on Prithvi and does not talk about happenings in general about the theatre in India or anywhere else. There are interesting anecdotes that make you realize what about goes behind the success but is never seen. Recommend reading The Prithviwallahas for anyone with the remote interest in Theatre in India.

Read this book – The Prithviwallahas by Shashi Kapoor, Deepa Gahlot

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  1. I know nothing about theater in India – though I have a copy of Felicity Kendal’s book (but haven’t started it yet). Do you think more introduction is needed to get the most out of this book?

  2. Hi Beth,

    Felicity Kendal is Jennifer’s sister, and the whole family was into theatre, so I am sure it would make a good reading. But if you are in Mumbai or Bangalore, I would suggest visit and watch some plays in Prithvi or Rangashankara and it would be good to relate to them when you read the book.

  3. You might want to read “Theatre of the Streets” by Sudhanva Deshpande, which includes essays and interviews of people involved with Safdar HAshmi’s Jana NAtya Mandali

  4. Wow, a book i’ve been eyeing but yet to read.. i love theater and try not to miss any of the plays.. some are really good,while others are mediocre…

    Prithvi i think played in chennai last year sometime… but i missed it….

    hey Anu- hows it going at ur end?


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