Theatre is in your genes – your grandparents and your parents were passionate about theatre. What kind of influence did your family wield in developing your love for theatre?
I am not sure about genes as both my brothers have the same genes as I do… but I do know about influences and inspirations! Right through my childhood, I was mesmerised by stories of the theatre adventures of Shakespeareana, my maternal grandparents, Laura and Geoffrey Kendal’s itinerant theatre company that toured the length and breadth of India and South East Asia for over 30 years – enchanting audiences, from young school girls to maharajas! I wanted to grow up and be part of this gypsy life. But sadly, it came as rude shock when I was a teenager that the economics of the times had almost wiped out travelling theatre companies across the globe.
However, I was fortunate to have worked with my grandparents. Aged 12, I performed scenes of Shakespeare on tour with my grandparents, in schools across Ireland. As a teenager, I was their sound operator on two of their productions that performed at Prithvi Theatre and toured across India too. At 25, my grandfather directed me in Prithvi Theatre’s first in-house production of Gaslight. My grandfather was 84 years old! I adored my grandfather, he is my all-time hero. A true adventurer, who feared nothing but a dreary, glum life!
You dedicated your life to theatre and ran Prithvi Theatre for close to 20 years…
I actually dedicated nothing at all! I simply did what I was compelled to do. There is no reasonable explanation to the feeling I had towards getting involved with Prithvi Theatre. It was a magnetic pull that I could not explain. And yet I was terrified, as I knew I was ill-equipped, with zero training or experience or exposure to bear such a huge responsibility.
And never for a moment did I ever believe it was my inherited birthright. That is something I am deeply opposed to. I was 23 years old. Kunal was running the theatre after my mother passed away. And was happy to welcome me into the fold. I began working at Prithvi with small projects, which on hindsight turned out to be a sort of five-point plan. These were the setting up of the children’s summer workshop programme, the revival of the Café and Art Gallery, starting our own production company and starting a small newsletter PT Notes.
You brought about transformation in India’s theatre scene by pushing the envelope at Prithvi. Any particular change implemented by you that impacted Indian theatre which you are happy about?
Oh my goodness! I really would not be the right person to answer this question! Pushing the envelope or impacting Indian theatre at large was never part of one’s mission. I was just simply doing what made sense to me, to create a vibrant arts’ oasis at Prithvi! It was gradually over time that Prithvi Theatre came to bear the iconic status that it has today. But that was never my dream. Honestly, I do not believe I have created anything that one can say has been left as a legacy.
The transferring process of the Prithvi baton from you to your brother Kunal Kapoor was a tranquil one publicly. Were you truly ready to move on when it happened?
Why should there be a big noise about such a change? As you know, we have always been private about our personal affairs. Always happy to speak about our work. I had ambitions to impact a larger theatre landscape that was not part of Prithvi Theatre’s mandate. And so Junoon was a natural step for both Sameera Iyenger, Junoon’s co-founder, and me. We had worked for 10 years at Prithvi Theatre together.
At Junoon, you spearhead the Arts at Play for Schools programme. What inspires your desire to nurture theatre while providing space to related art efforts?
Theatre cannot exist in isolation, or separate from the world, from life, and most importantly, from other art forms. A theatre director, actor, set or light designer must have a larger curiosity about the world. They must be thirsty to fill their senses with many experiences, memories and triggers that ignite their creativity.
At Junoon, it was critical that we expose young children to the vast richness of our artistic world. Through Junoon’s school programme, we offer a range of delicious programmes that enable this transformational experience. And in these 8 years, we have worked with 50 schools in 20 cities, touching over 40,000 students. No small feat and yet there is so much to do!
How would you like to see theatre and its associated art scene in India evolve?
I would love to see the performing arts in India shift from a place of surviving to thriving. I wish this not for a selfish reason of enriching theatre per se or out of any philanthropic view towards the arts, but because I believe that the arts are essential towards building a healthy society. The arts are the soul of a country, and this soul needs the ground to be fertile to enable it to flourish.
For this value of the arts to grow, we need an absolute overhauling and reimagining of all the infrastructure that would be needed to realise this end. Infrastructure that entails not only immovable infrastructure like theatres, galleries, archives, libraries etc, but also policies that encourage audiences to build, supporters to grow and practitioners to be secure in their ecosystems that value them. All this is very achievable, but not without political will.
How supportive is your family of our passion for theatre?
My family is full of passionate people with our own individual passions, all of which overlap to some degree. I believe having fire in your belly is essential, and such a blessing when you find your calling. Mine is theatre!
Do you see your junoon for theatre lasting a lifetime?
Yes! But perhaps in many different avatars!