Sunday, Jul 03, 2022
Outlook.com
shimla: theatre

Curtain Rising

Shimla's Gaiety Theatre, a cultural hub in the Raj era, reopens

Curtain Rising
Anil Dayal
Curtain Rising
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

The restoration, which took five years, is the result of a rare mix of private effort and government support. It all began in the early '80s, though, when Jennifer Kendal Kapoor, who had performed several times at the Gaiety along with her parents' travelling theatre company, Shakespeariana, first took interest in its restoration. INTACH was roped in and Ved Segan, the Mumbai architect who built the new Prithvi Theatre, was sent to have a look. "It took us a good 15 years to decide whether something the British had condemned for demolition should be restored at all. But we have done it, and now it is up to those who run it to ensure it's used for the purpose for which it has been restored," Segan told Outlook. "Even though Jennifer is not alive to see it today, I am satisfied that I have kept my word to her," he added. Jennifer and Shashi Kapoor's daughter Sanjana visited the theatre after it was thrown open to the public in Shimla last week, and expressed keenness to develop an association between Prithvi and Gaiety. "The last time Laura and Jeffery Kendal (Jennifer's parents) performed here was in 1984, and though I was a child, I remember managing the backstage and sound for them. I have an emotional bond with this place and would like to link the two institutions by holding summer workshops for children here," she said.


In the days of glory: Archival image of the Gaiety Theatre

The core of Gaiety all these years has been the Amateur Dramatics Club (ADC) which dates back to 1837. It was formed by a handful of British officers who produced, acted and directed plays in their spare time. Initially, the ADC functioned from various buildings in Shimla, but once the Gaiety Theatre building, which is actually a portion of the old Town Hall, came up, the ADC shifted here, paying an annual rent of Rs 3,000. The ADC passed into the hands of the army when the British left, and gradually became little more than a club for card games and dance nites.

In the initial years, the ADC was somewhat conservative and did not allow women to perform on stage. So, men generally played women's parts and the late K.L. Saigal, who is said to have begun his acting career here, played many such roles on its stage. Lord Mayo was an avid fan of the club, and is known to have brought performers from as far away as Calcutta for an evening's entertainment. With regular presentations and a growing band of enthusiasts, the ADC acquired a reputation as the best amateur theatre group in all British colonies. It was during Lord Lytton's tenure as viceroy that theatre took off in a big way in Shimla, and his own play Walpole was produced by the Shimla ADC. Other well-known figures associated with Gaiety are Lord (then colonel) Baden Powell, Rudyard Kipling, and later Balraj Sahni. In the early years of the twentieth century, Major Wilkinson formed the Amateur Dramatics Home Branch in London for Britishers who had been associated with the ADC at Shimla and wanted to carry on the good work. This body is said to be in existence even today.

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