In August 1945, when Partition was still two summers away, Prithviraj Kapoor staged a play that was remarkably prescient of the horrors to come. Deewar was about a happy family torn asunder by the machinations of a foreign woman who eyes the family’s riches. In it, the brothers Ramesh and Suresh turn bitter enemies, building a wall in their old home.

The strife between the brothers dismays peasants on stage who, afraid of the impending disaster that would befall the community, break the wall down. The brothers embrace, peace and love return, and the curtain falls to much celebration. History did not follow the ending laid out by Prithvi Theatres, of course. Partition came, and so did the bloodbath.

But Deewar was a fearless and doomed attempt at dreaming of a different future, at a time when communal tempers were frayed, politics was fractious and India was on the edge. There were other plays that dared to imagine religious harmony. Four months before Partition, Kapoor would make one last fervent plea for Hindu-Muslims unity in Pathan. After India was divided, Kapoor kept up the plea for peace and harmony with two more plays – Ghaddar and Ahooti.

A scene from 'Deewar'. Image courtesy: Prithvi Theatre.

These plays, known as the Partition Quartet, famed for condemning the politics of hate and revenge, are chronicled in Deepa Gehlot’s book co-authored with Shashi Kapoor, Prithviwallahs. Recently, Indian research scholar Salma Siddique at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies, at Freie University, has delved into the Quartet’s place in India and Pakistan’s cultural history.

Artistic foresight

“The alacrity of this group to perform Partition-themed plays should compel us to rethink the notion that there was somehow a wariness in discussing or representing partition in the 1940s and early 1950s,” said Siddique. “Prithvi was important in interpreting for its audience what Partition would mean, at a time when it was only a possibility and not an eventuality. For a cultural historian, this pre-emptive treatment of Partition is immensely insightful.”

Deewar ran to packed houses across India, reducing leaders such as Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel to tears. At the end of each performance, Kapoor would give a passionate speech, asking the audience to seek unity and communal peace. According to Siddique, Deewar was not subtle in its allegorical references: Suresh’s feuding brother Ramesh was said to have resembled Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.

Pathan, staged in April 1947, was a melodrama about a Frontier Muslim who saves his Hindu employer from a deadly assault. Years later, the Hindu’s son is chased by a vengeful Muslim bandit who is willing to let him go only if the Pathan sacrifices his own son – he does, leading to such a pathos-filled scene that veteran actor Zohra Sehgal once said: “…every time in the climax of Pathan, when Sher Khan [Prithviraj] handed over his young son [played by his real sons Raj Kapoor and later Shammi Kapoor] to the enemies honouring the creed of an eye for an eye, there was not a dry eye in the house.”

A scene from 'Pathan'. Image courtesy: Prithvi Theatre.

Kapoor’s Ghaddar, staged after the Partition, told the story of a fervently nationalist Muslim reluctant to move to Pakistan, and finally done in by his own party for being a traitor. It led to a lot of teeth-gnashing in the Muslim League.

“What one can surmise and gather from these plays is a hope placed on long-existing ties and shared history, which could rescind the plan to define new national identities in terms of religious and regional demarcations,” said Siddique. “So the allegorical restoration of ‘Akhand Bharat/Undivided India’ within Deewar was a possibility that those closely associated with the Prithvi Theatres held dear and hoped that the ending of the play, the undoing of Partition, would also be part of the clairvoyance.”

Ahooti, Kapoor’s last play on India’s division, was about the multiple blows women suffered during Partition – abductions, rape and the worst, being branded as dishonoured once they were returned. A Hindu woman in Ahooti is turned away by her in-laws when she returns home, a victim of sexual violence.

Ahooti and Ghaddar, Siddique said, were grim, violent, and dejected: “I would argue, [they were] disconsolate in their attempts to grapple with Partition, no doubt because of its messiness and that it had finally transpired.”

A scene from Ghaddar|Image courtesy: Prithvi Theatre.

Leading from centerstage

Siddique added that Kapoor’s Partition plays had an undeniable political core, though they were stories of compassion and communal peace. It has been chronicled in biographies of the thespian, that at the end of these plays the towering giant of Indian theatre would stand eyes cast down and his shawl spread out seeking alms for Partition relief work.

“Many of these performances were attended by nationalist leaders,” said Siddique. “I find it fascinating that the plays were often followed or preceded by a long speech by Kapoor in his booming voice, where he would rebuke the critics of his plays – either the colonial state or the Muslim hardliners. In one speech, he apparently warned the Muslim Press that if they continue to admire Jinnah or listen to him, then there would be no place for them in this country.”

If Kapoor took on the Muslim League, he was also not beyond ticking off the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “Prithviraj reportedly had a word with MS Golwalkar after Gandhi’s assassination during one of his train travels where he advised the RSS leader to keep his men under check,” Siddique said. Kapoor was later nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the Congress, showing a clear network of “political belief, patronage and praxis”.

In Prithviwallahs, Gehlot chronicles the hostile political responses to the play from both ends of the communal spectrum – the League as well as Sangh. There were protests by both at several venues but the charmer that Kapoor was, he would invite them in for the show and reportedly end up creating new fans.

A scene from 'Ahooti'. Image courtesy: Prithvi Theatre.

In the spotlight

The plays were huge box office hits, reaching a wide audience. According to Siddique, those who couldn’t manage a ticket would sneak into assorted venues – Royal Opera House, small theatres, cinema halls and makeshift stages.

The responses to Ahooti, in particular, were highly emotive. Hindu refugees, their wounds still raw, would land up to watch the play. “Biographer Yograj recounts how once an old man broke down after watching Ahooti and went pleading to Prithviraj to help him find his abducted daughter,” Siddique said.

Prithvi, the theatre company, soon moved to other socially relevant plays. The Partition Quartet was performed only for a few more years, but the plays are significant in the cultural, political and social landscape of today. They provoked debate in drawing rooms, affected the political discourse, and of course, infuriated bigots. The films on Partition actually came later, after the plays. Chinnamul (1950), Ritwik Ghatak’s masterpieces Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Komal Gandhar (1961) and Subarnarekha (1965) told the story of the partition of Bengal. In Hindi, Dharmputra came only in 1961, followed by the stunning Garm Hawa (1974).

Prithviraj Kapoor. Image credit: Rishi Kapoor/via Twitter