Prithvi Theatre Fest 2017: Staging Poetry With Naseeruddin Shah 

The legendary actor recited some of his favourite English and Urdu poems at the festival. 

3 min read
Naseeruddin Shah won over the Prithvi Theatre audience with his poetry recitation recently. 

The magic of rhyme and rhythm in a darkened auditorium with the spotlight on just one man is indescribable; especially if that lone man is Naseeruddin Shah, reciting his favourite poems. As part of the ongoing annual festival at Prithvi theatre, Mumbai, in memory of Prithviraj Kapoor, Shah regaled a packed house with an uninterrupted hour of English and Urdu poetry.

Dressed semi-formally - in a pristine white shirt, burgundy-brown trousers and leather shoes - Shah was anything but formal. Perhaps deliberately wanting to bring poetry down from the rarefied heights of esotericism, Shah mingled with youngsters before the lights dimmed, borrowing tissue from one to clean his specs, exchanging notes with another… ensuring no one felt intimidated by his larger-than-life persona as an actor.

When he took his place behind the mike and started chatting about his love for recitation, his enthusiasm was contagious, and the audience responded with palpable fervour to every word he uttered.

“Kunal Kapoor (at the helm of the Prithvi festival) asked me to participate in the festival with a reading of poems and I was only too happy to comply! I really enjoy reading poetry!”
Naseeruddin Shah

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…,” he began, his voice ringing loud and clear as he recited Robert Frost’s famous lines from The Road Not taken. When he ended, on a quiet, assertive note, “And I took the one less travelled by,/ And that has made all the difference” ... there was pin-drop silence.

“I came upon this poem at a very crucial stage of my life, when I was choosing acting as a career and not following the path my brothers had taken,” revealed Shah. “I found a resonance of my life in this poem.”

Poetry has been Shah’s constant companion from an early age. The second poem he chose to share with the audience was The Pied Piper of Hamelin, which he read first when he was in class nine, but which stayed with him over the decades. It is a poem that most of us would have read in school, but when Shah narrated the story of the piper who seeks revenge when he is not paid for his services in ridding the town of its rats, nuances emerged that had never occurred to us as students. You are left wondering whether the lame boy was happier off not being able to keep pace with the other children or if he missed being taken to some wonderful land, never to return?

Though meant to be a reading, Shah recited the long poem without looking at the pages before him, seemingly transported to the town of Hamelin where a quaintly-dressed piper lured rats and children alike with his magic pipe. In Shah’s deep voice, Robert Browning’s enigmatic piper— “His queer long coat from heel to head/ Was half of yellow and half of red”— comes alive, most dramatically.

Without the help of a set or props, in poem after poem, Shah conjured before listeners the vivid details of different worlds. From the colourful poems of childhood to the bleak ones he studied in college, Shah takes you through different mindscapes. TS Eliot’s The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock, a difficult poem by any standard, made profound sense when Shah recounted Prufrock’s anguish, in measured tones, emphasising key words most aptly.

Having subtly steered the mood of the listeners to a solemn track, Shah moved on to Faiz Ahmed Faiz, revolutionary poet of Pakistan, taking care to clarify that, contrary to popular belief, he was no expert on Urdu. “My education in Urdu poetry started by watching Gulzar’s television program on Ghalib,” he confessed, frankly.

Nevertheless, or perhaps because of that, he made Faiz’s complex thoughts in Urdu easier to understand. Introducing each poem with an explanatory note, Shah succeeded in de-constructing Faiz for a mixed crowd of listeners. Many of these poems were written behind bars, when Faiz was a political prisoner, but are relevant in any age when freedom is at stake.

From the seriousness of Faiz to the lightness of Ghalib… Shah chose a poem that the latter wrote to Bahadur Shah Zafar, pleading for a monthly pension, instead of a bi-annual one. It is a hilarious glimpse into the desperation of a poet with expensive pastimes. “It was Kunal’s request that I read Ghalib today; and I have deliberately chosen a nazm that shows Ghalib’s personality in totality,” explained Shah, clearly amused with Ghalib’s poetic tactics to extract a better pay packet.

Judging by the enthusiastic turnout for this session of poetry, with people, old and young, having lined up outside for more than an hour, who would say poetry is dead?

But, perhaps, you need the likes of a self-confessed onomatomaniac like Shah to keep it alive. And a theatre like Prithvi to stage it.

(The writer is an independent journalist and author of biographies on Madhubala and Dev Anand.)

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