The 'new economy' constantly throws up a multiplicity of entrepreneurial ventures trying to solve the problems of modern India. By telling their stories I try to catch a glimpse of the entrepreneurial evolution that India is going through. I have a weakness for the gloss of novelty and chase it in all experiences, from exploring new cities and restaurants, to changing what I read.
Even as a young girl, Sanjna knew that she wanted to become an actor. Also that she had to do it one of two ways: “Either I had to learn on the job as most people in my family did. Or I had to go to school.” She chose the latter, and applied to acting schools in England after her class X exams. Her early attempts were unsuccessful but she managed to land a role in Ketan Mehta’s 1988 film Hero Hiralal opposite Naseeruddin Shah. “I clearly understood there that I didn’t have the tools and the wherewithal to act in a film,” she says. “And I would see Naseer and he always knew what to do.” So she applied to, and was accepted at New York’s Herbert Berghof Studio (HB Studio).
“It was lovely in New York,” she says. Nobody knew of her storied family heritage, or who her father was. “This was my rebellious phase. I was seeking anonymity knowing that it wasn’t possible in India.” Herbert Berghof, a prolific actor and one of America’s greatest acting teachers, was by then in his late 70s. He had built the studio with his wife, German actress Uta Hagen. Sanjna went there in 1986. When she opened the door to the studio, “the most extraordinary thing happened! The first thing I smelt, it wasn’t as much a smell as it was a sensation; I sensed Prithvi of the 1983 Prithvi Theatre Festival.” She speaks about this often, attributing this “sensation” to the fact that the studio was created by actors who loved their craft and needed to share it.
“I would love to build something like that,” she says of the simple brick structure within which the studio was housed. “For me, building something was always very important.”
It was in 1990, following her stint in New York, that Sanjna began to play a more active role at Prithvi. She did so, admittedly, “with great trepidation”. The legacy that she was an heir to was terrifying. “It was enriching in every way, but it was also scary.”
Sanjna, who was only 23 at the time, did not have any experience of running a theatre. What made it even more daunting was the fact that her mother had once run it. “I grew up with stories from Satyadev Dubey (actor and playwright) and Vinod Doshi (businessman) who had been around when my mum ran it for the first five years.” Jennifer, for instance, would talk to directors after the play was over, and give them feedback. “I didn’t do that,” says Sanjna. Instead, she did what came naturally to her: Building things.
“What we succeeded in doing there was creating a hub, an adda,” she says, giving the last word the emphasis that a theatre haunt deserves. When Prithvi first opened, Tyeb and Sakina Mehta ran its art gallery for a year. Sanjna revived that. “She was also instrumental in supporting new talent,” says writer-director Makarand Deshpande. “Back then, Prithvi would have a huge round of platform performances. They would happen outside Prithvi in several languages: Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, even Sanskrit.”
Her time at Prithvi also included an attempt to revive the travelling theatre format in which it originally existed. “That was always my mother’s dream, to have a travelling company. But it was something I wasn’t able to really ignite,” she admits. But it wasn’t for want of trying. “We did The Boy Who Stopped Smiling (a children’s play by Ramu Ramanathan), which did 200 shows. We also did Gaslight and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, directed by Rajat Kapoor.”
By 2002, Sanjna had been at Prithvi Theatre for about 12 years. It was then that she met Sameera Iyengar, a PhD in theatre from the University of Chicago (Sanjna was pregnant with son Hamir at the time). They had met once before, so Iyengar reintroduced herself. “I told her that I was looking for a job. She asked me what I had studied and I told her. She then said: Why don’t you come to Bombay? I said: You give me a job and I’ll come.” And she did. This would prove to be a “fortuitous” meeting. Iyengar had joined Prithvi at a time when Sanjna had begun to feel isolated. “Not always, because there were people I could talk to and bounce ideas off. But in that year (2013), I was feeling particularly alone,” says Sanjna.
It was also Prithvi Theatre’s 25th anniversary. Sanjna took the occasion as an opportunity to introspect. “Prithvi was built with a purpose. A purpose to improve engagement with theatre,” Sanjna recalls. “So I had all these questions: Had we done all that? Had we created an audience that was discerning or had we lost that audience?” This was also a time of rapid modernisation and there were repeated mentions of how Mumbai would become the next Shanghai. “Suddenly one was getting jhatkas about what people in power were trying to do to my city! I needed to claim my place here.” It brought about a change in her perspective, the implications of which, though not immediately apparent, would be significant.
There’s a tiger painted on a window which is hard to miss when you enter the compound of Sanjna’s house. The house is adorned with paintings depicting the tiger in sundry hues and shades. Valmik Thapar, Sanjna’s husband, is one of India’s best known tiger conservationists and has written 28 books about the jungle cat. “He has tried to build an ecosystem for the tiger,” she says.
In that, there are some fundamental points of convergence with her line of work. In 2011, Sanjna left Prithvi to embark on the appropriately named Junoon (which means passion) to create a sustainable ecosystem too: Hers, however, is for the arts.
Junoon was founded by Sanjna and Iyengar, and was, in many ways, born out of the feeling of isolation that she had felt all those years ago. Back in 2003, the annual Prithvi Theatre Festival had led to the creation of India Theatre Forum, a coming together of theatre people from across the country. Several experiments followed in the form of engagements with communities in places like Chembur and Dharavi in Mumbai, where people could experience and engage with theatre. “Where Sanjna and I matched really was in the desire to celebrate and share the richness of theatre in its multiplicity with its audiences,” says Iyengar. “With Junoon, the greatest joy is that we’re contributing to building a world where people must recognise that they have a need for theatre and the arts,” adds Sanjna.
With Mumbai Local, it invites artists to monthly “addas” where they share their experiences with audiences who can attend for free. Through its Arts At Play With Schools, Junoon offers a week-long programme in which students engage with a variety of art forms and interact with artists; this is present in 10 cities now.
This year, Junoon also intends to help enable local institutions to become better equipped to continue with these projects. “She has great organisational skills,” says Benegal, who is an advisor to Junoon. “What she has proved herself to be is a great cultural entrepreneur.”
The tag fits. While she is conscious of the business aspect, and insists on having an asset light model for the organisation, Sanjna measures success through people and how they’re affected by Junoon. “What we’d love to see are sharing opportunities like Mumbai Local, which allows artists to engage with people, sprouting in other places. In 10 years from now, we need to be able to say: Wow! That really worked.” In pursuit of these goals, the true assets that Junoon has, says Sanjna, include “the incredible community of artists across the country”.