And the show goes on...

theatre talk

And the show goes on...

“Prithvi is the tallest theatre in the country where every actor, however small or big, wants to step on its stage at least for five minutes in his or her lifetime!” says veteran actor Om Katare of Yatri theatre group. The theatre has staged over 5,000 shows and nearly 60 productions, echoing the sentiments of every theatrewallah in the country. The undying yearning to be on Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre, be it as an actor, director, scriptwriter, musician or a technician, is akin to performer’s nirvana.

Even the audience has developed a craving for the snugly-built Prithvi Theatre. There is a dream-like feeling on the premises of the building, located in a small bylane of Juhu, a western suburb of Mumbai. There is something very romantic even in the address — ‘near Janaki Kutir’. The word ‘kutir’ in a metropolis like Mumbai sounds charming. People from far and near like to saunter inside the theatre premises and imbibe the abundant creativity oozing from it.

Lovable hub

In fact, Prithvi Theatre has become a cultural hub among theatre lovers. They say you can identify the theatre regulars from afar, which one can’t say of other theatre regulars in cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Pune or Bengaluru, where even though live theatre performances are quite active, the feeling of belonging is lacking.

“A fact we find depressing is that even after 37 years of successfully running a theatre that only houses theatre performances (no corporate events/ discourses/ meetings of any kind) six days a week, and proving that this model works, there has been no other theatre like this. The only two theatres I personally am aware of, that have genuinely tried, are in Bengaluru — Ranga Shankara and Jagriti Theatre,” says Kunal Kapoor, one of the trustees of Prithvi Theatre and son of the founder members, actor Shashi Kapoor and his wife, the late Jennifer Kendal. The reason for this belonging to Prithvi Theatre or a feeling of oneness is perhaps because the theatre belongs to the first family of Hindi cinema — the Kapoors. It’s their interest, their dedication and passion for theatre that has made this theatre an icon.

Initially it was conceptualised by the doyen of the Kapoor family, Prithviraj Kapoor, way back in 1944, as Prithvi Theatre Group. There were no premises, but the group was very active and successful. Though the first play of the group was mythological, titled Shakunatala, its plays later — like Deewar, Ghaddar, Pathan, Kisaan — were more contemporary, keeping in mind the subjects according to the need of the time, which also paved the way for the popularity of the group with the masses. A total of 2,662 shows were put up within a period of 16 years. And the doyen played the lead role in all the plays.

Unfortunately, the theatre was forced to close down following the ill health and death of Prithviraj Kapoor. A couple of years later, in 1975, his youngest son,  Shashi, and Shashi’s wife Jennifer Kapoor, decided to revive the theatre and form Shri Prithviraj Kapoor Memorial Trust and Research Foundation. Jennifer, who had a strong theatre background (her parents ran a successful travelling theatre company called Shakespeareana), was the strongest pillar in reviving the theatre.

The couple’s passion for theatre urged them to build one on par with the best theatres abroad. For this they hired a young architect, Ved Segan, and sent him on a study tour to centres in England and other European countries with theatre activities. On his return, both Jennifer and Segan worked closely and constructed one of the best theatres in India. The present theatre structure was opened up for theatre lovers in 1978 and soon wooed the audiences under its fold.

In Mumbai, there are several theatres — National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Dinanath Mangeshkar Hall, Patkar Hall and Nehru Centre. But theatrewallahs always complain about lack of venues that are affordable, practical and professionally managed. Kunal explains, “Newer theatres are being built, but they are either too big, badly designed and lack proper infrastructure/management or cater to everything other than the performing arts and audiences.”

But at Prithvi, things are different. Everything — acoustics, air conditioning, lighting, dressing rooms, gallery and, of course, the best Irish coffee with special brownies of Prithvi café — is great. When it comes to performance and viewing, the intimate ambience of the stage is something not seen elsewhere. The pentagonal-shaped wooden stage extends amidst the audience, making performance and  viewing both profound and dynamic.

Audience can actually see every expression on the faces of the actors and also feel the emotions. “It’s not only the place to be in if you belong to the theatre fraternity, but to perform at Prithvi is a privilege,” asserts Lillete Dubey, an actor of all three mediums — theatre, TV and films. Dubey has directed plays and also performed here.

Under theatre’s wings

Stage stalwarts like Satyadev Dubey, Girish Karnad, Zohra Sehgal, Amol Palekar, Dinesh Thakur, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Ratna Pathak, Deepti Naval, Shabana Azmi, Nadira Babbar, Farooq Sheikh, Anupam Kher et al have been part of Prithvi either on the stage or behind the stage. Theatre groups like Yatri (Om Katare), Ansh (Makrand Deshpande), Ank (late Dinesh Thakur) and several others were born and flourished in the portals of Prithvi Theatre. In fact, every February 28 since 1985, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain has been holding musical concerts here. Theatre lovers in Mumbai wait for the annual Prithvi Theatre Festival as do children for every summer to attend the Summer Theatre.

So, any talk of theatre losing out to its more glittering siblings like cinema and TV is brushed aside by Prithvi Theatre. As Kumal says, “Look at the reality — it was said cinema would kill theatre, then TV would kill cinema! Yet, today, we not only have more TV channels than ever, but both cinema and theatre continue to thrive. Each has its unique experience which cannot be replicated, and we humans always want to go out and be entertained! Last year, Prithvi Theatre had 635 shows with an average audience of 80 per cent of the house! This was more than ever before!”

“Prithvi is like home for us. We can walk in, freshen up, eat, sleep on the premises, discuss our work and even hold impromptu meetings,” says Om Katare. Indeed.

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