You cannot talk about Mumbai's theatre culture without a proper mention of Prithvi Theatre. The two are almost synonymous. The place holds such an important spot in the hearts of every theatre lover in the city, it's all at once, a home away from home, a temple, a school and a canvas. And this is exactly what Prithvi Theatre always set out to be – a haven for anyone and everyone who belongs to the stage, tucked away from suburban chaos and madness. The very moment you enter the lane that leads to Prithvi, a sense of calm and solitude starts descending upon you – you actually stop and listen to the birds chirping, a phenomenon that’s quite forgotten in Mumbai.
Prithvi Theatre was undertaken by Shashi Kapoor in memory of his late father, the renowned actor and theatre personality Prithviraj Kapoor in 1978. Prithviraj Kapoor had always harboured a dream of having a home for his repertory company Prithvi Theatres – a travelling theatre group formed in 1944.
Jennifer Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor's wife, helmed the construction and supervision of the building, until her untimely death in 1984. It is said that Jennifer took the architect of Prithvi on a tour of European theatres to get a deeper understanding of the kind of experience the place should offer. The theatre is now managed by siblings Sanjana and Kunal Kapoor.
The inside of the theatre is set up in a way that blurs the lines of distinction between the stage and the audience, making the theatre-watching experience much more intimate, almost reminiscent of old folk theatre. The theatre boasts of an amphitheatre, a wonderful cafe known for its soulful flautist, delicious Irish coffee and Suleimani chai, and a book shop – further reinforcing how each and every corner of this place is utilized to perfection and has inspiration and good vibes waiting for anyone who needs some. As Makarand Deshpande tells TOI, “Once you enter Prithvi, you don’t want to step out. That’s the magic of this place. It’s almost like home.”
One doesn’t even need to enter the theatre and catch a play or workshop, just sitting in the cafe and soaking in the eclectic ambiance is enough to set your creative juices flowing. Its informal setting that brings people from different walks of life under one roof to simply sit back and throw ideas back and forth, or just have a nice conversation.
But that’s not even half of what makes it so important to theatre-wallahs. It’s how dedicated it is towards sustaining and fostering the city’s theatre culture. It hosts theatre workshops for kids during the vacations, inculcating a love for theatre early on. Unlike most theatres across the country, there’s a play playing in Prithvi every single day. With tickets priced at nominal rates for performances by even the top groups, making it an obvious choice for art lovers, locals, college kids and younglings alike, thus adding to the eclectic mix one is always likely to find buzzing about here. Like actor and Prithvi regular Kumud Mishra aptly sums it up here, “Prithvi has inculcated the habit of going to a theatre and watching plays”.
Prithvi Theatre has never been about making profits, as much as it has been about giving utmost respect to the arts and a stage to those who love it more than anything else. It’s not an economically viable venture, compelling the management to resort to corporate patronage instead of disrupting their low rent and controlled ticket pricing. This, in turn, gave rise to a unique relationship where corporate patronage was woven intricately into a theatre movement, instead of leading to commercialization and loss of creative control.
The theatre doesn’t just host plays; there are platform performances in the foyer, workshops, film screenings, science discussions, book and poetry readings in the Prithvi House Building opposite the theatre. Additionally, it hosts the Summertime Festival for children, and the Prithvi Theatre Festival – the city’s most awaited theatre festival. Basically, there’s something for everyone.
Prithvi even has a memorial concert dedicated to the founder the Late Jennifer Kapoor, where Ustad Zakir Hussain plays along with some of the most eminent musicians.
Until this little theatre, there was no auditorium in Bombay that catered to Hindi theatre alone, let alone one that fosters a culture that’s so eclectic, so tightly knit and so loyal. Everyone knows the stage at Prithvi is sacred ground, where the best have performed and the future has been inspired. What makes it even more precious is that it’s not walled nor are its gates golden – everyone’s welcome, except, of course, those who walk in for a play late. But even these will find a friend in the cafe or solace in Guruji’s melodious flute music.