An icon called Prithvi


Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai is iconic for several reasons. It has become a coveted space for Hindi and English theatre, encouraging drama of diverse sensibilities and hues. The cafeteria there is also no less a legend, exclaims Nikhil Katara, as he describes Prithvi’s journey.

The Prithvi theatre in the small gullies inside a residential complex of Juhu, is an unassuming space when someone walks past it in the morning. But if one were to walk past the same space when the sun goes down, a certain transformation occurs. Just like a fantasy, the place transforms into the signature of art. A myriad number of lights paint the walls, and the cafeteria is abuzz with food and people, and as all of this happens a small bell rings at the back. What is that sound? Is it a call? But who is calling? What happens inside? Is it a performance that is about to begin? There are many questions. Perhaps the answers lie in the story of the space itself.

A journey of passion
The theatre began its journey well before the foundation was laid. Prithviraj Kapoor established the Prithvi theatre traveling company in the 1940s. With a small ensemble he toured and played multiple roles, while keeping a small dream inside him. The dream was to find a home for his company. In the troupe was his own son who saw the dream grow. Shashi Kapoor, the youngest of Prithviraj’s children grew his skills and talents as an actor as the wheels of Prithvi theatre travelled. In his traves he met Jessica Kendal, and found a partner for life. There joined another protagonist in the story of Prithvi theatre. As Prithviraj Kapoor grew older, his dream of finding a home for the theatre led him to book a piece of land in Juhu. But that land remained silent for a decade till Prithviraj breathed his last. But that was not the end of Prithvi’s story, on the contrary, it was just about to begin. For, Shashi and Jennifer took on the dream of their father, just when the lease of the space had expired. They bought it, built it, and grew it with passion.

Through this tiny wormhole of time that made Prithvi grow in its legacy, hundreds of plays were staged, hundreds of performers found home for their talents, and hundreds of voices were heard. But then the protagonist passed away. Jennifer Kapoor had left and Prithvi’s stage was empty in the year 1982. But did the show stop that day? The answer is a simple, unequivocal, ‘No’. The lights lit up, the sound geared up, and the bell rang to usher in the audiences that came and witnessed another night of the Prithvi dream. For now, the reverie had found its way from one generation to the second and from the second to the third. Each generation bringing in a new vigour, fighting a new conflict, and bringing in a new resolution as the passage of time went on. Kunal Kapoor, Shashi and Jennifer’s son took over the reins and was then followed by Sanjana Kapoor, his sister, as the Prithvi story, turned into a legend.

Also, food for the soul!
The legend of Prithvi still survives, and is perhaps one amongst the few who grow every night as its lights light the stage. But is that all there is to the Prithvi story? Is it all about theatre? The answer to that is also ‘No’. Believe it or not, but there are many people who have made their way all the way to Prithvi but have never entered inside to watch a play. Why would anyone do that? Perhaps the answer lies in Prithvi’s cafeteria. Its food and its drink has satiated many, so much so that they’d come to the theatre with the sole and single minded purpose of feeding themselves.

Prithvi also harbours a small bookshop, and while not much is usually spoken about it, it needs a mention in this narrative of Prithvi. It is one amongst the few bookshops in the country which boasts of a rich collection of plays. These plays aren’t easily found, not even in the biggest bookstores of Mumbai, and hence this small shack of books is a vital addition.

The story of Prithvi is important in the cultural context of Mumbai as a city. The slow shaping of the cultural landscape of India happens after every performance. That the performances happen in Hindi, English, and a host of other languages, makes Prithvi’s story not just one man’s dream, but a beautiful gift for the entire humanity, and as the lights go out in the night sky of Mumbai. A certain small road in the twists and turns of Juhu lights up, and in the shadows one can see the stories of all the generations that watch another night of theatre. One sees the dreams of an artist, still alive on the stage.

Nikhil Katara

Nikhil Katara initiated his journey as a writer with his own production titled The Unveiling, a science fiction drama in the year 2011. To strengthen critical learning he initiated an MA programme in ‘Philosophy’ at the Mumbai university with optionals in Kant, Greek Hellinistic Philosophy, Feminism, Logic and Existentialism. His play Yatagarasu opened at Prithvi Theatre in 2016. He is a consultant facilitator at J’s paradigm (a novel performance arts institute) and writes book reviews for the Free Press Journal.