On November 5, 1978, Prithvi Theatre Workshop opened its doors to the audience for the first time with the theatre group Majma staging the play Udhwast Dharmshala, featuring Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah. “I don’t have memories of the performance but I do remember that for the first time we had a jam-packed house for our show, which was a Hindi adaptation of GP Deshpande’s Marathi play,” recalls Shah.
Till the theatre came up at Janki Kutir in Mumbai, Shah and his fellow theatre practitioners would present their experimental productions to a handful audience at Chhabildas School, a small auditorium at the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai, or colleges. Prithvi Theatre, which was built by Jennifer and Shashi Kapoor in memory of thespian Prithviraj Kapoor, tried to change that by creating an audience for theatre by staging a show every night, barring Mondays, as well as giving space to young theatre practitioners. “Prithvi Theatre is probably the only theatre that’s built without the intention of making money. It’s meant to help young theatre people who could not afford any other space to perform,” says Shah.
Exactly 40 years later, on the evening of November 5, the 68-year-old thespian will be on stage at Prithvi Theatre, acting in The Truth, a play by Florian Zeller, which is directed by Ratna Pathak Shah and scratches the surface of post-modern morality. The play will be staged as part of the annual Prithvi Theatre Festival, which will begin on November 3 at Royal Opera House, with the premiere of a revived production of Deewar, a play originally co-written and directed by Prithviraj Kapoor. The latest production of Deewar, a fascinating allegory of colonisation and partition, is directed by Sunil Shanbag. To conclude on November 12, the festival will also feature a western classical music concert by Symphony Orchestra of India, three premiere productions, nine fringe theatre productions and five talks.
The theatre’s renovation was in full swing prior to the festival. Amidst the flurry of activities, Kunal Kapoor, trustee of Prithvi Theatre, says: “Originally it started as Prithvi Theatre Workshop, since it was supposed to be a place where theatre artists would experiment with forms and play with their skills before they performed in theatres. Soon, Mom (Jennifer) was grumbling that there were not enough dates in a month to accommodate all; that’s something we are struggling with even now. She also realised that the space was running more like a theatre and decided to drop ‘workshop’ from its name.” A cafe and bookstore came up on its premises soon after.
Till date, the theatre has stuck to the key rules laid down by Jennifer. “Initially, Jennifer didn’t want to have the ticket system and we had to pass the hat around, asking for contributions. This system didn’t work but Jennifer stuck to her guns and introduced lower rates on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, at Rs 10. That system continues till today, even though the ticket costs Rs 175. The no latecomer allowed policy was also her idea,” says Shah.
Shanbag believes that whenever there has been such a nurturing space for theatre it has led to several initiatives. “Within some years of Prithvi Theatre’s opening, the number of theatre groups multiplied,” says the Mumbai-based thespian. He also points out that the theatre has played “a significant role in provoking and pushing boundaries”. Shanbag says, “That’s a very pro-active role. Prithvi Theatre has always seen itself as an integral part of the theatre community. One of its responsibilities has been to create situations were theatre-makers would be pushed to go beyond their comfort zone.”
There is one rule that the theatre has followed without fail. “The show carries on. Theatre must never go dark,” iterates Kunal, and adds “We never cancel a show”. When Jennifer passed away in 1984 in London, Kunal ensured that the theatre did not shut that day. A couple of years ago, Shah suffered severe back pain an hour prior to the staging of his play, A Walk in the Woods. “We offered to refund the tickets. We also quickly put together a performance of Sufi poetry and songs, and the entry was free,” recalls Kunal.
It has been a long struggle to make Prithvi Theatre a self-sustaining space in the absence of government grants and sponsorships. “I would consider it to be a huge achievement for the Kapoors that Prithvi continues to do what it has been doing. Prithvi is much too artistic to make money. There are no sponsors. That, in a way, is a good thing. It should be known as ‘Prithvi Theatre’ and not with a sponsor’s name attached to it. That would make Papaji (Prithviraj Kapoor) turn in his grave,” says Shah.