Shashi Kapoor will be conferred the Dadasaheb Phalke award, it was announced last week, for his rich contribution to Indian cinema. What the award citation might not mention is a prime plot of land that he gave away four decades ago. It lies by the Arabian Sea, and is home to Prithvi Theatre. It is where Mumbai’s soul resides.
In a city where living space is at an unimaginable premium, more valuable in many cases than family ties and life itself, Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendall decided in 1978 to use the land they purchased to build a theatre. An intimate chamber where audiences sit, tightly packed on tiered benches that surround a thrust stage, the theatre was designed to both heighten the pleasure of the communal viewing experience, and serve the needs of the artists. Prithvi offers theatre groups top-notch technical facilities, space for rehearsals and, crucially, subsidised rentals. It enables them to develop professional standards and provides a platform for diverse voices.
Over time, a bookshop, an open air café, an art gallery and controlled ticket prices all helped create a warm, inclusive cultural space. By consciously keeping prices down for both artists and audiences, the theatre has chosen a more financially fragile path, to ensure that everyone feels welcome, regardless of background or economic status. As young people today might say, incredulously, “Who does that?” At the other end of Mumbai, the legendary Café Samovar, located in Jehangir Art Gallery, will shut down for good this week.
It has, like Prithvi, played an invaluable role in providing space for painters, writers, filmmakers, philosophers and assorted contrarians to meet, share, introspect, express, agree, disagree, work and play. These institutions are reminders of a time when Mumbai was called Bombay and the city had not yet been perverted by the twisted practitioners of identity politics. Prithvi and Samovar are among the last bastions of the warm, egalitarian, secular spirit that used to be this city’s proudest achievement.
As the few remaining spaces that gave Mumbai its soul start to fade into history — you can add Irani bakeries, mom-and-pop bookstores, and vernacular theatres to the list — it’s hard not to fear for what we are losing as our cities get gentrified, and asked to emulate Shanghai or Shenzhen.
Sure, we could do with such modern marvels as footpaths, parks, and waste management in Mumbai. But are we so besotted with exotic coffees served in luxurious lounges that we are willing to give up on grungy little cultural hubs that seem a little off-kilter? How do you place a value on breathing spaces where you can get away from the frenzy of everyday life and lose yourself? Will our children ever know the pleasures of pudina chai and mooli parathas in cafés done up with kites, lanterns and flimsy chatais that can’t keep the monsoon rains out?
The values and sensibilities that places like Prithvi and Samovar stand for — openness, inclusivity, simplicity, an absence of pretension, and a quirky, earthy, accommodating Indian spirit — are increasingly anachronistic in a city that is being redefined by the homogenising influences of global capitalism. We’re bringing up a generation of children who think of malls as play areas instead of seeing them as sites of cultural homicide.
The 18th century writer Samuel Johnson once said, “A great city is, to be sure, the school for studying life.” If we want our kids to be more curious, more empathetic, less susceptible to consumerist status games, we need to fight for inclusive public and cultural spaces that will infuse our cities with the humanities, the sciences and most crucially, the arts. (Imagine Indian cities with public space for buskers to play music outdoors, for artists to paint.)
As we plan for the creation of a hundred new cities, and the upgrade of existing ones, incentives need to be provided to ensure that secular, fertile and vibrant spaces can thrive. These settings serve as symbols of collective well-being and possibility. They are also where expressions of achievement, frustration and aspiration find utterance. By allowing the inhabitants of a city, across class divides, to participate in such expressions, they provide opportunities to vent, empathise, collaborate, and resolve.
Our chaotic, grotesquely unequal cities don’t make it easy to participate in much of anything at present. Unlike the West, where a widespread appreciation of the value of public and cultural spaces has had time to take root, we need concerted government and private sector support to make such spaces viable in India.
From empty land, we build cities. In these cities, we forge relationships, find purpose, expand our horizons, and construct meanings. Inclusive cultural spaces that allow us to slow down, reflect, connect, learn and create are priceless. Without them, our cities are nothing but concrete wastelands.
The writer is a consumer researcher and part of the founding team at Junoon Theatre