This New Year’s eve, Shivaji Mandir, Mumbai’s landmark Marathi theatre near Dadar’s Kabutar Khaana, shut well before midnight. Gone are the days when it used to host special night shows and even orchestras to ring in the new year.
The board outside its blink-and-you-miss-it entrance had listed two shows on that day: A morning show of the suspense-ridden Ek Shunya Teen and an evening show of the comedy play All The Best. But nothing for the night. “We used to have orchestras perform on New Year’s Eve earlier. But people watch all that on TV now so we have stopped those shows,” says Shashikant Bhalekar, president of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Smarak Mandal, which runs the theatre that opened on May 3, 1965.
The theatre remains a landmark for the older generation of Mahashtrians in the city, who lined up in droves to watch plays by the likes of Prahlad Keshav Atre (Acharya Atre), Prabhakar Panshikar and Vasant Kanetkar.
“Before the auditorium was built on this plot, it was a ground mainly used for wrestling matches,” says Bhalekar. “Around 1960, it was turned into an open-air theatre, one of many in the area, where travelling theatre companies performed often. Eventually it was turned into one of Dadar’s first closed auditoriums,” he says.
It isn’t the oldest one though — Damodar Hall in Parel was already in existence.
Nowadays, shows are scheduled mostly for Sunday evening. “Earlier, this was one of the few auditoriums that staged Marathi plays in the city. People from as far away as Borivli would come to watch plays here. Now, auditoriums have cropped up everywhere, so people don’t feel the need to come all the way,” Bhalekar says. The shift in the Maharashtrian population, from Dadar to the suburbs may have contributed as well.
“Textile mill workers used to be our best audience,” says Bhalchandra Naik, who has worked at the theatre for the past 35 years. Most mills in the city were concentrated in Parel and Dadar. “We would have three time slots, in the morning, afternoon and evening. They would come in droves after their shifts and fill up the back rows, especially our balcony seats. Once the mills shut, they stopped coming. Now the front rows may be full, but the back rows remain empty,” Naik says.
Comedy plays by popular television and film actors like Prashant Damle and Bharat Jadhav, still run to full houses. “The college-going crowd really enjoys such plays and makes up most of the audience,” says Hari Patankar, who has been working at the theatre’s box office for more than 25 years.
“The audience has also changed tremendously over the years,” says Patankar. “Earlier, going to the theatre would be an event. The men would be well turned out, the women in their best saris, with a shawl to keep them warm in the winter — it was an amazing sight. Now, it is all very casual,” he says. A ticket would cost you anywhere between Rs100 and Rs300.
But with audiences deserting most such small theatres in the city, making money has not been easy. Maratha Mandir has leased out its property to a book shop, among other establishments.
“We are competing with television. Why would people spend money on travel and tickets to come to a theatre, when what is on offer is available to them at the flick of a button. A while ago, night shows featuring orchestras would do very well in our theatre, but they couldn’t compete with the musical reality shows broadcast almost every evening on television,” Bhalekar says.
Its 50th anniversary celebrations, however, was attended by the likes of chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and NCP leader Sharad Pawar. A reminder, perhaps, that Shivaji Mandir is far from forgotten.