Twenty-four-year-old Ajitesh Gupta has always loved the theatre, performing regularly on his college stage as a student in Pune. In 2010, while still a student, he visited Mumbai for his first-ever performance at Prithvi theatre in Juhu.
“Everything about it, from the small size of the 200-seat auditorium to its amphitheatre-like layout just made me come alive,” he said. “I had never performed in a space where the level of intimacy with the audience was so high. That connection with the audience is what makes Prithvi unique.”
Gupta, now a professional theatre actor, lives in Mumbai and finds himself returning to Prithvi four or five times a week, sometimes to rehearse, perform or watch a play, and sometimes just to sit back in the iconic café and meet other people who love the stage.
It was exactly this kind of space that actors Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor set out to create, when they built Prithvi in 1978, as a tribute to Shashi’s father, the late thespian Prithviraj Kapoor.
It was Shashi’s way of fulfilling his father’s dream: to build a space that theatre artists could call home; a space for experimentation and passion, where people went not for fame or commercial success, but because there was a story they had to tell.
“My grandfather had always dreamed of having his own theatre company. After he died, my dad wanted to keep that dream alive, so he bought this plot in Juhu and decided to run a professional theatre,” said trustee Kunal Kapoor, 55. “They builtPrithvi as a non-profit entity meant solely to promote theatre.”
Nearly four decades on, Prithvi continues that legacy, offering space to new playwrights, young actors and experimental forms of the art form.
“Prithvi Theatre has grown because it allows amateur performers, directors and artists to experiment with new styles and showcase their skills. This has attracted many youngsters to join in — either as participants, or in the audience,” said Kunal. “Most importantly, we never went commercial, and that has kept the spirit of the enterprise alive.”
Kunal has been managing Prithvi since 2011, when his sister Sanjna founded her own theatre company, Junoon. He has been a trustee since the death of his mother, Jennifer, in 1984.
Prithvi stages plays throughout the year, from Tuesday to Sunday, with 600 shows held last year. “We do not rent the space out for events, corporate shows or parties,” said Kunal.
People come for the plays, and stay for the crowd. “We come here to watch plays, and after that we sit, discuss — performers and audience alike. It’s always lovely to walk out after performing your show and see the audience still lingering in the café, talking,” said actor, writer and director Makarand Deshpande. “Often, they might wait to have a chat with the actors themselves, to discuss what they didn’t understand, liked or didn’t like.”
Also on the agenda at Prithvi are Urdu literature, music, independent films, and a sustained effort to bring in the young ones, through programmes such as the annual ‘Summertime at Prithvi’ children’s workshops. Prithvi also periodically conducts workshops for amateurs in acting, lighting, designing and other aspects of theatre production.
“We have been performing here for 20 years. It is an intimate theatre space with wonderful facility for lights and acoustics that are just incredible,” said actor, writer and director Rajat Kapoor. “I wish there were more theatre spaces like this in the country.”