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Prithvi Theatre: Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor’s enduring legacy

The Prithvi Theatre complex does not have gates. It is because, as Shashi Kapoor once told me, a theatre should be an open and welcoming space, willing to embrace all ideas and people, and make them its own.

opinion Updated: Dec 12, 2017 17:28 IST
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Sanjna Kapoor with her father, the late Shashi Kapoor and brother Kunal Kapoor (right) at the Prithvi Cafe in Mumbai. Prithvi Theatre was founded by Shashi Kapoor and his wife Jennifer Kapoor in 1978. After their mother’s death, Sanjna and Kunal built on their parents’ work with performance calendars, associations and sponsorships. (Vijayanand Gupta / HT Photo)

Over and above the innumerable iterations of the charming chocolate-boy lover in mainstream Hindi cinema, the unforgettable phrase “mere paas maa hai” in the film Deewar (1975) and the gems of meaningful cinema to which he committed his money, Shashi Kapoor has left behind a splendid legacy: Prithvi Theatre.

For culture patrons, Prithvi is the place that feeds the soul with plays, poetry, readings, book discussions, children’s theatre, music concerts, experimental performing arts, and an international theatre festival. For the established and experimental practitioners of Hindi and English theatre, Prithvi is home, a place where they will be nurtured and showcased with pride. For travelling troupes, a temporary home; for budget theatre, a stage.

For artistes, Prithvi is where pretences can be dropped and interactions with audiences and artistes can become rich. Here’s where Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Nadira Zaheer Babbar, Dinesh Thakur, Makarand Deshpande, Sunil Shanbag showed – and continue to show – their work. For struggling actors, Prithvi is the space to hang out, network and display their talent. For children, it’s an address for plays and workshops.

For music aficionados, it is among the best baithak-style spaces in the city. On special nights such February 28, the maestro Ustad Zakir Husain unveils the music evening, which he curates and performs in an intimate and acoustically sophisticated environment. It’s his gift to the late Jennifer Kapoor who passed away that day in 1984.

Every year, Shashi Kapoor would be at the Prithvi, welcoming invitees and making notes of new ideas without caring about his star status. In later years, he would still be there in his wheelchair, smiling, waving and allowing selfies. His special chair would be wheeled in after the last bell and placed near an exit. Till recently, he was there on the opening nights of plays. Prithvi was his and Jennifer’s space, a legacy they built for their parents: Prithviraj Kapoor and Laura-Geoffrey Kendall.

Prithvi is a small auditorium, accommodating only 200-220 people. Tickets are priced under Rs 500, seating is on a first-come-first-served basis, and new groups can afford slots. The complex is a low structure with an eclectic bookshop and has a café skirting around a half of the building. Yet, it stands there defiantly in upscale Juhu, the address of some of India’s most wealthy and iconic personalities. Prithvi isn’t as pretentious or snooty as the National Centre for Performing Arts tends to be. Prithvi has inspired innovative theatre and music artistes to replicate the idea in other places.

All this might not have been possible without Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor’s dedication, money, time and energy. Prithviraj Kapoor had a travelling repertory called Prithvi Theatres since 1944. By the 1960s, his drama productions had completed more than 2,600 shows and he wanted a “home” for the troupe. The state leased him the plot in Juhu but Kapoor could not build anything before he passed away in 1972.

Shashi and Jennifer took the plunge. He had been an intrinsic part of his father’s theatre company. Jennifer’s legacy came from her parents, the Kendall’s, renowned drama company, Shakespearana. The theatre was their shared dream. Much hard work later, the Prithvi Theatre opened in 1978. After their mother’s death, Sanjna and Kunal built on their parents’ work.

The Prithvi Theatre complex does not have gates. It is because, as Shashi Kapoor once told me, a theatre should be an open and welcoming space, willing to embrace all ideas and people, and make them its own.

Come rain or shine, the lights come on at Prithvi every evening (except Mondays). They did even on February 28, 1984, when Jennifer passed away. Shashi Kapoor wanted it that way. He breathed his last on December 4. The lights stayed off. His special place near the exit will be vacant from now but his spirit remains in Prithvi.

Smruti Koppikar is an independent journalist

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 12, 2017 17:28 IST