DB Biswas writes about the vibrant art that permeates the NCPA—evident in both the scintillating performances the centre hosts and the breathtaking architecture that is woven into its fabric
Post independence, there were visionaries who foresaw the need for a culture centre in India and put forth a proposal to build a pioneering institution in the area of Arts and Humanities. They were JRD Tata and Dr Jamshed Bhabha—the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) was born out of his vision, which he eloquently put forth in a letter to the Dorabji Tata Trust.
As the Trust came forward with the necessary funds, land had to be procured for the new institution. In view of the shortage of land in Bombay (now Mumbai), in 1965, the Government of Maharashtra proposed that the arts centre be built near the Ajanta Caves. Dr Bhabha rejected this idea, favouring a citycentre location that would be accessible to all. He came up with the ingenious idea of reclaiming land from the sea, opening up a site of eight acres at the very edge of the city.
A Little Dream is Born
Inaugurated on May 5, 1975, the Little Theatre is a proscenium theatre suitable for music, dance and video projection. It was acoustically designed as a recording studio. With its 114-seat multipurpose auditorium, and state-of-the-art recording studio and listening area, the Little Theatre is an ideal platform for showcasing talented young musicians, dancers and poets. It is designed to provide excellent facilities for film screenings, talks and seminars.
The brainchild of the celebrated American Modernist architect Philip Johnson, and worldfamous acoustician Cyril Harris, the Tata Theatre first opened its doors in 1982 and is the city’s premier venue for Indian classical concerts, Western chamber music and theatre today.
It is a theatre without a proscenium and is built as an amphitheatre. The theatre is a distinctive 1,010-seater that combines the ambience of a small-scale venue with the grandeur and technical capabilities of a full-scale arena. With its unique auditorium layout for maximum intimacy, a revolving stage, twomanual pipe organs, outstanding acoustics and magnificent foyer with views that frame the sea, it brings out the very best in performers and audiences alike.
This single structure comprises three buildings (separated by expansion joints) with separate pile foundations down to the rock base. The buildings are linked together by a mastic compound to keep out the wind and the rain. The design takes into account the fact that although airborne sounds can be kept out of the auditorium by heavy acoustically-treated doors, there is no way of excluding structure-borne sounds except by completely separating the central building holding the auditorium from the connecting buildings that abutt the access roads.
Thus, the entrances to the theatre (along with its booking offices and toilets) is housed in a separate building that has its own pile foundations, so that even if a road drill were to be used or a heavy vehicle were to move on the road, no resulting sound or vibrations would be transmitted into the auditorium.
Theatre, the Tata Way
The fan-shaped auditorium is divided into five equal segments of 208 seats each, adding up to a total audience capacity of 1,040 seats, except when the first row of 30 seats is taken out to extend the stage to accommodate a full visiting symphony orchestra. The ceiling of the auditorium is made of pyramidal forms of highdensity compressed plaster, alternatively convex and concave, radiating from the central column on the stage to the outer walls.
These forms had to be handmade because of their varying sizes and were lifted into position. The pyramidal forms serve the invaluable purpose of ensuring the even distribution of sound from the stage, so that the acoustics in any place in any part of the auditorium is virtually as good as another. Discreet slits are provided for the air conditioning inlets, to further add to the auditorium’s aesthetics.
Cyril Harris stipulated that in this auditorium, even when empty, there should be absolutely no sound of the air-conditioning. His condition has been executed to perfection, with great attention to detail.
Not only is the air-conditioning plant remotely located and acoustically isolated, but the cooling capacity of the equipment is also far larger than normally provided for a theatre of this size. So this cool air is not blown into the theatre with the customary velocity, but is allowed to fall noiselessly from the ceiling.
An Experimental Success
The Experimental Theatre was launched in 1986 as an intimate venue. Its unique ‘black box’ auditorium is ideal for staging new drama as well as small-scale contemporary dance and music performances. Exceptionally versatile, the Experimental Theatre’s 300 movable seats can be reconfigured to suit a wide variety of events, making it a flexible performance, teaching and workshop space.
The theatre comprises an air-conditioned, acoustically-treated auditorium with a floor area of 3,300 sq. ft and height of 33 ft. Its seating and performing area units are made of modules that can easily be placed in different ways to create versatile, viable arrangements and capacities. The seating and staging units are predesigned and pre-fabricated to facilitate easy handling and storage. Thus, it is possible to stage any type of performance here, from the conventional 'proscenium-type’ to one requiring complex, asymmetrical and off-beat arena settings. The auditorium’s ceiling is devoid of any decorations, but is fitted with a steel framework to accommodate the lighting arrangements desired by the Drama Director.
The arrangement accords complete freedom for innovative stage décor and sets, against a completely neutral background. This ceiling grid-frame joins hands with a catwalk system to provide total flexibility for modularised lighting and prop facilities, and serve as an additional incentive for innovation. Additional balconies with 50 seats each are mounted on three sides, at a height of 13 feet.
An Ode to Dance
The Dance Theatre Godrej was founded in 1987, keeping in mind the needs and requirements of dancers. With just 200 seats, this intimate space offers the audience a focused and absorbing perspective on live dance performances. It is also a fine venue to conduct master classes, dance and music workshops, film screenings, lectures and seminars.
Crafting the Founder’s Dream
Established in 1999, the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre is a 1,109-seat, proscenium auditorium. The theatre is capable of presenting a wide array of technically-complex performances, ranging from galas to fully-staged operas. Equipped with modern stagecraft, excellent acoustics and sightline suitable for productions of opera, ballet, musicals and large-scale corporate shows, the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre is the cornerstone for large-scale events held in South Asia. It boasts of a spectacular double-level foyer with a historic marble staircase.
The theatre’s advanced technical facilitiesincluding an orchestra pit, acoustic shell and large-scale staging capacity with modern backstage facilities—enable it to host international productions of opera, ballet, large symphony concerts, major musicals and theatre on a grand scale. It is also a fine venue for spectacular Indian dance performances. It has also been used for various other shows.
Devoted to Drama
Based in Nariman Point-Mumbai’s thriving downtown business district that nestles on the shores of the Arabian Sea—the NCPA is sprawled over a large campus spanning 27,000 square metres that offers flexible facilities to suit virtually every cultural activity.
The entire NCPA complex, comprising the five theatres, three gardens, galleries and other open spaces, has been conceptualised and designed by Indian architect Rustom BJ Patell of M/s Patell, Batliwala, Manohar and Associates.
However, Philip Johnson and John Burgee collaborated as consulting architects to design Tata Theatre, with Mr Patell as the associate architect in this venture.
The NCPA’s five state-of-the-art theatres, photography gallery and extensive archival and library facilities enables it to present more than 500 events each year, across all major art forms.
The NCPA also encompasses four beautiful open-air venues with capacities ranging from 50 to 1,000. These versatile spaces can be adapted for a wide variety of events, creating dynamic performance spaces or an inspirational setting for presentations, receptions, seminars and lecturing, among other things.
The author is Technical Head and Joint Director at NCPA