Six years on, What’s the big idea?


It’s garnered immense goodwill over the years among the theatre fraternity. But what has the Mahindra Theatre Festival actually achieved? Trisha Gupta finds out

Dazed? Staged this year, Dancing on Glass takes a look at the IT world in Bengaluru
Dazed? Staged this year, Dancing on Glass takes a look at the IT world in Bengaluru

AMONG THE PLAYS showcased at the sixth Mahindra Theatre Festival, just held in Delhi, was a production in English called Dancing on Glass. Written and directed by Ram Ganesh Kamatham, Dancing… is a scathing take on the IT world in Bengaluru. It also contains what the festival website describes as “some explicit language”. A few months ago, Kamatham’s play caught the eye of  The Guardian’s theatre blog. Having excitedly described its expletive-laden dialogue as “drawing gasps” from Delhi’s Habitat Centre audience, the blog went on to heap praises on Kamatham for placing a “darker and angrier vision of India on stage” than is done “in the West and by its own film industry”.

Much might be said for the play’s brutal energy and unabashed language. But The Guardian blogger hangs his appreciation on the idea that in “a cultural climate dominated by escapist Bollywood narratives [and] song-and dance routine[s]… realism can be every bit as shocking as the swearing.” The lazy, catch-all Bollywood bashing apart, this is precisely the sort of polemical — argument that often gets made about theatre in India — sometimes, sadly, by theatrewalas themselves. But it is a tiresome and inaccurate stance, one that only does disservice to the thing it wants to promote — because while realist, outspoken, angry, unmusical plays are part of the contemporary Indian theatre scene, there are as many that are fantastical or myth-inspired, tender, thoughtful or riotously musical. The brilliance of Indian theatre — if such a thing can be assumed — lies in its capaciousness.

Not having a ‘quota system’ means that cities and states with a thriving theatre scene send in more entries and are likely to get more plays in

It is this capacious spirit that the Mahindra Theatre Festival, instituted in 2006 in conjunction with the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META), seeks to embody. Plays staged have ranged from marvellous amalgams of literature, dance and music like Sangit Giribala (2008), Chetan Datar’s Marathi production based on Tagore’s short story Manabhanjan, to the affecting mime play Mirel Masingkha from Manipur, which won awards for Best Original Script and Best Sound Design in 2010. Plays that apply can be non-verbal and can include physical theatre, puppetry, multimedia and dance. Sanjoy Roy of Teamwork Films, whose team has been organising META since its inception, remembers an entry from Odisha last year that was taken from village to village by bicycle. While it didn’t make the final shortlist, the instance reveals an organisational vision inclusive and egalitarian enough to pit a practically unknown production from Kerala against a Girish Karnad play. After the inaugural year, when competing plays were first divided into “established” and “emerging” theatre, META has also done away with the seniority-based hierarchy that leads to competitions being limited to playwrights or directors under a certain age — like Mumbai’s Thespo. “The sifting process tries to showcase the best theatre and largely it succeeds,” says Mahesh Elkunchwar, Marathi playwright and META jury member for 2011.

Voice of reason Lillete Dubey hosts META Awards 2011
Voice of reason Lillete Dubey hosts META Awards 2011
Photo: Niha Masih

META’s “sifting process” is also unusual. Unlike most theatre festivals, including the National School of Drama’s (NSD) Bharat Rang Mahotsav in Delhi, the Prithvi Festival in Mumbai, or the Ranga Shankara Festival in Bengaluru, it is not based on invitations. “We started in 2006 by asking our selectors to send their recommendations, but since then, it’s been a democratic process, where any group can apply,” says Roy. Ten productions are shortlisted from hundreds of DVD recordings by a committee of theatre experts to perform at the festival in Delhi, where they are viewed by the public and by a special jury. Plays compete for honours in 13 categories, from Stage Design to Best Ensemble.

OF COURSE, not having a ‘quota system’ that ensures equitable regional representation means that states and cities with a thriving theatre scene send in more entries and are likely to get more plays in. Over the past six years, Kerala, Assam and Manipur have all been regularly represented, as have Meghalaya, Delhi, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The most consistently successful state, though, is Maharashtra, with plays from Mumbai and Pune often dominating the festival. The 2011 selection was particularly skewed, with five productions from Mumbai and two from Pune. “With seven plays from Maharashtra, people were joking the festival this year should be held in Mumbai,” laughs Mumbai-based director Akarsh Khurana, whose dark satire The Interview is one of the seven. “But really, Mumbai audiences have had a chance to see them, so it’s great that it’s in Delhi.”

‘Earlier, you had kings, now you have corporations. Why should there be an IPLonly in cricket? Why not in theatre?’ wonders Arundhati Nag

Maharashtra’s dominance at the META awards is perhaps not surprising. Apart from having successful commercial theatre in Marathi and Gujarati (and in Hindi and English, if in lesser numbers), Maharashtra regularly holds districtand state-level theatre competitions with state-sponsored awards. Though some other state governments like West Bengal and Manipur do give away theatre awards, as do corporations and smaller bodies devoted to the arts in some states, recognition and financial support for theatre in India is less than negligible. “Normally theatrepeople live in penury,” says Elkunchwar matter-of- factly. In the contemporary Indian scenario, where non-commercial theatre survives largely as a labour of love, the power of the financial reward cannot be underestimated. Though the sums are by no means large if you place them in the context of the contemporary cost of living in urban India — Best Production gets Rs. 1 lakh, Best Original Playwright, Rs. 75,000, and the 11 other awards Rs. 35,000 each — the money is a bounty for most Indian practitioners. “META is the only thing that has given the experimental theatrewala some money,” says a grateful Manav Kaul, whose remarkable plays have won awards almost every year.

FOR LESSER-KNOWN groups, it is the prestige of competing at the national level that makes META a lifealtering experience. The excitement of performing to a full house at Delhi’s Kamani or Shri Ram Center auditorium is palpable, especially in those who do not work in urban metropolitan contexts — even if, like Bidyawati Phukan, director of last year’s award-winning Guti Phulor Gamosa, their performances regularly gather crowds of thousands. Phukan, whose group UTSA lives and works out of Namaithang, a village near Assam’s border with Arunachal, remembers the META experience warmly. “It was wonderful to meet other groups, and people like Boman Irani and MS Sathyu. And the awards inspired our group to work harder.” For Dr Yumnam Sadananda Singh of Manipur’s Kanglei Mime Theatre Company, META brought rare exposure. “We were invited to the NSD festival in January. It was packed. Many couldn’t get tickets. Now we are doing shows in Kolkata and Kerala.”

In great measure, the immense tide of goodwill generated by META and the Mahindra festival over the past six years is an index of how starved theatre, like the arts in India in general, is for both funding and recognition. “Any form of support for theatre can only be lauded,” says Neelam Mansingh Chowdhury, who runs the critically-acclaimed Chandigarh- based theatre group The Company and is a META jury member for 2011. Theatrepeople seem almost resigned to the fact that there is little space for critical (or any) coverage of theatre in a media culture so dominated by popular cinema. “There seems even less coverage than 10 years ago,” muses Mansingh. “But the play in the context of the festival gets covered at least.” “Theatre may or may not draw large audiences, may not have any visible returns in terms of a spotlight on the sponsors,” concurs Anuradha Kapur, director of NSD and co-jury member. But while most theatrepeople are deeply grateful for the existence of a META, it is far from filling the enormous and urgent need that exists. “There is absolutely no reason to be apologetic in demanding State support,” says Kapur. “The world’s best, most cutting-edge theatre, German or British, subsists on State funding.” Sanjoy Roy points out that the arts in India function despite — not because of — government policies. “It is not handing out money for charity, but an investment in the wealth of the nation, in creativity. And creative arts like theatre also provide a platform for the discontented voice: we see it in plays from the Northeast every year.” Clearly there is a great deal more that needs to be done, and no shortage of ideas about directions from which change can come. And almost every theatreperson you ask has tens of them — taking theatre festivals to smaller towns, instituting permanent repertory companies that might afford a viable livelihood to theatre practitioners, building affordable theatres in every Indian city. What makes META special is that it has had the gumption to go beyond the small-scale ambitions with which theatre in this country is taught to be content. Perhaps what is needed is to think even bigger. Arundhati Nag, 2011 jury member and founder of Bengaluru’s remarkable theatre hub, Ranga Shankara, is not being facetious when she says corporates have a duty to patronise theatre: “Earlier, you had kings, now you have corporations. Why should there be an IPL only in cricket? Why not in theatre?”


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