Winners, Enter Stage Right

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The META Awards have transformed Delhi’s isolated theatre scene into a grand national event, finds Nishita Jha

The cast of Baghdad Wedding, winners of the META Best Ensemble
Take a bow: The cast of Baghdad Wedding, winners of the META Best Ensemble

RAVI DUBEY, chief impresario of the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) has a hard time every time he visits Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru or Patna these days. “Everyone in the country wants to know why META is partial to Delhi!” he guffaws over the phone. This preference, that was born partly because of Dubey’s own loyalty to the Taj Mansingh Hotel (where he was employed for 30 years prior to his current stint with the Mahindras), has managed to transform central Delhi’s khadi-clad isolated theatre scene into a grand national event.

While several corporates have begun to involve themselves in cultural events as a form of rebranding; theatre veterans see no conflict of ideals as long as the corporates concerned do not directly involve themselves in the selection process. “State patronage would be ideal, but Mahindra has proven to be a boon to theatre in terms of providing incentive and funds for aspiring groups,” says META jury member and thespian Darshan Jariwalla. Praveen Kumar Gunjan, an NSD graduate who runs his own theatre group in Patna, was the recipient of the Rs 45,000 prize each for the Best Director and Best Original Script. He believes that theatre needs corporate patronage because it is the medium of the oppressed and the non-glamorous, far from the madding crowd of television and films.

“For a lot of us, it’s not just about winning the money, although most theatre people barely manage to make ends meet. It’s about the sheer fact of being able to perform in front of a packed hall in the Capital, where we are appreciated by like-minded people,” says Gunjan.

A testament to the festival’s growing presence is the fact that in their seventh year, META received over 260 DVDs with plays filmed from various parts of the country, shortlisted into the final 10 shown through a week-long theatre festival earlier this March. “Each play must be seen within its own frame of reference to rule out comparisons based on the infrastructure available to the cast and crew,” explains Jariwalla. For those who cannot afford to make their own DVDs, META organisers also offer the option of flying down to shoot their plays for the jury. “The greatest success for me has been the fact that most of our entries are not from the metros, and that a lot of the people we invite for the festival don’t even have access to air travel,” says Dubey.

WHILE THE prize money is definitely a great incentive, Mahindra’s greatest coup is the opportunity to network and the level of exposure it has provided theatre with. “Theatre is one of our most thriving art forms, but it is literally performed in the shadows in several parts of the country. It was humbling to meet fellow thespians from Assam, Kerala and parts of the country where I would not have the opportunity to display my work otherwise,” says model-turned-actor Nimrat Kaur, winner of the META Best Actress for her role in Baghdad Wedding.

The impresario behind the event, though, is far from sated. “The next step is to take our winning plays and perform them all over the country. I want India to exchange theatrical talent with festivals across the world,” muses Dubey. Seven years and thriving, it seems META’s show has just begun.

Nishita Jha is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
nishita@tehelka.com

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