Deepa Gahlot: As we like it

The theatre scene has been buzzing since the start of 2016, thanks to corporate generosity

Mumbai has a wonderfully busy theatre calendar, even though most groups work without either government or corporate support; the saving grace is that audiences are willing to buy tickets. In Delhi, for instance, everybody demands complimentaries.

Still, one of the biggest theatre events in the country is — thanks to corporate generosity — the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META). The festival showcasing ten of the best entries from all over India is on in Delhi right now, and what it does for the spirit of the theatre community is immeasurable.

A still from I Don’t Like It. As You Like It, currently being staged in Mumbai in the second season of the Aditya Birla Group’s theatre programme, Aadyam
A still from I Don’t Like It. As You Like It, currently being staged in Mumbai in the second season of the Aditya Birla Group’s theatre programme, Aadyam

The country deserves an awards event of its own, and the government’s culture ministry should have instituted one years ago. Maybe it’s better that META is a private initiative; at least there is no lobbying, string-pulling or political interference.

META started small ten years ago, with entries in English and Hindi being picked by panels in the metro cities and judged by a jury of peers. The next year, it was decided to open the competition to plays in all languages from all over the country. DVDs of the entries were invited, a selection committee picked the top ten, which were then staged live in Delhi.

Over the next couple of years, the whole process was discussed, fine-tuned and is now as well thought out and professionally managed (by Delhi company Teamwork) as can be. Now there are awards in 13 categories with cash prizes along with trophies. There are still objections to selecting the nominees by watching DVDs — theatre is best watched live, every performance can vary and the DVD quality of a great play could be poor. Since it is impossible for any regional panel to have seen every play staged during the year, this seems like the only way to get a large number of entries — over 300 this year. How tough it is for the selection committee to choose just ten, and how much debate the choices must generate, can only be imagined.

Still, according to the META website, over the last decade, “1,500 theatre productions, 5,000 artistes, approximately 300 various themes, from 28 different states all have come together on one stage.” Staggering statistics for theatre.

Entries come in from all corners of India — simple rural theatre to polished urban productions, folk and classical plays, new contemporary work, student plays, street theatre. The sheer variety can be overwhelming when seen together in long, tiring sessions over a few days. Also exhilarating to find that commercial and other constraints do not deter theatre practitioners, and there is such richness to be found all over the country, particularly in Mumbai.

This year’s nominees are a fine representation of the theatre being done across the country: From Mumbai, Kaizad Kotwal’s Agnes Of God that pits faith against science, Akash Khurana’s A Friend’s Story about a woman discovering her queer identity, Faezeh Jalali’s 07/0/07 about a young Iranian woman executed for killing her rapist; from Pune, Mohit Talkalkar’s Main Huun Yusuf Aur Yeh Hain Mera Bhai, about the festering Palestinian issue; from Delhi, Vikram Mohan’s After Death — A Spiritual Journey, a non-verbal musical about the Bhil tribe and Deepan Sivaraman’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, a contemporary take on the iconic German horror film; from Bangalore, Sharanya Ramprakash’s Akshayambara, a dance drama in the Yakshagana style, from Kozhikode, Sasidharan Naduvil ‘s The Balcony adapted from Jean Genet’s play set in a brothel, from Kolkata, Goutam Halder’s Haoai about three escapees from a mental asylum, adapted from an Evald Fliser play; from Kovilpatty, Dr S Murugabhoopathy’s Kugaimaravasaikal about poor migrants.

For Delhi audiences, this is a fabulous opportunity to watch great plays, even though the National School of Drama’s Bharat Rang Mahotsav just a few weeks earlier provided an even richer feast.

The other worthy initiative by a corporate house is the Aditya Birla Group’s Aadyam, which commenced its second season with the Rajat Kapoor-directed I Don’t Like It. As You Like It. Kapoor and his talented cast of ‘clowns’ play with the Shakespeare original and make it a colourful, whimsical piece of work. Kapoor’s Hamlet The Clown Prince (a META winner) still stands out for its improvisational brilliance and everything he does is compared to that. The new play opened to a mixed response and is bound to evolve over future shows.

Aadyam is a boon for the city’s theatre groups, like in the first season in 2015, this year too, five groups have been offered funding and all support to produce big plays. A massive marketing push accompanies the five productions — half-page ads in the newspaper, several hoardings, social media presence. The idea being, to take theatre to the next level, to facilitate things for dedicated groups that can then concentrate on quality without financial and logistical worries. After the opening shows in Mumbai and Delhi, the groups then takes over and run the plays on their own. Rage and Arpana return this year with Twelve Angry Jurors and Loretta, while new Aadhyam entrants, besides Kapoor, are Salim Arif with Chakkar Chalaaye Ghanchakkar and Purva Naresh with Ladies Sangeet.

Add to this the new set of plays picked for Writer’s Bloc, and in just the first four months of 2016, Mumbai’s theatre scene is already buzzing.

Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. She tweets at @deepagahlot

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