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Small goes Big

Small-town India takes a bow

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READY FOR THE SPOTLIGHT: A still from the play 'Matte Eklavya' that takes a new look at the 'Mahabharata'

At the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards, plays from the big cities barely get a toe in

This year, the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) reflects a change of guard. For the first time, the theatre from small towns has upstaged the offerings of the big cities. META was set up over eight years ago and has the distinction of being the only national awards for excellence in theatre anywhere in the world. This year it received a whopping 312 entries from across the country. The jury comprises Nissar Allana, Shobha Deepak Singh, Anmol Vellani, Renu Roy and Pawan Maskara. 

"Things have come a long way since 2006 when people wondered, 'What is META?', " laughs Ravi Dubey, its creative director. The team had to put together ten plays with help and recommendations from critics and regular theatregoers. By the following year, however, word had got out about the awards and things started moving. "Last year was a 'wow' moment when we had over 200 entries, and this year again, the feeling's incredible, " says Dubey, who'd like nothing better than to travel with the plays across the country and to international festivals like Edinburgh. "There's a lot that can be done. Many paths still have to be tread, " he adds. 

Only a handful of entries from the big cities have made it to the list of nominees: So Many Socks by Mumbai's Quasar Thakore Padamsee that deals with the life of three generations of a Tibetan family living in exile in India;Shillak by Pradeep Vaiddya from Pune;Savitri-Dancing in the Forest of Death directed by Preethi Vasudevan from Chennai;and Gasha by Abhishek Majumdar from Bangalore. "Amongst the others, I must sadly confess, I had to look up the map of India to check where exactly they were located, " says Dubey. "I mean, I hadn't heard of Kovilpatti, so it was very encouraging to find them participating in META. " However, he was sorry that Delhi didn't make the cut. "Despite the number of entries we had, none made it to the list of nominations from the place where I was actively involved with theatre and was the founder member of the Theatre Action Group with Barry John. " 

The play, The Old Man And The Sea, directed by Sasidharan Naduvil of Thrissur, is based on Ernest Hemingway's famous novel. Talking about it, the 49-year-old director says, "I picked it because the story is about the oppressed and the suppressed - a subject almost everyone can relate to in some way. " The "grand, technical aspect" of the production in Malayalam is what took it to the nomination list, he feels. "Apart from the old man, Santiago, and the youngster, Manolin, even the ship and the fish are 'characters' in my play. " 

Satyabrata Raut's Matte Eklavya, in Kannada, Hindi and English, is a contemporary version of the epic Mahabharata. "The modern Eklavya is one who does not cut off his thumb because this bit is too cliched, " says the 58-year-old director. "So what we've done is restructured, reinterpreted and redefined the epic completely, though it too has been set against the background of casteism that continues to be a big problem in India. " Raut's play has been staged for schoolchildren as well as at a theatre festival in Columbia university. "Everyone has related to it in some way, " he says. 

Another play that has received attention is Fevicol by Jeetrai Hansda. It was written when Hansda was a student at the National School of Drama. Fevicol deals with the subject of migration and displacement of indigenous people. "We were asked to work on a subject closest to our hearts, so this is what I zeroed in on, " says the 36-year-old from Jamshedpur in Jharkhand. "It's sad that because people are just moving or being forced to move, their association with their land and roots is slowly getting lost. Even the government, that favours capitalism, is not helping matters, " he says. 

There are plays in Tamil (Miruvidushakam), Malayalam (After the Silence) and Manipuri (The Priestess), reflecting the richness of India's linguistic landscape. Translations of the dialogue will run along the side of the stage. "Of course, they say that theatre needs no language but it's always good to understand what's being said, " says Dubey. "The screens on the side will not interfere in the viewing of the play. It's not just for the audience but even the actors because they too want to be understood as they move along in the play. It's important to build that connect. " 

Happy that small-town theatre groups have had the focus, ability and courage to surge into mainstream theatre and remain there, theatre thespian and jury-member Reny Roy says, "When a piece of theatre is noticed and appreciated, it's a matter of celebration. I just hope they continue to bring in impactful and meaningful theatre to audiences all across. "

The plays will be staged at the LTG and Kamani Auditoriums, Delhi from March 3-8 

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