META 2013 The 8th Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards presented some of the best contemporary Indian plays, rewarding those who dared to push the boundaries

The most defining moment at the META, last weekend, was the speech of Dingri Nagesh from Kolar’s Aadima Ranga Tanda who won the award for best male actor in a lead role. Nagesh, played Eklavya in Matte Eklavya, directed by scenography scholar Satyabrata Rout, who was judged best director. Not conversant with English or Hindi, Nagesh simply said, “META, this platform” and pointed at the stage. He then pointed at the sky and traced steps with his fingertip.

Nagesh’s speech was defining because most plays that were nominated, and indeed those that won, focussed on the visual language and sound more than the script.

Gasha, by Bangalore’s Indian Ensemble, was judged the best play, best ensemble and its script by Irawati Karnik won the best original script award. It is a realistic play about the complex relationship between two Kashmiris — a Muslim and a Pandit.

Irawati explains that while scripting and devising the performance they were completely aware of the fragmented reality they were dealing with. She says, “We were realistic, but not in the traditional form. In the age of compound ideas it is outdated to stick to one thing... Our form — of different degrees of engagement and disengagement was required to take you through the journey of the play. It was the contrast of the foreground and the background that drove the subject home in a powerful way.”

Rout reveals that from the beginning his efforts were directed towards strengthening the visual language of the play. “The hidden text is our personal text. The various visual elements, the sound, the hegemony within the play structure have great power,” he explains.

Matte Eklavya used the folk style and mythological characters to redefine popular or Hindu philosophy. In fact the use of folk style to present contemporary social and political themes had shining examples in plays like Mirugavidushagam in Tamil and The Priestess in Manipuri. The former shared the award for best costume design with Matte Eklavya.

Eminent dramatist Nissar Allana, who was in the jury, said he sees a trend of a new wave of theatre which embodies the sense of being repressed. This sort of theatre—using metaphors, humour, folk style, ‘theatre in the round’ and, dance— was also used in plays like Fevicol from Jharkhand, which dealt with the alienation of adivasis and, So Many Socks from Mumbai, which highlighted the incidents of self-immolation protests by Tibetans. Bhavna Pani, who played a Tibetan mother, won the award for best supporting actor (Female).

Another trend, Allana points out, is the prominence of modern adaptation of the traditional dance in plays from the South. “The plays from Kerala focussed on scenography. Contemporary styles are gaining a lot of momentum. They a creating a new kind of very different and progressive theatre,” he says.

The plays from Kerala, Old Man and the Sea and After the Silence won the awards for best stage design and best choreography, respectively.

Allana also points out that a lot of scripts were created as performance texts. Some scripts were actually collaborative creations of the group. This allowed for great deal of negotiation with the script. “This is a trend that is prominent now, but it doesn’t mean that established texts are finished.”

As Irawati puts it, “We draw from the classics due to their familiarity and universal appeal, but original scripts are making an effort to break out and explore stories outside our immediate realm, stories that represent a larger struggle.”