Posted by: John Elliott | March 11, 2010

Inclusiveness in Indian theatre contrasts with a guru’s intolerance over MF Husain

In a week that has shown India at its violent uncaring worst, with a near-riot in parliament over an historic bill on women’s rights, and a supposedly peace-loving guru calling for “a limit to tolerance” over painter MF Husain’s new nationality, it is good to be able to write about some theatre awards which illustrate the inclusiveness that holds together India’s basic unity with its dozens of national and regional languages. 

On Sunday night, while film stars in Los Angeles were preparing for the Oscar film awards, a modest but elegant ceremony was held in the gardens of Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel. The occasion was the fifth Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META), with winners chosen from ten plays short listed out of 233 entries submitted from around India. 

The play that carried off most prizes was “Spinal Cord”, performed by the Oxygen Theatre Company from the southern state of Kerala. Inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “The Chronicle of a Death Foretold”, it was a harrowing and often violent story (below) of an honour killing, recounted through the memory of an 80-year old mother. 


 But the most significant point for me was that none of the six judges could speak Kerala’s language of Malayalam in which the play was performed, nor were there any sub-titles to help them through the plot. 

They had a detailed synopsis to read in advance and that, coupled with the power of the drama, was sufficient for them to give the play ten awards – including best actor and best supporting actor – in preference to the other plays, six of which were in India’s official languages of Hindi and English and in Marathi, the language of Maharashtra, spoken by one of the judges. 

“I can’t see Robbie Burns being made poet laureate,” commented a friend from Britain, suggesting that judges in London would not so happily tolerate a broad Scottish accent. Ravi Dubey, a former hotel executive who created and runs the META awards for Anand Mahindra, the sponsor, diluted the point somewhat by pointing out to me that poetry travels across languages and dialects less easily than theatre, where the drama is all important. 


 Deepan Sivaraman, the Keralite director of the play, had however refused an English sub-title screen that had been used by the other plays because, he told me, “it distracts from the flow of the plot” – and that call proved to be right. Trained as a theatre director and designer, Sivaraman (right) is currently doing a PhD in theatre and drama and India’s popular theatre forms and rituals at Wimbledon College of Art in London. 

He himself won three META awards for best stage design, choreography, and director, and “Spinal Cord” won the best production. The production was indeed unusual because Sivaraman blocked-off the main seating area in the theatre and placed the audience on the stage in specially constructed seating in a “U” shape around the action. 

This no doubt helped, but it does not distract from the significance of judges in Delhi, who could not speak Malayalam, giving  it so many awards. 


 Wouldn’t it be good if Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (left), a high profile globetrotting guru, who adds the prefix His Holiness to his name and portrays himself as a man of peace, was able to show the same sense of inclusiveness over M.F.Husain, India’s most famous veteran painter. As I wrote last week, Husain has opted for Qatar citizenship because of the harassment he and his work has received in India from Hindu demonstrators. 

Yet just as the furore over Husain’s decision was dying down, the guru’s Art of Living office issued a damning statement that accused him of “double standards, bias and hatred” because he depicted Hindu gods in the nude. “One cannot accept blatant insult to the heroes of its land….. It is the intention behind a man’s creativity which is questionable…..his intention is to humiliate…… there is a limit to tolerance and taking insult,” it stated.
This flies in the face of a seminal judgement from the Delhi High Court in April 2008 which dismissed cases against Husain. The judge noted that nudity is part of contemporary art and plays a significant role in India’s cultural heritage, adding that India should resist conservative extremists misusing the law to harass artists. “Pluralism is the soul of democracy,” said the judge. 

That surely calls for the sort of inclusiveness shown by the META judges for the Malayalam play – and it totally rejects Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s view of “a limit to tolerance”.

Previous posts on Indian modern and contemporary art:

Two icons in their 90s – Michael Foot has died but MF Husain paints on March 5, 2010

Enthusiastic literary and art events celebrate India’s success Jan28, 2010

Big sales and big attendance at India’s Art Summit Aug 25, 2009

Husain paints in London as fanatics block his works at India’s art fair Aug 19, 2009

Has the modern Indian art market found its bottom? – updated June 18, 2009

Christie’s has a good India sale as art auctions adjust to tougher times June 10, 2009

Religare broadens the business base of modern Indian art Oct 13, 2008

Nehru was lost for years in a trunk ……… Oct 7, 2008

Tina Ambani pays record $2.5m at Christie’s Indian art auction June 12, 2008


  1. If any Artist draw wrong aginst Prophet Mohammed or something related… Will you accept it ? Will you treat that will also his Freedom of expression ?

  2. To your commentor Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri, many a proud Socialist society rose in the fifty year old space of the ‘young indian parliament’, giving ladies freedom and males the chance to be men. India has moved only about 3 years of progress from 1947.

  3. Sri sri Ravi Shankar so full of compassion when it comes to defending unrepentant Modi.
    he quotes

    “and knowingly or unknowingly something bad might happen from an individual. So when someone does something wrong, don’t hold him a culprit all his life.”
    “Everybody is what you call a nimitta — an instrument of the divine,”

    Suddenly he looses all his compassion on this issue, what is that he is after, brownie points from the lunatic fringe !!

  4. Thank you for this post. Totally agree on the pluralism aspect. And Sri Sri Ravishankar with his ‘globe-trotting’ seems more like the swank world of corporate pr in another guise. But, I would reserve such harsh judgement on Parliament and its doings. Was it really a near-riot? Maybe the same pluralism that the constitution granted us also brought a lot of sections of society into public life, and that did make a difference to our polity. It’s different that many of our politicos are now neo-feudals and lumpens – many fronting for big business day in and day out, rather than mending to their constituencies. Nevertheless, Indian democracy has stood the test of time, it is a young Parliamentary democracy, we deserve a chance, Mr Elliott!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: