Pakistani theatre director Zain Ahmed on his Urdu version of “Shakuntala”.

In recent times we have witnessed some outstanding productions of Kalidasa's “Shankuntala”. Vijaya Mehta's and K.N. Panikkar's productions followed the classical Sanskrit style of presentation, while Prasanna's interpretation of this classic was in jeans and shawls with three different performers to play different stages of the development of the character of Shakuntala. We have also seen in New Delhi the Shakuntala brought by Stanislavsky and Memorovich-Dancheukr Academi Musical Theatre Mosco in Ballet style.

Recently a new version came from Karachi, Pakistan. The sheer novelty of the production, featured at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav at LTG auditorium not long ago, enthralled the audience, both in terms of presentational style and interpretation of the classic.

Presented by National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) Repertory Theatre, Karachi, the play was directed by Zain Ahmed. The young talented director says, “Our Repertory has already produced Mohan Rakesh's ‘Adhey Adhoorey'. We wanted to produce an Indian Sanskrit classic; so we selected Kalidas's Shakuntala.”

He continues, “But I am not trained as a director to produce a play in Sanskrit classical theatrical style. Imitating others does not provide you creative excitement. We decided to have an innovative production and a new interpretation while maintaining fidelity to the thematic content of the great theatrical masterpiece.”

After obtaining a degree from York University in dramatic arts, Zain has been experimenting with various styles and genres to evolve a theatre idiom for Pakistani audiences. Though he has specialised in the naturalistic style, he has deviated from this style to explore new expressive means.

Is he experimenting with folk forms like oral storytelling traditions of Bhands, Nautanki and Tamasha? “During successive military dictatorships, many of these forms lost their popularity. Some people are trying to revive these forms. I do not find traditional forms of much use while experimenting and improvising.”

Talking about Shakuntala, he says, “I look at this play from a universal angle both in terms of presentational style and interpretation. To me it is about love at first sight, marriage with all its sensuous pleasures, pain of separation and joy of reunion. In all these phases of love, fate assumes a significant role. This noble instinct of love is inherent in every human being. In every woman there is a Shakuntala and in every man there is a Dushyanta. To reinforce this concept, all female performers play in turns the role of Shakuntala in different scenes. Similarly, men performers act the role of Dushyanta one after the other.”

The innovative excellence of his production is not only reflected in interpretation and presentation but in its music score, which is easily accessible, and choreography remarkable for its rhythmic flow, grace and seeming effortlessness. The human body, the music and choreography create a visual poetry throbbing with a variety of moods deeply felt and imbued with the right ambience. Here is a young director who has a vision to recreate and reinterpret a classic and discover its relevance for the present.

“Urdu translation is not available in Karachi,” he notes. “We got it translated into Urdu by Ahmed Himesh from the Hindi version.” Free from Persianised Urdu, the language could be called Hindustani — a mix of Hindi and Urdu — easily understandable by an average theatre-goer.

A faculty member of the National Academy of Performing Arts, Karachi, since 2005, Zain belongs to a family of artists. His father Farid Ahmed is a film director and his mother Shamina Ahmed an actress.

Zain says his “Shankuntala” was premiered in Karachi with three shows. “The response of the audience was so overwhelming that audiences came on to the stage, congratulating performers in a tumultuous manner.”

The response of the Indian audience at LTG auditorium was simply electrifying. Indeed, Zain's Shakuntala is a significant milestone on the road of Indo-Pakistan cultural amity.