“Abhijnana Shakuntalam”, the opening play of the ongoing national festival in New Delhi, gave the audience some soul-stirring moments but the actors seemed to be struggling at times to keep up with the traditional techniques of Koodiyattam on which was based its delivery.

As the new dispensation of the National School of Drama headed by internationally renowned theatre director Ratan Thiyam has renewed the call to go back to “roots” to discover the identity of the contemporary Indian theatre, the opening of the 16th Bharat Rang Mahotsav this past Saturday at the Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi with Kaldiasa’s immortal work, “Abhijnana Shakuntalam”, under the direction of K.N. Panikkar, an innovator of Indian classical theatre, is heartening. Produced by the Repertory Company of NSD, it is remarkable for its spectacular visuals, aesthetically designed costumes, imaginative lighting effects and soul-stirring music.

Since the acting and delivery are based on traditional techniques of Koodiyattam — rooted in the Natyashastra which have been rejuvenated and mastered by Panikkar, the performers tend to be struggling with the style resulting in slow pace. The fact that the production is mounted on the occasion of India’s international theatrical event, it raises the question about the actors’ ability trained in modern realistic style to adopt the highly stylised traditional techniques. It is in the fitness of things that a seminar as part of the BRM is being organised to discuss this vital issue. In fact, Sangeet Natak Akademi had experimented with ‘going to roots’ in depth in the ’80s.

The Hindi script based on the original is recreated by Udayan Vajpeyi, a medical scientist-turned-poet and theatre writer. According to scholars, the most authentic translation into Hindi of the classic is considered by Mohan Rakesh that captures the poetry and dramatic grandeur of the masterpiece. Titled “Chhaya Shakuntalam”, Vajpeyi has focussed on some of the vital aspects of the original work — the love between Shakuntala, an innocent girl from a forest hermitage who has been adopted by Sage Kanva, and King Dushyant. The role of curse or fate to decide human destiny is the pivotal part of the script which ends with the union of the lovers. Through chorus, the play briefly comments on King Dushyant’s addiction for hunting, ignoring the welfare of his people. “Chhya Shakuntalam” makes an attempt to impart a contemporary ring to the character of Shakuntala who retaliates against King Dushyant when he refuses to recognise her at his court and humiliates her. The erotic element is expressed with eloquence.

The universe of Kaladasa has multiple layers and poetic depth. It includes the world of sages, celestial dancers, the world of king with his passion for hunting and at the same time reminds him of his duty to be conscientious and a king. There are fishermen, common people and royal parasites. The affection between the son and father is revealed through the undercurrent of the play.

In the past, we have seen various memorable productions of Shakuntala on Delhi stage in a variety of new shades by eminent theatre personalities and choreographers, in different dramatic presentational styles. However, the old-timers continue to remember vividly the Shakuntala in ballet style brought to India by Stanislavsky and Memorovich-Danchenko Academi Musical Theatre from Moscow during the good old days of the Soviet Union. Maya Rao contributed to chorographical compositions. That production of Shakuntala in western style illustrates the universal appeal of Shakuntala, both as a literary piece and as a work of art. Another memorable production is by Vijaya Mehta in Hindi version. Panikkar has also presented Shakuntala for Sopanam, stressing on the fundamental duty of a ruler to look after the welfare of his subjects.

The production under review gets momentum only after the entry of Sage Durvasha whose wrath Shakuntala incurs. The scene depicting the departure of Shakuntala from her forest hermitage for King Dushyant’s palace is memorable for its pathos. Another scene between Shakuntala and Dushyant after his memory of his marriage with Shakuntala comes back is beautifully enacted. In that scene, both savour nostalgic moments of their erotic relationship.

The emotional intensity of these scenes is heightened with music effect with its tender, slow and stirring tunes with minimal use of instrumental support. The denouement is enacted with finesse, celebrating the reunion of the lovers. The visual patterns imbued with poetic intensity offer rare moments of aesthetic delight.

Panikkar’s set design is remarkable for its classical simplicity and for its speciousness. On the upstage, there is a slightly raised platform which is linked to small stairs and a ramp on either side of the stage. The presence of these structures is minimal. Actor’s body and voice are the sole expressive means. There is nothing superfluous on the stage in terms of props.

Titas Dutta as Shakuntala, and Ajeet Singh Palawat as Dushyant, make their scenes elegant despite the fact that at time they have to make an attempt to be in tune with the stylised acting technique. Sajida’s Vidushak offers some amusing moments. Raju Roy’s Sage Kanva, the foster father of Shakuntala, reveals the deeply felt pain of separation from his adopted daughter while she is being sent to her husband’s palace. His Kanva is obsessed with the premonition of Shakuntala’s misfortunes.