Nataraj, a festival of classical drama held in Agra recently, dished out refreshing regional flavours.

It was Habib Tanvir who showed that Sanskrit plays could be staged in folk form with folk artistes to greater effect. His “Mitti Ki Gadi” is considered one of the finest productions of Bhasa’s “Mrichchhakatikam” which was produced by Naya Theatre with Chhattisgarhi folk artistes in their language. Watching four Sanskrit plays in different languages featured at Nataraj, a festival of classical drama, at the Gayatri School auditorium at Agra this past week, assures us that the legacy of Tanvir is being explored by young theatre practitioners with sincerity and dedication to project the dramatic splendour of Indian classical drama.

The stylised acting method gives performers room for improvisation and the austerity of the presentational device ensures uninterrupted flow of action. In these productions, it is the actors’ bodies which become the vehicle of manifestation of a whole gamut of human emotions and the projection of ambience for the action. The actors acquire central space in these productions marked by a variety of colours, musical tunes and themes revealing the enduring freshness of these plays.

Bhasa’s “Karnabharam”, presented by Indrawati Natya Samiti, Rewa (Madhya Pradesh) in Bagheli dialect will be remembered for its stunning stage compositions, haunting tribal music, both vocal and instrumental, and dramatic sweep. We have in the past seen this play directed by K.N. Panikkar who used the technique of Koodiyatam rooted in the Natya Shastra. His production was acclaimed as a theatrical masterpiece.

Conceived and directed by Neeraj Kunder and Roshani Prasad Mishr, the theatre group is based in the tribal area and engaged in the exploration of tribal dramatic forms. Some of its members are from a tribal community. Based on episodes from the Mahabharata, “Karnabharam” depicts Karna’s encounter with his guru Parasurama, with Indra, the father of Arjuna and with his biological mother Kunti. Karna has acquired the knowledge of the Brahmastra from Parasurama, posing as a Brahmin. Indra gets Karna’s earrings and armour, the protective power he was born with, disguising himself as a Brahmin. His motive is to make Karna vulnerable when he fights against Arjuna in the battle of Kurukshetra. Equipped with the Brahmastra and his earrings and armour, he is invincible. Parasurama’s curse after his identity as Kshatriya is revealed and the loss of his armour ensure the victory of Arjuna over this great warrior.

The performers create wonderful battle scenes through their body movements. Through the sheer change of their postures, they create chariots drawn by horses. These visuals are watched with a sense of admiration and awe. The chorus is powerful enough to evoke heroic mood, intensity and dramatic thrust.

A graduate in theatrical art, Narendra Bahadur Singh Baghel as Karna gives an excellent performance, elevating his Karna to the high pedestal of a truly tragic hero in the classical sense.

Jyotrishwar Thakur’s “Dhoortsamagam” in Induja Awasthi’s Hindi translation was presented by Bharat Natya Sansthan, Pithoragarh, (Uttarakhand) at the festival. This is a prahasan, a farce written in 1320. With songs in Maithili, music is an important aspect of the play. In 1981, it was presented in Delhi by the Prayog group under the direction of M.K. Raina at the Shri Ram Centre basement.

Directed by Kailash Kumar, a Chhau dancer, the number of songs has been reduced to five. They are set to Kumaoni folk tunes by Dhiraj Kumar.

The play opens with an invocation to Goddess Bhawani with the rendition of “Khol De Mata Khol Bhawani”, a more than 100-year-old Kumaoni folk song. Here we meet a Brahmin scholar and his disciple, a crook of a rich man, a selfish and beautiful courtesan, a judge and a thief. The scholar and his disciple indulge in a duel to seek the company of the beautiful courtesan. The judge, who is supposed to be an arbiter between the teacher and the disciple, takes the courtesan away with him. The thief glorifies his acts of thievery in the presence of the judge who rues being unable to get enough bribes.

The movements are highly stylised. Though the production offers some amusing moments, the mellow tune of the folk music tinged with romantic flavour dilute the farcical elements. In this assembly of characters obsessed with sexual passion, women are treated as an object of lust and a commodity. This makes the play highly relevant to our situation.

Remarkable for its thrilling visuals and music score, Kalidasa’s “Shakuntala” was staged in Bengali by Institute of Perpetual Arts, Kolkata. The costumes are designed aesthetically and the stage compositions are delicate, suggestive and poetically intense. The music based on Rabindra Sangeet and the lyrically elegant moments of sutradhar harmonised the production into an artistic whole. Director Devasheesh Dutt’s “Shakuntala” happily unites with King Dushyanta to live happily ever after — an interpretation which runs counter to the original text as well as to the contemporary notion of feminism with multiple echoes of women’s liberation.

The festival concluded with the presentation of “Madhyama Vyayoga” in Bharat Ratna Bhargav’s Hindi translation by Pratibha Sanskritik Sansthan, New Delhi, under the direction of Bhoomokeshwar Singh. The original play in Sanskrit is written by Bhasa which depicts the dilemma, anguish and utter sense of resignation of the middle son of a Brahmin. Another middle son, Bhima, enters the scene. The play reveals the meeting Bhima with his son Ghatotkacha and through him his reunion with demoness Hidimba. (Ghatotkacha was born out of Bhima’s marriage with Hidimba.)

The director has used the Chhau martial dance form, establishing dialectical unity between form and content. At a few places he has synthesised Chhau with Odissi dance. One of the highlights of the production is the excellent use of pantomime. The scene depicting the trial of strength between Ghatotkacha and Bhima is a rare theatrical treat to watch. Shivshankar Pathak as Ghatotkacha, Deepak Kumar as Bheema, and Pratibha Jena Singh as Hidimba, give riveting performances.