Sandarshan Kathakali School staged its maiden performance of an abridged version of ‘Shakunthalam’, which, for the most part, retained the essence of the original attakatha.

Eminent artistes of Sandarshan Kathakali School, Ambalappuzha, got together to to stage the maiden performance of a three-hour-long condensed version of the Kathakali play ‘Shakunthalam’, at the ‘Naatakashaala’ of the Sreekrishnaswamy temple, Ambalappuzha.

Kalidasa’s ‘Abhijnanashaakunthalam’ was adapted for Kathakali by Aattupurathu Krishnan Namboodiri and later improvised upon by Puthumana Damodaran Namboodiri. The condensed attakatha was choreographed and directed by Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharody, veteran artiste and Principal of Sandarshan, and P. Venugopalan.

‘Shakunthalam’ was once a popular attakatha and used to be performed at Kalamandalam and other venues across the State. However, its duration and nuanced nature of the text hampered its popularity. Moreover, the play faced stiff competition from the more popular love story – ‘Nalacharitam’. As a result, the attakatha’s popularity waned and it ceased to be performed on stage. The new script is crisp yet it retains the essence of the story.

The narrative unfolds in the course of nine scenes and it tells the love story of King Dushyantha of Hastinapura and Shakunthala, the beautiful daughter of sage Viswamitra. Dushyantha meets her at the ashram of sage Kanva.

The opening scene of the play, which depicts Dushyantha hunting deer in the forest, was delightful, especially the bit that describes the apprehensiveness of the deer. Shakunthala’s entry with her maids in a ‘sari’ – a graceful dance piece in Kathakali – was enchanting. Conversations between Shakunthala and her maids, later joined by Dushyantha, were lively. The part where Shakunthala turns to pull out a thorn from her foot and meets the eyes of her beloved was as picture perfect as Raja Ravi Varma’s celebrated painting of the same scene. The union of the lovers was depicted with a pathinja padam, which was mellifluous to the eyes and the ears. The parting scene, however, was a bit too quick to really reflect the pain of the lovers. Yet, a similar act wherein Shakunthala leaves her father and abode to reunite with her husband, was poignant, especially Shakunthala’s fond farewell to the plants and animals in the ashram.

Kalamandalam Shanmughadas enacted the role of Dushyantha with great composure and emotion. He excelled in the earlier portions of the play but became less emotive towards the end. Kalamandalam Vijayakumar, who essayed the role of Shakunthala, was at ease throughout. Precise and gracious as the character demands, Vijayan excelled as the ‘ashrama kanya’ (young woman living in a hermitage).

Madhu Varanasi and Kalamandalam Adityan (Priyamvada and Anasooya respectively), Kalanilayam Vinod (sage Kanva and priest), Kalamandalam Neeraj (sage Durvasa and Sharngaravan), R.L.V. Pramod (soldier who finds Shakunthala’s ring) and Kalanilayam Karunakarakkuruppu (Shakunthala’s grandmother Gauthami) did justice to their roles.

Kathakali percussionist Pathiyoor Sankarankutty composed the music of the play and did a fine job of it. Pathiyoor, along with Kalamandalam Jayaprakash, rendered the padams with style and sense. Kalamandalam Krishnakumar accompanied the vocals. Chenda was handled by Kalamandalam Sreekanth and Kalamandalam Sarath Babu. Kalanilayam Manoj and Kalanilayam Rajesh played the maddalam.

This first performance of the play lived up to expectations. However, the the music and the scenes were reminiscent of the ‘Nalacharitham’ plays.