Theatre veteran K.N. Panikkar on his new production with the NSD Repertory

Known for his unique blend of classical and contemporary theatre and his use of Kerala traditions in his stage productions, Kavalam Narayana Panikkar commands great respect in theatre circles across India. The veteran has been working with the National School of Drama Repertory Company for approximately two months now, on a new production of “Chhaya Shakuntalam”, a Hindi work by poet and essayist Udayan Vajpeyi based on Kalidasa’s “Abhignana Shakuntalam”. The production will be premiered this Saturday evening at the inaugural ceremony of the Bharat Rang Mahotsav, the national theatre festival spearheaded by NSD.

The text has been given a contemporary touch on the basis of two themes in the play, say the playwright and director. Paraphrased, these would read as: The king is duty bound to protect the society and the environment. And secondly, hunting is the king’s pastime, but hunting in Sanskrit (mrigaya) has two meanings, of which one refers to searching within for the truth, rather than hunting the weak.

It has been a long time since Kavalam last worked with the NSD Repertory. “The last time was in 1984, I did ‘Mattavilasam’,” he remarks, recalling well known actors like Uttara Baokar, Hema Singh and Govind Namdev who performed in it. At that time too, it was a Hindi translation (N.C. Jain) of the original Sanskrit play (by Mahendra Vikrama Varman) that was presented.

A hallmark of Panikkar’s presentation is his use of verbal expression (vachika abhinaya) borrowed from Kerala traditions such as Koodiyattam, in which the words are enunciated in a highly stylised and sometimes chant-like style. In his Hindi presentations too, this vachika approach is retained. Then there is the technique of physical expression (angika abhinaya) using postures, hand gestures, etc. His own company, Sopanam, is distinguished by the elaborate physical training undergone by all the actors, in disciplines like Kalari, the martial art of Kerala. In relatively short-term production, that too with a company that deals with varying approaches and different directors in every production, this is not possible.

But the dramatist says he did not have to compromise. “They were all working hard. They were able to inculcate certain principles of acting according to my training method.” Since this play deals with the rasa of shringar or love, he notes, it has been slightly easier as the actors could use soft, graceful movements. “If vira (valour — a rasa that requires movements and postures of a martial nature) had been the main sthayi bhava, I would have found it difficult,” he concedes.

Since this type of theatre is rare to come by, and offers a certain education for the general public as well as for theatre lovers in general, it is a pity that this inaugural performance is not being followed up with a public show during the fortnight-long festival.