It becomes easier to understand one’s own place by seeing it through the eyes of others, says Indian-American dancer Shanti Pillai

If you thought reading the classics in Sanskrit was difficult, try the palatable version: Audience friendly, packaged in colour, with a few surprises thrown in. That’s how dancer Shanti Pillai and Cuban artiste Alexis Diaz de Villegas put together a unique version of the story of Shakuntala. The language? Spanish, English, some Tamil and, yes, a bit of Sanskrit too. The costumes: Kerala fabrics, Cuban designer. Premiered in Havana, Cuba, early this year, the production features the two artistes along with three musicians. When it tours internationally, the major language will probably be English, notes Shanti, who was in the Capital not long ago to share her experience of the project.

Bringing Shakuntala to life in Havana seems quite natural for someone who has done a video project featuring herself walking around the city in her Bharatanatyam costume. “It’s this thing about juxtaposition,” says Shanti. “The iconic city of Havana and the traditional Indian woman.” Shanti also carries an umbrella printed with a painting by a famous Cuban artist, and is collecting photographs of herself at tourist sites around the world with this umbrella.

Juxtaposition is fine, but playing out Shakuntala in Havana meant entering uncharted territory. It took the collaborators about half a year. “I would say, all told, six months of very intensive work, meaning we almost killed ourselves. Everything had to start from scratch,” says Shanti, “and everything done by trial and error during rehearsals.”

The story of Shakuntala, half human and half heavenly damsel, brought up in the austere hermitage of Rishi Kanva and falling in love with King Dushyanta — marrying, being deserted by and eventually reunited with him — has several versions in Indian and world literature. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with it,” says Shanti. “The idea came to me in 2007.” She adds, “It’s not even a story I liked so much — contemporary Indian women don’t particularly like the idea of women being carted around between father, son, husband.”

Whatever the reasons, she went ahead with it, and admits, “It’s so easy to offend cultural purists.” But, Shanti feels, “You have to be willing to address the fact that something written 2000 years ago will be seen in different ways.”

Consequently, they did not stick to one version of the tale. Among their sources are the story as found in the Mahabharata and “Abhignana Shakuntalam” of Kalidasa. The ending is from Grotowski’s version of Shakuntala. “Kalidasa’s version implies that they lived happily ever after. In Grotowski’s version it is clear a long time has elapsed and the passion of youth is gone, and there is mature love,” says Shanti.

“The challenge was, what we can do with this 2000-year-old text and what we can do with two actors,” says Shanti. Dividing her time between New York City, Havana and different parts of India, Shanti’s world is unlimited and compact at once. “Tradition is not something static,” she points out without fuss.

For Shanti, the daughter of an American mother and an Indian father, Shakuntala in Havana, or any other city of the world, not only promotes mutual understanding, but also “understanding one’s own place by seeing it through the eyes of others.”