There is a buzz in the little lane winding around a village in Vypeen island. Lokadharmi, a centre for theatre training, research and performance, tucked in Njarakkal in Ernakulam, is teeming with theatre lovers and thespians. A video camera has been propped up to record the in-house premiere of Shakuntalam , a play scripted and directed by the founder of the institute, Chandradasan. The director emerges out of his earthy-hued play house, speaking to his actors and tech team. A glint in his eyes tells us that he is excited about showcasing the Malayalam musical adaptation of Kalidasa’s Sanskrit text Abhijnana Shakuntalam.
A modern playwright’s challenge is to recreate a classic text in a way that the contemporary audience can relate to. More than anyone else, Chandradasan, who has a penchant for choosing Greek texts like Medea , Shakespeare’s works like The Tempest and Indian classical dramas like Karnabharam , knows this. “If it does not speak to the times, it becomes a museum piece,” says the director.
Originally devised for students of the National School of Drama for their academic exercise, the play, in its Hindi version, directed by Chandradasan ran for six houseful shows.
In the Malayalam version, he scouted for young actors as he was looking for a bubbling energy on stage. “Actor comes first for me and not any other technical aspect. They are my medium.” Just then, an actor in her red flowing costume makes a dash for the director from inside the playhouse. With her straight hair flowing down till her waist and a meditative air, she looks every bit a wise sage. But, the child in the woman is evident when she clarifies with Chandradasan about some details about her hairdo; the conversation ends in a warm hug, with the director promising to visit the green room a few minutes before the performance. “I want them to feel the nuances of their characters and make the process touch the inner core of their being,” says the practitioner who follows the school of Konstantin Stanislavski, tenets of Natyashastra and Greek chorus motif.
Reworking on the text was enlightening in many ways. As he read through the original text, puritan concepts of the romance between Dushyantha-Shakuntala scattered away, he remembers. “When I read between the lines, I realised Shakuntala was just any other girl for Dushyantha, who is known to have numerous affairs. An embodiment of Kamadeva, he is seen with sugarcane bow and arrows made of flowers. For me, Shakuntala’s love for him is an attraction of an adolescent towards a man.”
The final episode of Dushyantha’s memory loss, Shakuntala’s journey to his kingdom and facing rejection from him and Dushyantha remembering her through the ring she left for him, are designed to move the audience to a cathartic climax. But, not without a serious introspection of the original text by Kalidasa through a critical eye and meta narrative. “In my play, Shakuntala does not believe in the ring any more and chooses to leave. Scholars such as Romila Thapar have pointed out that there is no mention of the ring or the curse of a memory loss in the epic. Dushyantha just abandons Shakuntala in the forest and leaves. Since Kalidasa is a royal poet, perhaps, he felt he had to keep alive the good name of the king. Two of my characters voice this thought.”
Art inspires the playwright who thinks quite visually. Paintings and imageries define the space for his narratives. As we talk, Chandradasan multi-tasks between supervising the stage décor and offering suggestions to the cinematographer on the lighting spots on the stage, strewn with flowers. The entire milieu makes you feel you are in a forest. “The audience has to see something permanently to feel the nuances of the inner feel of the play. It could be static or moving. This is where paintings come to my help.”
Music is designed in a way to rekindle the memory of the 60s’ and 70s’ Malayalam cinema in the audience. Slokas have been condensed into six songs, written by the playwright. A padam composed by Irayimman Thampi has been set to a new tune by Bijibal to convey the sense of lament. “Rendering a sloka becomes ritualistic, distancing the audience from contemporary reality. Songs make them connect instantly. Actors will be singing some live, some are recorded; they will be played on stage with actors’ live renditions overlapping the recorded ones.”
The fourth act, especially, has evocative moments where Shakuntala is bidding her famous goodbye to the birds, trees and animals in the forest.
So, while representing Kanvashram, the breeze, the trees and the birds, he does not use the conventional realistic set but the visual metaphors of paintings and art and set work, designed by Samkutty Pattomkary. There are Raja Ravi Varma-like paintings of women in the backdrop juxtaposed with installations of trees decorated with pink flowers and drooping leaves. The idea is to represent the conflict between the classical strokes of the former with the organic, tribal motifs of the latter. And, this in a way reflects the bigger philosophical conflict of the city vs the forest, which the play reflects on.
Dushyantha’s encroachment into the forest can be seen as the invasion of the city on the rural ecosystem, says Chandradasan. “Nature plays an important role in Kalidasa’s work. Shakuntala could be Nature, with Dushyantha embodying the male chauvinistic ideology. This is the central conflict of my retelling of Shakuntalam .” In a way, the location of Lokadharmi reflects its founder’s love for Nature and a raw way of living. “When we talk about Indian theatre, why do we limit ourselves to the metros? Lot of meaningful theatre is happening in the villages of India.”
(The play will be staged in October. Follow Lokadharmi on their Facebook page)