Samskrita Ranga’s Abhijnana Sakuntalam
"Vaidarbhi kavita svayam vrtavati Sreekalidasam varam" (The maiden of elegant poetry chose Kalidasa for her bridegroom.) Innumerable are the paeans that have been sung to the glory of Kalidasa’s creativity, which, while being awe-inspiringly beautiful, also reveals the foibles of the human mind. His Abhijnana Sakuntalam is the most feted of Indian dramatic compositions, inspiring several translations and hugely popular with the cognoscenti of world literature. Interestingly, the ring, which is the all-important souvenir (Abhijnanam), is but a figment of the poet’s fecund fancy. It is totally absent in the original story which traces back to the Padma Purana and the Mahabharata.
The Samskrita Ranga, founded by the illustrious Sanskrit scholar Dr. V. Raghavan to promulgate Sanskrit theatre, staged Abhijnana Sakuntalam on the occasion of its 57th anniversary at the Dakshinamurti Auditorium in Chennai. The play was produced and directed by dancer, critic and scholar, Nandini Ramani, daughter of Dr. V. Raghavan and secretary of the organisation.
To stage a full-fledged play in a language not many are conversant with, while other popular forms of entertainment face a dwindling audience, is indeed a Promethean effort. That it was rewarded by a large turnout, is a pointer to not only the goodwill enjoyed by the founding family, but also the love for Sanskrit theatre among art-lovers.
Boasting of excellent production values, the play proved a delight to the eyes, ears and heart. The original seven-act play was condensed into five visual scenes, each retaining the salient features, sentiments, witticisms and observations that the playwright envisaged. Nandini’s succinct English synopsis before each scene and apt gesticulations by the artists made understanding easier for the uninitiated.
After the traditional introductory scene involving the sootradhara, the play opened to a beautifully-lit penance-grove of Sage Kanva, setting the stage for Sakuntala’s (Sushama Ranganathan) conversation with her sakhis, the entry of King Dushyanta (Subramanian) and the development of mutual love between him and Sakuntala. Smitten by her, the king seizes the opportunity of protecting the sacrifical rites when requested by the ascetics. He sends away his retinue and stays back in the vicinity of the grove. The pair is eventually reported as having united in wedlock by way of the Gandharva tradition. Dushyanta then leaves for his kingdom, leaving Sakuntala with his thoughts and royal insignia.
Sakuntala, immersed in her thoughts, fails to pay obeisance to the visiting sage, Durvasa, incurring his wrath and curse that she shall be forgotten by the very person whom she was thinking of. This scene is not directly portrayed but is gleaned from the conversation of Sakuntala’s companions (Manasa and Meera Krishnamurthy), one of whom convinces Durvasa to amend his curse, whereby Sakuntala’s beloved would remember her upon production of a souvenir.
With passage of time, Sakuntala is given a fond farewell by the inmates of the hermitage – both animate and inanimate. Sage Kanva (Ramchandrashekhar) sends with her two of his disciples, Sarngarava (Prakash Kaushik) and Saradvata (Devnath), as well as Gautami (Shyamala Srivatsan), the matron of the hermitage.
The action shifts to the royal palace. Due to the operation of the curse, king Dushyanta fails to recollect Sakuntala and labels her an opportunistic woman, when she is unable to prove her identity (the insignia is later reported to have been lost to a fish in the course of the journey). The indignant Sarngarava remarks upon the caprices of royalty. Mutual recriminations follow, but Sakuntala is left in repudiation. In a miraculous happening, she is carried-away to safety by a celestial nymph as conveyed to the king by the Devaguru (Santosh).
Years later, Dushyanta returns to earth after aiding Indra successfully in battle. He is remorseful, having been delivered from the curse by seeing the ring. Wanting to pay his respects to Sage Maricha (Prakash Kaushik), he stops at his hermitage and spots a young boy, Sarvadamana (Baby Bhargavi) playing with a lion-cub. The boy resembles Dushyanta and bears all the marks of an emperor. Dushyanta’s curiosity is aroused when he experiences overwhelming feelings of affection. The boy is protected by a talisman, which would turn into a snake except when touched by the boy himself or either of his parents. Unaware of this, Dushyanta touches it and it remains unchanged, to the sheer astonishment of the ascetic-attendant (Saikripa). The truth is eventually bared and the couple reunite. Sarvadamana is prophesied by sage Maricha to be a great emperor who shall bear the burden of the entire Earth, thereby earning him the epithet, Bharata. The play concludes with the customary phrase of auspiciousness – the Bharatavakyam and the Samskrita Ranga’s mangalam.
Sushama Ranganathan made for a comely Sakuntala, both as a coy maiden in the initial parts of the play, as well as the strong, single mother in the denouement. Prakash Kaushik as the quick-tempered Sarngarava was highly effective. Baby Bhargavi as Sarvadamana was cherubic, especially while playing with the lion-cub, ostensibly counting its teeth.
Sumitra Vasudev (vocal rendition of Sanskrit verses), K.R. Venkatasubramanian (rhythm-pad)) and J.B. Sruthi Sagar (flute) provided splendid support. Costuming was aesthetic, with some of the raiment dating back to the 1960s. One only wished the actors spoke a little louder in the commencing portions of the play. For aficionados of Sanskrit and the lay rasika alike, it was a fulfilling evening.
(Naveena is is an arts-writer, translator, singer, quizzer and compere, proficient in several languages including Sanskrit.)