Growing up, my father would often remind me that I came from a family of illustrious Sanskrit scholars. Whether this was to make me work harder at my conjugations and declensions or to take the language more seriously than as an easy means of scoring high marks, or to impress upon me our family’s academic lineage, I still do not know, but the weight of this legacy often made its presence uncomfortably felt. My father himself was a student of the language, and Kalidasa was quoted over our dinner table as normally as the price of onions was bandied about in other homes; and, it was not uncommon to see my father leafing through a yellowing, tattered copy of Abhignana Shakuntalam with a satisfied smile on his face. One of his favourite passages in the book, however, was by the German poet, Goethe.
“Would’st thou the young year’s blossoms
And the fruits of its decline
And all by which soul is charmed
Enraptured, feasted, fed,
Would’st thou the Earth and Heaven itself
In one sole name combine?
I name thee, O Sakuntala ! and all at
Once is said”
Luckily, modern retellings of classical stories are supposed to be unfettered by the ghosts of the past. So, it was with an open mind that I set off to watch Little India, the Trestle Theatre Company’s interpretation of Shakuntala’s and Dushyanta’s romance, and their son Bharata’s search for his father many years later. Trestle is known in the UK for its masked, highly physical performances often staged in collaboration with a diverse range of artists, participants and organisations on a local, regional, national and international level. Though not a masked production, this re-imagining of Shakuntala’s story was born through collaborations with the Indian theatre company Little Jasmine and incorporated elements of kalaripayattu, konnakol or vocal rhythms and a series of bharatanatyam hastas.
Shakuntala was played by the lovely Audrie Woodhouse whose lithe body and expressive eyes seemed well suited for the role of the part celestial forest nymph. Though she nimbly executed the kalari movements there was a sense of everything being told to the audience many times over — through dialogues, kalari and mudras — so much so that some scenes plodded along. Sartaj Garewal’s Dushyanta was comical at times, shouting out dialogues and executing a series of Bruce Lee like kung-fu moves. The play bill claimed that Garewal was an exponent of Fujian White Crane Kung Fu and apparently he was rather eager to prove this to be true. Unfortunately he chose to show us his prowess at rather inopportune moments, such as after the death of his father, pounding his fists against the stage floor while executing what appeared to be martial art push ups. Ashwin Bolar completed the cast as a Bharata who spends much of the play on all fours, skulking about in corners, coveting his father’s ring and then subsequently losing it in the river in a manner not unlike but not half as compelling as Gollum. (Yes, yes Shakuntala is the one who loses the ring, but this is a modern retelling and such things may be overlooked)
But it was difficult to over look other things. The dialogues seemed to have taken inspiration from a 1970s potboiler (“You mean my father is alive? You lied to me?” “He is dead to me!”), the mudras were sloppily executed and the kalari seemed to have been incorporated willy nilly (At one point Dushyanta engages in a kalari tussle with the recently spurned and pregnant Shakuntala.) And save for a few strobe disco lights and the sound of traffic piped in when Bharata ventures to the big bad city in search of his father the ‘modern’ angle was all but missing for me. This is a shame, for the story is ripe for retelling with characters facing predicaments modern day audiences can relate to — a single mother, an absent father and a rebellious teen. But it felt as though mere lip service has been paid to these themes. I couldn't help but wonder how the story would have fared had it been set on a gritty council estate.
Watching the story unfold on stage I was torn between the urge to cringe and laugh, and succumbed quietly to both temptations in turns. And sadly it wasn’t just me. I watched the play with an audience of hip, South London teenage drama students who sniggered frequently and not so quietly. And it would be unfair to blame it on callow youth, for I watched A Disappearing Number (on the life of the mathematician Ramanujan) with a similar audience, but they were spellbound and awed into silence by a superior act.
Like A Disappearing Number though, the sets of Little India were simple and innovative and deserve mention. Comprising predominantly of a canvas slung between two posts that served variously as hammock and hovel, at one point it sweetly transformed into the ring swallowing fish.
No doubt, Trestle was well intentioned in its efforts but good intentions do not necessarily translate in to a good production. One wishes Trestle had focused more on the story for though myths are often simple tales at heart, they can be rather tricky to tell, and Little India lost its essence under all those kalari kicks and rhythmic vocals. My theatre companion that evening, a noted classical dancer had a wry theory about this: “It’s another border raid: you want something different, but your coffers run empty, so you just plunder the next village or kingdom or art form and carry away bounties, often, beauties you don’t know what to do with except display them — and your cleverness! Then you end up making a spectacle of yourself instead of a cross-form, cross-art spectacle!”
Perhaps the next time I want a retelling of this story I will return to my father, a late Sunday afternoon and his yellowing copy of Shakuntalam. Thankfully, some spaces are still inviolable.
This appeared in the Arts section of today's Newindpress on Sunday.