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April 2008

 

Shakuntala, or the Ring of Remembrance

- Carel


The combination of dance and drama always pays off. This age-old maxim was proven once again in the recent performance of Kalidasa's play Shakuntala, the Ring of Remembrance, at the Sri Aurobindo Auditorium at Bharat Nivas. Partha's staging of the drama and Kanchana's direction of the dancers proved to be a happy combination, resulting in two very enjoyable evenings even if, as someone observed, “it was a touch too much like Bollywood.”

The story of Shakuntala, as recounted by Kalidasa, the great Indian poet of the 1st century CE, is perhaps the most famous Sanskrit play in existence. On a hunting expedition in the forest King DShakuntala (played by Elene) engraves a lotus leaf while Anusuya (Shristi, left) and Priyamvada (Manjula) look on. Photo by Vimalushyant meets, in the hermitage of Rishi Kanva, the beautiful Shakuntala, daughter of the apsara (heavenly nymph) Menaka who had left her in Kanva's care. The king falls in love with Shakuntala as he watches her playing in the grove with her friends Anusuya and Priyamvada. His love is returned and they marry according to the Gandharva tradition. Soon after the consummation of the marriage, the king returns to the palace to assume his kingly duties. As he leaves, he gives Shakuntala a ring engraved with his name.

While the king is away Shakuntala spends her time day-dreaming about her future with him. She does not notice the arrival of Rishi Durvasas, known for his short temper. Enraged that he is being ignored, he curses her: “He of whom you are thinking and for whose sake you have forgotten the most elementary laws of hospitality, he will forget you!” Anusuya and Priyamvada convince the sage that Shakuntala is blameless. Durvasas then modifies the curse: when the king sees the ring he had given her, the curse will end.

When Shakuntala realizes that she is pregnant, she travels to the court to be united with her husband, the king. But he does not recognize her and to her dismay she discovers that she has lost his signet ring. Distressed, she leaves but is lifted up into the heavens by her apsara mother.

Later, palace guards bring in a fisherman who, they assume, has stolen one of the king's rings. Protesting his innocence, the fisherman explains how he had found the ring in the belly of a fish. Seeing the ring, the king recollects his past with Shakuntala. He rewards the fisherman. But Shakuntala has gone.

Many years pass. The valiant but grieving king fights a war on behalf of the gods. Returning victorious from battle in the chariot of Indra, the King of the Gods, his attention is drawn by a mountain, shimmering from afar with a golden, honey-like light. It is the retreat of the great sage Maricha, an ascetic known for his formidable powers. The king visits the ashram and meets a young child playing fearlessly with a lion cub. Asking who the boy is, he suddenly realizes the child is his own son. He is then reunited with Shakuntala. Maricha and his wife Aditi bless the couple and reveal that their son Bharat will become a great emperor, and will give his name to India : Bharat.

The story of Shakuntala can be interpreted on more than one level. “The title of this story could be In search of the forgotten soul,” writes Aurovilian Christine Devin in the foreword of her book ‘Shakuntala or The Ring of Remembrance'. “For the story expresses the deep and poignant need at the heart of our human condition – like King Dushyant, man has been condemned to forget his inborn divinity.” Seen from that perspective, the play is also the story of transformation. “Love, born in the paradise of childhood and innocence, is regained, transmuted and magnificently widened.”

In enacting this play in simple English, the original beauty of Kalidasa's great play and its majesty in Sanskrit has been lost. But Shakuntala has been interpreted so often in so many versions that one more is acceptable. This certainly was the case here. The young actors and dancers from both Auroville and Outreach schools performed commendably, and the cast showed a lot of promise. Partha had invited many outsiders to come and comment during the rehearsals to improve wherever possible. This paid off. We hope that Partha and Kanchana will take this first success as a starting point for further cooperation.

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