Interview with Kirtana Kumar

Kirtana Kumar, director of Shakuntala

talks to Venetia Ansell

St Marks Road, Bangalore

20th May 2008

Why did you choose the older Vyasa version of the myth over Kalidasa’s Shakuntala?


I love Kalidasa’s language but the device he uses – the ring and curse – didn’t interest me at all.  I couldn’t relate to his telling of the story – post feminism, this just doesn’t work.  Then I happened across Vyasa’s text and it struck a chord – here Dushyanta is forced to confront his memory.  So I use the framework of the Mahabharata version, especially at the end.  But we use Kalidasa’s verse for the romantic scenes, the sringara rasa.  The rest of the play is all our reimagining – mine and Konarak’s.


So you aim to evoke a certain type of rasa in your audience – do you use traditional techniques?


Yes, mudras – hastamudras – for the love, the yearning.  So with the Kalidasan moment when Dushyanta looks on as a bee circles Shakuntala  [Kirtana demonstrates the mudra, as in the picture below, as she recites]

“Eager bee, you lightly skim
O’er the eyelid’s trembling rim
  Toward the cheek aquiver.
Gently buzzing round her cheek,
Whispering in her ear, you seek
  Secrets to deliver..” 

But of course it’s in English, a first I think – to use mudras with English.  I love to use tradition and form in a contemporary context.



Are there any other traditional elements of Sanskrit drama you draw on?


Well, of course the love scene takes place offstage just as in Kalidasa.  All the preamble is acted out, with Dushyanta preening himself like a Bollywood hero, and then the scene is narrated by the two guards who are themselves watching and aroused by what they see. They become our narrators.  Using other characters to tell the audience of a major event that is happening, or has happened, offstage is very much in the traditional mould.  But we play around with this idea of narration much more – the sutradhar becomes Shankuntala; the musician becomes Narada.  The sutradhar discusses the Mahabharata with Vyasa. At one point Dushyanta orders the sutradhar to get back to his job of storytelling.  It’s all very Brechtian.

You can of course do it simply as a traditional play but how much more interesting to do it as a modern interpretation.

And our use of konokol is really quite innovative – this was a major step for us and something we’re working with much more now. We set words to this carnatic music rhythm – a very mathematical rhythm – the first time it’s ever been done.  And we didn’t use an Indian language, but English.  Most of the audience wouldn’t be aware of this, only the musicians, but it works at a subconscious level.  The tempo picks up in dramatic moments, perhaps prompting the audience to react in a certain way.  But it’s not really that that we were interested in – it was more the manner of speaking.  Indian English theatre sounds horrible, that false voice.  This is very much Indian.


“We must remember if we are not to become meaningless and we must forget if we are not to go mad…”, so says the sutradhar at the beginning of the play.  Can you talk about this theme of remembering and forgetting?

The second Bombay blasts happened just as we were beginning to work on the concept of the play, and that gave us a hook.  We decided to use memory as a metaphor, because we keep on forgetting.  I love cyclical structure – this is set in the Kaliyuga – and of course in Indian thought everything is a cycle just as with these terrible things which keep happening.  I’m interested in the manner in which we forget.

At the beginning we have some visuals, pictures of iconic scenes from Vietnam, the Twin Towers, the Bombay blasts…And then we have a series of seemingly random dates – but of course they have enormous significance because they mark the start of World War 1, World War 2, 9/11.  Do we remember the violence of yesterday?  Do we remember it enough to change tomorrow? 

Shakuntala forces Dushyanta to remember.  She invokes the divinities – the devas, bhutas, sun, moon, fire, Vayu, Yama and of course Sakshi – as her witnesses.  And by doing so, she makes not only Dushyanta remember but all of us remember.  Shakuntala’s invocation makes Dushyanta rise to the challenge, and so all of us too.


So does memory for you have moral implications?


No, not moral – I don’t like to use that word.  Cosmic implications.  It’s more than just remembering [smr] or not remembering [vismr].


How did audiences in England react to your play?


When the Trestle Theatre invited us to work with them on this project, we were initially reluctant.  We were worried we’d suffer the same fate that so much Indian art suffers when it goes West, where people are entranced by the exotic visuals.  That much-hyped and overused Indian exoticism.  We thought people might miss the subtleties.  So we talked a lot with Trestle before agreeing to do this.  Then we went over to London and did three weeks of workshops with people from all over the city, and all over England.  And you know what they all saw this as – a story of single motherhood, a mother abandoned by the father.  It was aggressive and angry.


Your Shakuntala is certainly more feisty than Kalidasa’s; she’s not passive, no mere pawn of divine machinations.


Absolutely – in line with Vyasa’s characterisation.  She’s not a meek, docile wife.  But not aggressive, I wouldn’t say aggressive.  And she’s just as romantic and love-struck as in Kalidasa.  You see in Kalidasa’s time, wives had to be like that, and kings could hardly be portrayed in a negative light.  Hence the device of the curse ,which lets Dushyanta off the hook, excuses him forgetting who his wife is.  But for us, today, that doesn’t work.


So how did Indian audiences react to this new avatar of Shakuntala?


90% of India knows Shakuntala through Kalidasa – for them Shakuntala means Kalidasa’s Shakuntala.  She, and her story, have permeated the national consciousness through calendar art and Raja Ravi Verma, and she’s always the Sita-like passive ideal.  So when, at the end of the play, Shakuntala challenges Dushyanta it’s a big shock.  And when she actually physically fights her husband… [see picture below] 


Do you think these texts need to be retold every few generations?  That perhaps people never really think about stories as well-known as Shakuntala but instead let them fade into the realm of vague cultural consciouness?


Yes, very much.  Re-telling these stories is the only way to keep them alive.  You have to make people think about them.  Often it seems as if there’s only one version of the epics rather than the hundreds of thousands of versions and retellings.  Why do we set them in stone?




Shakuntala is not currently being performed, but is due to tour north east India soon.  Details of upcoming performances will be published here as soon as they’re announced.


4 Responses to “Interview with Kirtana Kumar”

  1. 1 Revathi May 23, 2008 at 6:13 pm

    While I admire artistes like those at Little Jasmine for the effort they have put into their productions, I must protest the modern Indian tendency of putting their own spin on ancient Indian stories. The same goes for publishing houses and audio-video producers who make a mockery of Indian mythology.

    The artistes, producers and publishers want to use the old names of characters and works as they are well-known. But they want to change the spirit of the story because they want to make it palatable to a modern audience.

    Why don’t they try giving their stories and characters original names and try to see if they can stand on their own merit instead of using names like Vyasa and Shakuntala, Vishnu Sharma and Panchatantra, Draupadi, Hanuman, Rama and Sita for their own sensationalist interpretations of timeless classics?

    If they tried something similar with modern works of literature, they would be hauled up by the authors for copyright infringement and worse.

  2. 2 inspirer May 29, 2008 at 12:48 am

    inspirer says : I absolutely agree with this !

  3. 3 Littlethings March 24, 2011 at 12:46 am

    I would like to know the email ID of Kirthana. One Mr Prithvi who watched her show 5 years before, is now painting SAvitri on the walls of the meditation hall through SAhadev one of the india’s fine artist. I wuld like inform her… how much she has inspired. please give her email id.

  1. 1 Shakuntala « Sanskrit Literature Trackback on May 21, 2008 at 9:04 pm

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