Shri Chaitanya Kunte

Shri Chaitanya Kunte, composer and musicologist, conceived and presented an innovative concert, Kalidas Vilas, in Pune recently.  The show covered most of the Kalidasa’s oeuvre, presenting both kavya and drama through a mixture of ancient recitation, and traditional and contemporary Indian music  and dance. 

Chaitanya spoke to Venetia Ansell about the concert and the language and literature of Sanskrit.

15th July 2008


What was the concept behind the concert?

India is the home of Sanskrit, but there has been a steady decline in both awareness of and interest in Sanskrit.  Very few have a taste for either the language or the literature.  I wanted to introduce people to the nuances of Kalidasa’s poetry and the beauty of his work.  I designed the concert not for Sanskrit scholars but for the layman who has no more than a vague knowledge of Sanskrit and Kalidasa.

What do you think has caused this decline?

Sanskrit used to be a regular subject on most school curricula – we all learnt it.  Nowadays, people prefer to take up English and then French, Spanish, German….  All Indian languages, both modern and ancient, are suffering as a result.  It’s very sad that people don’t know about this wonderfully rich literature.  In fact, out of the team who worked with me on this project only two or three had any acquaintance with Sanskrit  (one, Madhura Godbole, is a Sanskrit scholar) so even for them this was something of an education.

More needs to be done to promote Sanskrit.   We should teach children the language from an early age.  We should find novel means of presenting Sanskrit literature, through media such as this concert.  And I think that we should use the internet as a tool to promote the language and its literature especially for the younger generation.

How did you try to present Kalidasan poetry and drama in the concert?

I felt that by clubbing Sanskrit with popular forms of music and dance it would be better received.   I used classical ragas and dance forms like Bharatnatyam, with which most of the audience would be familiar.  So for instance we started the concert with the opening lines of the Shakuntalam on the eight forms of Shiva and the lord’s manifestation of himself in nature, for which I used a traditional raga.  The Meghadutam was done in a more contemporary style with dance.  And the Ritusamhaara was presented through recitation, just as it would have been in the king’s courts.  I wanted to give the audience a feel for Kalidasa’s works without going in to too much detail.  We were of course limited by time constraints.  I could have spent three hours just presenting the Raghuvamsham but that’s not really practical with a modern audience.  And we had a preface in Marathi to introduce each piece – the idea was that with this and the visual and audio representations that accompanied each verse the audience would be able to grasp both the meaning and the beauty of the poetry despite not being able to understand the Sanskrit.

And how did they like it?

I had several people come up to me afterwards and say that they had no idea that these texts were so beautiful, nor that Sanskrit could be so easily understood.  There were a few Sanskrit scholars there too and they seemed to appreciate this novel manner of presenting Kalidasa. 

The audience were a mixed bunch of old and young, although I admit predominantly Hindu – mainly because the venue was in a Hindu residential area.  I do think though that this kind of thing can appeal to people throughout India and indeed abroad too – there’s so much Sanskrit scholarship and interest outside India.  About six years ago, I was asked to do a recording on certain Sanskrit texts, including Kalidasa and excerpts from the Vedas, for a Japanese lady who was studying Sanskrit in contemporary performances.

So you’ve worked on similar projects before?  Are other people working with Sanskrit texts in this way? 

Well, it’s difficult because you need to know Sanskrit and of course marrying Sanskrit texts to music and dance isn’t simple.  So there aren’t too many doing this kind of thing.  Of course, there are the regular performances of texts like the Gita Govinda in Odissi dance, but that’s a very different thing – there the dancer is more interested in the style of dance than the text upon which it’s based.

The danseuse and choreographer, Sandhya Dharma, who worked with us on this project was so inspired by the concert that she is now planning a full length dance concert with Sanskrit lyrics.  So that should take shape soon.  And for now, we’re hoping to take this concert to Mumbai, Delhi and Ujjain – if we can get sponsorship.  The trouble is that corporate sponsors are not very interested in sponsoring a project like this – they prefer big colourful song and dance affairs.  It’s Sanskrit versus Bollywood – but still, I’ll keep trying.

Details of any upcoming performances of Kalidas Vilas will be announced here if and when they are confirmed.

8 Responses to “Shri Chaitanya Kunte”

  1. 1 sunshine July 16, 2008 at 11:06 pm

    I know its a pity! I so wish I had a chance to learn sanskrit in school.

  2. 2 Vivek Datar July 17, 2008 at 1:03 am

    Very nice. Is there an audio or video of the concert on web? Even a small section would be interesting.

  3. 3 sirensongs July 17, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    Even the little bits of Samskrtam I learned during the Samskrita Bharati course I took have stayed with me and come to my aid when I am “missing” a word in Nepali or Hindi. The intuitive quality of Samskrtam for even an non-Indian native Indo-European speaker (in my case, English) is remarkable and resonant.

    I hope that I get a chance to expand my knowledge, it has surely been invaluable in learning other Indic languages. There was a day (my mother’s generation) when every American schoolkid learned Latin as a matter of course. I have to think our education has suffered from not knowing our root language and wish the Sanskrit revival continued success.

  4. 4 yogada deshpande July 17, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    very nice interview and thoughts too sir….n thanx a lot fr sendin dis interview by mail….

  5. 6 sharmilaraopn September 24, 2008 at 5:03 am

    its heartening to know that people are still keeping the language alive.

  6. 7 bhattathiri January 14, 2009 at 4:53 am

    Excellent article.The discovery, development and refinement of Sanskrit must have taken place over millennia. Although Sanskrit along with its great power to elevate human consciousness to sublime heights, is often attributed to a divine source, we can also hypothesize that its properties were discoveries that took place as a result of human beings actively and intensively engaging in the discovery of their own divine nature. The most significant question that must have arisen to the ancients was how to continue optimizing the human instrument, the body and mind, as a vehicle for the expansion of awareness and happiness. Knowing that the operation of the instrument depends entirely on the language with which it is programmed, they worked on the refinement of language software. They scrutinized and experimented with the vocal instrument and the structure of the mouth and then selected only those sounds which had the greatest clarity, purity and power of resonance. They then organized these sounds in such a way that they could mutually enhance and brighten one another, and build upon each other’s resonance. They explored the factor of breath in creating sound, and discovered that by minimizing the breath with certain sounds and maximizing it with others, the language would induce in the instrument a state of relaxed alertness that could keep it operating efficiently and tirelessly for long periods of time, while expanding and building prana-energy. And as they did this, they became happier.

  1. 1 Popularizing Sanskrit | DesiPundit Trackback on July 16, 2008 at 8:06 pm

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