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.