"Shakunthalam", a Dance Drama
The Natayalakshana Company
Kennedy Center's Maximum India Festival
March 7, 2011
by George Jackson
copyright 2011 by George Jackson
Legends of the forgetful prince linger in the IndoEuropean imagination. "Shakuntalam", like "Swan Lake", is ostensibly about a princess under a curse. Yet at the core of these yarns is the enigma of the young man who can not clearly remember who it is he loves. In "Swan Lake" the prince mistakes a pernicious impostor for the pure princess to whom he promised to be true. In "Shakunthalam", the prince fails to recognize the very woman who first aroused his ardor. Why?
Is it that a woman changes after she has committed to love? In "Shakunthalam" we come to realize that after her first encounters with the prince, the woman is no longer a virgin and has indeed become a mother. She is a changed being and Kalidasa, the Sanskrit poet behind this story, shows how - for the sake of a happy ending - the prince falls in love with her again, this time by way of their little son.
Curses and magic apart, mine is a male interpretation of the story and a female one might be less generous to the prince. In the Natyalakshana production of "Shakuthalam", the narrative is straightforward, feelings are simlply and clearly expressed and the dancing is forthright and bold. It is dancing that deploys similar treading, turning and hopping steps as in other classical India styles. Stances also alternate between the upright and those poised to pounce (knees bent, hips and legs turned-out, backs curved). Yet everything is more simply flexed and rhythmically less complex. The choreography has more decorative repetition than varied development. The treading, especially when done by the men, becomes a vigorous stamping in which the dancer's entire body vibrates. Women's groups and solos flow and flower without much intricate stitching. After all, there's a long story to tell.
At last one saw men dancing in Maximum India! The plain, almost abrupt style of their roles in this dance drama suited them. The printed program was not very informative. I presume the choreography was by the Natyalakshama company's founder, Usha Venekateswaran, and that it adhered to the Kathak* tradition of India classicism. The leading roles of Dushyanta (the forgetful one) and Shakunthala (the cursed heroine) were taken by Hari and Chethana - I'm guessing as to which was which. The Shakunthala had a refined presence. Now I'd like to see men dance the high styles of Odissi and Bharata Natyam.
*It is Khatak I'm told, although it looks like some English definitions of Khatakali.