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Reviewed by:
  • Shakuntala: A Play by Kalidasa
  • David Mason
Shakuntala: A Play by Kalidasa. Directed by Betty Bernhard, Kailash Pandya, and Sasidharan Nair. Insight Media, 2004. DVD, $159.

The latest Insight Media catalogue of non-Western drama identifies this program as an "Indian play produced in classic Natyshastra [sic] style," including "authentic music, dance, costumes, makeup, and mudras." Nowadays, scholars automatically chafe at the use of the word "authentic." Here, of course, the word is merely marketing-speak. There is no reason, therefore, to expect this program to fulfill the promise. However, the program itself affirms the assertion that this demonstrates classic Natyashastra staging, and this is a position subject to complications, which are not acknowledged. As an archival record of a college endeavor, the program fills its function, and it could be used by researchers to study and document the use of Asian techniques in Western theatre training, as we do learn of one project of intercultural theatre training and follow its choices of how Indian materials are adapted into a college-based theatre arts program. But, as a pedagogical resource that gives precise insight into the debate around Sankrit drama, the program lacks depth and clarity, and this limits its usability. This is not to impugn the artists involved in this adaptation project and the performance itself. My concern here is with the weaknesses of the video reproduction and presentation of the artists' work. The artistic value of the production, not to mention the efforts and accomplishments of the performers, is poorly represented by this package.

This two-disk program includes both a record of the ninety-minute production of Shakuntala at Pomona College and a thirty-minute "Production [End Page 536] Casebook" that combines comments from the directors and designers with brief glimpses of actor training and rehearsals. This casebook provides an effective overview of the many basic things necessary to bring a play to the stage: design ideas, set construction, directorial collaboration, long rehearsals, and so on. The casebook also offers a sense of the unique things college productions often require: guest artists, ad hoc actor training, intercultural investigations, and patient audiences. Such a casebook, however, may have been equally valuable concerning nearly any such production.

It is on the representation of scholarly concerns that this introductory material is weak. The casebook does not tell us what the Natyashastra is, what its (possible) relationship is with the play Shakuntala, what interpretive method the directors have adopted in order to use the Natyashastra for this production, nor, indeed, what performance style from India provides the frame of reference for the production. The casebook's scenes of training and rehearsal seem to privilege kathakali performance, but the casebook fails to identify kathakali, asserting only that the production was concerned with, as Pandya states it, "Natyashastra style." Neglecting to distinguish between the Natyashastra and kathakali—the former a text from around 400 ce, and the latter a performance practice continuing from the eighteenth century—fails to teach something substantive about the content of the Natyashastra, its relationship to the play in question, and its role in theatrical practice today. Consequently, the usefulness of this video program as a tool to study the Natyashastra or how it operated in the play Shakuntala is limited.

The directors' comments included in the casebook could have provided clarification of these issues. However, the program's editing limits these comments to a few sentences at a time, intercut with scenes of rehearsals and training, thus undermining any sustained continuity of thought. As a result, even for an introductory module, the program fails to provide a substantive explanation of the play in question and of these performers' methods. Betty Bernhard concedes that the company found it very hard to "figure out . . . [Shakuntala's] movement vocabulary," but the editing does not permit her to explain that it is not at all clear that the composition of Shakuntala subscribed to the elaborate movement theory of the Natyashastra—a point essential to the rationale for staging Shakuntala in a Sanskrit drama style. Although the program's titles introduce one short segment as "The Nine Rasa," only eight distinct ideas are, in fact, demonstrated by Sasidharan Nair in the...