Shakuntala is a modern woman who takes life in her stride. She has discarded her forest home for a Mumbai flat, and left behind her idyllic life for a stressful job in an emergency room. Meanwhile, Dushyant has forsaken his palace to be a professor in New York. When they first set eyes on one another in a Mumbai bookshop, a love thousands of years old is awakened. But what will their relationship look like in the 21st century? In a fashion similar to the epistolary correspondence in Feroz Abbas Khan’s Tumhari Amrita, Shakuntala recounts stories from her relationship with Dushyant in the dramatic reading, Shakuntala Awaits.
“Although Shakuntala is a hard-nosed, practical woman, there’s a part of her that’s a romantic,” says Isheeta Ganguly, writer and director of Shakuntala Awaits. “When she meets Dushyant, she thinks he might be the one. He gives her his college ring as a token of their attachment. But Dushyant doesn’t reply to her messages after he leaves. So she decides to look for him to see if that connection still remains.” The dramatic reading is being performed as a part of Centrestage, the NCPA’s 10-day festival of premiering plays, which kicked off on November 25 in Mumbai.
Other notable productions include The Relationship Agreement, written and directed by Meherzad Patel; Naribai, written and enacted by Susmita Mukherjee; Facials, Pedicures, and Mind Masala featuring Divya Jagdale and Tannishtha Chatterjee; and Alive At 40, a stand-up routine by Anuvab Pal.
Shakuntala Awaits navigates the complexities of a modern relationship in a quest to answer a difficult but essential question: how do we define love today? In the play, both Shakuntala and Dushyant are “global nomads”, just like the actors Purva Bedi and Samrat Chakravarti, who are playing these characters. Based in New York, both Bedi and Chakravarti have lived and worked in different cities. “Like so many people in relationships nowadays, we have roots everywhere,” says Chakravarti, adding, “But how does that affect the way we, as men and women, negotiate commitment?”
Apart from the obvious physical separation in both the folktale and its latest version, Shakuntala and Dushyant have to deal with work pressure, messy pasts and the uncertainties of modern relationships. At the same time, they have the freedom to make choices. “In the folktale, Dushyant, as a prince, was bound to his palace; Shakuntala, as a woman, was bound to Dushyant. But today’s relationships are singularly non-committal,” says Chakravarti. So how does Shakuntala react when Dushyant is diagnosed with a neurological condition in which he loses his memory, and how will Dushyant deal with Shakuntala’s pregnancy?
“As women, we are told to hold out and wait, and that, in the end, we will be rewarded with our own fairytale,” says Ganguly. “After finding out about Dushyant, Shakuntala needs to decide whether waiting is worth her while. She also has to make a decision about her child, which is complicated. Although women are now sexually, economically and politically more empowered, there’s so much social pressure to be in a relationship or married when you decide to have a child. That hasn’t changed. In Shakuntala’s time, a woman pregnant out of wedlock would have been looked down upon, just like today,” adds Ganguly.
Although Shakuntala Awaits is based on a story set in Hastinapur thousands of years ago, Bedi believes that its adaptation is universal. “It tells a story that Indians all over the world can relate to,” she says, adding, “We have all been at the crossroads of the past and the future, trying to define ourselves in a multitude of worlds we live in.”