On Saturday, a handful of people met in Budhwar Peth to celebrate a story that has survived 140 years even as everything else associated with it changed. It was on October 31, 1880, that Annasaheb Kirloskar presented his play, Sangeet Shakuntal, and transformed Marathi theatre forever.
Audiences saw the characters of Kalidasa’s romantic tale act and sing numbers from classical and folk music— in the way of the opera— and were captivated. Though a few musicals had been performed before, Sangeet Shakuntal is considered to have kick-started the Marathi Sangeet Natak tradition.
Today, Vasant Cinema stands at the spot where Sangeet Shakuntal had been staged. Unlike the bustle of that era, theatres across the world is suffering the ill effects of the pandemic and are dark. Fittingly, the tribute to Sangeet Shakuntal included a prayer to the script.
“We usually perform the play with 20 actors and a large number of support staff for costumes and backstage. Due to the pandemic, we called only two actors to present songs from the play and read out Act I. We rehearsed in my house for a few days,” says Sunil Mahajan, whose group Samvad organised the event.
According to an entry in the Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre, edited by Ananda Lal, “Kirloskar made his musicians sit in the orchestra pit as in Western theatre, rather than the wings…. The middle-class spectators were enthralled.” The tradition of Sangeet Natak held sway on stage and in the popular imagination of Maharashtra until several decades into the turn of the century.
Stage veteran Deepti Bhogale recalls her parents playing Dushyant and Shakuntala in performances by their group Marathi Rangabhumi.
“We are three generations of performers… my sister Kirti Shiledar has played Shakuntala and I have essayed the role of her friend Priyamvada,” says Bhogale, adding that the 140th anniversary celebrations, however small, served to “remind people of a theatre milestone”.