Not much is known about Sanskrit’s greatest poet and playwright, Kalidas. Even less is heard about his wife. The woman who inspired vivid verses on sensuality has been given different names and histories by folklorists, singers and storytellers over the centuries. Mohan Rakesh called her Mallika in Ashadh Ka Ek Din. Mohan Maharishi now imagines her to be Vidyottama, the daughter of a king and an accomplished classical dancer, in his play, Vidyottama. The play, enacted by the NSD Repertory and directed by Maharishi, will be staged at Delhi’s National School of Drama from November 4.
“Not much is written about Vidyottama and even the story of Kalidas is distorted when it reaches us. I have never been an activist but things that hit me between the eyes come into my theatre,” says Maharishi. The relationship between Kalidas and Vidyottama could have emerged from the book of a strident feminist. He is the poet laureate, but she raises the standard of debate of his works. “Why are all Brahmins worshipped in your plays?” she asks. She teaches him Mohiniyattam as well as supervises the staging of his play, Abhijnanasakuntalam. He is mesmerised by her beauty and learning, but she sets the rules — he can ask her no questions about why she regularly disappears from the palace.
The play speaks in a classical language in terms of sets, costumes and dance, even as it questions the stereotypes inherited from classical theatre: “Why is the king above blame even when he disowns his pregnant wife as King Dushyant does in Abhijnanasakuntalam?” Indian aesthetics is uncomfortable with a flawed hero and Vidyottama makes a strong point against the dosh-mukt nayak of Natyashashtra, an ancient Indian treatise that continues to shape our creativity. “She challenges Brahmanical aesthetics and suggests that theatre must do more than provide ananda; it must present reality even if this is unpalatable,” says Maharishi.
Maharishi’s previous plays include a biography of Orhan Pamuk called Istanbul, an exploration of the Theory of Relativity in Einstein and a slamming of corruption in Raja ki Rasoi. Working with a mixed cast of experienced and new repertory actors, he creates Vidyottama with attention to detail and is helped by Bharati Shivaji’s choreography. The play, however, falters in its dialogue delivery as an old weakness of NSD graduates in speech training surfaces.
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