The inexcusable neglect of Indian classical literature in our education results, among other things, in a subsidiary neglect of Sanskrit drama by contemporary Indian theatre. The societal assumption is that these ancient texts have no relevance to our times. Tellingly, Bengali directors revive Greek and Roman tragedies with greater regularity — as if they speak to us more directly — when, in fact, the best of the 20-odd oldest surviving Sanskrit plays hold far deeper resonances for us.

Take Visakhadatta’s Mudra-Rākshasa, currently staged by Angan Belgharia in a new translation by Ratan Kumar Das. Although set in Chandragupta Maurya’s reign, it proves that politics has not changed significantly over the centuries. Indeed, one can even find echoes of it in the just-concluded state elections, especially in the way Visakhadatta’s Chanakya talks of Brahminical caste pride. Chanakya’s machinations to win over his enemy, Rakshasa, to the Maurya side, depict realpolitik at its subtlest, as well as expediency at all costs. And of course, Visakhadatta wrote it a millennium before Machiavelli, in a perfect exemplum of the end justifying the means.

Intriguingly, he leaves us guessing about who he regards as the hero: he names Rakshasa in the title, but Chanakya emerges victor. Most likely, he posits them as opposites in loyalty; Rakshasa taking the straight path, Chanakya the cunning one, but both dedicated to the respective trusts reposed in them, neither one selfish. Therefore, Biplab Bandyopadhyay’s directorial slant towards Chanakya, and Gautam Halder’s scheming, if not villainous, portrayal actually disrupt the fine balance. Rakshasa (Sanjib Sarkar) should not appear as no match, and Chanakya should receive more statesman-like characterization — even for an anti-saffron interpretation. Visually, Nilabh Chattopadhyay designs an imposing architectural set.

Bhasa’s Karnabhāram and Urubhangam, the only Sanskrit dramas to qualify as tragedies, appeal by their one-act brevity. Balurghat Wree recently presented Karnabhāram in Sattriya style directed by Kukil Goswami, an Assamese graduate from the National School of Drama, workshopped with Kolkata actors assembled by Ashmayu. The intimate performance allowed spectators a closeup experience of graceful Sattriya dance as applied to a dramatic text. We hope Goswami extends his explorations into full productions.

(From The Telegraph, 25 March 2017)