Shakuntala! Made for a Cause

9 March 2019, Napier Municipal Theatre 
Made for a Cause 2019
Hawke's Bay Indian Cultural Centre 
By Anna Soutar

In 1843 when the European settlement of Napier had hardly got into gear, the Raj province of Sindh (today in Pakistan), was militarily taken by Sir Charles Napier (1782 – 1853). I can report that this week, the entire nation of India re-took the city of Napier, Aotearoa – not by force, but with food and music and dance, and laughter.

The modern story of the Indian capture of Hawke’s Bay is a cultural one. Since 2015 an energetic group of senior figures in the local Indian community has been behind raising the profile of Indian dance, music and drama, with classes for all ages and ethnicities, and now drama, staging a theatrical production which fuses together an ancient mythology with contemporary language and performers.

We were welcomed with a delicious aroma, and banks of curries, samosas and rice, in the Municipal foyer, where the audience and participants ate and mingled, many wearing scarves and skirts evoked by India and keen to share tales of visits to the ancient continent, others more authentically garbed in richly coloured saris.

The on-stage show was divided into two parts, the first, a roll call of local dancers and singers displaying what they learn at the Hawke’s Bay Indian Cultural Centre, alongside guest performers from Auckland; the second a braided drama with two threads combining ancient myth and traditional artforms with a contemporary story-line and issues of our time in a ‘Kiwi comedy of manners’.

The Ravi siblings, Abhishek and Archana, Navjeet Singh (aka NV) with his unique “Bollycal” and hip hop duo The Disciples were the ‘stars’ of the first half with their very polished, athletic, disciplined performances, and considerable audience appeal. They had won prizes and appeared on television, richly deserving the admiration the audience, particularly children gave them. However, the local dancers and singers really made my heart sing. Seeing those small children so totally immersed in the music and movement of India was delightful.

Across the performances, it was obvious that the universal cultural influences of the West, of B/Hollywood, of New Zealand even, were crossing into dance forms that are historically very ancient and stylistically ordained. At the same time, the 21st century made its presence felt and shared with audience and performers alike in this fusion of cultures and elements.

Time took a further tumble in the second half of the evening, as two forms of drama were criss-crossed into a universal love story, as, with the help of music, lights and evocative backdrops, two romances (set thousands of years apart), were played out in a specially commissioned Indian-Western collaboration, Shakuntala!

Sometimes, the contemporary became a muddle of confused adolescent bickering among three young women trying to find answers to their life’s problems in the lessons in text books I could have told them would not be enough. However, the best bits of their part of the play were the chattered arguments the two supportive friends (Ansa Rachel Alex, Betzy Babu) carried on, even as they left the stage. The young couple at the centre of their side of the story were recognisable New Zealand youngsters – gawky and nearly inarticulate, played by Bridie Thomson and Bede Wright with stumbling accuracy.

The original story from the Mahābhārata played out on the other side of the stage was as lyrical and graceful as the modern one was awkward, as it traced the love story of Shakuntala danced by teacher and choreographer Deepthi Krishna with Joshy Varghese. A celebrated Indian romance interrogated as it were through the juxtaposition of our ‘Every(wo)man’ scenario (written by Kiwi playwright Pauline Hayes) in a dialogue expressed across millennia, about a young mother abandoned and an absent father, a strike of ‘cosmic resonance’ as the students learned in their lessons, and whether reconciliation or at least responsibility (destiny), could be achieved.

It was a serious note to end on, and in considerable glamour. The costumes were suitably magnificent, in gorgeous colours bedecked with gold in ripples of silken cloth. Other dancers in this traditional piece were Fibin Basil, Tonin Philip and Lakshmi Raj. The music complemented the dance, the heartbreak and happiness just as articulate in mimed form as they were in the words of the modern play.

All in all, this evening of many-layered Indian cultures was a delight and the premier Hawke’s Bay production, led by Ken Keys, is to be congratulated.

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