Theses Doctoral

Searching for Shakuntala: Sanskrit drama and theatrical modernity in Europe and India, 1789-Present

Culp, Amanda Louise

Since the end of the eighteenth century, the Sanskrit drama known as Shakuntala (Abhijñānaśakuntala) by Kalidasa has held a place of prominence as a classic of world literature. First translated into English by Sir William Jones in 1789, in the intervening centuries Shakuntala has been extolled and memorialized by the likes of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, Theophile Gautier, and Rabindranath Tagore. Though often included in anthologies of world literature, however, the history of the play in performance during this same period of time has gone both undocumented and unstudied. In an endeavor to fill this significant void in scholarship, “Searching for Shakuntala” is the first comprehensive study of the performance history of Kalidasa’s Abhijñānaśakuntala in Europe and India. It argues that Shakuntala has been a critical interlocutor for the emergence of modern theater practice, having been regularly featured on both European and Indian stages throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Moreover, it asserts that to appreciate the contributions that the play has made to modern theater history requires thinking through and against the biases and expectations of cultural authenticity that have burdened the play in both performance and reception. Perceived as a portrait of a particular moment in ancient Indian history, Shakuntala has long been encumbered by the obligation to portray either the authentic Other for an eager and curious foreign audience or the authentic Self for a native Indian audience reclaiming a national heritage. Such expectations, this project contends, overlook the play’s long history in between the diametric poles of East and West, obscuring the far more complicated, and more interesting facets of its lives onstage.
As a performance history, “Searching for Shakuntala” endeavors to reconstruct historical productions by assembling reviews, photographs, programs, set drawings, costume materials, video recordings (when available), and other theatrical ephemera. Rather than beginning from the point of view of the text, each chapter is framed around a central production and asks how the cultural, historical, artistic, and political forces of the period in question can be discerned in this particular manifestation of Kalidasa’s play. Chapter 1 begins with William Poel and the Elizabethan Stage Society’s original practice Shakuntala from fin-de-siècle London; Chapter 2 heads across the channel to Paris and the symbolist Théâtre de L’Œuvre of Lugné-Poe and his experimentation with Sanskrit drama; Chapter 3 considers the representation of Shakuntala by a group known as the Brahmana Sabha at India’s First National Drama Festival in 1954; and Chapter 4 begins with an adaptation called Chhaya Shakuntala, or Shades of Shakuntala, as a way into thinking through the play on contemporary Indian stages. Taken together, the productions discussed in this dissertation make clear that the history of Shakuntala in performance is more than just documentation of the occasional production of an obscure work of ancient dramatic literature. It is also a study in the hegemony of intercultural exchange, the interplay between theatrical performance and identity formation, and the interwoven formal theatrical experimentation that took place through the performance of an Indian text during a period of theater history traditionally dominated by the West.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Mitra, Shayoni
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 1, 2018