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William Shakespeare through Kathakali
- Madhuja Mukhopadhyay

September 13, 2018

Drive East Fest at New York this year saw a brilliant exhibition of unparalleled classical dance and music talents from India for a week in August. This writer was privileged to attend a few performances held at La MaMa auditorium basement theatre. One of the notable evenings was a Kathakali presentation by Kathakali exponent Prabal Gupta from India on August 18, 2018. He presented Cleopatra in Kathakali style, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Anthony and Cleopatra.

The tragic saga of Cleopatra came to life when Gupta unveiled the highlights of the original story from scene to scene starting with Cleopatra speaking to her friend about Anthony and writing love letter to him, reacting on hearing the news of Anthony’s marriage with Octavia and at the end holding Anthony’s lifeless body in her arms and surrendering herself to death by getting bitten by a poisonous snake to unite with her beloved.

Maintaining the pure dance form of Kathakali in stree vesham, Gupta chose to wear a golden snake crown as one of his headgears which perfectly teamed with his Pharaoh look and went well with the portrayal of Cleopatra. The major challenge was to set the chronicle, which captured the timeless story of the Egyptian ruler and her love lore with Anthony, without any compromise on the traditional dance form; this was a singularly commendable feat.

The final act was breathtaking where Gupta used a small wooden seat at the center of the stage with focus light on him and setting the rest of the stage to darkness. The light arrangement along with Gupta’s expressions was captivating. The final act was to depict Cleopatra committing suicide holding her love Antony in her arms. As she got bitten by the poisonous snake, she started frothing from the mouth. The final act left the packed auditorium spellbound.

Cleopatra in Kathakali is a very mature and well researched offering made by Gupta, disciple of Guru Sadanam Balakrishnan. The use of ragas like Shankarabaranam, Purvikalyani, Vekata, Ahari, Neelambari, Devagandhari and finally Shivaranjani were wisely done to set the mood of different acts across the entire presentation. Prabal Gupta has been conferred with 'Outstanding Citizen of New York' by the member council of New York.

Madhuja Mukhopadhyay is trained in Bharatanatyam and is a disciple of Kolkata-based Madhuboni Chatterjee. She is also a software consultant by profession and currently a resident of New York City.