Remember the love story of Shakuntala and Dushyant from the epic The Mahabharata? The classic romantic chemistry has been retold multiple times — through films and plays. India-based writer/director and Tagore-fusion singer Isheeta Ganguly’s play, Shakuntala Awaits, based on the historic lovebirds, was screened virtually on demand during the pandemic.
Now, the play’s all set to be recreated as an Off-Broadway musical in New York City, starting on 17 January 2022. That makes Isheeta the first India-based writer–director to have her NCPA-production going Off-Broadway.
Admitting that she’s delighted her play is set to be presented to a global audience, Isheeta adds, “It’s incredibly inspiring to see more India-based content both from India and the diaspora going Off-Broadway. And it’s a great honour to bring forward stories of India’s rich heritage.”
Speaking about India’s rich background of mythology, epics and classic literature, she asserts that there’s a lot of potential to be reimagined through modern, urban conflicts, relationships and characters. “New York City is the most diverse theatre capital of the world, which draws an interesting and thoughtful global audience. It’s also my hometown, so it’s very special to showcase this work to what I believe is one of the most culturally nuanced audiences in the world.”
How it all started
An Indian American, Isheeta was born in Kolkata but moved to the US with her parents when she was less than a year old. Her deep passion for Tagore’s music and India’s freedom songs through her freedom-fighter grandfather during trips to Kolkata were a strong thread of continuity during her growing up years. The Shakuntala folk tale was a favourite bedtime story her grandmother narrated to her every night during visits — one reason she chose to adapt it. In her play, Isheeta’s created an urban “dram-com” landscape to the classic story. When asked of her inspiration, she shared, “All three of my musical theatre productions are classic meets contemporary.
Growing up amidst the jambalaya of the Indian diaspora in the US shaped me deeply in terms of the power of weaving together strong cross-cultural influences,” explains Isheeta who has a Master’s Degree in Public Health from Columbia University.
Earlier, Purva Bedi and Samrat Chakravarti had played the roles of Dushyant and Shakuntala. However, for the world premiere of the Off-Broadway musical at Here Theatre, Isheeta will be showcasing Tik-Tok sensation and actors Vick Krishna and Piyali Syam for the one-hour fifteen-minute play. “With me being in Mumbai and the actors in NYC, we’ve been rehearsing over zoom until we reunite in a few weeks,” she states.
In love with live theatre
Shakuntala Awaits is loosely adapted from the original — a tale for the modern-day with the story of a professor (Samrat Chakrabarti) from Stanford reaching NYC for a conference. He meets a doctor (Purva Bedi) at a Jackson Heights bookstore. The drama traces their story and chemistry with the plotline set in 2020 with COVID being one of the layers.
“Live theatre is such an exciting format for live storytelling. It’s a phenomenal medium to tell immigrant American stories or any story,” says an excited Isheeta. Interestingly, Isheeta’s musical theatre is being developed into a feature film with a Hollywood cast. “We want tales from classical and mythological backgrounds to reach out to global audiences in the modern day,” she explains.
So how challenging is it for how a woman playwright/director and screenwriter to write roles for women? “This is a dynamic and exciting moment for women characters and voices,” she replies. “The opportunity is now greater than ever before for directors and filmmakers to depict women heroes who’ve evolved, transformed and paved the way in various avatars. It’s a moment of enormous opportunity to create women characters who are bold yet have gone through their own heroes’ journeys and overcome obstacles.”
The stories that wait to be told
Isheeta, who earlier wrote and directed two internationally acclaimed productions — Sundays with Chitra & Chaitali and Three Women — has recorded 8 studio albums trained under Rabindrasangeet maestro Suchitra Mitra and Hindustani classical virtuoso Shri Vijay Kicchlu and has for years performed in Jazz and R&B including a hit album, Damaru, featuring a voice-over by Bollywood actor John Abraham on Tagore’s poem, Where the mind is without fear.
So, how has music changed her life? “When I work on a play or a screenplay, I approach it with the same mind-set of recording an album. Each song is a new chapter, and the arrangement of different songs on an album theme is much like how you organise the logline in a play or a film,” she says.