The Orient on the European Stage: Sakuntala in Russian Theatre

Susmita Sundaram, Ohio State University

“We were captivated by the possibility of being the first to make contact with secrets and manners of Indian theatre.”—Alexander Tairov

A critically acclaimed theater event in the beginning of the century in Russia was the opening of the Kamernyj theater in Moscow in 1914. While much has been written about the director of Kamerny, Alexander Tairov, few scholars have explored the motivation behind Tairov’s bold selection of Sakuntala, a play written by the Indian poet and playwright of the IV century, for his opening night.

The first part of this paper traces the fate of Kalidasa’s play Sakuntala from its first translation into Russian by the “official historian of the eighteenth-century Russia,” Nikolaj Karamzin, to its appearance on the Kamerny as the opening play. It is significant to note that several leading Russian poets incorporated themes from Sakuntala into their work. The translation used by Tairov was done by the well-known Russian symbolist Konstantin Bal′mont.

The second and concluding part of the paper deals with Tairov’s production of Sakuntala, its significance as a symbol of Tairov’s “synthetic theater” and the differences in the dramatic treatment and its reception in Russia and Western Europe. The comparison will briefly explore categories like character portrayal, interpretation, costumes and the nature of translation.