Game on for Naatak

It’s no small feat, adapting and presenting a static story as a visual play that conveys not only the time, place, and period in which it is set, but also the satire, social commentary, and dark humor with wit and vigor.

Anush Moorthy, Ritvik Verma and the Naatak theater company presented Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Players) at the Cubberley Theater in Palo Alto on June 9-11. They did so this with aplomb.

“We have been wanting to adapt and present Shatranj Ke Khiladi for a while, but it’s a tough story to adapt. Last year, we decided to take up the challenge,” said Moorthy. He co-adapted the story with Verma and directed the classic 1924 play by India’s leading playwright Munshi Premchand

The picture shows three men in Mughal costome
A scene from Naatak’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (image courtesy: Naatak)

An ill-fated Nawab

Shatranj Ke Khiladi is set in the time of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last independent Nawab of Awadh. The story depicts a decadent aristocracy indifferent to its own fate and that of the country, even as the Nawab’s kingdom crumbles and the British move to annex it in 1856. 

Naatak brings the era to life in an authentic portrayal of nineteenth-century Lucknow – a milieu of elaborate costumes, classical dance (Kathak), soulful music, and songs. Religion plays a key role. Interactions between Hindus and Muslims are true to time and place.

“Adapting was quite challenging as 95% of the story is static and revolves around the dialogue exchanged between the two chess players. We wrote the play organically with the songs in place and structured the music around it,” Moorthy explains. 

This 90-minute version runs without an intermission in three languages- Hindi, English, and Bhojpuri, with supertitles in English, and perfectly executed musical and dance performances. Elaborate costumes, and props sourced from India – hookahs, spitoons, and walking sticks – enhance the visual appeal of the production. 

The picture shows a man in Mughal costume smoking a hookah and watching two dancing girls
A scene from Shatranj Ke Khiladi where a royal watches dancers (image courtesy: Naatak)

Naatak’s repertoire

Naatak Theater Company is dedicated to producing intelligent and entertaining plays. It was the brainchild of students from the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University. Since its inception in 1995, Naatak has established itself as the largest and most significant Indian theater company in the United States. Today Naatak is a 501(c)(3) non-profit.

More than a hundred thousand people have attended their productions. San Jose Mercury News declared Naatak the Best Live Theatre in Silicon Valley for seven years in a row – 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021.

Shatraj Ke Khiladi will run the weekend of June 16-18.

Tickets available at

The picture shows a group of musiciand playing Hindustani classical music
A scene from Shatranj Ke Khiladi (image courtesy: Naatak)

Shalini Kathuria Narang is a Silicon Valley based software professional and freelance journalist. She has written and published extensively for several national and international newspapers, magazines...