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This article was first published 17 years ago  » News » 'William Shakespeare is our heritage too'

'William Shakespeare is our heritage too'

By Lindsay Pereira
September 26, 2006 14:55 IST
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Ah, Bollywood. The things it manages to do. Take the recently released Omkara, for instance. A fine piece of filmmaking that should win its director Vishal Bhardwaj more than just a Filmfare Award. What Bhardwaj has done deserves bigger accolades -- he has convinced more friends and countrymen to lend Shakespeare their ears.

Since Omkara's commercial success -- and following the critical acclaim Bhardwaj won for Maqbool -- many have begun to take a closer look at what William Shakespeare created between the years 1586 and 1616. So, with approximately 38 plays to pick from, it may be safe to expect a number of 'inspired' films hitting a multiplex near you in the near future.

And yet Bhardwaj is far from the first to take on the work of the Renaissance dramatist and give it the treatment it has always warranted. Consider this:

  • The first performance of The Taming of the Shrew in Gujarati was held in Surat, in 1852.
  • In 1874, Venugopala Charyar translated The Merchant of Venice into Tamil under the title Venice Viapari.
  • A close associate of Lokamanya Tilak, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar translated Hamlet into Marathi as Vikaravilasita in 1883.
  • Jahangir Pestonjee Khambatta's Khudadad, an adaptation of Pericles, was performed by the Express Victoria Theatrical Company in 1898.
  • Director Sohrab Modi recreated Hamlet in his 1935 film, Khoon ka Khoon, with some scenes even utilising a portrait of Shakespeare as a prop.
  • In 1963, Amrit Rai, Munshi Premchand's son, took up the challenge of translating Hamlet in Hindi. He believed the ability to translate Shakespeare's ideas was a touchstone of a language's maturity and capability.
  • Gulzar based his 1981 Angoor on The Comedy of Errors, starring Moushumi Chatterjee and Sanjeev Kumar.
  • In 2000, K N Panikkar presented The Tempest in the rhythms of the ancient Sanskrit dramatic form, Kudiattam.

    It would appear, then, that Bhardwaj isn't exactly the fearless pioneer treading fabulously new ground.

    These and other fascinating facts come to light as you browse through India's Shakespeare: Translation, Interpretation and Performance, a collection of essays -- published by Pearson Longman and priced at Rs 399 -- edited by Poonam Trivedi and Dennis Bartholomeusz.

    The book takes a close look at the interaction between Shakespeare and India that now spans more than 200 years, making him the most published and performed Western author in India. As Dr Poonam Trivedi points out in her introduction, 'The recent naming of Shakespeare as the Writer of the Millennium is not just the public confirmation of his 'global' status but a long-awaited recognition of the fact that Shakespeare belongs to the whole world, and that the diverse incursions of his work into virtually every culture are as much a part of his essence as is the English Shakespeare of Stratford.'

    India's Shakespeare holds a number of essays on the cultural translation and adaptation of the playwright's work into major Indian languages. One tackles the tradition of reading Shakespeare and Sanskrit dramatist Kalidasa together, another analyses diverse productions from different parts of India, and one essay even talks about how Parsi theatre appropriated him in its first Urdu play, Khurshid, in 1871.

    The editors have taken to their task marvellously, bringing in a remarkable number of voices, and managing to introduce a wide spectrum of responses to Shakespeare's work. Poonam Trivedi received her doctorate from the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, and is currently a Reader in English at Indraprastha College, University of Delhi. She was also secretary of the Shakespeare Society of India from 1993 to 1999 and is now working on a study of Shakespeare performance in India. Dennis Bartholomeusz was -- until he retired in 1996 -- Reader in English at Monash University, Melbourne.

    Their work has, justifiably, attracted praise. At the back of the book, S Nagarajan, Shakespeare critic and retired professor at the University of Hyderabad, points out how Trivedi argues plausibly that 'it is in the performances of Shakespeare on Indian stages in Indian theatrical forms, rather than in the classroom, that the response of India to Shakespeare can be seen.'

    Those in doubt simply need to watch Omkara for proof.

    In conversation with Lindsay Pereira, Dr Trivedi talks about her work, why she continues to study Shakespeare, what she thinks of adaptations by Bollywood, and how she would react to a Shah Rukh-Rani Mukerji remake of Romeo and Juliet.

    You point out that the relationship between Shakespeare and India is the longest and most widespread outside of Europe. Why do you think that is, considering colonialism is an experience other countries have shared too?

    Apart from North America and, it is said, the West Indies, Western theatre and Shakespeare began being performed in India before Australia, New Zealand or in the African colonies. So, we got a head start.

    We were also the largest colony -- an entire subcontinent. Further, other Asian or African colonies did not have as many languages or literary cultures that could assimilate Shakespeare. Also, he came to us at a moment when our society and culture were in need of new directions and change.

    English educated Indians really took to Shakespeare, and translations in Indian languages began appearing from 1852 onwards. All 17 Indian languages have translated Shakespeare and some -- Marathi, Bengali and Malayalam -- the complete works.

    Since then, Shakespeare has so percolated down that Indians happily quote Shakespeare, use his stories, characters and scenes (particularly in films) without even knowing it. So, historically and numerically, we can be seen as ahead of many others.

    What is it about Shakespeare's work that made you decide you wanted to keep studying it all your life?

    Our decisions in life are so deeply conditioned that there is no clear answer to this question. My first proper exposure to Shakespeare was in school, when we were prescribed a version of Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare. That little book must have fired my imagination, for I knew almost every word of it. It also instigated many of us to try our hand at amateur dramatics. Shakespeare was good playtime diversion.

    I chose to do my PhD -- a professional requirement for teachers -- on Shakespeare, not only because of the early infatuation, but because as a major author he is taught in every course in English and is never out of fashion; so one's research interest always has currency.

    Now, Shakespeare Studies have diversified to include so many areas -- performance studies, film studies, cultural and intercultural studies, translation and post-colonial studies -- that I couldn't stop working on Shakespeare even if I wanted to. There is just so much interesting and new work to catch up with and to do.

    Has it come as a surprise to you, at any point, that he continues to attract new generations of admiring readers in India?

    Not all. It is the broad humanism of Shakespeare's view of life that continues to be meaningful for readers and viewers. There are no black or white characters; all are the many shades of grey, as in reality. And their dilemmas are expressed in such acute observations and such memorable words that they always make an indelible impression.

    What I am unhappy about is how the educational establishment -- in an effort to simplify the teaching of the English language -- has completely divorced it from its literature. Now, most students come out of school without having encountered Shakespeare, or even a whole novel in English or any other language. The Sahitya Akademi claims English as an Indian language too, so Shakespeare is also our heritage, apart from now being regarded as a 'world author.' It would be a great loss if he stopped being part of the intellectual apparatus of Indians.

    Your book has an essay by Sisir Kumar Das, stating: 'The Merchant of Venice is undoubtedly the most popular of all Shakespeare plays in India in all Indian languages, despite the fact that the complete Indianization of the play has never been fully accomplished.' Why do you think that particular play strikes a powerful chord?

    The Merchant of Venice is a story about a moneylender. In Indian society, before modern banking systems were in place, the moneylender or sahukar was a familiar, but feared, figure. Its plot shows how the dehumanised treatment Shylock the moneylender receives makes him inhuman in his legal revenge, and how he is outwitted by a smart young woman.

    The story is situated in the context of the traditional communal conflict between Christians and Jews. All these issues strike familiar chords with Indian audiences: class and communal conflict, moneylenders and merchants, young lovers controlled by an older generation, a resourceful young woman who resolves all happily; it is as if they are living out their problems and desires through Shakespeare.

    How do scholars such as yourself react to new interpretations -- take Vishal Bhardwaj's Omkara or Maqbool, for instance. Have you seen either? Did you like what you saw?

    I am excited by the new attitudes towards Shakespeare displayed by the younger generation, as exemplified by Vishal Bhardwaj. This I see as one of great respect and acute understanding, but with no colonial awe or hang-up. It leaves them free to approach Shakespeare in a fresh, original manner.

    Bhardwaj is a very creative filmmaker and his two films will become milestones of cinematic adaptations of the poet. Maqbool was wonderful, not just in the originality of its localisations -- the witches as bungling cops were absolutely brilliant! -- but also in the creative way its cinematography enhanced Shakespeare's textual imagery.

    For example, the scene at the end -- when the sight of his newborn baby being cradled by Samira and Guddu makes Maqbool drop his guns and give up his life of crime -- is an amplification of one of the most famous lines in the play: 'Pity like a naked new born babe/Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye/That tears shall drown the wind.'

    Omkara is also beautifully made and powerful but, I think, lacks something in its interpretation of the character. Another Indian adaptation, Kaliyattam, made by Jayaraaj in Malayalam, was more successful in its harnessing of all the play's nuances. In theatre, young directors like Niraj Kabi (Hamlet) and Vikram Iyengar (Crossings, on Macbeth) are doing some interesting experimental work.

    As far as plot goes, Bollywood has the potential to be a very satisfying platform for much of Shakespearian drama. How do you think he would react to the Hindi film treatment? Shah Rukh Khan playing Romeo, stuttering to death alongside a cold Rani Mukerji perhaps?

    Yes, so much of early Bollywood borrowed -- plagiarised, in fact -- from Shakespeare, as shown by Rajiva Verma's essay in India's Shakespeare. And he continues to be used, misused and even abused in Indian cinema. Shakespeare himself, I'm sure, must be very pleased at this appropriation of his work. His plays are adaptations of existing stories of his time, so he cannot object to others adapting his stories now, nor can he but be pleased at the great joy, and even wisdom, that his work continues to offer.

    Romeo and Juliet are very young lovers, so perhaps the 'Badshah' may not be quite so appropriate. Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak was a good, hard-hitting localisation of the play into the Indian context.

    Would you say there is a healthy tradition of adapting Renaissance drama in India, outside of the metros?

    Adaptation is instinctive for Indians because our own literary traditions do not frown upon it as something less than 'original': witness the numerous adaptations and retellings of our epics. Localising Shakespeare, particularly when performing him in translation, seems to bring him closer, making him more completely one's own, and therefore promotes a better understanding of the original.

    All over the country, but especially in the South, in the smaller, university towns, some Shakespeare is always performed every year, in English and/or in translation or adaptation. There are also several films in Bengali, Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam that have adapted the plays to their own contexts.

    What was the most intriguing, or surprising, adaptation of Shakespeare's work in any Indian art form you came across while working on the book?

    The most moving, therefore surprising, experience for me was a performance of a Kannada adaptation of Macbeth titled Maranayaka Drishtanta, by H S Shiva Prakash. It was performed by inmates of Mysore jail as part of a rehabilitation workshop conducted by actor-director Kattimani.

    How he managed to transform these prisoners -- many illiterate and serving life sentences for violent crimes like rioting and murder -- into polished actors is a remarkable story in itself.

    The performance I saw was full of energy and sincerity, but more memorable was the later dialogue with the players, during which the actor who played Macbeth told us that the experience of playing Macbeth -- who is haunted by his evil killings and then realises the futility of them all -- made him see his own life differently and move towards 'prayaschit' (repentance). His earlier aggression and anger mellowed.

    So transformed was he that he was then let off on parole for good behaviour and has now, for several years, been a respected member of his village, earning a living as a milk vendor. Almost incredible moral and social rehabilitation in real time, via Shakespeare!

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    Lindsay Pereira