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World Book Day 2019: Shakespeare's influence on Indian theatre is as diverse as the country's culture

‘He creates heroes, and Indians love the heroic… He shows delicacy of touch in handling the relations between men and women, and Indians love to keep that relation sacred. He praises home and home affections, and Indians love their homes and believe in the virtue of domestic affections…’ wrote Sir Francis Younghusband in the first half of the 20th century, in an essay titled Shakespeare in India.

A century later, Shakespeare continues to capture the Indian imagination. Ask Hulugappa Kattimani, who works closely with inmates at Central Jail Mysore, using theatre to help improve their lives. In one instance, a prisoner who was convicted for murder, became a more agreeable and humble person after playing the role of Macbeth. “They change over. It happened because of the play, because of Shakespeare,” says Kattimani.

Though he was conjecturally born and certainly deceased on this day about four centuries ago in the United Kingdom (then England), can the Bard be accurately described as a British author? His influence, which has seeped into myriad cultures, and an ever-growing archive of Shakespeare performance and academia from across the globe, seem to suggest otherwise. A more accurate description would be to acknowledge him as a global author. A world author, with an undeniable and growing presence in India’s art.

 World Book Day 2019: Shakespeares influence on Indian theatre is as diverse as the countrys culture

Shakespeare. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Always in vogue

He’s rooted deep in the Indian cultural psyche, with a reach that goes far beyond inclusion in school and college syllabi and famous adaptations by Bollywood directors. The Shakespeare Society of India organises an annual drama competition, encouraging students to perform and engage with his works. Artists have also adapted him in regional languages and traditional forms, such as Kathakali.

“Shakespeare’s looking good in India”, says Dr Poonam Trivedi, faculty at the University of Delhi and editor of India's Shakespeare: Translation, Interpretation, and Performance, with a soft laugh, “I think Shakespeare will always remain in fashion.”

As diverse as India itself

Shakespeare first entered India as theatrical entertainment for British officers during colonial times, says a paper by Dr BR Ambedkar University’s Vikram Singh Thakur. From there, he quickly made his way to the English theatre of the Indian educated elite, which was primarily imitative. Thereafter, Indian literary giants cheerfully engaged with his works, from Rabindranath Tagore saying ‘Shakespeare’s plays have always been our ideal of drama’ to Harivanshrai Bachchan translating his plays for Indian audiences. He was steadily making his way through the evolving Indian theatrical landscape.

According to Thakur and Dr Trivedi, perhaps Shakespeare was most decisively established among the Indian public with the vibrant Parsi theatre and its liberal adaptation of his works, producing innumerable plays in multiple languages and in turn being a precursor for Bollywood.

This Shakespeare, being carried ahead through time by Indians, quickly moved from being a symbol of colonialism to a symbol of independence.

Getting rid of the oppressor but retaining and redefining their symbols to suit needs of self-expression, Shakespeare was one way of expressing empowerment through something that was meant to be decidedly oppressive.

According to a 1964 Indian National Library survey of Shakespearean adaptations and translations, there were 128 in Bengali, 97 in Marathi, 70 in Hindi and 66 in Kannada.

And this diversity, in a nutshell, reflects the Shakespeare of India.

Preserving the essence, and creating the new

Today, Shakespeare, as much literary and academic as adapted and popular, sits as a comfortable, familiar contradiction in the Indian mind. Many young thespians, says Dr Trivedi, “approach him like he’s a challenge and they want to rise up to that challenge.” India’s Shakespeare seems to be, for the most part, a great writer, no longer straddled by his political history as colonial import. “Everybody realises now that we’re past that stage of resistance of anything so called English.”

He manifests himself in different ways by different audiences, some focusing astutely on his language, others appreciating him as a playwright, while still others expressing interest in the universal themes and emotions he appeals to.

Testimony to the importance of his language are the private Shakespeare classes of Mumbai-based Bubla Basu, whose students are adults. Former teacher at Bombay International and JB Petit, for Basu, Shakespeare’s language isn’t meant to be simple; it’s supposed to be moved through slowly and engaged with, since simplification of language “takes something away from the core”.

In Basu’s view, Shakespeare is “an experience… an incredible personal journey… an engagement with the soul”, and asserts that “I think it is the eternal soul that he appeals to”. She strives to show her students “how much richer he makes you, his writing makes you” and uses other media to complement the text and better explain the emotions he’s writing about.

On the other hand, Atul Kumar’s adaptations of Shakespeare’s works do away with the language entirely, notably Piya Behrupiya (Twelfth Night) in Hindi in the nautanki style, and Khwaab Sa (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) in gibberish with song and dance. However, even Kumar’s process involves never leaving Shakespeare. “He’s never in the background, he’s really with me all the time. I know and I’m conscious of the fact that I need to do justice to my understanding of what he has written,” says the founder of The Company Theatre. While acknowledging Shakespeare’s greatness as an artist, he feels free to interpret Shakespeare as he pleases, and there’s no added pressure to do Shakespeare a certain way or to meet a prescribed benchmark of correctness. “I don’t think I owe anything to anyone, or to myself, or even to Shakespeare."

The transformative power of the Bard

Through Hulugappa Kattimani and his wife Pramila Bengre’s Sankalpa Kala Sangha, who work with Central Jail Mysore, inmates are able to focus intently on the universal themes Shakespeare appeals to. Among others, the husband-wife duo uses Shakespeare plays, including Macbeth, Julius Caesar and King Lear, for the themes of guilt and redemption to which their actors can relate. While the plot and themes remain the same, the character names and settings are Indianised, turning, for instance, Macbeth into Marnayaka.

For Kattimani, Shakespeare is not just a playwright; he’s a “haunting person, cheerful person, a happy man and a very crooked man”. After comparing Shakespeare to one of the navratnas, Kattimani adds with a laugh, “I like Shakespeare. Our actors like Shakespeare too, very much."

That his works are faithfully staged – even marketed as adaptations – or moulded into something entirely new using Indian elements, speaks to Shakespeare’s value as a global brand today. “Now people can see Shakespeare is a big brand with cultural capital”, says Dr Trivedi, “there’s always a market for Shakespeare in India."

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Updated Date: Apr 24, 2019 09:18:07 IST