Shakespeare in Indian languages

Shakespeare is perhaps one of the most complex of signifiers, setting off as he does multiple and varied associations. Yet, this most translatable and adaptable of all playwrights in history, who gives universalists cause for hope, has also posed the most problems for teachers of English Literature struggling to convey something of his greatness. A typical Shakespeare class in progress: teacher reads out from one of his plays and delivers plot summary gleaned from York notes or A. C. Bradley. Designed, you would agree, to kill all interest in the bard.There are three reasons why many young Indians including students of English Literature shy away from Shakespeare. One common complaint that students have is that: “Shakespeare writes in difficult English, madam”. The second is something I have already outlined — the pedagogy itself — the line by line reading out, the summarising, the reams of notes. The third factor, perhaps the least understood, is that young people don’t see themselves in Shakespeare. What has Mr. William Shakespeare got to do with their lives anyway? Which is why rendering and performing Shakespeare in Indian languages makes so much sense. Which is why the Hamara Shakespeare Festival, with plays like “Hamletmachine – Images of Shakespeare-in-us” makes so much sense.

Contemporary contexts

Parnab Mukherjee, director of the play “Hamletmachine – Images of Shakespeare-in-us” and creative director of Best of Kolkata campus, says that if his theatre cannot respond to the political sub-texts posed by, say, the detaining of Dr. Binayak Sen by the Chattisgarh government, then he is still doing “the ICSE, CBSE or UGC approved, sanitised Shakespeare”. The play uses Bangla, Assamese and English, weaving in a lot of protest literatures as additional texts. In that sense, it isn’t just a translation or a transcreation but an expanded text. It borrows from Mahasweta Devi on Nandigram, portions of Shamshur Rehman’s Bangla translation of “Hamlet” and Joydev’s Geetgovindam.

The idea of adaptation itself of course is not new to us. A “translating consciousness”, as G.N. Devy has argued, works in most third world countries where a dominating colonial language has enjoyed a position of privilege. In India, Devy points out, several languages are simultaneously used by language communities and it is as though these languages are part of a continuous spectrum of signs and significance. The notion of the original text being sacrosanct and the translated text being inferior doesn’t hold much water with us. Localising Shakespeare, therefore, has never been a problem. All 17 Indian languages have translated him.

In their book, India’s Shakespeare: Translation, Interpretation and Performance, Poonam Trivedi and Dennis Bartholomeusz provide an exhaustive history of Shakespeare in India. The first performance of “The Taming of the Shrew” in Gujarati was held in Surat, in 1852. A 1903 Gujarati “Othello” became so popular that the male actor playing Desdemona adopted “Sundari”, the heroine’s name in this version, as his permanent stage name. Beginning with “The Merchant of Venice” in 1870, at least 30 Shakespeare adaptations in Tamil are said to have been performed by 1900 (including nine of “Cymbeline” alone), in nearly 100 towns in Tamil Nadu. Marathi saw about 65 versions of Shakespeare — chiefly free adaptations — between 1867 and 1915, starting with a popular version of “Othello” composed by Mahadevshastri Kolhatkar and performed by the Aryaddharak Natak Mandali. 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. The earliest recorded public production of Shakespeare in Bengali was of a version of “The Comedy of Errors” in 1873 about which little is known. The next year saw adaptations of “Cymbeline” and “Macbeth”, and the following year of “Othello”. In 1893 “Macbeth” was adapted by Girish Chandra Ghosh, the doyen of Bengali theatre in his day.

Sohrab Modi recreated “Hamlet” in his 1935 film, “Khoon ka Khoon”. In 1963, Amrit Rai, Munshi Premchand’s son, took up the translation of Hamlet into Hindi. Gulzar based his 1981 “Angoor” (starring Moushumi Chatterjee and Sanjeev Kumar) on “The Comedy of Errors”. And then of course there is the Hindi film “Omkara” directed by Vishal Bharadwaj. The two editions of the Hamara Shakespeare festival have brought us six different ways for Shakespeare to come home to us here in India. Last year, the School of Drama, Kozhikode, performed “Romeo and Juliet” in Malayalam. “Jungle Me Mangal” presented by Awishkar, Mumbai, was the Marathi adaptation in Tamasha form of “Mid Summer Night’s Dream”. “The Magic Hour in Khelkali”, combined two stories of William Shakespeare, “Othello” and “A Mid Summer Night’s Dream” with scenes from Kathakali stories. The play used the story of Oberon and Titania’s fight over a little Indian boy in Shakespeare’s “A Mid Summer Night’s Dream” as a basis to talk about the post-colonial experience. This year, apart from “Hamletmachine”, the festival brought us Ramu Ramanathan’s “Shakespeare and She” and “Thanimaiyil Shakespeare” (Shakespeare Alone), a Tamil play scripted and directed by V. Arumugham from the School of Performing Arts, Pondicherry University.

To me, there are specific reasons why the idea of rendering the bard into Indian languages appeals. One is the innocent delight of travelling from one literary tradition to another, discovering that the boundaries are porous after all. The other is the more wicked political delight of translating from a globally more powerful language to a less powerful one. In giving Shakespeare a desi twist, one is also taking a potshot at reversing the hierarchy of languages set in place by that old project of colonialism and new project of globalisation. Shakespeare, then, becomes a kind of reference point, a peg on which to hang our very contemporary concerns. “Hamletmachine: Images of Shakespeare-in-us”, for instance, is thrice removed from the original, based as it is on the German adaptation by Heiner Muller, “Die Hamletmaschine”.

Changing with the times

Many a Shakespeare scholar would blanch at plays such as these. “But where is Shakespeare in all this?” they might ask. Or “How do we teach Shakespeare without Shakespeare or Hamlet without Hamlet?” But if we want to keep Shakespeare alive for this generation of young people, we have to make him speak to them in their idiom. Shakespeare in comic form or Shakespeare performed in Tamil. It doesn’t matter. And, who knows, one day these young people might just decide to blow up their money over a copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare instead of over an Espresso at Café Coffee Day. Either way though, Shakespeare wouldn’t mind.

K. SRILATA in The Hindu (2nd March, 2008)


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