Shakespeare in India

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 40

What impact has Shakespeare’s writing had on Indian theater? And, how has Indian theater shaped and altered Shakespeare’s work? 
 
Shakespeare’s interaction with India came, of course, in the context of India’s experience with British colonization and colonialism. In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I gave a charter to the East India Company to trade with the shahs, emperors and Maratha princes who’d ruled the subcontinent for the previous century. Over the 150 years that followed, the East India Company transitioned from being merchant traders into a kind of quasi-government.  After Indians rebelled in 1857, Queen Victoria closed down the East India Company and ruled India directly as a British colony.  During the run-up to the rebellion, English had become India’s language of instruction. Among the Indian elite, you needed to know Shakespeare in order to appear truly educated.
 
In this podcast episode, Barbara Bogaev interviews Jyotsna Singh, professor of English at Michigan State University, and Modhumita Roy, associate professor of English at Tufts.  
 
Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

 
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © January 27, 2016. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. “From the Farthest Steep of India” was produced by Richard Paul.  Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Marcus Rediker at the University of Pittsburgh, Thomas Devlin at WGBH radio in Boston, Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West Recording Studio in Los Angeles, and Ricky Nalett at L. A. Productions in Dewitt, Michigan.
 
The contemporary Indian film adaptations of Macbeth, Othello, and Hamlet to which Jyotsna Singh refers are all by the Indian film director Vishal Bhardwaj.

Transcript

WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger's Director.

This podcast is called "From the Farthest Steep of India." It's a look at the impact Shakespeare's writing has on Indian theater and, conversely, how Indian theater has shaped and altered Shakespeare's work. Shakespeare's interaction with India came, of course, in the context of India's experience with British colonization and colonialism.

In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I gave a charter to the East India Company to trade with the shahs, emperors, and Maratha princes who had ruled the subcontinent for the previous century. Over the 150 years that followed, the East India Company transitioned from being merchant traders into a kind of quasi-government. After Indians rebelled in 1857, Queen Victoria closed down the East India Company and ruled India directly as a British colony. During the run-up to the rebellion, English had become India's language of instruction and, among the Indian elite, you needed to know Shakespeare in order to appear truly educated.

All of that is background for our conversation with two experts on this subject, Jyotsna Singh, professor of English at Michigan State University, and Modhumita Roy, associate professor of English at Tufts. They are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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BOGAEV: All of this was happening in the mid-19th century, and Jyotsna, was Shakespeare already in India in 1840, 1850 at the time of...

JYOTSNA SINGH: Oh yes.

BOGAEV: This debate?

SINGH: Yeah, yes, exactly.

BOGAEV: In what form?

SINGH: Well, I mean, you know, he was being staged on the... There were various Calcutta theaters, you know, the Sans Souci, the Chowringhee. So there was the Chowringhee Theatre, where Henry IV was performed in 1814, Richard III (I'm just reading some stuff), The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1818, and so this became cultural capital for upper-class, elite Indians. They were already absorbing and seeing the influence of this British culture, and, you know, specifically, theaters and literature and so forth.

MODHUMITA ROY: This is Modhumita. Beginning in the late 18th century, when theaters are set up, a lot of the plays are performed by students in various institutions. Then you have the Bengali theater that is established in the north, where translations of Shakespeare, translated into Bengali, are performed, but records indicate that they were not very popular at all. It's only when some of these plays are thoroughly Indianized that they have some purchase.

BOGAEV: So what does that mean, thoroughly Indianized?

SINGH: Well, I mean, how Shakespeare is adapted, or quote, unquote, Indianized, varies from period to period and different settings.

ROY: For instance, the dialogue would have to be adapted such that Bengalis sitting there listening or watching this performance would not be thinking of Shakespeare as such. Often even the names would be changed, so Cymbeline, for example, was translated as Kusumkumari. Macbeth as Rudrapal. Othello as Bhimsinha.

I would want to go back and say a couple of things, Barbara, if I may.

BOGAEV: Okay, yes, go ahead.

ROY: And I want to make the distinction, maybe unsustainable in the end, [LAUGH] but I want to make the distinction between a certain kind of Anglophilia that emerges—that Anglophilia can be, I think, seen much more clearly in departments of English, sometimes.

So this very prestigious college, St. Stephen's College in Delhi, started a Shakespeare society in 1924 and there, the idea is that you, whatever "faithfully" means, but "faithfully" produce Shakespeare on stage. And that I want to separate out from what we've been talking about so far.

SINGH: I think one thing very interesting that happened at this time is that, while the Shakespeare plays were being Indianized, but as far as I know, also, many of the budding playwrights of Bengal learned from the Shakespeare plays the notion of tragedy or characterization. So there was a kind of cross-pollination, a little bit, going on. Would you agree with me?

ROY: Yeah, I think that perhaps the deeper influence of Shakespeare is to be found not in these adaptations or actual performances of Shakespeare viewed by, you know, tiny minorities here and there, but really in the way in which other playwrights...

SINGH: Exactly.

ROY: And dramatists, novelists, began to think about characterization, realism of representation, and so on, in certain ways. And these are debated, these are written about. Is Miranda the better characterization of Shakespeare, or is it Desdemona, and how would we know this?

BOGAEV: And just to step back for a moment, we've produced a number of podcasts on Shakespeare in Britain's former colonies, and the experiences are so different from place to place. And at first, right after independence, people start saying, you know, "Why are we still performing this 16th-century Englishman? Why are we venerating this white guy?" And Shakespeare comes to symbolize the oppressor. Modhumita, can you speak to just how stark that contrast is between India and the other British colonies?

ROY: So, I want to say a couple of things, which, again, may be a matter of nuance. There was certainly a sense that these are impositions, you know, this is foreign rule and so on, but there was always this idea that this is also a window on the world. We will learn things. We don't necessarily reject out of hand something that comes from the West. We take from it what we need. We adapt it to our circumstances and our needs, and we go forward.

BOGAEV: Well, Jyotsna, elaborate on that, because you've written about the development of theater in India and you argue that first there was theater in the rural areas, but not in the cities. Did Shakespeare play a part in bringing theater to urban areas as well?

SINGH: What I write about, I specifically mention Utpal Dutt, about which Modhumita probably knows a lot, too... This was in the 1950s, where people like Utpal Dutt and others decided to take Shakespeare to the rural areas, you know, it was sort of a political decision, and to do Bengali translations. For instance, he did a Macbeth, which toured several villages, using ritual, dramatic forms, indigenous dramaturgy, and indigenous native dramatic forms and music to sort of cross-pollinate Shakespeare with folk theater.

And I think this is a very important movement that continued in urban theaters. We have a National School of Drama in Delhi and in the '60s and '70s, they did some... There was a director called B.V. Karanth, who did some very interesting productions of Shakespeare using folk dramaturgy and folk theater.

I'm not sure that Shakespeare was sort of... came from the village. I think there were conscious decisions, again, coming back to our word, "Indianize." And they were thinking about how to Indianize, and some of this Indianization took the form of using these very sophisticated and very old Indian theatrical conventions, you know, stylized and masks and so forth. And Utpal Dutt was in the '50s and '60s and then, you know, there was the National School of Drama and other productions.

But in conjunction with that, there were all kinds of Shakespeare. There were Parsi Shakespeares in Bombay. There were regional plays. Some of them were very melodramatic renderings. For instance, there's one that I had written about, Cymbeline was translated as Mitha Zahar, which means "sweet poison," and Hamlet was translated as "poisonous snake," and Antony and Cleopatra was translated as Kali Nagan, or "black female snake." So it was just, you know, all kinds of different languages. And I think, one thing for your audiences, you should remember that India had all these different languages.

BOGAEV: Tell us more about Utpal Dutt, because he had a... his path with Shakespeare seems emblematic of the politics and has broader significance in the history of the colony. And at first, Utpal Dutt, right after World War II, he mounted a new Shakespeare play every month, right? But then when the Communist Party of India was banned, and Dutt's company was Communist, the group realized that they couldn't claim to be radical as long as they continued to do Shakespeare and other plays that were made for the westernized intellectuals of Calcutta. They couldn't keep working for the man, so to speak.

SINGH: Exactly.

BOGAEV: So what did Dutt do, then? How did it change his approach to theater and bring him to this more flexible and more Indianized version of Shakespeare?

SINGH: In taking the plays to the villages, what he is doing there, as others did, is not to say, "I'm going to bring this wholesale, and you sit and watch it," but rather to redo the plays in the idiom in which people are, you know, engaged.

BOGAEV: Jyotsna, you wrote something and I want to quote this, that seems to speak to that, and you wrote that, "Native appropriations of Shakespeare often displace the cultural authority of the universal colonial Bard, even while expressing a reverence for his works."

SINGH: Right, and so I think I would never say that, even today, that there was any kind of movement of, you know, this is the sort of white Western figure we need to reject. People like Utpal Dutt and others who performed Shakespeare also used Brecht. I think, of course, there was a reverence for Shakespeare, and you have to also remember this was a whole generation, you know, like my father, who were completely educated with all these literary works. And so after Independence Day, they didn't suddenly one day say, "Well, we want to reject them."

But I think there was a gradual sense of adapting them, letting them speak to you, and in Shakespeare's case, all these different translations, these cross-pollinations with local, native, indigenous, dramatic forms, I see it as a rich, cross-cultural kind of experience. A lot of it, of course, was political, you know. There were political choices being made by people like Utpal Dutt to, you know, make Shakespeare in these indigenous forms.

ROY: But one interesting footnote to this might be that the Indian government, through the body of the National Academy of Letters, cite the academy—after independence, we are talking about the 1950s, early '60s—actually commissioned the translation of four Shakespeare tragedies, and in many different Indian languages, because they felt that we were not sufficiently familiar with Shakespeare any longer. So it's odd that the Indian government made that decision. Whereas, you know, Utpal Dutt and others are simply saying, "It doesn't matter where the idea comes from, if it's usable, we'll use it."

BOGAEV: So how does this rich, and I don't want to say conflicted, but this kind of dual-headed or Medusa-headed approach to Shakespeare continue into the modern day? What are performances of Shakespeare like in India now?

SINGH: I think what to me, what is really exciting, and something that I'm writing on now more, is the connection between Shakespeare and film, is these three really important film versions of Shakespeare [by Vishal Bhardwaj], of Macbeth, Othello, and now Hamlet, and the kind of impact they've had. And so, since India itself is now being taken over so much by the media of film, my interest is really in amazing adaptations and appropriations and discussions of Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: And what's amazing about these films?

SINGH: Oh, I think that they're using Shakespeare, the Shakespearean language and idiom, and I think quite well, to really reread histories and politics of India. On the other hand, I think they are also very, quite radically, changing the Shakespearean text without, I think, losing the sort of central core of it and really appropriating the Shakespearean text and making that kind of read the Indian culture.

ROY: And so, I would just say, that all that we have said about Shakespeare and India, I think, with some modulation, would be true of this moment. That is to say that, Shakespeare's often introduced at the school level in English medium schools and students have to read it, often complaining bitterly about it, and they set exams on it.

In the English departments, there's a certain level of Anglophilia, of performing Shakespeare as it "should be performed," whatever that means, and then, as Jyotsna says, this exciting other realm of retelling Shakespeare, appropriating Shakespeare, and these have always been true, I think, in various different guises.

SINGH: Right.

ROY: These have been true of Shakespeare in India.

SINGH: Yeah, I would agree that this is, you know, even today, we are at a moment of reverence and interrogation.

We still have huge Shakespeare societies in academic institutions in India, and they have great conferences I've been to, and there's interrogation, there's appropriation, and now there's, you know, the media are kind of evolving, you know, so the film is an important medium.

So, in some ways, I think that's really nicely put. In some ways, it's the same story, but in some ways, it's a new story, with new ways of telling the story of Shakespeare, some cliché like that.

BOGAEV: Well, Jyotsna and Modhumita, I have so enjoyed talking with you today. I want to thank you for taking the time.

ROY: Thank you.

SINGH Thanks, thanks a lot. Wonderful to talk. Bye.

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WITMORE: Jyotsna Singh is a professor of English at Michigan State University. Modhumita Roy is an associate professor of English at Tufts. They were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

"From the Farthest Steep of India" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Marcus Rediker at the University of Pittsburgh, Thomas Devlin at WGBH Radio in Boston, Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West recording studio in Los Angeles, and Ricky Nalett at L.A. Productions in Dewitt, Michigan.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger Director Michael Witmore.