Shakespeare's influence on the Indian theatre industry
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Shakespeare's influence on the Indian theatre industry

His plays are adaptable because his work dealt with complex emotions

Shakespeare's influence on the Indian theatre industry

These lines from Othello will always remain contemporary - "Let heaven and men and devils, let them all, all, all, cry shame against me, yet I'll speak.
(Emilia, Act 5 Scene 2)

Williams Shakespeare was much ahead of his time; he was a maestro of aestheticism that had and still has a global influence. His characters were not just restricted to his plays. They even meant much more than just their dialogues.

In India, Shakespeare moved from page to stage, and then stage to screen. The extensive presence of Shakespeare began in the country as a part of the colonial strategy. The Bard’s works were first introduced in schools and colleges as a scheme of our then colonisers British government to get cheap administrative services from the natives.

Gradually, the legendary writer entered the theatres of India, beginning with Calcutta (now Kolkata), the then capital of India. With time, when the theatres were experiencing a “dark stage", his work was adopted and adapted in the film industry. 'Saptapadi', 'Bhranti Bilas', 'Srimati Bhayankari', 'Hrid Majhare', 'Arshinagar', 'Hemanta', and 'Zulfiqar' are some of them.
For centuries artists have taken up the medium of literature and film to expose the disillusions of the “world", opening the deepest emotions and desires of men, staging the reality to educate “men and women”, and spreading awareness in the hope of raising consciousness and responsive actions from the “play-ers”.

Bollywood actor Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub's wife, Rasika Agashe, co-founder of 'Being Association' theatre group said, “Shakespeare has always been influencing and will keep influencing."

Chronologically, the permeation of Shakespeare into the Indian psyche occurred with performances of his plays by English troupes in Bombay (now Mumbai) from 1770.

In Calcutta, then capital of British India, the earliest recorded performance is of 'Othello' at the Calcutta Theatre during Christmas of 1780. Over the next eight years, 'Hamlet', 'The Merchant of Venice', 'Romeo and Juliet', 'Richard III' and 'Henry IV' were enacted at the same venue. Performances continued unabated, till the mid-19th century, chiefly at the Chowringhee (the teeming heart of Kolkata) and Sans Souci Theaters.

Touring companies, however, became famous only in the heyday of the Raj, from the late 19th century. Next, with the growing interest in Shakespearean plays, local theatrical companies came into existence, especially in Bombay.
Consequently, in 1868, the 'Oriental Theatrical Company' started performing Shakespearean plays, followed by the Parsi companies.

In the academic sphere of 19th century Bengal, it was Richardson, an eminent English teacher of Presidency College, who first ventured to develop a literary taste for Shakespearean dramas in the minds of his Indian students. He taught them to recite and enact scenes from Shakespearean plays.

In response, in 1837, several Bengali students performed 'The Merchant of Venice' in the governor’s house, 'Othello' in 1853 at the Oriental Academy, and 'Henry IV' in 1855. Subsequently, the growing success of Shakespearean performances, inspired many regional playwrights to both translate and adapt Shakespeare in vernaculars, thereby leading to a spurt of translated and adapted Shakespeare in several Indian languages for performance on Indian stages.

However, despite the best efforts of the enthusiastic regional dramatists, India initially remained a mere outpost of Shakespearean performances; quite untouched by the greater phenomenon of Shakespeare.

Commenting on this, Pooman Trivedi writes in her book 'India’s Shakespeare: Translation, Interpretation and Performance', “Shakespeare’s long and pervasive influence on dramatic activities in the nineteenth century resulted in widespread adaptations and translation of his plays. To make the borrowing more acceptable to a wide variety of audience, the plays were Indianised to a large extent by adding songs and dances in keeping with the 'geetinatyas', (kind of opera) which were very popular.”

In Bengali language, the earliest recorded public performance of Shakespeare was the 'Comedy of Errors', 1873, about which little is known. On January 28, 1893, came a brilliant translation of 'Macbeth' by Girish Chandra Ghosh, the doyen of Bengali theatre. According to writer Utpal Dutt, it “has not been equaled yet.”

About the performance, Dutt said, “With his usual fastidious care for detail, he hired an English stage designer of the city Pym (by name) to build the sets and make the costumes.”

True, Ghosh’s translation couldn’t please the Bengali audience, but academically none could either match his brilliance or undermine the translation, and fidelity to the original work. There were structural variations due to Ghosh’s preference for his roots, ie the Sanskrit plays. Hence, instead of Shakespeare, he adopted the structure of Sanskrit plays.

Being a successful dramatist, he knew that his penchant for Sanskrit play structure would go down well with his viewers. But unlike his compatriots, he was uncompromising regarding the plot, characterisation, and nomenclature of the play. As an alternative, he tried to evolve a new semantic style for making his work sound more Bengali than English.

To Ghosh, adapting Shakespeare for the Bengali stage was more of a challenge than mere love for the Bard. Thus the original is rendered almost verbatim in Bengali blank verse and prose, with slight expansion here and there. Remaining committed to the tenets of Sanskrit plays, Ghosh evolved a new framework for Shakespearean 'Macbeth'.

Instead of the ambiguous opening of Shakespeare’s 'Macbeth', Ghosh provides 'Macbeth' with 'Naandi' — an invocatory verse; and no scholarly eyebrows are raised among the audience when the play is performed.

'Naandi' serves twofold purposes in the play — it placates the taste of the viewers, comfortable with Bengali version of Sanskrit plays; two, it immediately bolsters the typical attitude of the translator — a refreshingly non-Western and non-Aristotelian approach. Instead of the Mimesis or Catharsis, it aspires to arouse Bharata’s Raudra Bhayanak rasa in viewers.

Girish’s 'Naandi' begins on a humble note indicating the playwright’s intention for adapting the play:

To my learned audience, I have come to the stage
To manifest a trifle poetic gift of mine…
Shakespeare is my role model…
I am only an actor, follower of the Bard
Hence, criticism of his creation is not within my purview
I know not what inspires me  
Yet, with all humility I desire  
To offer my token of regard to the great poet.

This is in clear violation of Shakespeare’s 'Macbeth'. Shakespeare's plays had no introductory words derived from Holinshed’s 'Macbeth'. Thus the approach in itself is contrary to the Western concept. And it has happened because Ghosh followed the rulings of Bharata’s 'Natyashastra' —a play should begin with 'Naandi' for the playwright to notify the audience about his intention in writing the play.

Neither Shakespeare nor Aristotle’s Poetics instructs dramatists to begin a play with such a justification. Yet Ghosh deliberates this deviation to assure his audience that the play, though derived from a foreign source, has not moved away from its soil. The other structural change that occurs in the opening scene is in the role of the witches. At the end of the first scene the troupe of witches utter mumbo jumbo, clearly pointing to the inclusion of chorus, which is not there in Shakespeare.

In all likelihood, such regional translations were not simple translations in the normal sense of the term, but acts of appropriations and expropriations. They attempted to take over and assimilate the new into an already existing native tradition. And the native tradition appeared to be unconsciously aware of the strength it accrued by such actions of appropriations.

The other indigenising device, which significantly alters the import of the original play, is the use of figures of speech that are strongly anchored in and possess an inextricable relationship with Indian myths and legends. This changes both the texture and the meaning of the narration:

First Witch: listen o, listen,
There was a girl sitting,  
With her hair let down, uncovering herself
Eating peanuts gluttonously.
When I asked some from her
Twisting my nose the virago (para kunudulay magi) yelled
‘Out you go, you rogue’.

The connotations “hair let down” and “uncovering” ones’ self, are clearly meant to insinuate the Indian audience since, letting down one’s hair publicly or uncovered head of a girl smack of ill omens.

It’s inappropriate for an Indian girl to let down her hair for public viewing; added to it, it is highly socially indecorous for her to appear in public without draping herself completely with clothes. By violating these two social strictures, the girl is likely to instigate evil forces.

Shakespearean “rump-fed ronyon” however, suggests a woman of dubious character. His lady merely squeals at the witch and refuses to part with her peanuts — the question of twisting the nose or other kinds of physical punishment do not arise as Elizabethans were afraid of bodily contact with weird creatures.

Likewise, para kunudulay magi instead of “rump-fed ronyon”, is another interesting term. Magi in Bengali connotes a commoner; so the lady concerned, to an extent, shadows Shakespearean rump-fed “ronyon”. But unlike Shakespearean depictions she is Amazonian in valour, daring to touch a witch.

A lady who dresses in this fashion and twists the nose of an unknown creature is bound to be a rebel within her social ambit hence, para kunudulay magi— to be kept at arms’ length!

Such poetic discourses, which rely on indigenous myths and metaphors, are deliberately employed by Ghosh in the entire translation, in order to make viewers feel that they are responding not to an alien but to an in-culture text.

In Marathi, Shirwadkar's play 'Natasamrat' made history on stage. This play is broadly based on Shakespeare's great tragedy ;King Lear'. The main role of the thespian Appasaheb Belvalkar was made immortal by Dr Shreeram Lagoo. This play was first produced around 1970.

Shirwadkar Indianised his plays. His direct adaptations of two other tragedies, Macbeth' as 'Rajmukut' and 'Othello', were produced in 1954 and 1960 respectively.  

Parashuram Deshpande, who has translated 'Hamlet' in Marathi, says, “Translating and retaining the essence of a play is crucial. It took years to complete this translation of 'Hamlet' because I had to be careful about choosing the right Marathi words that could convey what Shakespeare actually wanted to, through his words.”

Rasika Agashe said that Shakespearean plays have a great cultural influence and the adaptations are equally good if not better.

Revered cultural icon in Bengal, and known to the world outside as film maestro, Satyajit Ray’s favourite actor who has portrayed legendary on-screen characters like “Apu” and “Feluda”, Soumitra has been obsessed with the British poet-playwright since his youth. He said, “Give back 50 years of my life, for I want to play Hamlet.”

“It is impossible not to fall for Shakespeare’s plays if one decides to take up acting.” Soumitra got deeply immersed in the production. “He was living with Lear. He was drawing one sketch after another of Lear. He was writing and rewriting the dialogues.”

“At times he forgot the lines, but managed the situations beautifully by virtue of his command over the language and his fine diction.”

On this, Minal Pareek HOD of Mass Communication & Journalism of Sister Nivedita University, West Bengal, who herself is an artist and is associated with theatre groups, said that Shakespeare’s play deals with emotions more than just dialogues. An artist gets a scope exploration with the expressions that Shakespearean characters hold.

Soumitra did not think that the quality of a drama gets lost in translation. “This may happen in poetry, but not in drama, if the translator has the requisite skills.”

Minal, on being asked how today’s youth is able to adapt such complex literature, said that the millennials feel very strongly, they don’t fear to express and they are bold. She says that Shakespearean characters were not time-bound, and today's youth is able to relate more strongly when it comes to inner conflicts as depicted in the plays of Shakespeare.