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Shakespeare in India -- page 2

Early English productions

Chronologically, the account must begin with productions of the most obvious and culturally uncomplicated sort, in 'garrison theatres' catering to the British colonists. Theatres were built in the major centres of trade and empire, and Shakespeare provided a prestigious part of the repertory.

Shakespeare performances by English troupes in Mumbai (Bombay) date from 1770. In Kolkata (Calcutta), then the capital of British India, the earliest recorded performance is of Othello at the Calcutta Theatre in the Christmas season of 1780. Over the next eight years, the same venue saw Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III and Henry IV. Performances continued till the mid-19th century, chiefly at the Chowringhee and Sans Souci Theatres. Touring companies become prominent only in the heyday of the Raj, from the late 19th century. The earliest notable tours were by the Lewis Theatre Company in the 1870s and Maurice E. Bandmann's Company in the 1880s. [1]

One event stands out in retrospect. In August 1848, Baishnab Charan Addy, an Indian actor, played Othello at the Sans Souci Theatre, Kolkata. Notices in the English press ranged from the patronizing to the offensive or hostile. Yet many Indian accounts, then and later, have seen the event as a cultural statement, even a cultural triumph, of the colonized Bengali.

Addy's role is an index of the first phase in the Indian appropriation of Shakespearean theatre. By the early 19th century, a section of the wealthy Indian elite had come to patronize these performances. In 1835, when the Chowringhee Theatre in Kolkata was faced with bankruptcy, 'Prince' Dwarkanath Tagore, grandfather of Rabindranath Tagore, came to its rescue. M.V. Rajadhyaksha notes how, when British companies toured Mumbai in Victorian times, they were received indifferently by the expatriate British but warmly by Western-educated Indians. [2] In Kolkata in 1911-12, Matheson Lang's Company aroused great interest among the city's students, inspiring them to productions of their own. In Mumbai, the celebrated dramatist and actor B.V. ('Mamasaheb') Warerkar was also captivated by Lang as later by Gielgud, whose Hamlet he recited during a delirious fever, to his doctor's astonishment. [3]

As these pointers indicate, Indian students also took up Shakespeare performance early in the day. The first occasion on record was at Dhurrumtollah Academy, Kolkata in December 1822, featuring Henry Derozio, later poet, Shakespeare teacher and radical. This performance, like many that followed, was of excerpts only; but entire plays were gradually taken up. Traditions of Shakespeare peformance were set up, inter alia, at St Xavier's College, Kolkata; M.S. University, Vadodara (Baroda); and most notably St Stephen's College, Delhi, whose Shakespeare Society (founded in 1924) mounts an annual production to this day. In languages like Punjabi and Sindhi, Shakespearean theatre was initiated and sustained in good part by student productions.

Foreign Shakespearean companies tour India to this day. The English commercial theatre predeceased the Raj, and has since revived only fitfully. Students and other amateurs still act Shakespeare in English, sometimes memorably. But clearly, the record in these respects would make India a mere outpost of Shakespeare performance, and leave it quite untouched by the greater phenomenon of Shakespeare. The radical departure came when Shakespeare entered the curriculum of the new Western-style education. By the continuing paradox of Indian social history, this Western infusion was then absorbed into the cultural mainstream of the Indian languages.

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Notes

I am grateful for the assistance and advice received from Professor Swapan Majumdar and Dr Ananda Lal, and the kindness of Mr Kiranmay Raha.

[1] Much of the information on the Kolkata stage, here and later, is taken from Ananda Lal and Sukanta Chaudhuri (ed.), Shakespeare on the Calcutta Stage: A Checklist (Papyrus, Kolkata, 2001). [Back]

[2] M.V. Rajadhakshya, 'Shakespeare in Marathi', Indian Literature, Sahitya Akademi, Delhi, vol.7 no.1 (1974), p.83 (henceforth Ind.Lit.). [Back]

[3] Interview with 'Mamasaheb' Warerkar, Oxygen News, special Shakespeare number, Kolkata, 1964, p.5. Oxygen News was the house journal of Indian Oxygen Ltd. The patronage of Shakespearean endeavours by industrial and commercial houses, especially in the Quatercentenary year 1964, is an interesting index to the Indian interest in Shakespeare. [Back]