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Shakespeare in India -- page 3

Pedagogy: the academic Shakespeare

The Hindu College, the first Western-type collegiate institution in Asia, was founded in Kolkata in 1817 on Indian initiative. Government support for Western-style education came with the victory of 'Anglicist' over 'Orientalist' policy in mid-century. The Hindu College was taken over by the British Government in 1857, along with similar institutions in Mumbai and Chennai (Madras). Universities were set up in these three cities that year. By 1920, some 20 universities and scores of colleges had come up across India.

The curriculum of these institutions was largely humanistic. As government control replaced missionary influence, the emphasis on literary studies grew. Well before Britain, Indian universities ran Honours and Master's courses in English literature, with Shakespeare as staple fare.

Needless to say, nearly all the eminent Shakespeare teachers of the earliest phase were Englishmen. Eminent names from the 19th and early 20th centuries include David Lester Richardson, Charles H. Tawney, J.C. Scrimgeour and James W. Holme (Kolkata); Mark Hunter, F.W. Kellett, William Miller and Henry Stone (Chennai); Walter Raleigh (Aligarh); R. Scott (Mumbai). But they were gradually joined, sometimes surpassed and finally supplanted by Indian scholars. Some of the latter have provided the stuff of legends in the guru-oriented orthodoxy that still lingers in Indian academia. On the whole, the Englishmen's teaching practice was narrowly, even patronizingly annotative, and sometimes moralizing too. The Indian scholars paid their young compatriots the compliment of taxing their critical intelligence, especially from the mid-20th-century.

Some early Indian teachers had deceptively Western names, like Henry Vivian Derozio and Harrington Hugh Melville Percival, both of Kolkata. Their successors patently belong to the scholarly traditions of the Indian Renaissance, down to a time when those traditions were themselves in the melting-pot. The course of the 20th century saw such scholars as Praphulla Chandra Ghosh, Subodh Chandra Sengupta, Tarak Nath Sen, Sailendra Kumar Sen and Arun Kumar Dasgupta in Kolkata; V.K. Ayyappan Pillai, R. Krishnamurthy, K.D. Sethna, S. Nagarajan and S. Viswanathan in southern India (chiefly Chennai and Hyderabad); Phiroze Dustoor, Sarup Singh and A.N. Kaul in Delhi; V.Y. Kantak in Vadodara; and M.V. Rajadhyaksha, Homai Shroff and Kamal Wood in Mumbai.

These communities of scholars have generated a corpus of publications. Some Englishmen, like Tawney, Holme and Raleigh, published editions and studies on their return to England. Others published while in India: for instance, in a series of Shakespeare editions brought out by the Chennai firm of Srinivasa Varadachari towards the end of the 19th century, to which nearly all eminent English professors in southern India at the time contributed volumes. From Chennai too came a series of studies by William Miller, later collected as Shakespeare's Chart of Life (1900), using Shakespeare as the vehicle to impart moral messages to the colonized youth.

Whether or not Indian youth profited from Shakespeare's supposed precepts, it certainly chose to study him in growing numbers. Patriotic Indians - nearly all English-educated, many of them ardent Shakespeareans - have long deplored the massive unproductive enrolment in English literature courses; yet the graph has climbed steadily. The day is long past when all school and college students would be dosed with Shakespeare as a means of acquiring the practicalities of the English tongue; but students specializing in English Literature abound on nearly every campus to this day - thousands of them in each large urban university. Their courses of study are changing in important ways; but Shakespeare is still staple diet, though less and less in the context of his contemporary culture or, indeed, a continuous context of English literary history.

The published output of Indian Shakespeareans may be thought meagre considering the size of this Anglophile brigade, or the learning of its best members over 100 years and more. Percival's editions of Shakespeare were published from his lecture notes. Much later, S. Nagarajan edited Measure for Measure for the Signet Shakespeare. Nagarajan is currently overseeing a new series of Indian editions, planned by the publishing house of Orient Longman, that might come to match Varadachari's a hundred years ago.

Among studies and monographs, R.V. Subbarao brought out a voluminous Othello Unveiled (Chennai, 1906) and the first volume of Hamlet Unveiled (Chennai, 1909). Mohinimohan Bhattacharya wrote a learned Courtesy in Shakespeare (Kolkata, 1940). Between 1951 and 1972, S.C. Sengupta published, inter alia, three volumes on Shakespeare under the OUP imprint; and S.K. Sen composed his densely-argued textual study Capell and Malone and Modern Critical Bibliography (Kolkata, 1960) entirely with resources available in Kolkata. Many other scholars, through the century just ended, have brought out book-length critical studies of the Bard. Needless to say, there has also been a steady flow of articles. Most remarkably, perhaps, since 1979 R.W. Desai has brought out from Delhi the journal Hamlet Studies - the world's 'only journal devoted to a single literary work', fully international in outlook and range of contributors.

This line of work mingles, in ideologically uncomplicated form, with mainstream Shakespeare scholarship from Anglophone countries. The last notable examples are many years old: S. Viswanathan's The Shakespeare Play as Poem (Cambridge, 1980), Sukanta Chaudhuri's Infirm Glory: Shakespeare and the Renaissance Image of Man (Oxford, 1981), or Rajiva Verma's Myth, Ritual and Shakespeare (Delhi, 1990). Since then, the feeling has grown widely that Indian criticism of Shakespeare, as of other Western texts, should relate more closely to Indian conditions of study, performance and reception.

This is linked to a consensual awareness that the British programme of literary education, privileging Shakespeare, was an instrument of colonial rule. Its Indian beneficiaries reoriented or even inverted its terms: this article indicates some of the ways. Nonetheless, it is argued that criticism protracting such a programme, however modified over time, can merely reproduce an alien idiom. An explicitly Indian and postcolonial programme is now enjoined - perhaps linked to allied issues and perspectives such as gender, caste and class.

It is hard to tell how far this change is caused by circumstance and how much by unforced conviction. The Indian presence in the international conference scene and academic market has swelled in the last 20 or 30 years. There, a declaredly Indian site of utterance is often demanded or even imposed on aspirants from the subcontinent. Voices have been raised against the danger of national or ethnic stereotyping; but for the moment, the Anglophile Indian academic is riding high on the specifically Indian contribution that he can make to Shakespearean as to other English studies.

This is not a new trend. Alongside 'mainstream' critical exercises, there has always been a current of specifically Indian studies and approaches to Shakespeare. In the Raj days, these could ironically combine the premises of Indian nationalism and Western orientalism. In the 1920s, Smarajit Dutt published from Kolkata three volumes on Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, each subtitled An Oriental Study. The postulation of a superior eastern wisdom brought to bear on the Bard - perhaps scaling down his own achievement - appeared in more sophisticated form in Ranjee Shahani's Shakespeare through Eastern Eyes (London, 1932).

There have been many readings of Shakespeare from specifically Indian angles, not always with overt political tilt. The Sanskrit scholar A.A. Narayanadasa acutely compared Shakespeare with the classical Sanskrit dramatist Kalidasa in his book Navarasataringini (1924). The British scholar Henry Wells collaborated with the Indian H.H. Anniah Gowda in an extended comparison of Shakespearean and classical Indian drama (Shakespeare Turned East, Mysore, 1976), while C.D. Narasimhaiah edited a volume mooting a more general assimilation (Shakespeare Came to India, Mumbai, 1964). Very recently, S. Viswanathan has proposed a programme of specifically Indian investigations into Shakespeare. [4] In collections of Shakespeare criticism by Indian hands, such studies commonly outnumber 'mainstream' efforts.

The innovation since the 1980s lies in adopting not classic cultural or spiritual perspectives but those of gender and postcoloniality, often as mediated through the (no less elite) experience of urban Indian classrooms. This can be assimilated to cultural materialism; also with the agenda of 'subaltern studies' in postmodern Indian historiography, which works with the apparently very different material of oppressed and impoverished social groups.

The more committed adherents of this approach have found a model in Ania Loomba's Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Manchester, 1989). The new trend is prominent in Delhi, reflecting a searching critique in some academic circles there of the 'Eng. Lit.' orthodoxy. Related to this, though distinguished by its valuing of Indian-language tradition and practice, is the postcolonial critique of scholars such as Harish Trivedi. [5] These varied approaches interact with more traditional ones of Anglophone provenance in the activities of the Shakespeare Society of India, based in Delhi though with an all-India membership.

In a few metropolitan centres, notably Delhi and Kolkata, Shakespeare remains the subject of much animated critical attention. But in India as a whole, despite a Shakespearean presence in the curricula of most universities, serious academic interest in Shakespeare seems to be on the decline. It had always been the concern of a minute minority. We need to look at the potentially wider reach of literature and the stage.


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[4] S. Viswanathan, 'Indian Shakespeare Criticism: Some Fresh Possibilities', in D.A. Shankar (ed.), Shakespeare in Indian Languages (Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, 1999), pp.29-39 (henceforth 'Shankar'). [Back]

[5] See especially 'Shakespeare in India' in his Colonial Transactions (Kolkata, 1993; rpt. Manchester UP, 1995), pp.10-28. [Back]