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Shakespeare in India -- page 4

Shakespeare and Indian literature

Needless to say, the history of Shakespearean texts in Indian languages cannot be separated from the history of stage performance, as most versions were composed for the stage. But it is as important to realize that beyond the stage, and often without reference to it, Shakespeare came to constitute the predominant literary and poetic influence from the West in most Indian languages in the 19th century, continuing or sometimes even commencing in the 20th. The Romantic image of Shakespeare as poet or Bard was clearly paramount with Indian writers who would never see a play staged in English, and might have reacted to an Indian-language production with critical or even moral disapproval.

The Indian National Library in Kolkata made a count of Shakespeare translations and adaptations in Indian languages up to 1964. Out of 670 items in all, Bengali led with 128, followed by Marathi (97), Tamil (83), Hindi (70), Kannada (66) and Telugu (62). But any such count is unreliable. Few of these works are formal translations; they form a spectrum extending to brief prose retellings and extremely free adaptations. We cannot draw a line between substantial Shakespearean presences and mere spectres. The Indianized adaptations often hold out no clue to their Shakespearean origin. Who knows how many such works might be lying undetected in various languages?

The plots of Shakespeare's plays supplied non-dramatic texts at various levels. In language after language, we find early renderings of Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare - sometimes clearly directed at adult readers - or other prose retellings in various degrees of detail. Kandukuri Veeresalingam, a pioneer of modern Telugu literature, adapted sixteen Tales to an Indian context. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the outstanding Bengali humanist, rendered Errors as prose narrative in 1869. (This in turn was rendered into Kannada in 1876.) Bharatendu Harishchandra, a founder of modern Hindi literature, produced a prose Merchant in 1888. Prose translations and abridgements (usually more or less Indianized) have flourished in many Indian languages to the present day. They indicate the parallel growth of another Western literary import, the novel, sometimes even before that genre formally appears in the language in question. Other prose versions are cast in dramatic form or even intended for performance, like the Tamil prose adaptations by P. Sambanda Mudaliar, the grand old man of the Tamil stage some 100 years ago. In the 1950s, the eminent Hindi poet Harvansh Rai Bachchan produced verse translations of Macbeth and Hamlet, sometimes staged though apparently intended chiefly for reading.

Sanskrit versions (the earliest being of the Dream by R. Krishnamacharya in 1892) were obviously meant for reading rather than performance, though a Kolkata group, Prachya-Vani, staged a Sanskrit Merchant in 1964. In Kannada, the 1920s saw a reaction to the usual theatrical adaptations in a group of academic translations - in dramatic form, but meant primarily to be read. In Urdu, about the same time, there was a similar rise of close scholarly translations in reaction to the free popular renderings of the Parsi theatre (see below). After Independence, the newly-founded Sahitya Akademi (Academy of Letters) undertook to translate the four greatest tragedies into every major Indian language, with a specially commissioned introduction by John Dover Wilson. Sadly, the project remains incomplete.

The wider influence of Shakespeare on Indian poetic idiom and sensibility calls for separate study, only randomly undertaken so far. Unquestionably, Shakespeare made a crucial contribution to the Romanticism evinced by early modern Indian literature in the 19th and/or early 20th centuries. The pioneering Bengali novels of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, with a pan-Indian influence, constantly draw chapter epigraphs from Shakespeare. This, rather than the section on criticism, also seems the place to cite Bankim's essay favourably contrasting the ethos implicit in Desdemona and Miranda with that of Shakuntala in Kalidasa's Sanskrit play. In a still more celebrated reply, Rabindranath Tagore argued the superior philosophic quality of Kalidasa's work and the ethos it incorporates.

Interestingly, the tutors who educated Tagore at home made him translate all or part of Macbeth when he was thirteen. Only the Witch Scenes have come down to us. Clearly, Shakespeare's texts were used pedagogically in more ways than we might imagine. In fact, the earliest Bengali version of Shakespeare (of The Tempest in 1809, by one C. Monckton) is a classroom exercise from Fort William College in Kolkata, where British civilians were trained.

I have already noted the analysis of Shakespeare's plays in terms of Indian aesthetics or philosophy. These abound in Indian languages no less than in English. An interesting variant agenda is Swami Vibulanandha's 12 Tamil adaptations of actual plays to illustrate the aesthetic theory of Meypaddu, analogous to the famous Sanskrit rasa theory. In another direction, verse translations in many languages became a vehicle for metrical experiment. In Bengali, a successful model of dramatic blank verse - virtually the staple medium for the tragic and heroic drama of the age - was created in the late 19th/ early 20th centuries on the Shakespearean model. More recent metrical and linguistic experiments have been conducted in Kannada in K.S. Nissar Ahmad's Dream, in Malayalam in Ramakrishna Pillai's Macbeth, and in Gujarati in another Macbeth by Jaswant Thakar.

The Shakespearean model had certain other formative effects on the structure, themes and other 'literary' aspects of early modern Indian drama. A vital contribution was the concept - and concomitant form - of tragedy, virtually unknown in classical Sanskrit drama. Beyond that lay a broad new model of poetic drama, which could combine with the classical Indian on the one hand and various popular and folk models on the other.

The first language to develop this model was Bengali, reaching its high point in the early drama of Rabindranath Tagore and then in the plays of Dwijendra Lal Roy. The latter had a notable influence on early modern Hindi drama as well. Its fruits appeared in the Hindi historical plays of Jaishankar Prasad in the early 20th century. An interesting variant appears in a trilogy of history plays loosely modelled on Shakespeare's second tetralogy by Lakshminath Bezbarua, one of the founders of modern Assamese literature. These plays expressed a new patriotic and historical consciousness - not merely Indian but specifically of the north-eastern state of Assam. Such instances scotch any simplistic view of Shakespeare sustaining an exclusively colonial programme.

Shakespearean influence was also strong in early Gujarati drama as developed, for instance, by the celebrated Dahyabhai Dholshaji Jhaveri; in eminent Marathi playwrights like K.P. Khadilkar, N.C. Kelkar and S.M. Paranjape; and the equally eminent Telugu dramatists D. Krishnamacharya and K. Sreenivasa Rao. Another Telugu playwright, P. Srinivasacharya, wrote in a preface: 'I had before me the best tragedies of the immortal Shakespeare to guide me in the development of characters.' [6] So too did the Marathi Khadilkar admit his debt to Shakespeare in the preface to his first play. More recently in the 1970s and 1980s, Ramachandra Deva has written of his Kannada adaptations: 'I was trying to bring Shakespeare to Kannada through myself, and understand myself and my times through Shakespeare.' [7]

In most Indian languages, the Shakespearean presence in early modern drama ranges across a spectrum: from close translations to more or less free adaptations, and thence via occasional motifs, elements and echoes to plays that may contain nothing authentically Shakespearean, but that could not have been conceived had their authors not been directly or indirectly influenced by Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the major generative force behind this entire body of dramatic literature.

Yet needless to say, he is cast in compound - often as the activating element - with traditions of classical Indian drama as well as (often more vital) popular and folk theatre: Jatra in Bengal, Nautanki in northern India, Yakshagana and Kathakali in the south. Behind most adaptations lie the compulsions of the commercial theatre. But then again, in many regions the commercial Indian-language urban theatre was brought into being on the model of the European public theatre, though the latter might not have existed in that region at that date. Shakespeare is a continuous presence in Indian theatre in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His text is perpetually remoulded in response to the cultural and theatrical compulsions of each specific location.


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[6] Cited in Ind.Lit. p.129. [Back]

[7] Cited in G.S. Amur, 'Shakespeare in Kannada', Shankar p.122. [Back]