Shakespeare, forever & a day

Nearly half of a millennium after he lived and wrote, the bard of Avon is a ubiquitous phenomenon and fodder for films, including Bollywood

In an academic phase that has been ushered in by the well known critic Raymond Williams questioning of English studies — its rel­evance, indeed its very raison d’être — William Shakespeare co­mes to the mind in defence of the stance that despite being marked by ‘unviability’ and ‘instability’, there is still something we can call ‘English’ or ‘literature’. Sha­kespeare, like it or not, draws forth the kind of vocabulary that is attached to the pre-English-studies-crisis-era, and has gone out of fashion in mainstream aca­demia. ‘Universal value(s) would arguably top the list of words here.

Nearly half a millennium after he lived and wrote, Shakespeare is a ubiquitous phenomenon, whether across media or across the globe. His plays have been translated into and performed in several languages and their plots adapted and re-contextualised for different times, different places.

That people the world over have been able to see their situations and choices reflected in the drama created by a man who lived centuries before them, does pre­dicate a core essence in Shake­speareana that all of us, despite culture wars and differences, despite ideology, relate to and partake of.

While certain Shakespearean adaptations in India have been more straightforward/loyal than others like the Hindi film Angoor (1982) adapted from Bhrantibilas (1963), a Bengali novel in turn adapted from an early Shake­spearean comedy called The Comedy of Errors (1594), some adaptations have been so inspired in their approach to the Shak­espearean source, that they are original in their own right. Before I proffer two examples of the above, let me emphasise the point about Shakespeare’s universal appeal with the case of Angoor, by suggesting that this plot about the separated twins was already a formula for success in Hindi cinema/Bollywood, a good while before Shakespeare got there.

So Bollywood was already inv­ested in stories such as Ram aur Shyam (played by Dilip Kumar, released 1967) and Seeta aur Geeta (played by Hema Malini, released 1972 — incidentally, both movies were commercially successful), so that one can say truthfully of Angoor that here was Shakespeare finding a niche for himself in an oeuvre that was already flourishing with box-office profits. So, it can be argued that Angoor was not so much an introduction of Sha­kespeare to Hindi cinema, as that Angoor had found that it belonged to the tradition of an already popular plotline of Hindi cinema.

A good example of an Indian adaptation of Shakespearean drama is Habib Tanvir’s Kamdev ka Apna, Vasant Ritu ka Sapna (Cupid’s Own, A Springtime Dr­eam; translated by Habib Tanvir, First edition, 2001, first performed in 1993). The correspondences be­tween Tanvir’s play and Sha­kespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (henceforth Dream), are several, and range from minor to major. The originality lies in the way Tanvir chooses to break the fourth wall, by showing a correspondence between the actors in his theatre and the “rude mechanicals” com­prising Bottom and his friends in the Shakespearean comedy.

Both sets of people are identified by the professions they practise. Tanvir’s actors had ties with tra­ditional livelihood in an agrarian economy, just as Bottom is “Bottom the weaver”, Flute is a “bellows-mender”, Starveling, a “tailor”, Snout, “tinker” and Snug, “joiner”.

There is a sharp and political difference though. While the audience inside and outside Dream are encouraged to laugh at the unimaginative and bumbling “mechanicals” — the term implies that they are artisans and not artists, a distinction that Shak­espeare would want to maintain — Tanvir tweaks the plot so that his version of the mechanicals priv­ileges them as mainstream, thus breaking binaries like ‘elite/mass’ or “classical/folk”. For Tanvir, this is a statement about his naya theatre. Moreover, this is just such a move that the iconoclast in Shakespeare would have welcomed.

A second example shows how “natural” Shakespeare is for us to adapt/adapt to. Atul Kumar’s Piya Behrupiya, The Company The­atre’s brilliant remake of Twelfth Night, was commissioned to per­form in London to coincide with the 2012 Olympics. Though entirely in Hindi, it was a runaway success, showing that the essence of “Shakespeare” is understood and exchanged without any regard to hierarchy, not even the hierarchy of language and imperialism.

In Tanvir’s adaptation, many names from the original are retained, like Athens and Theseus, even as some are Indianised: Qu­ince dada, or gandharva for “angel”. Ditto with Piya Behrupia which while retaining Olivia, Viola and the less familiar and definitely Italian Orsino, gives to Olivia a language that is more Bollywood than Hindi when she expresses the tumult in her mind in “aakhir main bhi to personal level pe disturbed chal rahi hoon na.”

Unmistakable Indian touches are rendered in the depiction of a picture of Lord Krishna as the reigning deity of this play on the theme of love, and the tran­sformation of a duel in the original play into a qawwali — more suitable not only to the relocated story, but also to a comedy which is also a musical. Piya Behrupiya also addresses the modern world of today with references to photocopy and deodorant. Thus Shak­esp­earean adaptation, assimilation, and accommodation happen on multiple fronts.

As is well-known, Shakespeare freely lifted stories from existing sources; he could do so with impunity in a pre-copyright-rules era. His sources are not secret though and we are free to read them and see where Shakespeare added or subtracted. With all of these texts competing for originality, though, it is Shakespeare who grabs our attention. Why? Because, among other reasons, he touches us uniquely in ways that cross narrow sectarian ways of living, und­erstanding, and representing the world. Long live the Bard.

(The writer is professor, humanities and social sciences department, IIT Bombay)

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