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Shakespeare in India, India in Shakespeare

Last November, I covered a few events for the South Asian Literature Festival in London. Some of these were published on the SALF website. This is one of the unpublished pieces of the talk 'Shakespeare's South Asian Stage' on 3 November 2012.

The Bard’s charms have not gone unnoticed in South Asia, and his plays, with their universal themes and theatricality, provide immense room for adaptation.

I vividly recall the cold May evening when my friends and I stood spellbound for nearly three hours in the yard of The Globe theatre. It rained mercilessly down on our raincoats, but we were too busy cheering and applauding the Company Theatre’s Hindi rendition of Twelfth Night to care. The Globe to Globe festival was the highlight of London’s summer, bringing together 37 of the bard’s plays in different languages to an enthralled audience.

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On November 3rd 2012 at the Bush Theatre, writer, filmmaker and activist Preti Taneja spoke to three men who are no strangers to adapting Shakespeare for the South Asian stage: director Tim Supple, actor Paul Bhattacharjee, and director of the Globe to Globe Festival Tom Bird. Preti asked them why they chose to work with Shakespeare’s plays, and why India was such a sought after choice. Tim Supple, whose Indian adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was widely hailed as original and delightful, said that although he was extremely appreciative of his British audience, he was “wary of the 25 other brilliant adaptations that exist of the same play”. India was an exercise in difference, but not least.

Paul Bhattacharjee, who plays Benedick in Iqbal Khan’s Much Ado About Nothing set in modern India, added that the lifting of normality out of life that comes with Shakespeare appeals to Asian audiences, and the subject matter of these plays, somewhat outdated in contemporary Britain, still finds resonance with Indian people. For example, the problems of the working classes, the father-daughter relationship of King Lear or a chauvinistic character like Benedick seemed far more believable in an Indian context than in the supposedly liberal Britain. Tom Bird, who travelled extensively to meet and select theatre companies for the Festival, said that Shakespeare was popular in India and he saw nearly 20 productions of various plays in only Delhi and Mumbai. The Festival saw a diverse audience, with 83% first time Globe visitors.

Is language a primary concern when it comes to adaptations? Tim’s Dream included 6 Indian languages; although he had initially aimed to make it in English, most of the good actors he met didn’t know English. The play was therefore translated, with every attempt to preserve the verse and metre, rather faithful to the original, and not “Indianised”.

The Globe to Globe festival team had, explained Tom, intended to forbid the use of English altogether, but could not fail to overlook that many colloquialisms, like in Hindi for example, make ample use of English words and phrases. They compromised by using screens to introduce the scenes for an audience that might be lost without translation, while avoiding line-by-line subtitles. As Paul said, audiences work much harder and are less complacent when presented with a challenge in the form of a foreign language, and though one may not understand the language of a play, “the innate theatricality” of a good production carries through. In Indian theatre, according to Tim, there is still a strong connection between song, dance and mimetic elements, which effectively fulfils this purpose. India seems to have embraced Shakespeare with open arms, even if the rest of the world is only just discovering this.