Almost every language theatre group in India has made Shakespeare its own.
There is a full moon in the night sky. In the small pavilion of granite, a human statue has come to life and a celebrating chorus of happiness surrounds us. A young boy accompanied by a stray dog walks down the path to join the cast of A Winter’s Tale as they take a standing ovation. It is late at night and the cast, like the audience, are bathed in moonlight falling off their all-white costumes. Nature has played along and a few white lotuses are blooming in the small pond below. The exquisiteness of the moment overtakes us all.
This then is the ephemeral magic of Shakespeare. This scene was the last evening of the Hamara Shakespeare festival; the setting was the lily pond at Kalakshetra, Chennai, called the Padma Pushkarni. Played in Urdu and Hindi with English, the young cast made the audience move with them as the scenes unfolded — from sitting around at the start to festivities under the banyan tree and the final scene.
How do we come to make Shakespeare ours? A colonial construct that we inherited in our educational system, several generations of Indians learn him at school often wondering about the relevance of his language, metre and rhythm. What truly stays in adulthood from all of this is the memory of a good story well told. The plot is almost always layered, several sub-plots occur, and there are always the universal tropes of love, lust, jealousy, power, the workings of fate and so on — in short, all of the kaleidoscope that makes up the emotional interior landscape of humans across cultures.
This is why we have made Shakespeare ours. Across the country, in every region, almost every language theatre groups — amateur and professional — dip into and rediscover Shakespeare over and over reinventing and subverting, realigning and politicising, or simply having fun in their own manner of speaking.
On stage is a group of Lavani dancers. The men are large and strong boned but are in saris, and the petite girls are in dhotis and kurtas. A cross-dressed version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream aptly entitled Jungle Mein Mangal — hysterical, full of bawdy puns, taking political pot shots and hamming it up Bollywood ishtyle! The year is 2007, and this is Chetan Datar’s version of the classic.
Perhaps the single other reason that Shakespeare’s work has stayed with us is the ability of his plays to truly entertain us in every way. A good laugh can be had by all in the family; there is something for everyone. Children, star-crossed youth, the older manipulators and so on! Ever so often both Hollywood and Bollywood will dip into Shakespeare and, lo and behold — Leonardo di Caprio in a Romeo and Juliet version set in urban America’s gang wars, or a Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s recent Ram Leela sizzling with sensuality and the raw pain of love lost.
There are, however, in the works of Shakespeare — three that every actor worth his salt wants to play — the macho trio of Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth. Ah! the tyranny of royal roles and the thrusting for fame and fortune, doubt, rage and pain in discovering the folly of mankind.
Marghi Madhu, a renowned Kudiyattam performer, does his version of Macbeth — returning triumphant from war and feasting. Only this bit is an hour-long abhinaya-filled performance within the genre and framework of Kudiyattam, drums and all. The soldiers, their victory and the various foods at the banquet being served to so many of the victorious are all created magically by the act of one man and his music of percussion rhythms.
In appropriating him from Elizabethan English to languages not only in India, but all over the world — from Japan to the Caribbean, from African nations to Russia — one is always amused by what the classic lines sound like. And yet they transcend language, and countries all over the world get the plot.
Local context becomes a fresh siting of the Shakespeare of today. About Caliban, About Colombo, a production that looks at issues in Sri Lanka and the Tamil conflict, viewed it through the prism of ‘the other’ — the darker beast — that we presume is in others but exists in, perhaps, most of us; easily perceived or deeply hidden. The grief of losing Ophelia — played by a company of clowns in gibberish in Hamlet: the Clown Prince — further accentuate the gravitas of pain and loss.
Shakespeare is ours and there is no denying it. From vintage movies in India and plays from the pre-independence period to the present, Shakespeare societies in most cities and towns, and every young student who is introduced in class to the treasure house of his work — Shakespeare continues to live in and through his words; a legacy he left all humanity for posterity. The author curates the Hamara Shakespeare Theatre Festival, dedicated to Shakespeare’s work in Indian languages, in Chennai.ss