A life in a day

Aparna Dharwadker  

Mohan Rakesh’s debut play, ‘Ashadh ka Ek Din’, is also considered the first modern Hindi play. Its latest English translation, by Vinay and Aparna Dharwadker, “One Day in the Season of Rain” (Penguin India), brings back the magic Rakesh’s words created, and casts a fresh eye on the foundational work that changed modern Hindi theatre.

Excerpts from an interview:

Could you talk a little about choosing this particular play?

Aparna: I have been a scholar of modern Indian theatre for 25 years, and also offer courses on this subject regularly at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Mohan Rakesh is a key figure in both these contexts, and as his first full-length play, ‘Ashadh ka ek Din’ (1958) is a stunning example of the revolutionary impact he had on Indian drama and theatre after Independence. The play gives us many new ways of thinking about literature, theatre, and culture—the phenomenon of postcolonial modernism, the iconic figure of Kalidas, the form of the history play, the love between poet and muse, the relation of centre to periphery, and so on.

I had translated excerpts from Ashadh for my book, Theatres of Independence (2005). Then one of my American Ph.D. students who also teaches theatre requested a full new translation, so that he could direct the play at Carthage College (near Milwaukee, Wisconsin) in Spring 2010. Vinay and I had talked earlier about co-translating Ashadh so that the play could reach the international audience of general readers and theatre professionals that it deserves. The invitation from Carthage College provided a perfect opportunity, and the Penguin Modern Classics series is the ideal imprint for the translation. The Carthage College production of Ashadh was selected for the annual American College Theatre Festival.

It is interesting to see two translators working on the same script, because language, especially Mohan Rakesh's language, is full of sentences that might mean very different things to different readers.

Aparna: Vinay is an active and very widely published translator of poetry from Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, Urdu, and Sanskrit, with more than 450 English translations of poems from these languages in print. My earlier translations were mostly of prose, including excerpts from Hindi and Marathi plays discussed in my scholarly publications. We had first collaborated in the 1980s on translations of Hindi poems by Shrikant Verma, Kedarnath Singh, and Kunwar Narayan, and so were familiar with each other’s styles as translators.

The translation of ‘shadh ke ek Din’ was a line-by-line collaboration from start to finish, in which discussion and debate continued over five years, until the English text was fully acceptable to both of us. As our Translators’ Note in the book observes, our effort was to create in English, as best as possible, the tone, texture, atmosphere, ethical quality, and emotional flavour of Rakesh’s impeccable original.

What do you think happens to a play once it is translated? What changes? And how difficult is it to ensure that very little of it changes?

Aparna: The post-independence revolution in Indian theatre has depended to a large extent on the active translation of plays from one language to another, with Hindi and English playing especially important roles as shared mediums of representation. In India, we have the world’s oldest, most complex multilingual society, in which numerous languages, scripts, literatures, and literate cultures have interacted with each other continuously through most of their histories. In the contemporary period, we also have the world’s most complex multilingual print and performance culture existing within the boundaries of a single nation. Under these conditions, translation is what transports a play beyond the region of its original composition and makes it accessible to audiences around the nation. The internal history of each of our contemporary languages includes a great deal of translation activity focused on literature and drama from other languages, both Indian and foreign.

Since English is currently a global language, translation into English makes a play potentially accessible to audiences around the world. Vinay and I study and teach literature and theatre from many parts of the world, including Europe and the Americas, so we can look at Indian works in a comparative framework, and feel strongly that our contemporary classics deserve a worldwide audience. So what changes fundamentally through translation is the nature of a work’s existence in the world. If the translation of a particular text meets literary and professional standards, it is also capable of representing the qualities that make the original work distinctive in terms of form, content, and effect.

Tell me about your own appreciation of Mohan Rakesh's works. What draws you to the plays?

Vinay: Especially for me, ‘Ashadh…’ is fascinating because it is ‘poetry in prose’, an attempt to fully incorporate the norms of Sanskrit kavya into the fabric of modern Hindi in the middle of the twentieth century, shortly after the birth of a new nation. I found myself immersed in Rakesh because his postcolonial modernism was an original form of modernist classicism, invented independently of European models. As a writer submerged in the disorder of postcolonial times in India, he found a usable principle of aesthetic order in Kalidas. In re-imagining Kalidas’s life and poetry in ‘Ashadh…’, Rakesh found a way to reinvigorate that classical world, even as he modernized it and brought it alive on the contemporary stage. In his other major play, ‘Adhe Adhure’ (1969), Rakesh then confronted contemporary urban reality on its own terms, giving modernism a new existential and dramatic home in the postcolonial world. He did this very differently from his older contemporaries in, say, the Irish tradition, such as W. B. Yeats and James Joyce (in poetry and fiction), and Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Becket (in drama).

What is remarkable about Rakesh is that, in exactly 50 days of writing in early 1958, he invented the devices and strategies of representation in ‘Ashadh…’ on his own, before they became common knowledge in Euro-Americas. As we have noted in our Preface to the book, ‘Ashadh…’ is the only original dramatic work in 20th Century world literature that is a full-scale imaginative exploration of a classical writer’s life and texts. It is ‘an experimental, theatrical equivalent of a Kunstlerroman which, in this case, takes the classical Sanskrit poet Kalidas in his maturity as its extraordinary subject.’ By the time Rakesh’s play concludes, it becomes a portrait of the artist as a broken, middle-aged man who abandons the love of his life for a second time, in a direct reversal of the famous reunion of Dushyant and Shakuntala at the end of Kalidas’s classical play.

Were there any especially difficult parts that you had to labour over? Any particular parts that were also particularly pleasurable to translate?

Vinay: There were many levels of difficulty, which is why we took five years to finish this translation satisfactorily. One was the basic level of Rakesh’s Hindi vocabulary. To create a convincing classical setting for his play, and to maintain the right atmosphere on the stage, he used an exceptionally ‘Sanskritized’ form of Hindi, avoiding any words and expressions borrowed from Urdu or derived from Persian and Arabic. For some characters, situations, and episodes, he imported rare Sanskrit terms directly from Kalidas’s plays and poems, using them in their tatsama forms. We finally chose to render them in a contemporary ‘middle diction’ in English, because any ornate or antiquated renderings would have severely distorted Rakesh’s aesthetic effects. A predominantly polysyllabic Latinate vocabulary, for instance, would have reduced his emotionally evocative prose to the equivalent of mawkish doggerel.

We had to find ways of creating a multilayered structure in English that would match Rakesh’ multilayered organization of his Hindi original. The comic scene with Matul in Ambika and Mallika’s home in the middle of Act I is an excellent example of how complex the issues are. In the space of just 18 conversational sentences, Matul interacts with three different characters, deals with five different themes, and uses five different styles of speaking, all fused seamlessly into the rapid-fire dialogue characteristic of such comedy. As we have said in the book, our translation had to be ‘integrated completely and invisibly’ with Rakesh’s ‘artless art’.

Do you think there is a need to remember Mohan Rakesh's works? Do you think there is any danger that people are forgetting? I refer, especially, to works other than “Adhe Adhure”, which still remains popular.

Aparna and Vinay: The most astonishing fact about Mohan Rakesh is that he died suddenly in 1972, at the age of 47, at the height of his career, but his finished and unfinished works have become a major industry for Hindi scholars, editors, and publishers since his death. For this book, Aparna compiled a comprehensive chronology of Rakesh’s life and works, including the full range of his posthumous publications—the first of its kind for a modern Indian author. The chronology displays the amazing afterlife of Rakesh’s writing, not only in Hindi, but in translations in languages ranging from Kannada, Gujarati, Malayalam, and Marathi to Chinese, English, French, German, Hungarian, Japanese, and Russian. The generosity of Rakesh’s estate, represented by his wife Anita Rakesh, and the industriousness of Hindi scholars such as Jaidev Taneja, have made sure that everything Rakesh wrote has found its way into print over the past 40 years. This productivity seems to be in no imminent danger of slowing down. Rakesh remains a foundational figure in modern Hindi and Indian writing, and readers turn to him constantly for the complex forms of pleasure he offers in many genres—novels, short stories, short and full-length plays for stage and radio, diaries, travel writing, theatre theory, cultural criticism, personal essays, and major literary translations in Hindi from Sanskrit. For most of us, the real question is: when will we catch up with this writer who continues to produce so much so long after his death?

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 5:35:41 AM |

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