Saturday, February 1, 2020

Shakespeare in India, India in Shakespeare

A post-colonially-minded colleague of mine once asked to visit my Shakespeare class, and I said, sure! He told my students that the reason Shakespeare was a requirement for their degree was that in the prior century in India, the British Raj had determined that requiring the study of Shakespeare in schools was an effective instrument of cultural indoctrination and control. Cricket was the English national game, and Shakespeare was the English national poet.

All this was true. But it wasn't the whole truth. India was the first geographical locale to require Shakespeare for formal study in English, since Shakespeare was seen as a conduit to the appreciation of what was most admirably English. However, as most people who have read any Shakespeare know, Englishness and Raj aside, Shakespeare is an excellent writer with a lot of fascinating ideas, so requiring him to be studied in any English class, east or west, is not such a bad idea for a whole slew of reasons. In a Shakespeare class, there are more fruitful ways of discussing his poems and plays than by showcasing their dubious history as tools of cultural indoctrination. 

India didn't throw out cricket when they threw out the British, and they didn't throw out Shakespeare. He was too popular. As in other countries, Shakespeare has been used and enjoyed in India in all kinds of interesting ways, suspicious and otherwise. Knowledge of Shakespeare in English served as "cultural capital" for the "upper-class, elite Indians" of nineteenth-century Calcutta, to quote scholar Jyotsna Singh. But Shakespeare has also been translated into numerous Indian languages;
he fits "Bengali playwrights' sense of tragic tradition," again quoting Singh; he's been played by Indian actors wearing tribal masks; he was received enthusiastically in remote Indian villages in the 1950s during tours by the "Shakespeare Wallah" actor-manager father of Felicity Kendal, as she charmingly recounts in a documentary about her peripatetic Indian childhood.

There's plenty of Shakespeare in India, and there's even a little India in Shakespeare. References to India in the plays are few and far between and, of course, complicated by the fact that to Shakespeare, "India" was vague and remote, a place of fantasy and storied riches, a source of spices, jewels, and religious faiths that he understood either barely or not at all. In All's Well that Ends Well, Helena compares her beloved Bertram to the sun, and says that she herself, his worshipper, is "Indian-like, religious in mine error." Men in Shakespeare frequently compare women to jewels, and that comparison brings India to their minds. Troilus involves India in his erotic fantasies about Cressida: "Her bed is India; there she lies, a pearl." Precious metals, as opposed to jewels, derive from that other India, the one that wasn't really India, on the other side of the Atlantic: John Donne (also thinking erotically) compares his lover to "both the Indias, of spice and mine." It's the West Indies of which Shakespeare is thinking when, in The Tempest, he has Trinculo scoff that Europeans won't give money for charity but will pay big to see a "dead Indian," a New World oddity. But Shakespeare clearly has the Old World India in mind in his most sustained references to India, which occur in A Midsummer Night's Dream. There the fairy king and queen Oberon and Titania quarrel about an "Indian boy," a lovely servant whom each of them wishes to keep as page. Oberon's desire for the boy is a bit sketchier than Titania's. Titania had a special friendship with the boy's mother, who was her waiting-woman when pregnant with him, and Titania feels obligated "for her sake" to protect him -- perhaps from Oberon.

Spices, jewels, sex -- in general, Shakespeare has treated India with less intellectual respect than India has treated Shakespeare. But it's complicated. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia's suitor Bassanio brings India into his list of dangerously deceptive things. A gilded box with deadly contents is like "the guiled shore to a most dangerous sea" and also like "the beauteous scarf veiling an Indian beauty." The line always seemed vaguely racist to me, suggesting that the scarf was the lovely and valuable thing and that underneath it lay -- horrors! -- a dark-skinned face. But then I noticed that the scarf was not "veiling" an "Indian devil" or even the more neutral "Indian woman," but an "Indian beauty." It wasn't a case of something speciously good hiding something really bad. Both the scarf and the Indian woman are beautiful. But the Indian woman's beauty, to the European Bassanio, is an unknown quantity. It's mysterious, fathomless, possibly treacherous in its unfamiliarity, like the sea. It's exotic, dangerous, and profound. To Shakespeare, this, the veiled Indian beauty, was the realm of far-off India, for him an alluring fantasy-land he could visit only in imagination.

I was in like case until last December, when I finally visited India. Among the many things I found there was, somewhat unexpectedly, Shakespeare. In Delhi, I came across the Shakespeare Cafe; the Shakespeare School of Language specialized for NEUTRAL ACCENT, BRITISH ACCENT, AMERICAN, AND AUSTRALIAN; a poster advertising the Fourteenth Annual Bharat Rang Mahotsau Theater Festival featuring 93 productions in 27 languages, among which would be a Kannada-language version of Hamlet (from Karnataka in southwest India), a Mizoran A Midsummer Night's Dream (from northeast tribal areas), and a Bengali Lear; a Bach and Shakespeare Club of Delhi meetup with 1,152 members; a newspaper note on a Hindi Hamlet; and an advertisement for a Shakespeare comedy fest at Siri Fort. And I came across a Shakespeare-ism in the newspaper: "Method in Madness: Exploiting Batsmen Run Between Wickets." Shakespeare and cricket in one!

But my best Shakespeare experience was a visit with Professor Rupin Desai, retired Shakespearean of Delhi University, editor of the long-running journal Hamlet Studies, author of the book Yeats's Shakespeare, and editor of the essay collection Shakespeare the Man. On our third day in India we met with Rupin and his wife Jyoti, also a professor of English literature (see Rupin and Jyoti with me above right, and with other colleagues, incuding the soon-to-be-described Vikram Chopra, way up top on left). That night this intrepid pair took me, my husband, and my son on a fantastic journey through the wild streets of Delhi. (My favorite of Rupin's utterances during this adventure: "I'm going the wrong way down a one-way street! I might get caught! I'll turn my lights off.") They drove us to the International Club, where they not only treated us to an array of delicious Indian dishes but introduced us to a bevy of kind, eloquent Indian intellectuals, many of whom were Shakespeare scholars.We met Rajiva Verma, another emeritus Delhi University professor as well as President of the Shakespeare Society of India and author of  Myth and Ritual in Shakespeare; and the Desais' niece, Ruth Vanita, a professor of cultural studies at the University of Montana who'd returned with her lovely partner Mona to her native India for a spell. And we met the above-mentioned Dr. Vikram Chopra (top picture on right), a diminutive man overflowing with Shakespearean goodwill, and equipped with a Shakespeare quotation for every subject, including "I shower welcome on ye, welcome all!," an action he had committed to a paper, full of "profound Shakespearean sentiments," which he bestowed on me. Here's a picture of it:

Vikram is an editor of something called "The Shakespeare Data Bank," and the document with which he welcomed me was headed with an appropriately Shakespearean prayer from Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo: "Let thyself drive in the breath of God and be as a leaf in the tempest." (You have to do this to survive Delhi traffic.)

We were overwhelmed with our hosts' graciousness, and barely able to respond coherently with the requested speeches in answer to the question, "What are your impressions of India?"

So now, here's my more considered answer, in terms drawn from Romeo and Juliet. India's "bounty is as boundless as the sea," its "love as deep," for "both are infinite."

Thank you, Indian Shakespeare friends. Namaste!

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