A Midsummer Night’s Dream has endured so well in all languages of south Asia as to become perhaps the most-performed Shakespearean play there, according to one Indian scholar. The preferred medium of transference for Shakespearean drama in India has always been the adaptation, to which the Dream lends itself quite easily. The commercial Parsi theatres mounted it in their typically free and lavish extravaganzas during the nineteenth century. Early literary translators also indigenized it, such as Srikanthesh Gowda’s Pramilarjuniya in Kannada, using Hindu mythical characters. An intriguing experiment took place in Calcutta when Satishchandra Chatterjee transformed it into a Bengali opera, Jahanara (1904), set exclusively in the Muslim community. After Independence, two versions by famous socialist directors gained considerable attention: Utpal Dutt’s relatively faithful Chaitali Rater Swapna (1964) in Bengali with his own comic genius in the part of Bottom, and Habib Tanvir’s Kam Dev ka Apna, Basant Ritu ka Swapna (1993) in Hindustani and Chhattisgarhi, which omitted Hermia and Helena completely and relegated Theseus and Hippolyta to the background, concentrating on the forest spirits and mechanicals—the groups that Tanvir’s rural cast understood so well.
A scene from Supple’s Dream
For the Indian audiences to whom Supple’s Dream first played in April, the most resistant element may have been its polyglot script using English, Tamil, Malayalam, Sinhalese, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi and even a smattering of Sanskrit. Their unreasonable expectation of monolingual drama arises not only from habituation to that mode but also from the tyranny of literary studies dependent on the reading of books printed necessarily in one, “pure” language, more so when that language is the revered Bard’s very own English. A hangover of the British Raj, this attitude forgets, ironically enough, that most south Asians in real life speak at the very least bilingually. It conveniently ignores as well the hallowed precedent of Indian classical theatre, for which “Sanskrit drama” is a misnomer, since the manuscripts are not exclusively in Sanskrit, but frequently utilize various ancient Prakrits in the same play according to the situation.
By contrast in the West, multilingual theatre has become fairly common, particularly in international projects. Supple does not feel handicapped by it and expressed his views to me on this matter unambiguously: “Of course the original text has a special quality, whether Shakespeare or Schiller… on the other hand, I can’t accept the superiority of any language.” So, in arguably the first-ever Indian production of this nature—at least to my knowledge—he brought together actors speaking seven different south Asian tongues on stage. This has happened so far only on a much limited scale in specific cities under guest directors, never at a national, leave alone sub-continental, level. In this historic event, a foreign director achieved national integration for Indian theatre before any Indian could. Multilingual theatre lives in the West, even if as something of a fad; but in India where it has barely entered, it has every empirical reason to not only exist, but unite the diverse country and thrive.
A bit of explanation appears in order here. Language has and continues to be a volatile minefield in India, where linguistic groups vie for formal recognition in the Constitution, which thereby bestows on them politically equal status. From fourteen such languages originally, the Constitution’s Eighth Schedule now lists 22, fifteen of which rank among the world’s top 50 most-spoken, with over 20 million speakers each. For instance, in 2004, negotiations for a settlement of the Bodo insurrection in Assam involved a demand for acceptance of Bodo in the Eighth Schedule, granted by the government. Meanwhile Hindi and English remain the official languages of communication, though the Constitution had provided for the gradual easing-out of English. However, English retains its place because of virulent anti-Hindi protests among east and south Indians (that even erupted into violent riots periodically) who believe that Hindi’s elevation to sole national language would insult their equally rich languages. As the decades roll by, in fact, the number of Indians who can speak English has increased to 20 million by conservative estimates, the third largest Anglophone community after the US and UK. Nearly all of them, of course, have an Indian mother tongue as their first language.
The most ancient language you hear in this production is Sanskrit, in the form of a sloka (couplet) from Hindu wedding ceremonies, converted into a song here. The origins of Sanskrit go back to between 2500 and 1500 BC, the age from which the hymns in the Rig Veda date. As the matriarch in the Indo-Aryan linguistic group, Sanskrit gave birth to all the modern Indo-Aryan languages, but also deeply influenced the vocabulary of the Dravidian linguistic family in south India. Although scholars classify it as a dead language like Latin—and like Latin in Christian liturgy, it is used as the sacred ceremonial language of Hinduism—Sanskrit still has adherents declaring it in the Indian Census as the tongue they speak at home.
Just as the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family evolved into modern German, Dutch, English, Flemish, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, the Sanskritic branch of the same family grew after the tenth century into the modern Indo-Aryan languages, of which you find four in this production: Hindi, Bengali, Marathi and Sinhalese. “Greater” Hindi embraces a spectrum of north Indian dialects/languages from Rajasthani in the west to Maithili in the east, and is comprehensible to about 340 million (30% of) Indians, and, in its role as a bazaar or grass-roots lingua franca, to much of the population across the country. Bengali is spoken by 200 million people in eastern India and Bangladesh, and Marathi by 65 million in the western state of Maharashtra, both boasting highly sophisticated literatures.
Sinhalese has an interesting history. Disconnected from its northern Indo-Aryan sisters by all of south India and the sea, it developed from the commoners’ Pali and Prakrit that Buddhist monks took to Sri Lanka since the emperor Asoka’s times two millennia ago. The island nation has seen its share of ethno-linguistic conflicts lately, between the majority 13-million Sinhalese and the minority Tamils related to the people of Tamil Nadu, the nearest landfall in India.
Two representatives of the Dravidian family feature in this production: Tamil from Tamil Nadu state (60 million speakers, including those in Sri Lanka) and Malayalam from Kerala state (30 million). Tamil can well claim the distinction of India’s oldest living major language, already descended from the parent Dravidian tongue by the third century BC, from which period survive the earliest Tamil poetry. On the other hand, much controversy surrounds the ancestry of Malayalam, which some argue to have separated from Tamil around the ninth century, whereas others contend it had an independent identity 2000 years ago.
Theatre flourishes in all these languages in south Asia. Even traditional Sanskrit theatre, itself an elitist courtly or ritualistic form, exists in some temples of Kerala. Today’s elite language in India, English, also has its own history of performance, now nearly 200 years old, albeit to coterie audiences in the cities. The last Act of this production alludes to the sensitive politics of language: the aristocrats talk in English, somewhat condescendingly at first, while watching the sincere theatrics of the mechanicals. This seems like what Shakespeare himself had in mind, for his mechanicals mispronounced and Malapropized the Queen’s English, but ultimately impressed the elite viewers with their unmistakably genuine passion.
The query could naturally arise: how did Supple communicate in these multilingual circumstances? Interpreters did translate regularly, but as he puts it, “Often we did not need translation as the expression and tone of what I said got across. The main point about the different languages is that they forced us all to pay heightened and careful attention to each other, a quality one would wish of all actors, directors and audiences. Communication with the actors demanded exceptional clarity, brevity and focus. In this way I feel we were blessed in the language differences.”
The same approach characterized Supple’s management of delicate cultural differences. Whereas multiculturalism has become official policy in several “developed” countries, and to that degree fashionable, intercultural theatre has not had unqualified success, confronted with numerous accusations of neo-colonial exploitation from the “less developed” partners in the exchange. Inevitably, Supple’s activity comes up for scrutiny under those vigilant magnifying glasses. Knowing the debates, observing him direct at close range and having asked members of the team, I can vouch for his sensitivity to the issue and to its dangers. As corroborated by the performers, many of whom have trained extensively in Indian skills, no appropriation of them occurred. Instead, their individual talents converged in a rigorous process strictly governed by the demands of the text, with no eye to exotic effects.
Centre for Advanced Studies in English
Jadavpur University, Kolkata