All The World’s A Stage

South Asian Literature Festival London

Well before “global” became a buzzword, well before we had global brands and global citizens, there was such a thing as global Shakespeare. From his Henley Street home in Stratford-upon-Avon, now preserved as a museum, Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter reached audiences way beyond the shores of his country. At the opening event of this year’s South Asian Literature Festival, a panel of four eminent journalists and scholars chaired by Rachel Dwyer, a Professor of Indian Culture and Cinema at SOAS, reflected on Shakespeare’s inextricable relationship with India, a place where he never set foot.

“Every single country in the world responds to Shakespeare; wants to possess Shakespeare; feels that Shakespeare has uniquely understood their national situation,” said Andrew Dickson, a theatre critic for the Guardian who is currently writing a book on “global” Shakespeare. Collecting is one way in which countries have sought to put their stamp on the Father of English literature. The Folger Library in Washington D.C., Dickson explained, has the largest collection of Shakespeare folios in the world, in what is perhaps the most literal example of the appropriation of Shakespeare. The degree to which nations other than Shakespeare’s own feel they empathise with his work is striking.

But unlike countries such as America, which have chosen to adopt Shakespeare as their own, the connection between Shakespeare and India carries a more sinister undertone, for it results from the centuries India spent under British rule. In her illuminating introduction to the subject, Nandini Das, a Professor of English at the University of Liverpool, told us that at the height of the British Empire, in the nineteenth century, Shakespeare’s plays were taught in Indian government schools across the country with a view to inculcating ‘high culture’ in native students. “In the mid 1800s, students at Hindu College performed Shakespeare as part of their education; pretty much in the same way that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have learnt Latin at school”, said Das. English Literature as an academic subject in India finds its origins in a colonial system of education, we learnt. It was only natural that Shakespeare should form a part of this education given the popularity of his work at the time.

Indian journalist Sahil Tripathi drew imaginative parallels between Shakespeare’s memorable plots and India’s ancient epics to reveal not only that they share a universal language, but also to highlight the difficulty in establishing whether contemporary Indian film plots find their origins in Britain or nearer home. “When I was a schoolboy in India, there was a very famous actor called Naseeruddin Shah who said ‘All Bollywood is nothing but Shakespeare,” he told us, himself unconvinced as to whether the anecdotal comparison could be substantiated.

Taking examples from the literary traditions of both nations, Tripathi teased out their common ground. When the Bollywood hero faces a tough decision, for instance, we could look to the way Hamlet feels when he asks of himself, “To be or not to be?” or to Arjuna in the Mahabharata, when he has to decide whether to fight his cousins to save his kingdom. From Omkara, based on Othello, to Maqbool, based on Macbeth, the intersection between Shakespeare and contemporary Indian culture was a popular subject in the audience’s subsequent questions.

What was particularly intriguing was the discussion about Indian versions of Shakespeare’s plays finding their way back in various forms. The Royal Shakespeare Company recently produced an Indian Much Ado About Nothing with Meera Syal from Goodness Gracious Me playing Beatrice. Having gone to India with the British only to come back again, transposed into a quite different setting, it seems Shakespeare’s plays have come full circle. There isn’t a better example of “global” culture than that.

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