‘In India, Shakespeare is a household name!’ says Thane-based poet and novelist Sampurna Chattarji, noting the Bard’s ubiquity on the syllabus at English-language schools, as well as in film and theatre adaptations.
While the formality of Shakespeare’s texts might form a formidable first impression for some, Chattarji is certain of his ongoing resonance in South Asia: ‘What cuts across cultural barriers is the power of his themes, the universality of the conflicts.’
Chattarji draws on her own personal experience of Shakespeare (including the influence of her English teacher father during her Darjeeling childhood) to participate in The Sonnet Exchange: a live Alchemy project which invites artists from India and the UK to reinterpret his classic poems, covering universal themes such as beauty, love and mortality.
Of Alchemy, she says: ‘I really liked the vibe, the responsiveness of the audience, and the space that had been created for all kinds of voices to create a kind of polyphonic magic,’ she says.
‘I’m really looking forward to hearing, among others, the poems written by Imtiaz Dharker and Daljit Nagra for The Sonnet Exchange, which I’m delighted and honoured to be a part of. It will be fun to see how, as a poet, I can create a text that is as true to my own emotional/linguistic/ cultural context and creative impulses, as it is a genuine response to Shakespeare’s astonishing skill.’
Shakespeare’s presence at Alchemy 2016 ties in with the 400th anniversary of his death, and it’s also represented by two multi-lingual theatre adaptations of his works travelling from Nepal and Pakistan; like The Sonnet Exchange, these are co-produced with The British Council.
Hamlet in Nepali is co-directed by Bimal Subedi and London-based Gregory Thompson, in collaboration with Kathmandu Theatre Village; it draws parallels between Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy, and the 2001 massacre of Nepal’s royal family by its Crown Prince.
An Urdu-language version of The Winter’s Tale (or Fasana E Ajaib), also directed by Thompson with Karachi’s NAPA Repertory Theatre, similarly reflects on a shocking contemporary event: the horrific murder of pregnant Farzana Parveen outside a Lahore courthouse. The play premiered to acclaim in Karachi in 2014.
‘The theatre is a safe privileged communal space to experience life events,’ says Thompson. ‘That this 400-year-old play has resonance with contemporary crimes was not lost on the performers or audience members. When Leontes loses his temper in the trial and raises a rock as if to stone Hermione, the parallel with so-called honour killings is acknowledged. Shakespeare is exposing the destructive nature of sexual jealousy, and how masculine power assumes the right to destroy the feminine. These issues of patriarchy and misogyny that were driving Shakespeare’s creativity are as relevant now as ever. The Winter’s Tale is a play that turns jealousy, tyranny and rage into forgiveness, reconciliation and love.’
Both of these Shakespeare adaptations have worked through the challenges and complexities of languages that have transformed over time (not least, the original English) with international casts, and they’ve taken a creative approach to the staging. In The Winter’s Tale, the two halves of the play shift through time (from 17th-century Mughal-period Karachi to modern-day Pakistan), and also move actor-audience positions around the set to create an increasingly immersive experience. All the while, Gregory points to the perennial power of Shakespeare:
‘The remarkable thing about this Winter’s Tale was how much of the culture of Shakespeare was in the living breathing culture of Karachi,’ he says. ‘The tension between passion and reason; the possibility of centralised power and violent regime change; misogyny and patriarchy; shame and honour; revenge and forgiveness; separation and reconciliation; and, thank goodness, falling in and out of love are all as present here, as in Renaissance England.’