Year of Shakespeare: When Shakespeare is deprived of his tongue

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Language is a primary signifier of class and social status; Shakespeare employs linguistic nuance to draw out the relationships between characters in each play. In the postcolonial Indian context, the overlays of languages spoken are manifold, and equally signify class. Speaking English signifies upper and middle class education; it forms a crust over Hindi, the official language. Beneath these are strata of regional and local languages used in the daily life of millions of Indians. Access to education in English medium schools is out of the reach of many, to speak Hindi or regional languages such as Gujurati or Bengali is, for some, a matter of politics and patriotic pride, for others an every day necessity.

Translating and performing Shakespeare into the various languages is a long-standing tradition in India. But analysing these works in text and performance, and in relation to the source text, is still fairly new for Indian scholars, who have until recently, not felt indigenous ‘versions and dealings have merited any kind of critical analysis,’ according to one professor at Delhi University. However, nowhere is such work more vital than in the very places where colonialism had its deepest impacts.

The University of Sambalpur is a two-hour flight from Delhi and a six-hour train ride from Bhubaneswar, which is the state capital of Orissa, now spelled Odisha in a reclamation of the colonial era name. The state is a vital part of ex-colonial country (Bengal) and came to be in 1912 through agitation over language rights. Oriya (now called Odia) speaking peoples wanted a separate state where their language had dominance. The state was divided once again in 1936 into the provinces of Bihar and Orissa. Here, at this university, the Department of English held a two-day conference on Shakespeare in Translation, inviting academics from across India to present.

Among the papers offered were thoughts on the difference between colonial and postcolonial approaches to translations of the same play; an analysis of the 19th Century Nolini Basanta, the Bengali ‘transcreation’ of The Tempest by beloved Bengali poet Henachandra Bandyopadhyay, and of the first full length translation of Hamlet in Odia, done in 1934 by Akshayasa  Kumar. But what was the conference really about? To quote one participating academic, it was about what happens when ‘Shakespeare is deprived of his tongue.”

From a place where people actually suffered colonial rule, this is a powerful statement. It encapsulates what Shakespeare was actually used for in India, and how that came to be reclaimed and continues to be subverted by the one-time subjects of empire. Shakespeare was used to create Macaulay’s infamous elite “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”  This is a much quoted line. Less quoted but equally astonishing in the modern context is the next line of his infamous  ‘Minute on Education’: “To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.” Instead, Shakespeare continues to be refashioned and refit to Indian languages not for the purposes of imparting Britishness, but to entertain and energise local and regional audiences living through their own political and social dramas.

As such Sandip Bagchi’s 21st Century Bengali Macbeth is invested with anti-communal and environmentalist concerns, as one academic showed, so relevant in West Bengal. The famine-ridden state of Bengal was divided along Hindu/Muslim lines by the British in 1905, but political protests and boycotts of British goods forced a reuniting of the parts in 1911, until the state was once again divided along linguistic lines. The divide was made again on religious grounds in 1947 when East Bengal became, for decades, East Pakistan, and finally, in 1971 Bangladesh.

To study postcolonial appropriations and translations of Shakespeare in the context they are made, in a landscape and culture that has an every day engagement with the legacies of empire, reverses and subverts the centre of Shakespeare studies. Such study gives voice to the subaltern’s speech. From London or Stratford, Indian local and regional translations can seem very much at the margins of Shakespeare studies; as if somehow those born in the colonising country are Shakespeare’s more legitimate heirs, able only to take a polite interest in what tricks the ‘other’ can perform. Shakespeare’s views on the rights of legitimacy might be Edmund’s in King Lear ‘Now Gods, stand up for bastards!’) or they may not, but there is an exhilarating perspective that comes from working on postcolonial texts in their places of origin, a perspective which proves that the political journey the plays have taken across the Empire, and the languages they continue to be adapted, performed and studied in have as urgent a social context today, as Shakespeare’s work did in his own time.


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Preti Taneja studied Theology at St John's College Cambridge and Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the Head of Creative Submissions at Exegesis, the online journal for critical, creative and review pieces. Preti’s work has been published by the Guardian, Open Democracy and Reuters, as well as broadcast on BBC Radio Four and the World Service. She is currently researching the adaptation and appropriation of Shakespeare in the post-colonial Indian context.

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