It’s not an unknown fact that the advent of Shakespeare’s plays in India was a result of colonization. And although for a very long time these plays were meant only for the elite, it was only a matter of time before Indian playwrights adapted some of the most Shakespeare plays to local languages, flavours and themes. While initially the plays were simply translated from the original, without much changes otherwise, over the course of time, Indian playwrights did begin to incorporate Indian motifs and cultural symbolisms unique to the local landscape, thereby making Shakespeare’s works appealing as well as relatable to the middle class and lower middle class audiences too. These adaptations, which began in the 1800s, can be considered to have played a crucial role in the seeping of Shakespearean style and values in modern theatre, as we know it, as well.
Here, we make an attempt to take popular Shakespeare plays and some of their regional/local adaptations over the years, from various parts of India.
Macbeth This play is perhaps the most widely adapted tragedy around the country, especially in Bengal. The first ever Bengali adapation of a Shakespearean play is believed to be Rudrapal, which is based on Macbeth and was written in 1874. Gujarati theatre was at par with its Bengali counterparts when it came to stage adaptations. Narayan Vasanji translated Macbeth into Gujarati and titled it Malavketu, in the 1900s. But that’s not all, he incorporated song and dance routines into the play to be able to get it staged through a professional Gujarati theatre company. We see various adaptations in Assamese theatre too. Bhimdarpa by Debananda Bharati is one such adaptation based on Macbeth.
Merchant of Venice One of India’s most prominent playwright Bharatendu Harishchandra wrote and staged Durlabh Bandhu in 1880. It is considered to be one of the first attempts at localizing The Merchant of Venice. Harchandra Ghosh wrote and staged Bhanumati Chhitavilash (translated to Grace of Bhanumati’s Mind), in 1853, in Bengali. Atul Chandra Hazarika adapted this play into Banij Kunwar in Assamese.
Othello In the 1860s, Bahamji Kabra wrote and staged Jebanejar ane Shirin. In 1874, Tarinicharan Pal translated Othello in Bengali and staged it under the name of Bhimshingha. A few years later, in 1890, Govind Deval translated Othello in Marathi. A year later, Marathi prose company Shahungarvasi Mandali staged this play as Zunzarrao. Another notable adaptation of Othello hails from Assam, namely Ranjit Sinha by Sailadhar Rajkhowa. The royal company of the Maharaja of Mysore translated and adapted Othello in Kannada to Surasena Charitre.
Romeo and Juliet How can this list be complete without the most timeless of Shakespeare’s works? There have been various adaptations of this play in Bengali, but popular ones include – Shushila Virshingh by Satyendranath Tagore in 1867, and Charumukha Chittahara by Harachandra Ghosh. The Maharaja of Mysore commissioned the palace company to perform Ramavarma Lilavati in Kannada in 1881. Nivasdas Premmohini adapted Romeo and Juliet for the stage, in Hindi in 1878. And Padmadhar Chaliha adapted Romeo and Juliet to Amar Lila for Assamese theatre.
Hamlet In 1883, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, translated Hamlet to Vikaravilasita in Marathi, in an attempt to broaden the audiences’ minds to tragedies. In the 1860s, Bahamji Kabra staged Faramaraz based on Hamlet, in Gujarati.
King Lear M.S. Puttanna staged Hemachandraraja Vilasa, a Kannada adaptation of king Lear, in 1899. Karamvri Bordoloi wrote Bishad Kahini, whereas Atul Chandra Hazarika wrote Asru Tirtha in Assamese.
As You Like It As You Like It got its Gujarati adaptation into Kannan Kalol by Apabhai Patel in 1948. Assam’s most noted poet-philosoper Durgeswar Sarma wrote Chandravati based on this play too.
Julius Caesar A.V. Vasudeva translated Julius Caesar into Telugu in 1876. He even translated the blank verse from Julius Caesar! Arvind Gaur staged the play in Hindi in 1994, which was restaged in 1998 at the Shakespeare Drama Festival and Prithvi International Theatre Festival.
Cymbeline In the 1820s, Assam came under the direct control of the British. Around the same time, American missionaries also made their way into Assam. This led to a rather seamless influx of English literature into Assamese culture. It is said that Assam’s dramatic landscape bears a direct influence of Shakespeare’s style. Therefore, an adaptation of some of the Bard’s plays is not a shocker. Padmavati by Durgeswar Sarma, as well as Tara are said to be based on Cymbeline.
The deeper we dig into India’s vast and varied linguistic and cultural landscape, the more adaptations we’ll find. It is important to remember that not all adaptations are literal or extremely true to the text. Quite a lot of these plays are free adaptations, with liberties taken to generously imbue them with local looks and flavours. Shakespearean plays have lent modern Indian theatre so many of its narrative styles, motifs and elements and played a crucial role in shaping theatre as we know it today. The very attempt to Indianise these stories is extremely commendable! What’s your favourite adaptation?