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THE BARD’S TOUCH

Bulle Shah's poetry for the fool

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THE BARD'S TOUCH: A scene from the Assamese version of 'Julius Caeser'

At NSD’s 15th Bharat Rang Mahotsav, Shakespeare found a desi touch in several Indian languages

When Prospero, the snowy-haired patriarch whose domain is a fabled island, summons the winds in an unabashed display of might and magic, he also summons the facial expressions of traditional Koodiyattam performers. In a bout of verbal sparring with his daughter Miranda, his scolding is tempered with tenderness, as his dialogues dissolve into a chaste and homely Malayalam. And, he can spew a Sanskrit shloka or two, when seeking redemption or granting pardon to his slave, Caliban.

Prospero of the Indian Tempest isn't alone in his regional moorings. The Fool, who appears frequently in Shakespeare's plays to make a philosophical point with all the frivolity his designation allows him, now borrows freely from the poetry of Bulleh Shah and sings his wisdom in Punjabi. Almost all the characters in the Shakespeare plays that were staged at the National School of Drama's recently concluded 15th Bharat Rang Mahotsav, sang, spoke and soliloquised in tongues unfamiliar to the Bard of Avon. Each performance reinterpreted folk and fairy tales, political conspiracy and love ploys to discover a contemporariness preempted by Cassius: How many ages hence/ Shall this our lofty scene be acted o'er / In states unborn, and accents yet unknown. (Julius Caesar III. i. )

Malayalam, Bengali, Assamese, Punjabi and Sanskrit are but a few of the "accents unknown" that create a new vocabulary for familiar lines and verses. The Indian Tempest, for instance, is an adaptation of The Tempest in Malayalam, Sanskrit, French and English. Directed by Paddy Hayter of Footsbarn Travelling Theatre, the play conjures up an island of elves, monsters and shadows. Reminiscent of Kerala mythology, the island and its population are as Shakespearean as they are indigenous.

"We rejected the intellectual approach, " says Hayter, of his multi-lingual adaptation, "And chose to focus on poetry and gentle things. " The play begins and ends with Sanskrit shlokas. The Epilogue, spoken by Prospero, is one seeking redemption and rests upon a shloka: Now my charms are all o'erthrown / And what strength I have's mine own - Which is most faint. Om poornamadam poornamidam... A ritualistic ending, that resonates in a country swooning with rituals. And crowded with gods.
While the Indian Tempest is an ethereal wisp of storytelling and magic wielding, other adaptations, like Piya Behrupiya, deal with matters more worldly. A pastiche of Twelfth Night, the play was first performed at the World Shakespeare Festival in London last year. With actors from Madhya Pradesh, Karnal and Maharashtra, the play dismantles that Bard's language, not his spirit. "The most exciting part of doing a Shakespeare play is to reinvent it, " says director Atul Kumar of The Company Theatre. "We didn't view it through the English Eye. " The view is clearly from the muhallas and galis where the actors grew up. So is the mix of dialects, rich with colloquialism and street wit. Like the character of The Fool, played by Neha Saraf, who appears on stage to ruminate on love, and breaks into song: Ishq Bulleh nu nachave yaar, te nachna penda hai (When love makes a poet dance, then dance he must).

Amitosh Nagpal, who translated the play in Hindi, (and also played Sebastain), argues that colloquialism is intrinsic to Shakespeare's plays: "He wrote for janata-jnardhan. Hamare play mein bhi Dilli-Haryana ki zubaan hai (He wrote for the common man. Our play also uses the local dialects of Delhi-Haryana ), " he says. The actors of Piya Behrupiya unravel the plot and its playful conspiracies through the folk songs and poetry of Bundelkhand, Punjab and Rajasthan. Gagan Dev Riar, who composed the music and played Sir Toby, admits to as many as 81 songs in the first draft of the play: "We improvised a lot as we jammed together. "

Macbeth, directed by Koushik Sen of the Swapna Sandhani group from Kolkata and performed in Bengali, recreates a totalitarian state overrun by commandos. "We've tried to create a contemporary classic, " says Sen of the play, adapted by Ujjal Chattopadhyay. Macbeth is dreadlocked and armed, and the omnipresence of men in uniform heightens the anxiety of a people under constant vigilance. The play was also performed on September 27, 1975, in Kolkata, a few months after Emergency was declared. It was directed by the legendary Utpal Dutt and became an abiding symbol of protest art.

Another timeless classic, Julius Caesar, was adapted in Assamese to tell the tale of yet another state shrouded in conspiracy. Directed by Bhagirathi of Seagull Theatre, Guwahati, the play delves into a contemporary bid for a homeland of one's own. longing for normalcy.

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