Shakespeare in India: History of King Lear in India

June 22, 2010

Written by Poonam Trivedi, University of Delhi

King Lear is an appropriate play with which to illustrate these tendencies and periodisation in the performance history of Shakespeare in India. One of the more frequently performed tragedies, it spans all these streams and periods and, in the last twenty years, particularly, it has become a kind of a measure or testing ground of actors and theatre groups. Its first performance in India was in 1832, when some scenes, in English, were done at the Chowringhee Theatre. Calcutta. During the period of ‘adapted’ Shakespeare, from the 1860s to the 1910s, in the 1880s a happy-ending version of Lear, Atipidacharita (The story of the intensely wronged one), influenced by Nahum Tate, in Marathi, became popular in Bombay. Another adapted and localized version, Safed Khoon (White Blood or Filial Treachery) by Agha Hashr Kashmiri, for the Parsi theatre in 1906, achieved commercial success and was played throughout the country.

1897 saw one of the first faithful translations, A. Govinda Pillai’s Malayalam version, Brittanile Rajavu Lear, being staged in Trivandrum, with a meticulous realism which included imported costumes and accessories, before a select audience and with a select cast – noted novelist and playwright C V Raman Pillai played Lear. However, as a performed text, the moment for King Lear in India arrives after independence. St. Stephen’s College Shakespeare Society, Delhi, staged Lear in English, in 1962, with a young Roshan Seth – who went on to achieve greater recognition on the international stage and screen – as Lear. Ebrahim Alkazi, one of the foremost contemporary directors, produced a Raja Lear, in Urdu translation, for the National School of Drama in 1964, a production that has become a benchmark of the universalized Shakespeare. In the 1970s several productions in Hindi, Marathi and Tamil are to found, but it is in the eighties that the play comes fully into its own in India. As many as twenty one productions can be listed from this period, in several languages, including Bengali, Kannada, Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Malayalam and Tamil, in all the different performative modes, of the localized, universalized, indigenised, English language and postcolonial Shakespeares.

Indian audiences have found many affinities with the story of King Lear. An Indian folk tale of an aging maharajah who is brought to grief when he puts the love-test to his three daughters before dividing his kingdom resonates with the same issues. He is shocked to hear the youngest daughter, his favourite, announce that she loves him like salt, a necessity – no more or less – and in anger disinherits her to suffer at the hands of the other two. The idea of banishment and exile as a form of penance, and suffering as atonement for wrongs committed are well-known concepts central to the great Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata.

In everyday life, familial and generational conflict is familiar given the deeply patriarchal setup of Indian society. Further, the power struggle within a family and, by consequence, within the nation is reminiscent, for many readers/viewers, of the contemporary political scene in India where one family continues to be closely identified with the fortunes of the nation. It is the presence of such wide-ranging affinities from within their own culture, ancient and contemporary, that have made Indians take to Shakespeare in general, and King Lear in particular, in a big way. Shakespeare’s own setting of the play in a pre-Christian, quasi-pagan context, facilitates such equations.

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