Bard Knows No Boundaries

In what can be termed as one of the most romantic colonial hangovers, Shakespeare continues to inspire a generation of Indians. The poet has been able to cross over and become adopted in mainstream Indian culture.


Late last month, Americans had a Shakespearean experience of a different kind. At the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, an award winning Hindi translation of Shakespeare’s famous play Twelfth Night, titled, Piya Behrupia (Beloved as Trickster), performed in nautanki style. received rave reviews. The audience, mainly Indian Americans, viewed both in surprise and admiration as theater artists from India presented this unusual adaptation of the romantic comedy complete with Indian folk music and regional dialects.

The 17th century English playwright and poet, William Shakespeare, regarded as the greatest writer ever in English literature, commands an influence that extends from theater to movies and philosophy to academia in the western world. The most quoted poet in the history of the English language has also been translated into more than 100 global languages. Even 400 years after his death, the Bard of Avon is still considered the greatest English writer of all times.

Curiously, a study titled All the World’s, commissioned by the British Council earlier this year, found that Shakespeare is more popular in India than in the country of his origin. Nearly 83 per cent of Indians polled said that they understood Shakespeare, and 89 percent said that they like Shakespeare, compared to just 58 per cent of Britons. Other English speaking countries, such as the USA and Australia, scored just 55 percent when it came to understanding of the work.

In what can be termed as one of the most romantic colonial hangovers, Shakespeare continues to inspire a generation of Indians. The poet has been able to cross over and become adopted in mainstream Indian culture. Funnily enough, even earning more localized epithets, such as Sheikhu Peer or Sheikh Peer in local parlance.

His appeal is especially surprisingly, considering that fewer than a third of Indians even speak English — and a vast majority of them know it at much too rudimentary a level to appreciate literature.

Prof. Poonam Trivedi: “Shakespeare in India has been likened to our very own Kalidasa, who was a consummate poet.”

Poonam Trivedi, retired professor of English at Delhi University, says: “The question why Shakespeare enjoys such popularity amongst Indians has been a subject of much intrigue. Interestingly there is no one answer to it, but broadly perhaps what connects Shakespeare to people across the world is the humanism that people relate to in his work.”

Amitav Roy, President, Shakespeare Society of East India, says: “Shakespeare’s characters are universal in nature. Through his plays, he presents a world that Indians can connect to.”

Roy adds, “Some of the other greatest writers Dante or (Geoffrey) Chaucer, for instance, were more constricted in their approach. While Shakespeare, on the other hand, used myths and stories from other parts of the world too.”

Shakespeare continues to fuel the imagination of not just academicians, but millennials and GenY too in contemporary India. There are dozens of big and small Shakespeare societies and clubs as well as Facebook groups aimed at creating awareness of Shakespeare’s works all over India. Some also promote the poet’s contemporaries, so they have a bearing on the original works of Shakespeare.

Prof Trivedi says: “While Shakespeare continues to be the big man of literature, it would be wrong to say that he’s the only influence. Charles Dickens has inspired us and so many of his novels, such as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, etc. have been blatantly adapted into films. Stories of an orphan finding his own way or two brothers getting separated at birth have been repeated so many times in Indian cinema that they seem our own.”

Shakespeare’s plays were first performed in India in 1775, mainly for European traders travelling to Calcutta. The earliest known dramatization of Shakespeare by Indians was at Hindu College in Calcutta in 1822. By the 1850s translations of the Bard’s work in other Indian languages had begun. But it was the era after independence that saw adaptation of the pathos, pain and emotions reflected in the works of Shakespeare in Indian settings and expressed in a more approachable language.


Suraj Tomer: “The reason why Shakespeare continues to hold fascination for Indians is because the multilayered meanings in his plays that are universal in appeal have been molded and presented in Indian context.”

While Shakespeare was introduced to Indians as an imperial imposition during the days of British rule, it has flourished in the country, often with a quirky desi twist. Theater artist Suraj Tomer who did a 10-city U.S. tour with the play What’s Done is Done, adapted from Macbeth, says: “The reason why Shakespeare continues to hold fascination for Indians is because the multilayered meanings in his plays that are universal in appeal have been molded and presented in Indian context.”

How do Indian expats react to desi adaptations of Shakespeare? Tomer says: “We toured in various cities, such as New York, Las Vegas, San Jose, Chicago, Cincinnati. Also in the past as the production manager of Piya Behrupiya that was also shown in London’s Globe Theatre, I have discovered that Indians away from their soil love to reimagine the classical works in nostalgic settings even more. It’s like letting everyone share experiences from a more familiar backdrop.”

Often the Indians adaptations bravely branch out, borrowing the framework from Shakespeare’s tales. Indian actor, director and national award winner, Rajat Kapoor has directed several plays adapted from Shakespeare. Earlier this year, he showed a clowning rendition of Shakespearean classic titled I Don’t Like It. As You Like It, which travelled across India and abroad. Kapoor says: “I’m very excited and proud of the way we edit Shakespeare’s text, and make it our own. We pick and choose the scenes and characters that we think are most relevant to our play. Clowning allows for you to take a perspective on the play, so that they are able to be the characters and comment on them a moment later. It gives us this kind of a distance from the play itself.”

Roy, from Shakespeare Society of East India adds: “We have adapted, Indianized and made Shakespeare as our own national poet. He is no longer just the material for academic studies, but a part of common entertainment.”


The Indian imaginations have reinstated Shakespeare from a literary figure to a favorite storyteller. A theater festival held every year in Chennai called Hamara Shakespeare explores how the poet is continually interpreted in Indian languages and theater. Vishal Bhardwaj’s triology of Maqbool, Omkara and Haider shows the mastery achieved in retelling the story with a shared understanding of pathos experienced in the Indian vicinity.

Prof. Trivedi says, “The fact that now there is an acknowledging that we are adapting, reflects a new found confidence in our understanding of the craft.”

The Parsi theater had been reenacting Shakespeare since colonial times, although they were more careful in its interpretations. Today it’s cool for producers to acknowledge the inspiration. Jane Austen too, according to Prof. Trivedi, has had a major influence in Indian storytelling, with films such Bride & Prejudice, acknowledging the interpretation.

The growing confidence in Indian culture has helped to strip away the seeming elitism earlier associated with Shakespeare. Increasingly today Indians are not just reverential about Shakespeare, but also in a mood to take pot shots on the national colonial hangover — as was apparent in the play Piya Behrupiya.

Theater actors and Shakespearean academicians are also experimenting with the Bard. Tomer, who is researching for his part to play a role of Fleance, Banquo’s son in Hamlet — The Crown Prince says he’s referring to the original text as well as Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s translation of Macbeth in Hindi and is often juxtaposing the two.

Prof. Trivedi says, “Shakespeare in India has been likened to our very own Kalidasa, who was a consummate poet.”

Several other British authors and poets, such as P.G. Wodehouse and John Keats, also have enviable followings in India. As early as the 1960s, in what was perhaps the world’s first Wodehouse Society, was set up in St Stephen’s College in Delhi. Parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor wasamong its founding members.

Wodehouse continues to enjoy a steady market in India, with his back titles still selling upwards of 50,000 copies annually, even 40 years after his death.

Prof Trivedi says, “Apart from Wodehouse, others, such as Walter Scott too have been extremely popular.”

But Shakespeare appeal is unparalleled in India among classical authors. Says Roy, “As long as people will respond to emotions and grand conflicts of heart and mind, Shakespeare will stay alive through his works, not just in India but across the globe.”

Shakespeare Taps UniversalHuman Emotions

Bollywood actor and director Rajat Kapoor who has directed a series of plays inspired by Shakespeare, discusses the Bard’s universal appeal.

When and how did you think that Shakespeare can be adapted into showcasing complex human emotions in your plays?

My first attempt at Shakespeare was Hamlet. The play I had done just before that was C for Clown, a completely improvised based creation with clowns. So I thought, let’s try Hamlet done by clowns and see where it goes. It became a play about a troupe of clowns performing Hamlet.

That device gave us two ways of presenting the play. The play itself, and the clowns questioning the play. Though it’s a comedy, we were very sure we did not want to lose the pathos of Hamlet or Ophelia — and the play shifts very easily between pathos and clowning. Since then, I have directed adaptations of King Lear, Macbeth and As You Like It. And the attempt every time is to find the essence of the play and find its context for our times.

In a country like India where the masses are not inclined toward literary arts, how has Shakespeare been able to hold an influence even 400 years after his death?

The masses may not be inclined towards literary arts. Theater is anyway a very niche activity.

A small percentage of the population comes to watch plays, though I am happy to report that the numbers are growing with every passing year. And to this small, niche, educated audience, Shakespeare is not something alien. They may not have read the plays, but most of us are aware of the plays; we might even know the broad outline of the plays, or its themes. If Shakespeare resonates with an audience, not just in India, but all over the world, it’s because he spoke of universal human emotions and went to the very depth of them. The human species has not really changed so much in the last 400 years, and largely what was valid then, is valid now too — emotionally.

What have been the most revealing moments during the course of your adaptation of Shakespeare?

For me it’s learning. I did not know Shakespeare’s work before I started directing them.

Also, I realized, that you don’t get the play if you read it. You only get it if you watch them.

That was the genius of Shakespeare, his plays were meant to be watched, performed.

What important message does interpreting and molding Shakespeare in our mainstream culture give us about our understanding of the great works?

People have been interpreting Shakespeare for the last 400 years. Some directors have done the same play three or four times over 30 years. You discover new things every time. The scope for discovery is huge, because the depths of human psyche is unfathomable and Shakespeare went deeper there than almost anybody else. So we’ll keep digging and keep finding gems.



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