Piya Behrupiya, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, is not a self-conscious attempt to translate Shakespeare into Bhojpuri. Rather, it comes across as a story that has emerged organically from Bhojpuri storytelling traditions and nautanki performances, one that only happens to have Shakespearean resonances. It only proves how Indian Shakespeare really was.
It is also interesting that currently, in Indian cinema, Shakespeare is, in fact, the biggest screenplay writer. Cynics might say that the extent to which Shakespeare has been adapted in Bollywood (from Angoor in 1981 to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Ram Leela) merely signals a B-grade entertainment industry trying to dignify its rather crappy product by hiding behind the fig leaf of Shakespeare’s cultural capital. To me, however, it points to the really deep resonances between Shakespeare’s storytelling style and Hindi cinema. The big point of connection between the two is ‘masala’, or, mixture. Shakespeare is not interested in following the strict rules of language or genre, or even the purity of storytelling. Rather, in his works, tragedy and comedy, high philosophy and vulgar slang, come together. One scene could be in a court room, while the next could be in the poorest parts of the country. I think that the biggest ‘mixture’ in his works was that of language. While Shakespeare is exalted as the national poet of England, an exponent of pure, high culture and poetic language, he never wrote in ‘pure’ English.
On the contrary, at that time, language was in flux in the British Isle; in the villages people spoke in various dialects derived loosely from Anglo Saxon and Scandinavian languages; the nobility spoke in French and Latin was the language of the Church. Shakespeare and his audiences loved to mix and match. This is very much the way that Indians speak in their everyday lives too — moving between Hindi, English, Punjabi, Urdu and Bhojpuri, among others. Local theatrical forms and Hindi cinema too often get criticised for being impure. But I think that only makes them a culturally rich form of expression, capturing the daily life of different people, who are moving between mixtures of language and perspective.
You see this in Piya Behrupiya too — which is both a traditional nautanki and a cosmopolitan, self-aware dialogue with an English play from 400 years ago. Things that are supposedly different come together in the play — whether it is the use of Hindi and Punjabi in a Bhojpuri play, or the fact that in many of the scenes the woman is dressed as a man. It’s not just a love story, it is about a wonderful strangeness, a mixture of sorts, which is an integral part of North Indian life, and of South Asian culture in general.
One must understand that Shakespeare was unique for his time. He was always messing things up. In recent times, Shakespeare has become the emblem of British cultural supremacy. In India, his popularity can be attributed to the country’s colonial legacy, where Shakespeare was taught as a secular form of the Bible. However, I feel that it’s not just that; his popularity is due also to the amazing resonances that Shakespeare’s storytelling has with the Indian way of life. India has this vibrant tradition of living with neighbours, with those who are different. Shakespeare was also writing at a time when London, where he lived, was a formerly provincial city whose population was becoming truly cosmopolitan, and linguistically, it was a very interesting place.
Like Shakespeare’s London, Piya Behrupiya is also rustic and cosmopolitan. Its cosmopolitanism is not the complacent First World version, but is rooted in local experience. Shakespeare’s works were also a mixture of high tragedies and low comedies. In Piya Behrupiya, that mixture of comedy and tragedy, high and low, comes through well. Shakespeare’s Indian adaptations, done using local idioms, music and storytelling traditions, show how “Indian Shakespeare” is not just about Indians appropriating Shakespeare, but also about our recognising in him a fellow traveller who uses techniques that have deep resonance with forms of Indian cultural entertainment.
(As told to Namita Kohli. Jonathan Gil Harris is Professor of English at Ashoka University, and President of Shakespeare Society of India. Piya Behrupiya will be showing at India Habitat Centre on August 27 and 28, at 4 pm and 7.30 pm.)