Shakespeare’s Ashes: An event for fans of The Bard

Art and academia come together to celebrate the life and times of the most entertaining of all playwrights
Jonathan Gil Harris and Madhavi Menon, president and member of the Shakespeare Society of India.(Saumya Khandelwal/HT PHOTO)
Jonathan Gil Harris and Madhavi Menon, president and member of the Shakespeare Society of India.(Saumya Khandelwal/HT PHOTO)
Updated on Oct 22, 2016 12:57 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByDanish Raza

It has been 400 years since William Shakespeare passed away. But his plays continue to fascinate theatre enthusiasts, writers and audiences across genres, languages and continents. He is perhaps the only writer of his time whose work has been adapted so widely.

The Shakespeare Society of India is hosting a two-day conference titled ‘Shakespeare’s Ashes’ with the support of Ashoka University, to celebrate what the writer stood for: “Impurity and imperfection rather than purity and single-mindedness which people associate with him,” said Jonathan Gil Harris, president of the Society, and an academic, known for his extensive research on Shakespeare.

The events lined up on Saturday, the concluding day of the conference, include seminars which will touch upon different aspects of Shakespeare’s various ‘lives’ across the world as well as his understanding of death; a screening of Aparna Sen’s Bengali adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, titled Arshinagar; and Chahat ki Dastaan, a translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets, into various Indian languages and performances.

“Shakespeare’s sonnets are not taught in India. They make people uncomfortable in terms of how they talk about desire,” said Madhavi Menon, member, Shakespeare Society of India and professor of English at Ashoka University. “Sonnets appeared to be the perfect text to showcase the variety of performance styles and languages we have in India. There will be 10 performance of five minutes each, including Dastaangoi and Bharatnatyam.”

On Saturday, during the jugalbandi ‘Desiring Shakespeare,’ Menon and American-born Indian Bharatnatyam dancer, Justin McCarthy, will talk in detail about the performances.

About the sessions in the conference, Harris said, “We wanted the topics to be universal and open to as many people as possible including academicians, theatre practitioners and the general public. At the same time, we also wanted to be a very recognisably Indian conference.”

Harris and his team faced many challenges while conceptualising the conference. “For a lot of people here, the study of Shakespeare means something a little different from what we have proposed. I would like to think what we are doing is a democratic form of Shakespeare, something which he himself would have recognised as he was always writing for a mixed audience. We have tried to offer an event that is academic but also has the energy of a literary event,” he said.

Both Menon and Harris believe that the universal appeal of Shakespeare’s plays is because of the ease with which they can be placed in different settings. “If he was alive today, he would have be writing for Bollywood or regional cinema,” said Harris.


Your latest film Arshinagar , adaptation of Shakespeare’s play Romeo Juliet, which got released last year (to be screened at the Shakespeare’s Ashes conference) received extreme reactions. How do you look at it?

Yes. While certain sections of audience liked it but the response from the masses was not very encouraging. I think the film was ahead of its time.

Film director Aparna sen’s latest Arshinagar will be screened at the Shakespeare’s Ashes conference. (Prodip Guha)
Film director Aparna sen’s latest Arshinagar will be screened at the Shakespeare’s Ashes conference. (Prodip Guha)

How has the experience affected you as a filmmaker?

Not really. It was an experimental film. If in future, any other story demands me to experiment with the characters or the language they speak and how, I will not hesitate.

What is it about Shakespeare’s plays that makes them relevant in the current age and time?

I believe that Shakespeare’s plays are more relevant now than ever before. This is because we see intolerance all around us. People cannot tolerate the ‘other’ which is worrying. The only antidote is love. And that is what Shakespeare’s plays offer. This is why people keep going back to him.

What are you working on these days?

I have just finished a film called Sonata. It is based on a play by Mahesh Eklunchwar by the same name. It is the story of three single working women in Mumbai.

What: Shakespeare’s Ashes, a conference to mark the 400th death anniversary of the writer organised by the Shakespeare Society of India

Where: British Council, Connaught Place, Delhi

When: October 22, 10.30am to 7.30pm

Call: 0120- 4569000

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