Poonam Trivedi. Shakespeare in India: ‘King Lear’. (2006), a multimedia CD-ROM [available from poonamtrivedi2004@yahoo.com].

Mark Thornton Burnett
Queen’s University, Belfast

Mark Thornton Burnett. "Review of Poonam Trivedi, Shakespeare in India: ‘King Lear’".  Early Modern Literary Studies 14.2/Special Issue 17 (September, 2008) 13.1-7<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/14-2/revtrive.html>.

  1. In this excellent contribution to the study of the performance of Shakespeare, Poonam Trivedi treats us to a rich and resonant multi-media experience of the ways in which the Bard has been staged in Indian theatrical traditions. The fine overview situates this historical phenomenon, detailing the place of Shakespeare as a focus of entertainment in India from the eighteenth century onwards and mapping contexts of school and college performance, translation and adaptation. Five tendencies in the playing interpretation of Shakespeare are identified (English-language Shakespeare, localized Shakespeare, universalized Shakespeare, indigenized Shakespeare and post-colonial Shakespeare), with each tendency being given finessed discussion and treatment. King Lear, Trivedi argues, has been continually returned to as a seminal text for Indian audiences: each interpretive mode has featured (such as realism), and a variety of languages and conventions (including Malayalam and Marathi versions and Parsi theatre appropriations) has been deployed. After independence in 1947, indigenous theatrical versions came to dominate, as did a greater range of linguistic approaches. The multiplicity of these types of King Lear, the CD-ROM suggests, are not only of interest in and of themselves; they are also significant in that they bring into visibility the depth and versatility of ‘Shakespeares’ in Asian culture and understanding.

  2. Precisely why Shakespeare should have proved a magnet for attraction is no less absorbingly considered. Trivedi points to the existence of folk tales in India that encompass Lear-like themes such as banishment, exile, suffering and penance, all of which resonate with Indian epic writings. Generational conflict is as common to King Lear as it is to traditional Indian narratives, it is argued, while stories that trade in families and conflict, and pre-Christian settings, have a firm hold in the national imaginary.

  3. In terms of specifics, Shakespeare in India: ‘King Lear’ includes stills and clips of theatrical performances that efficiently introduce the subject. Different types of audience response are highlighted, as is the distinction between regional and metropolitan styles of production. The explanatory apparatus mediates well between performance and viewer, providing textual translations beneath the video clip or still and a refreshing commentary to the right-hand side. The user can fast forward, stop, start, rewind and pause: the screen is fully interactive.

  4. Trivedi concentrates on three examples that respectively typify the universalized Shakespeare, the localized Shakespeare and the indigenized Shakespeare. The first example, Sharad Bhuthadia’s Marathi Raja Lear (1993), is assessed at the level of its staging techniques and performative nuances. The complex interplay between music and gesture is tellingly illuminated; the use of spot and darkness is nicely explored; and details of intonation are intriguingly suggested. In this amputated version of King Lear that facilitates a greater focus on the protagonist himself, key speeches are concentrated upon and wonderfully insightful details are provided: this production’s Goneril, for instance, is appraised as a ‘harassed householder’; a ragged procession on the heath is seen as a visual equivalent of the ‘poor and naked wretches’. Image and text, remark and capture, all combine to bring alive Raja Lear and its fascinating appurtenances.

  5. The second example is localized Shakespeare. Here, Trivedi writes eloquently about the National School of Drama’s Samrat Lear, which, in Hindi, was directed by John Russell Brown in 1997. This was a production distinguished by its attention to ceremony and ritual – the theatrical recreation of a royal Indian environment. Formality is everywhere apparent, from the quasi-mythological gestures and folkloric courtship dances to references to traditional cursing sages and the use of martial arts and Buddhist chants. Samrat Lear, then, makes sense inside a paradigm that attends to local details and nuances, and it is most instructive, in this regard, to come across observations about the populist elements of the fool and the mimetic traditions of Indian theatre. Commentary is invariably of a high order: we are also sensitized, for instance, to particular inflections of character, as when emphasis is placed upon Cordelia (who, wholly unconventionally, follows Lear around the stage) or upon Edmund (whose casual garb betrays significant markers of class). No universal Shakespeare here; instead, the examples and explanations provided alert us to an approach through which the Bard is excitingly unsettled and demystified.

  6. With the third example, indigenized Shakespeare, the spotlight falls upon R. Raju’s Iruthiattam (2001) in the Tamil language. Indigenization in this instance makes itself felt in the production’s absorption in, and enlistment of, the dynamics of the terukutoo, a form of street theatre from southeast India. Adopting a non-illusionist style, and investing in gestural play and heightened physicality, Iruthiattam is characterized by a satirical orientation, by visual signals and by extravagant gestures, such as the scene in which Lear mimes driving a chariot. Trivedi directs the user’s eye to these and other features, always enlightening, consistently stimulating. In particular, we are made aware of the cultural importance of a politicized and outspoken Cordelia who, unmarried, escapes death at the production’s close and of a demotic fool, who improvising and imitating, represents the king’s other half or alter ego in his ironic and carnivalesque energy and behaviours.

  7. Shakespeare in India: ‘King Lear’ is a rare and innovative departure in Shakespeare in performance and Shakespeare and appropriation studies. It brings to the discipline of Shakespeare in his various national and post-colonial incarnations a practical armoury with which readers and interpreters can understand the Bard anew. The CD-ROM is accompanied by a wealth of extra features, such as a five-page chronology that, taking us from 1832-2002, introduces readers to the diversity of Shakespeare production in India, citing language, translator, group, theatrical run and location. The commentary is enormously instructive, and this reviewer, in particular, appreciated the cross-referencing, the technical expertise, the responsiveness to kinetic, acoustic and choreographic elements, and the thick descriptions of the circumstances of theatre. Shakespeare in India: ‘King Lear’ is a welcome venture and a substantial achievement and can be obtained from the author at poonamtrivedi2004@yahoo.com