Jonathan Gil Harris, the New Zealand-born Shakespeare scholar, actor and director, is one of the prominent guests at Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters 2019. Excerpts from his talk with K. A. Johny.
In your latest book Masala Shakespeare, you have tried to explore how Shakespeare has been absorbed by the cultural landscapes of India, especially Hindi popular movies. Despite the greatness of the Bard, the reality is that he was thrust upon Indians due to colonial rule. And the fact that the text became more important than the stage has stood in the way of the Shakespearean sensibility blossoming fully in Indian academia. So just as India has its own English, do you think that India has its own Shakespeare?
India has many Shakespeares. There is Thomas Macaulay’s colonialist Shakespeare, the great English devta whom Indians are expected to revere as the exemplar of Great Literature. There is postcolonial Shakespeare, whom Indians critique as an instrument of empire and Eurocentric thought. But there are many other Indian Shakespeares that don’t quite align with the first two, as they are neither reverential nor critical.
I am thinking here of Bollywood and regional film adaptations of Shakespeare, as well as folk theatre forms from nautanki and jatra to therukkuttu and Kathakali that have reimagined Shakespeare in Indian languages and performance idioms. These other Indian Shakespeare’s approach his plays more in a spirit of partnership.
They recognize in the plays’ stories and, more importantly, their stylistic impurity — tragedy mixed with comedy, poetry with prose, dialogue with song and even dance, official language with other dialects — something of the vibrant masala mix that characterizes so many Indian traditions and forms of entertainment.
Born in New Zealand, living much of your life in the UK and the US, how do you find the Indian cultural ambience in the wake of the current aggressive Hindutva narrative?
I moved to India in large part because I had fallen in love not only with this country’s extraordinary diversity but also with its rich traditions of syncretism — of living creatively in and with difference. I am dismayed to see these traditions being renounced and dismantled by people who believe India should be a Hindu Rashtra whose official language is Sanskritized Hindi.
It hasn’t escaped my attention that many of these people belong to organizations that historically never took a strong stand against British colonialism. The British Raj mindset of divide and rule comes naturally to them, no matter how much they claim to speak for native tradition.
The Indian universities have been termed a far cry from those of the developed world. What really ails the Indian universities as far as your experience goes?
It stuns me that, in a country with such rich cultural traditions of discussion, argumentation and debate, the Indian classroom is a space largely of monotonous lecture. Students are expected not to ask questions but to simply take notes and commit what they have heard from their teachers or read in their textbooks so they can regurgitate it come exam time. How does this conduce to intellectual curiosity, to innovation, and to the questioning mindset that is necessary for a robust democracy?
The government hasn’t helped matters at all. It says it is committed to “quality education,” yet it has repeatedly cracked down on our best institutions of higher learning when students and teachers have dared to ask difficult questions. To say that students should not engage in politics, that they should just shut up and study, is to create an environment of unquestioning docility in which learning cannot happen.
The concept of Immortality has been a subject of debate across the centuries. Do you think creative expressions are an attempt at immortalisation or they just are an end in themselves?
To paraphrase Malvolio from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”: some are born immortal, some become immortal, and some have immortality thrust upon them. Shakespeare longed for immortality — he dwells on this theme in his Sonnets. But the irony is he seems to have thought his poems, not his plays, were more likely to immortalize him. He clearly regarded his plays as ephemeral entertainments. The point is that not every attempt to create an entertaining story is born of a desire for immortality.
I doubt Jayaraj’s “Veeram” or “Kaliyattam” — brilliantly creative Malayalam reimaginings of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “Othello” — were attempts at immortalizing either Shakespeare or himself. They were simply attempts at telling stories to Malayalam-speaking audiences. Perhaps these films, along with Vishal Bhardwaj’s “Maqbool” and “Omkara,” will be studied four hundred years in the future just as Shakespeare’s plays are now. Perhaps not. But a work’s supposed immortality has little to do with its creators’ intentions. It has much more to do with the dispositions of the different cultural milieus that inherit, reimagine, or forget that work.
Apart from Hindi which other Indian language has had its impact on you?
Urdu, obviously. I would not think the way I do about Hindi films and masala were it not for my exposure through Bollywood to the shayari of Ghalib, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and Gulzar, no matter how limited my understanding of them might be. I am also part of an extended family whose conversations swerve between English and Malayalam, with smatterings of Hindi and Tamil. Inkye vallande sandosham aana that my experience of language; India mein bahut translingual hai, and that is romba good!