Just in case we’re in danger of getting a little too Bardolatrous during this World Shakespeare Festival it’s good to remember that Shakespeare hasn’t always been the voice of freedom and self-definition. In fact, at times he has been the blunt tool of colonialism and silencing. Felicity Kendal, 70s star of The Good Life, spent most of her childhood and teenage years as part of her parents’ multicultural troupe of actors performing Shakespeare throughout India, in school halls or Maharaja’s palaces, and calling themselves Shakespeareana. Her father believed he was a secular ‘missionary’. This was fictionalised in the wonderful film Shakespeare Wallah in which many of the characters played themselves. In the film, the young Felicity left for England after having her heart broken by a handsome young Indian. In real life, the ending was much happier. She found fame from her film role and her elder sister married the film star and producer Sashi Kapoor. That reality was probably too radical for mass distribution in the early 1960s. In her recent BBC Two documentary, Felicity Kendal’s Indian Shakespeare Quest (broadcast on BBC Two, 9:00PM Wed, 16 May 2012) she returns to her first home to celebrate Shakespeare in India (and does just that) but also to ask some difficult questions and hear some hard answers. Here’s a couple of snippets:
Kendal: ‘My father believed that Shakespeare and India were a natural fit, but for some Indian artists the relationship is a bit more complicated.’
She meets Arjun Raina, a Kathakali Master who appropriates Shakespeare for his own purposes. As she explains, ‘Traditionally, Kathakali tells stories from Indian mythology; Arjun’s work plunders Shakespeare instead.’ In a brief analysis of his reworking of Othello, she concludes ‘Shakespeare’s tragedy is about a black hero living in a white man’s world. Arjun sees parallels between Othello’s story and the identity crisis faced by many Indians as they square up to the colonial past.’
The two actors perform ‘To be or not to be’ in Kathakali gestures, laughing easily with each other, then Raina suddenly demands of her: ‘What did British colonisation do? It absolutely cut a whole people from the roots of their culture. And it did it in very, very cunning, very brilliant ways. And one of the offerings of that was the great work of Shakespeare. So if you think people love Shakespeare and I love Shakespeare, that’s only partially the truth. The truth is you hate it also.’
Kendal goes on to introduce an extract from his Othello: ‘To dramatize that love-hate relationship Arjun tears up the script. In the original play Othello kills his wife, Desdemona, because he thinks she’s had an affair. This time round, husband and wife survive. It’s the treacherous Iago who ends up dead.’
‘It’s like hijacking an aeroplane!’ Raina says, only semi-mischievously. ‘It always get you attention. So the reason why I have done Shakespeare is… I’m not so interested in Shakespeare and your world, but I was very passionately interested about making my world and my beauty and my art be present in my world.’
To put this conversation into context, we need to go back to a conversation she has earlier in the documentary with Dr Poonam Trivadi, who edited India’s Shakespeare, about the history of Shakespeare in Indian classrooms.
‘There was in fact a very heated debate about the kind of education the East India Company would promote between what were called the Orientalists and the Anglicists,’ says Trivadi. ‘The Orientalists said education should be conducted in the mother tongues, and importance should be given to the Indian classical languages and literature. The Anglicists said all education should be in English so that it promotes an understanding of Western literature and Western cultures. Macaulay, who was the chief architect of this view, believed as he said in his very infamous remark, that a single shelf of European literature is worth all the literatures of the Indian languages put together.’
There really is only one response to that, and Felicity Kendal makes it: ‘My Goodness! It’s the arrogance, isn’t it? It’s the arrogance!’
Macaulay’s ideas became law in 1835.
Shakespeare is loved in India, but as Kendal’s family found out in the first decades after Independence, it’s not surprising he’s hated too.
This clip shows a convicted murderer play King Lear as part of a prison project. Both he and Shakespeare are redeemed.