Shirwadkar and Shakespeare

Arun Naik

Vi. Va. Shirwadkar the playwright, who wrote poetry under the nom de plume Kusumagraj, was a keen student of world literature, especially of poetry and drama. His study of world theatre took him to Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Jean Anouilh, Maurice Maeterlink, Tolstoy. This resulted in some brilliant translations and adaptations into Marathi.

His play NATASAMRAT made history on the Marathi stage. This play is broadly based on Shakespeare's great tragedy KING LEAR. The main role of the thespian Appasaheb Belvalkar was made immortal by Dr Shreeram Lagoo. Other Marathi actors of the calibre of Datta Bhat, Arvind Deshpande, Yashwant Dutta also played this role with success. The play has now been made into a DVD with Dr Lagoo in the lead-probably his last role!

This play was first produced around 1970. His direct adaptations of two other tragedies-MACBETH (as RAJMUKUT) and OTHELLO-were done in 1954 and 1960 respectively. But Shirwadkar 'met' Shakespeare much before even that, even when he was still in school. And his last 'meeting' took place when he went to Stratford years later.

Shirwadkar has described this long journey in a book: Shodh Shakespearecha (In Search of Shakespeare). This is a collection of articles written over several years.

Shirwadkar was born and brought up in Nashik. He went to school and college there. He used to live with his (maternal) uncle when he was in school. This uncle had a discarded library in his storeroom. Shirwadkar would rummage through the heaps and he suddenly came across some Shakespeare plays. He 'browsed through' some of these. It was not at all easy to understand the language-his English was not very good then. The language is over 400 years old. But Shirwadkar fell in love with Shakespeare. He has described this very vividly in his book.

In 1954 the Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh produced RAJMUKUT-Shirwadkar's adaptation of MACBETH. The play was directed by Herbert Marshall-an Englishman. Nanasaheb Phatak and Durgabai Khote did the main roles. In those days traditional plays were still done with painted back curtains which would roll up and down with whistle cues. This production was done on a simulated 'Elizabethan' stage. Shirwadkar has described this production. He gives all credit to the vision of Dr Amrut Narayan Bhalerao who was ably assisted by Amonkar, Andhrutkar, Bapurao Naik (this author's father who also did the lighting), D. G. Godse (who did the decor), Daji Bhatawdekar (who assisted the director with the language). I had seen this production and I still remember some scenes, especially those of the witches.

In Search of Shakespeare is a small book of about a hundred pages. Shirwadkar succeeds in conveying to us the magic of Shakespeare's plays. The chapter that I especially liked is 'The beginnings of some Shakespeare plays'. There is a 'Shakespearean' Globe Theatre in London even today. Plays are still performed there. But this is not the original Globe. It has recently been built somewhere near the same site. In those days the surroundings had many taverns and brothels where the people, known as 'groundlings', would spend their time before seeing a play. They would be drunk and boisterous as they waited for the play to open. Shakespeare would devise his opening scenes to bring the gathering to order with thunder, lightening, witches, ghosts, battles, brawls, uprisings, mobs, attacks. He would also use oratory in opening scenes. Shirwadkar has given many examples and described this technicality in detail.

Shirwadkar did RAJMUKUT again in Nashik after it was done by the Sahitya Sangh in Mumbai. There was some technical lapse in the 'modern' lighting resulting in half the stage going into darkness, leaving the other half well lit. The witches were in the dark area and Macbeth and Banquo were in the lit area. This battle of good (light) and evil (darkness) which pervades the whole play was brought about by a mere technical flaw. But that gave Shirwadkar a thought which he pursues till the last act where Macbeth delivers his famous soliloquy, 'Out, out, brief candle'! He analyses the 'sleepwalking scene' with Lady Macbeth holding a lone candle with a flickering flame to symbolize the extinguished hope of some light to hold on to.

Shirwadkar says that he was impressed by the beginnings of some plays: HAMLET, MACBETH, CORIOLANUS, JULIUS CAESAR, HENRY V. But he has liked the opening scene of OTHELLO the best. The villain Iago and his young friend Roderigo make an entry even as Roderigo is completing the dialogue he has begun within. There is no description of the locale or time except: Venice. A street. Roderigo says:

Tush, never tell me! I take it much unkindly
That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse
As if the strings were thine, should'st know of this.

This indicates that they have been talking as they reach this place and enter. A play has two kinds of dialogues: action dialogues and narrative dialogues. Normally Shakespeare uses narrative dialogues in opening scenes. This is one exception.

It is generally believed that in the entire gamut of theatre literature, or for that matter all literature, there is not a greater villain than Iago. Shirwadkar too makes a thorough analysis of the character of Iago. He envisages three layers of the society in Venice. Othello is a moor: he is of a mixed race of Arab and Negro blood and he comes from North West Africa. He is a tribal. Then there is the upper cultured and rich class. And lastly, there is the lower class.

Desdemona belongs to the upper class, and Iago to the lower class. The drama in Othello is because of the class conflict in these three levels. Shirwadkar argues that Iago is not a 'normal' villain from a melodrama or tragedy.

Critics, readers and playgoers of Shakespeare have given names to some of his famous scenes: In HAMLET we have the 'ghost scene', the 'closet scene', the 'nunnery scene', the 'grave-diggers' scene. In MACBETH we have the 'sleep-walking scene'. In OTHELLO we have the 'temptation scene'. Shirwadkar calls this the 'visharopan' scene: the 'poisoning' scene. It is in this scene that Iago plants the seeds of suspicion in Othello's mind, which he later develops into jealousy. Shirwadkar describes this scene as follows:

A person with a lit torch is trying to put fire to a haystack from all sides. The audience, sitting in the dark, seeing this from a distance does not look at the haystack. Its attention is drawn to the black figure, its business, its success or failure. But once he succeeds and the haystack catches fire one ignores the man and keeps looking at the burning haystack. This is what happens in OTHELLO.

The temptation scene cannot be described better than this. Shirwadkar's analysis and comments are of immense use to not only the director, but also to the actors, the designers and the composers of music to accompany the scene.

Shirwadkar made free translations of MACBETH as RAJMUKUT and ofOTHELLO. But he also Indianized these plays. Othello's jealousy reaches its climax when he strangles Desdemona. He enters her bedchamber with the soliloquy 'It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul'. Shirwadkar translates the word 'cause' as the 'reason' to kill Desdemona: kaaran. But in the analysis of the scene Shirwadkar discusses the onus on Othello to punish Desdemona because fate, society, his tribal religion have specified this to him as a duty because 'else she'll betray more men'. The word 'karma' would have been more appropriate. Shirwadkar accepted many compromises in his adaptations of these two plays only to make things easy for the Marathi audiences. But he has explained that he was not really in favour of these compromises, most of which were 'cultural'. Language can be translated, culture cannot be translated. It has to be substituted. How can one transpose the happenings in Scotland, Venice, Denmark and Cyprus to Maharashtra?

Shirwadkar has elaborated upon how Shakespeare came to India, how our Shakespearean actors were as good as British actors doing Shakespeare, how Shakespeare influenced our playwrights. We shall see only one small passage as an example of how Shirwadkar has discussed and analysed Shakespeare's plays, some important scenes, some major characters:

I feel that when one takes into account the 'philosopher' in Iago's make-up it becomes possible to fathom the boundless evil in his personality. There is another point to consider. Iago is not a 'doing' villain but is a 'talking' villain. He has not done much in the play. Just as an intellectual and philosophical person he relies more on words. Words are his most effective weapon!

Shirwadkar always felt that Shakespeare's plays should be translated into Marathi and they should be performed very regularly. Though he had adapted both plays himself he welcomed my translations in free verse. He had composed some songs for OTHELLO which he gladly allowed me to use in my production. I am really indebted to him for having given me an insight into the intricacies of Shakespearean characterization.

To read Arun Naik's Preface to his English translation of the book Shodh Shakespearecha (In Search of Shakespeare) please click here.

*Arun Naik is an author, editor, printer, publisher, theatre critic, translator, theatre director and designer. His translations and productions of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello have been widely acclaimed in both academic and theatre circles. He teaches Dramatic Literature, Communication Skills, Creative Writing, Translation and Printing Technology. He has contributed to The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre. He has travelled widely to study the latest in printing technology and in theatre.

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