The Indian Shakespeare?
The earliest college programs to offer degrees in “English Literature” were not in England but in India. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, students in universities in England took degrees in classical studies—Latin and Greek. As a means of promoting itself abroad as comparable to the classical empires, the British Empire initiated an aggressive plan of teaching English to its colonial subjects, in India and elsewhere. Colleges in India taught English as a means by which Indians could develop English identities, and taught English literature as models of erudition.
The principal literary texts by which English was taught in colonial India were the Bible and the plays and poems of William Shakespeare. The Bard became very popular among college-educated Indians. Both college drama groups and professional theatre companies in India mounted performances of Shakespeare’s plays throughout the nineteenth century.
In this period, Kalidasa was often compared with Shakespeare. As the preeminent Sanskrit poet, it seemed only natural to stand Kalidasa beside the preeminent poet of English to see how they measured up. Kalidasa was sometimes referred to as “The Shakespeare of India”.
In 1892, R. Krishnamachari published Vasantikasvapnam, a translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream into Sanskrit. The translator’s objective, according to his introduction, was to introduce Sanskrit scholars to the great poetry of Shakespeare, to show India’s educated elite that Shakespeare wrote as well (at least) as Kalidasa.
But the translation that Krishnamachari produced does more than translate Shakespeare’s words. Translation always involves some transformation, since languages operate in different ways. But Krishnamachari’s version of Midsummer makes radical changes to the characters, the setting, and the structure of Shakespeare’s play.
In the end, Krishnamachari’s play looks much more like a play by Kalidasa than by Shakespeare. On account of this transformation, we might well interrogate the degree to which Shakespeare dominated India’s literary landscape during the colonial period. Is Kalidasa India’s Shakespeare, or is Shakespeare England’s Kalidasa?
David Mason, “Who Is the Indian Shakespeare?” New Literary History 34.4 (2003): 639-658.