Love of William Shakespeare in Early Bangla Renaissance: Bengal had as much claim on Shakespeare as England

Much before modern Bangla literature came into existence in first quarter of the 18th century, the plays of Shakespeare enjoyed the patronage of performers, spectators and readers in Bengal. The lovers of William Shakespeare were the enlightened members among the early English settlers who built Kolkata’s first playhouse in Lalbazar Street in 1755, where Shakespeare’s plays or selected scenes thereof figured in the list of performances. 

William Shakespeare
The chance acquaintance of the Bangla babu at English playhouses developed into a closer kinship with the Bard when their boys plunged for English education at Hindu College whose curriculum for English included four Shakespeare’s plays—Macbeth, King Lear, Othello and Hamlet. The teachers were such eminent Shakespeareans as Derozio and D. L. Richardson. Richardson’s reading of Shakespeare was so marvelous that it moved even the conceited Macaulay and stimulated Madhusudan Dutta’s poetic perception. The famous Bangadarshan of Bankimchandra never missed an opportunity to refer to Shakespeare.

In an article on the ideals of Indian womanhood in the said journals Desdemona was set up as an object of emulation. The Bengalis, famous for their histrionic ability, first set up their own playhouse, the Hindu Theatre in 1831 where the performance of the first night was begun with selected scenes from Julius Caesar. All the schools of Kolkata of the time such as Hindu College, David Hare Academy, etc used to organize
Shakespeare’s plays from time to time. In addition, Shakespeare was acted in the private playhouses of the native gentlemen of Kolkata. Shakespeare was presented in Bangla by the commercial playhouses of Kolkata and their fare included staging of Othello (1875), Macbeth (1893, translated by Girish Chandra Ghosh) etc. The staging of Shakespeare in English and Bangla by both amateurs and professionals remains an active and vigorous tradition up to this day. Bangla translations of Shakespeare began with the efforts of an Englishman, C. Monkton, who translated The Tempest into Bangla in 1809. In 1853 came Harachandra Ghosh’s Version of The Merchant of Venice under the title Bhanumati Chittavilash. Ghosh took many liberties in translation so that it was more an adaptation. Translations and adaptations of Shakespeare followed in galore and it is impossible to refer them all here. The poet Hemchandra Bandyopadhyay adapted The Tempest under the title Nolini Basanta (1879) while Nabinchandra Sen, another notable poet, adapted in Bangla A Midsummer Night’s Dream under the title Naidagh Nishitha Swapna. The great actor poet, Girish Chandra Ghosh, made his version of Macbeth which became justifiably famous. Jyotirindranath Tagore’s translation of Julius Caesar was acclaimed by all critics when it appeared in 1909. Shakespeare was also adapted in prose and stories and this  trend was highlighted by the great Vidyasagar’s Indianised version of The Comedy of Errors entitled Bhrantivilash that came up in 1870. The influence of Shakespeare in this respect can be imagined from the fact that when Basumati Sahitya Mandir brought out a collection in Bangla of a bunch of stories known as Shakespeare Granthabali. It was well received by the Bangla readers. All of the Bangla dramatists of the time were influenced by Shakespeare. Dinabanclhu Mitra’s Navin Tapaswini was based on The Merry Wives of Windsor. Girishchandra Ghosh was greatly influenced by Shakespeare particularly in introducing supernatural element in some of his semi-historical plays. 

Even Rabindranath emulated Shakespeare in his early plays such as Bisarjan, Raja 0 Rani, Prakritir Pratishodh. But the dramatist to be most influenced by and indebted to Shakespeare is certainly D. L. Roy (1863-1913), who both in theory and practice seized the Shakespearean atmosphere and grandeur. In Shahjahan, the patricide and Macbeth-like hallucinations of Auranzeb as also the Lear-like utterances of old Shahjahan show this Shakespearean mood and atmosphere. The study of Shakespeare has led to some fruitful criticism especially in the direction of comparative criticism. Bankimchandra has discussed the excellence and achievements of Bhavabhuti and Shakespeare, and Kalidasa and Shakespeare. Rabindranath’s observations on Shakespeare are always important; Balendranath Tagore has some original things to say on the treatment of nature in Shakespeare and Kalidasa. 

The love of Shakespeare inculcated in the mind of the Bangla intelligentsia in the 19th century continues unabated even to this day with its spread-effects reaching a part of the Bangla masses so that altering a bit Keshab Sen’s proud declaration in England we can say that Bengal had as much claim on Shakespeare as England.

Ardhendu De

Reference:Wikipedia, Encarta