Who Is the Indian Shakespeare? Appropriation of Authority in a Sanskrit A Midsummer Night’s Dream
David V. Mason University of Wisconsin-Madison Published in New Literary History 34:2 (Fall, 2003)
David Mason 814C Eagle Heights Madison, WI 53705 (608) 238-1342 email@example.com
Who Is the Indian Shakespeare? 2
“Do you know who is the Indian Shakespeare?” Late in 1994, I was on my way from Rishikesh to Mussoorie. In India studying Sanskrit, I thought I would visit the nearby hill station over a weekend, and when the man across the aisle saw my Sanskrit textbook , he began a conversation which moved very quickly from Sanskrit to English literature. He was himself a student, completing a B.A. in English, and he was curious to have my thoughts on such things as the best living novelist in English. He was much my superior on this subject, and at a lull in the conversation, perhaps perceiving that I was at a loss to name the author of “The Windhover,” he asked if I knew the Indian Shakespeare. Considering the extent to which Shakespeare settled in India from colonial performances in the very early days of the Raj to dominating the Parsi stage early in the nineteenth century to becoming the ensign for mandatory English education after 1835, I thought the Indian Shakespeare might as well be Shakespeare. “Kalidasa,” he said. Since I had demonstrated a profound incompetency in English literature, I think it unlikely that my bus-mate was merely trying to supply a common frame of reference on the way to a new topic of conversation. “Who is the Indian Shakespeare?” is an expression of the lingering identity crisis of the literature of postcolonial India, an insecurity which both defers to authority by privileging Shakespeare as the alluring plenitude of the West and challenges authority through its vain answer: a figure who, it is implied, not only corresponds to Shakespeare in the South Asian context, but, perhaps, bests him. The question and its answer, however anachronistic, indicates a sharp rivalry between the formerly colonized and the former colonists which yearns to be consummated, even if the only circumstance in which the two ambassadors can face each other is a rhetorical question.1 Or, perhaps in a translation. The translation of a work of literature unavoidably juxtaposes the ability and reputation of an author against, at the very least, the strength and skill of a translator. Given a translator removed from the immediate cultural circumstances of an author, or even removed only the current milieu of an author’s work, a translation also provides for the confrontation of an author and a host of other
Who Is the Indian Shakespeare? 3 forces including any other authors which inform the literary tradition of the translator. When this happens, a comparison is inevitable. Shakespeare translated into German by a German must bear comparison at least to Goethe, so that the father of English letters and the father of German letters struggle over who will be the new literary child’s dad, the figure regarded as the child’s supreme authority—that is, the translation’s ultimate literary standard. Shakespeare translated into Sanskrit must bear comparison to Kalidasa, the personification of the classical Sanskrit tradition. And in that comparison, Shakespeare must justify his parental role or cede a degree of his sovereignty to his co-creator. In the 19th-Century Sanskrit translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream titled Vasantikasvapnam—loosely translated as A Dream in the Spring—Shakespeare and the tradition he represents combine with Kalidasa to produce a piece of literature (albeit a translation) which is the inheritor of both, but which exists primarily in Kalidasa’s world, on account of linguistic and cultural boundaries. As a consequence, Vasantikasvapnam complicates our perception of the colonial subject and colonial literature. Superficially, as the product of an...