“The winds will try and squish our voice,
The storm will curb our humanity
Amidst all this chaos, art will bloom in all its hues and all its truth-scape.”
18 November| 6:00 PM: A reading-cum-performance of the play “Shakespeare our Contemporary”, written by Dr Soumyabrata Choudhury, Assistant Professor at School of Arts and Aesthetics took place in the SSS1 auditorium. Dr Choudhury needs no introduction in the campus, be it public meetings, informal gatherings, protests, seminars or discussions, it is hard to miss the tall man with a slightly hunched posture, peppered hair, his spectacles resting a bit too precariously on his nose, and always seen carrying his backpack: eloquent, genial, unabashedly frank and attentive.
He has been teaching theatre and performance studies in School of Arts and Aesthetics, and we have heard him talk and discuss politics, literature, arts and philosophy, but to see him improvise on the stage to enact sections from different plays of Shakespeare: from Hamlet to Richard II, to King Lear to Midsummer’s Night Dream to As You Like It to Troilus and Cressida has made us (who haven’t yet had the opportunity to sit in his class) have a glimpse of his passion for the stage.
Voice modulations, mimicry, gesticulating, using facial expressions, and occasionally breaking into colloquialisms could have been surmised, it was a rare sight to see him turn into the fool from King Lear hopping on his legs and reasoning out with the mad king while speaking in puzzles. It was equally amusing to watch him play Ophelia trying to recall with great trepidation the events that would befall her in the play, her voice in slow-falling decibels, quavering with the growing realization of the surveillance around her and the impossibility of any escape from the haranguing situation, most of all the rudeness and cruelty of her lover.
The steady rising confusion of the actors trying to figure out the gender roles and switches in Shakespeare’s As You Like it. Females were not allowed on the Elizabethan stage, and therefore it fell on the young boys and fair-looking men with high-pitched voices to enact the role of women. Gendered identities were thus seemingly fluid in Shakespeare’s plays, with women characters donning men’s attires and subverting all social norms.
And then there was Cressida, the young woman who was perhaps not given any chance to dream of love and happy endings, growing up in a war-torn country she has no illusions about life and her fate, accepting her situation stoically, not resisting and forgetting quickly. The howling, tearing-his-hair, hands-flaying and rebuking heavens with his cries Lear, despised and shut-out by his own daughters, with the doors of the kingdom locked to him.
Dr Choudhury would roll on the floor, beat his chest, squat on the floor, wring his hands, grimace and shout, sit and act petulant; he would read with a sardonic grimace and at times leave a subtle message for the audience, at other times act the Delhi loafer whose all existence depends on his beloved Royal Enfield. From the Elizabethan times to the present, he made Shakespeare manifest through his performance, playing the part of actors practicing for a Shakespearean adaptation in the august presence of a famous Polish-American Shakespearean critic Jan Kott, whose book Shakespeare our Contemporary provide clues to the lines, dramatization, casting, sequence and comments used in the play. Jan Kott, himself is a character in the play.
The play therefore is not so much an adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays as it is a creative appropriation and translation of the critic’s observations and comments on the bard in his seminal book. Kott’s book is placed in the backdrop of a ‘rehearsal scene by a group of theatre enthusiasts’. The metanarrative of the plot with constant allusions to acting, the stage and theatre company is not new in Shakespearean studies and so is the creative adaptation of the play to present a satire on contemporay political and social catastrophes. He belonged to all generations, as Dr Johnson once proclaimed; and the title of the book so conveniently reminded us.
This play was a joint initiative by the MPhil students of Theatre and Performance Studies at the School of Art and Aesthetics. It is a collaboration that aims at conjoining the written with the reality. Shomu (as the entire JNU community calls him with love and admiration) stood at the center of the stage with props of a raddiwala and some seating with a wooden chair- the chair of power. He would impersonate young actors attempting to reach an understanding of Shakespeare through Kott’s analysis of the bard’s plays, coming across cryptic comments and references by the critic. These actors have their own stories to tell which resonate with instances from the play, rendered brilliantly in soliloquies.
The play raised the issue of curbing of questions, Shakespearean fools who question and quibble provide some of the most insightful observations on life. They are also trenchant critics of authorial powers.Shakespeare as our contemporary through his characters helped advance this very critical domain of questioning and critiquing. Excerpts from Hamlet and King Lear were spoken with rage and conviction. The brilliance of this act revolved around Shomu’s excellent portrayal of different personalities, scenic alterations and a perfect placement of silence and eruption on the stage.
‘400 Pellets of Democracy’- an alternative name proposed for the play speaks of the essence of this play. The audience was captivated by the parallelisms: a certain oppressive Denmark reeking of foul play, a country at the grip of war where the logic of defeating the enemy subverts all considerations for humanity, the fight for the crown where the contenders would stoop to all forms of treachery, the raging storm both within and without.
The play ended with a huge round of applause and standing ovation from the audience and with Shomu making a statement that this was the first among many to come- this is the culture of JNU- an eminence of Art! The group behind this play is led by Reyazul Haque, a student of SAA; they have taken an initiative to advance theatrics within the campus to spread awareness, ensure ‘togetherness’ and cure the climate of authoritarianism in their own seamless waves of dialogues and personality creations.
Ankita and Shikha work for The Informer.
Correction: A previous version of the article was titled “Shakespeare our Contemporary or ‘400 Bullets of Democracy’: A Play, An Initiative”. We came to know the alternative title to the play is ‘400 Pellets of Democracy’ and not ‘400 Bullets of Democracy’, hence we have corrected the same. Inconvenience is highly regretted.