Articles of interest
19th September 2023
Book in Focus
Shakespeare Meets the Indian Epics
By Mohan Gopinath and Sabina Zacharias
“…the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones that you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don't deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don't surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover's skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don't. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won't. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn't. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and their magic.” — Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
In The God of Small Things (1997), which won the Booker Prize, Kerala-born contemporary novelist Arundhati Roy describes in vivid prose the ‘secret’ of these ‘Great Stories’ adapted for Kathakali performances and their popular appeal.
Great stories always have many things in common, and the two epics discussed in the book are a testimony to this fact. The curious reader might wonder what the Indian epics and the stories in Shakespearean plays have in common – or, will the twain ever meet? This book, Shakespeare Meets the Indian Epics: Comparative Themes and Interpretations, shows how there is a lot more common between people writing and creating characters almost 6,000 miles apart and in different centuries than is thought. Prima facie, Shakespearean works and the two epics the Maha Bharatham and the Ramayanam occupy different planets. They are written in different languages and the milieu in which the stories were created is also entirely different. It may therefore appear to the reader that comparing them would not be possible, as no meaningful conclusion could be drawn. But both Elizabethan drama and the epics thrived and flourished, and will continue to do so. The characters portrayed in them are complex and can be seen grappling with ethical choices, questions of justice and issues of self-realisation.
This is a book which was, in many ways, a by-product of a few articles which had been written, and we had no plan to systematically arrange them or convert them into a book. Its genesis lay in a paper written earlier, and this paper gave rise to another on the same topic, and then the whole thing crystallized and resulted in this book. The papers were based on a book we had written earlier (Vignettes Relating to Kathakali and Shakespeare: The Thirasheela versus the Curtain, 2022), and the threads running through both are based on our twin interests in Shakespeare and Kathakali. Vignettes Relating to Kathakali and Shakespeare: The Thirasheela versus the Curtain was also published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, and looks at the common threads running through the characters in Shakespeare and the Kathakali stories, the latter based on the Maha Bharatham and the Ramayanam. The second book is about a specific great actor, a Kathakali maestro Kalamanadalam Krishnan Nair (Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, the Mozart of Kathakali, 2022 also published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing) and provides novel insights into his work and practice, and this third book has the broadest scope, as it looks at themes from two well-known epics of India and Shakespearean works, and focuses on the commonalities in terms of what they bring out relating to emotions, behaviours and machinations. Even the Gods are not exempt from the latter trait, as their behaviours amply reveal in the two Indian epics.
The three books form what we feel is a very rare product in this subject area. There is no book available that compares specific Shakespearean themes and characters with specific themes and characters appearing in Indian epics and the Kathakali stories. The Indian epics and Shakespeare’s plays contain reflections and examples of the entire range of human emotions, personalities and behaviours which are present in today’s world. The books move forward to a very broad analysis of how people live in a complex environment, where many things are not what they seem to be. This book, along with the other books mentioned, are positioned as academic books and will be of interest to practitioners of the theatre, students of performing arts and aficionados of the epics and Shakespeare.
The current book is an exercise in syncretism, which, for the purposes of this book, we take to mean the combining and interpretation of two different schools of the performing arts i.e., Shakespearean characters and the characters and themes in the epics, done in order to understand the remarkable commonalities present. The study is intense and in-depth, and the main findings of the book are that there are unique aspects and interesting similarities in the themes and characters created by different people across a broad period of time. We were able to make these comparisons with a certain amount of certainty, because our respective academic backgrounds are grounded in English literature.
This book is unusual insofar as it is an exercise in comparing seemingly disparate genres and then arriving at the conclusion that this is, in fact, possible; it also reveals that the exercise is one which brings out new contributions to the existing literature on the subject. The characters portray aspects of the universal human nature, with relevance to all ages and times. For instance, the intricacies of filial devotion between Dakshan and Sathi and Lear and Cordelia, the manipulations and paranoia in Shakuni and Iago, the mental strength of Damayanthi and Portia and the indecisiveness of Nalan and Hamlet are viewed through the framework of management concepts, psychological theories and military rules of engagement. The epics and Shakespearean plays contain truths about the weaknesses and strengths of human nature which come out sharply in the stories they contain.
The importance of this book to the student of drama and literature is one of the prime reasons why it can be used in the world of academics as an essential or indispensable textbook for students of theatre in the West and the East, as well as academicians focusing on the great forces that drive human existence and expose the weaknesses of eminent people. It will also be of interest for teaching in courses specifically relating to the plays of Shakespeare, where the comparisons made in this book can be used to give a better idea to the students of the enormous interest and uniqueness these characters have. It can be a very useful text in the teaching of courses that deal with human psychology, where the foibles of the behaviour of persons in its myriad forms can be highlighted. It is an original study combining Eastern and Western themes, rereading of the great Indian epics and Shakespearean classics, and seemingly disparate characters and plots using an interdisciplinary approach. It also emphasises that the world of the theatre and stage has no boundaries. We hope the readers have a delightful experience interacting with characters from Indian mythology, Shakespeare’s plays, actors from Shakespearean theatre, characters from other genres of literature and personalities from various academic disciplines.
Dr Mohan Gopinath holds a Master’s degree in English Literature from St. Stephen’s College at Delhi University (India), where he later became a member of the faculty. After a two-year stint in the college, he joined the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, and worked as a senior level banker for almost 21 years in India, the UK, and Hong Kong. He obtained a doctoral degree from Osmania University, India. His publications include Business Drama: How Shakespearean Insights Help Leaders Manage Volatile Contexts and Vignettes Relating to Kathakali and Shakespeare: The Thirasheela versus the Curtain, and Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, the Mozart of Kathakali.
Dr Sabina Zacharias has been teaching English language and literature, cultural studies, and business communication and legal English to multicultural and multilingual groups at different levels in India and abroad for the last 20 years. She completed her doctoral degree at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad (India). Currently, she is an adjunct professor of communication and coordinates training courses in English Language and soft skills at various B-Schools in Bangalore (India).