Literary theatre

How did a forgotten play by Shakespeare resurface in Malayalam in Kerala?

‘Pericles, Prince Of Tyre’ is set by the seaside, features sea voyages and a comic scene with fishermen.

A Shakespearean drama with pirates and princes, a princess who is sold to a brothel and incestuous affairs was left out of the first collected edition of William Shakespeare’s plays. First Folio was collated and published in 1623 but contained no mention of the bard’s play Pericles, Prince Of Tyre.

The play is still rarely performed anywhere in the world, but recently it breathed new life when a Malayalam translation by writer P Velu from 1891, Pariklesharajavinte Katha, made its way to the British Library’s South Asia collection.

This re-telling of the original tale would have been forgotten but for Thea Buckley, a scholar who came across the Pariklesharajavinte Katha while working on a thesis on productions of Macbeth, for indigenous South Indian theatre forms. Buckley, an American scholar at the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute, grew up in Kerala. At present, she is researching the intersection between Shakespeare’s original works and their 21st-century adaptations into South Indian languages, which she took up after she chanced upon Velu’s translation of Pericles and realised that no scholar had written about it.

Buckley said she still has no idea why Pericles was omitted from the First Folio. The play is a collaboration between Shakespeare and dramatist and pamphleteer George Wilkins.

“What is very interesting is that somehow it made its way to India and you can trace a faint line of a performance history in the history of the translation,” she said. “It caught my imagination.”

She is now tracing the route by which the play made its way to Kerala.

Following the spice route?

One reason for Pericles to appear on India’s southern shores, Buckley felt, could be that the play is about a sailor, and Kerala is a coastal state.

“My first thought was, did this catch the people’s imagination because it is about someone who goes sailing?” she said. “There is a very ancient history of sea trade in Kerala, where ships would stop on their way to get spice. As far as I can tell, Shakespearean drama arrives in the port cities, which is where the British came in their search for spices. It then travels inland.”

Buckley said she found the seed of this idea from playwright and critic G Sankara Pillai, who traced the spread of pan-Indian imitations of British theatre from the port cities inwards to the rest of the country.

During Shakespeare’s lifetime (1564-1616), there is record of a ship sailing to India where Hamlet was performed on board. The actors, thus, brought Shakespeare with them. Shakespeare also entered the education system. Then the British imposed Shakespeare on Indians by introducing a literary section on him in the Civil Service examinations.

Buckley said she could think of several reasons why Pericles might “appeal to a South Indian audience”, though she added that this was mere conjecture: “Shakespeare’s play is set by the seaside, features sea voyages and a comic scene with fishermen, which would be familiar to coastal dwellers as the region. It is an adventure tale about a royal warrior, just like Indian epics. He goes through a long period of exile or separation from his kingdom and family, as do many noble heroes. It is one of the few plays in which a deity appears, here to help and bless the ruler. It has a great story. It has a princess who gets kidnapped and sold to a brothel from which she escapes. It has incest, which may be something they wanted to expurgate.”

Shakespeare in Malayalam

According to Buckley, this version of Pericles, Prince of Tyre could be part of a larger scene of translations and performances of the poet-playwright’s works that somehow made its way to the southern tip of India. She will be speaking on the subject in September 2017, at the British Library’s South Asia series.

Malayalam translations of Shakespeare are under-researched. There is a wide range of translations of Shakespeare into Indian languages, but only a handful were translated to Malayalam. The only Malayalam translation of Pericles is now available in a digital catalogue at the British Library.

Buckley’s efforts to trace how Pericles reached Kerala have taken her across India. She found another translation in Hindi by B Govinda Dasa called Honhaar or Honahar. This is the only other single translation of Pericles, apart from Velu’s in the British Library’s collection.

Marina sings before Pericles (Stothard, 1825). Image credit: Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 4.0]
Marina sings before Pericles (Stothard, 1825). Image credit: Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 4.0]

Pariklesharajavinte Katha

The Malayalam translation is not only taken directly from Shakespeare’s Pericles but from the prose version of Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb. The Lambs included Pericles in Tales from Shakespeare in their 1807 collection for children, but removed all the adult elements in the tale. In the 1800s and 1900s, their version of Pericles was finally translated for adults.

The Malayalam version takes a few turns from the original, Buckley said. Scenes of incest and brothels are omitted and names have been nativised: Tyre is Tharapuram or “city of the stars”, Pericles’ wife Thaisa becomes Dayesha or the “kind lady” and his daughter Marina is Samudrika or “maiden of the sea.”

Dr Will Sharpe, Teaching Fellow in Shakespeare at the University of Birmingham said: “Pericles was largely neglected in the theatre over a long period of time. There has however in the last century, been a tradition of practitioners and audiences deriving rewards from the play in performance, taking the effort to see past what at first glance seem shortcomings and to revel both in the comic opportunities the play’s structure affords and in its truly tender emotional core.”

In 2013-2014, Sharpe directed Pericles for Ketterer’s Men, Birmingham University’s theatre company.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.