Program cover for Asian Shakespeare Association event in New Delhi.
Program cover for Asian Shakespeare Association event in New Delhi.

The Asian Shakespeare Association (ASA) incorporated in Manila organised recently a three-day seminar plus other cultural activities titled ‘All the World His Stage: Shakespeare Today’ in New Delhi. Despite the smoke, dust and smog, environmental pollution and poor governance, transport and other inconveniences in a metropolitan city bursting with about 20 million people, the program was conducted notably successfully.About 66 Asian scholars (36 of whom were Indian) and scholars from other countries wrote impressive papers and participated in the activities revealing that that Asian scholarship on the beloved ‘Bard of Avon’ is thoroughly respectable.

Asia has affected the study and performance of Shakespeare around the world. It has produced collective effort–increasing exchanges and collaborations among Asian Shakespeare scholars and between them and others in the rest of the world.

Given the vastness and diversity of Asia, the richness of its scholarship and theaters, there is need and scope for more support for its activities. Responding to the call by Bi-qi Beatrice Lei to establish a formal association, scholars, artists, and students across the globe signed up to help found the Asian Shakespeare Association, a non-profit, non-government organization dedicated to researching, producing, teaching, translating, and promoting Shakespeare from an Asian perspective.

Ratified by the generally elected Executive Committee, a Constitution has been formulated, which details the ASA’s mission, governance, and membership. The ASA currently has over 400 members, representing Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Guam, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Macau, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, the Philippines, Poland, Qatar, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The ASA produces the Asian Shakespeare Newsletter.

The ASA holds biannual conferences in Asian locations. “Shakespearean Journeys,” the inaugural conference, was held in Taipei (15-18 May 2014), a landmark event which included keynote speeches, plenary and parallel paper sessions and seminars, live performances, film screenings, acting workshops, and more.

The second ASA conference was held recently in New Delhi (1-3 December 2016). The India chapter of the ASA is presided over by Poonam Trivedi, University of Delhi.The program included films and other activities in English and other Asian languages.

The first day’s plenary session was addressed by Professor Christy Desmet, University of Georgia USA who spoke on ‘Appropriating Shakespeare Worldwide’ with Professor Rupin Desai, University of the Delhi, in the chair. This was followed by three parallel sessions in which several papers were discussed under topics such as ‘Shakespeare on the global stage’; ‘translating Shakespeare’; ‘graphic and digital Shakespeare’; ‘to Nell and back: E-editing Mistress Quickly’; ‘working with Hamlet’; ‘Shakespearean Metaphors and Allusions’ ‘Shakespeare in Bengal’; ‘Shakespeare, patriarchy and marriage’; and ‘Shakespeare, dance and the anti-theatrical. There was a film screening: Manga Shakespeare Hamlet followed by a performance ‘I Don’t Like It/ As You Like it in English directed by Rajat Kapoor. This was followed by a discussion with the Director.

Since it is impossible to summarize all the interesting papers presented on the first day and given my Indian background, I may, in a highly selective and idiosyncratic manner, mention a few papers.

Writing on Shakespeare in Bengal, Swati Ganguli provides insights into Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s comparative study of Shakespeare’s Tempest and Abhijnanasakuntalam and Meghaduta by the most talented Sanskrit poet-playwright Kalidasa (5th century AD). The idea was to show that in late 19th century the educated Bengali could move effortlessly between the work of the celebrated ancient Indian poet and the more recent work of William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

In another essay, Madhumita Saha provides an interesting analysis of Shakespeare in academic curricula in early 19th century Bengal discussing Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s work and comparing the classical Indian heroine Shakuntala with Shakespeare’s heroines Miranda and Desdemona in The Tempest and Othello respectively.

There was a film screening: Manga Shakespeare Hamlet. followed by a performance: ‘I Don’t Like It/As You Like It’ directed by Rajat Kapoor and discussion with him.

The second day opened with a performance on Hamlet in Hindi and a discussion with its Director K. Madavane. The plenary address was by Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri on ‘Who is Shakespeare? What is she?’

There were two parallel sessions on several topics including ‘Cinematic Interventions’; ‘Manga Shakespeare Workshop’; ‘Shakespeare’s Greatness and Failure’; ‘Shakespeare and Today’s Technology’; ‘Re-evaluating Bollywood’s Shakespeare’; and ‘For They are the Abstract and Brief Chronicles of Time: Negotiating Shakespearean Characters in Performance from Past to Present’.

Briefly, Supriya Chaudhuri brought out Shakespeare’s global renown through translations and adaptations end emphasizes his humanism and universalism. Sunil Kumar Sarkar noted Shakespeare’s ability to deal with the universal themes of love, jealousy, power and revenge. Douglas Arrell noted Shakespeare’s immense international popularity owing to his free imagination and generous humanity. The analyses of Shakespeare’s plays in Indian cinema were most fascinating.

The third day began with a solo performance by Yuki Ellias ‘Dying to Succeed on Shakespeare’s women’ (in English). In the plenary Professor Michael Dobson, University of Birmingham spoke on ‘How Many Ages Hence’? Shakespeare, Rome and the Untimely’.

There were two parallel panels under several topics: Negotiating Past and Present, Local and Global Shakespeare; Rulers and Governance; Xenophobia, Nativism and Racism; Early Modern Shakespeare; Asian Appropriations; Sensitizing/Learning through Shakespeare; Revisiting Measure for Measure; and To die or not to die: That’s the Question for Shakespeare’s Heroines. The proceedings concluded with the film screening of Veeram: (Macbeth) in Malayalam.

One scholar traced the linkages between Shakespeare’s ideas and those of the emerging political thinker Thomas Hobbes.

The presentations were of a uniformly high quality indicating the tremendous love and high regard in which the ‘Bard of Avon’ is held in Asia.

There may be an impression in some quarters that Asians are not advanced enough in their appreciation of English literature and of Shakespeare. The impression is dispelled by the proceedings of the program.

As a former student and lover of Shakespeare, one would like to wish the Asian Shakespeare Association all success in its varied activities and future developments.

Kadayam Subramanian

Kadayam Subramanian is former director of the Research and Policy Division of the Indian Home Ministry and former director general of police in northeastern India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India.

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