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The essay examines a Bengali adaptation of Macbeth, namely Rudrapal Natak (published 1874) by Haralal Ray, juxtaposing it with differently accented commentaries on the play arising from the English-educated elites of 19th Bengal, and relating the play to the complex phenomenon of Hindu nationalism. This play remarkably translocates the mythos and ethos of Shakespeare’s original onto a Hindu field of signifiers, reformulating Shakespeare’s Witches as bhairavis (female hermits of a Tantric cult) who indulge unchallenged in ghastly rituals. It also tries to associate the gratuitous violence of the play with the fanciful yearning for a martial ideal of nation-building that formed a strand of the Hindu revivalist imaginary. If the depiction of the Witch-figures in Rudrapal undercuts the evocation of a monolithic and urbane Hindu sensibility that would be consistent with colonial modernity, the celebration of their violence may be read as an effort to emphasize the inclusivity (as well as autonomy) of the Hindu tradition and to defy the homogenizing expectations of Western enlightenment
Multicultural Shakespeare: Translation, Appropriation and Performance
vol. 13 (28), 2016; DOI: 10.1515/mstap-2016-0009
Abhishek Sarkar
Shakespeare, Macbeth and the Hindu Nationalism
of Nineteenth-Century Bengal
Abstract: The essay examines a Bengali adaptation of Macbeth, namely Rudrapal Natak
(published 1874) by Haralal Ray, juxtaposing it with differently accented commentaries
on the play arising from the English-educated elites of 19
Bengal, and relating the play
to the complex phenomenon of Hindu nationalism. This play remarkably translocates the
mythos and ethos of Shakespeare’s original onto a Hindu field of signifiers,
reformulating Shakespeare’s Witches as bhairavis (female hermits of a Tantric cult) who
indulge unchallenged in ghastly rituals. It also tries to associate the gratuitous violence
of the play with the fanciful yearning for a martial ideal of nation-building that formed a
strand of the Hindu revivalist imaginary. If the depiction of the Witch-figures in
Rudrapal undercuts the evocation of a monolithic and urbane Hindu sensibility that
would be consistent with colonial modernity, the celebration of their violence may be
read as an effort to emphasize the inclusivity (as well as autonomy) of the Hindu
tradition and to defy the homogenizing expectations of Western enlightenment
Keywords: Macbeth, violence, Bengali, nationalism, Hindu revivalism, colonial
An obscure and undistinguished poet named Girish Chandra Laha wrote an
effusive sonnet entitled “Shakespeare” for the June 1899 issue of Prayas, a
little-known Bengali periodical. The poem may be roughly translated and
paraphrased thus:
O immortal poet of this mortal world! Trained in the school of Nature, through
your endeavours you attained keen insightfulness, because of which you could
show how ambition, worldly pleasure, jealousy, [and] lust secretly attack the
human heart;—how they, slowly extinguishing the gentle, eternally manifest
light of heaven—destroy the righteous soul’s sense of good and evil. Caught in
the vortex of delusion, [how] man of his own accord takes to drinking poison
that is covered in nectar; deranged by the temptation of apparent pleasure [how
man] causes his soul remorse; [and] at the end [how man] is engulfed by the fire
Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
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Abhishek Sarkar
of self-disgust, in your work [O immortal poet] there is a radiant illustration of
In the October 1899 issue of the same magazine, Girish Chandra Laha wrote
another sonnet, similarly turgid and thematically continuous with the first one.
The latter poem is entitled Macbeth Pathe (“On Reading Macbeth”), and may be
rendered into prose as follows:
Intense evil ambition–wonderfully have you shown, poet! How it tempts
weak-eyed man–how in the guise of malicious witches causes the slow
germination of a poison-tree; watered by the encouragement of a vile woman that
tree grows. Evil desire, by covering the Sun of wisdom like a fog, shows splendid
fruits hanging from that tree–splendid, but alas! full of hidden poison, which the
man fails to see as he is deluded by the expectation of forthcoming happiness; [he]
destroys every obstacle he sees before him, commits one crime after another until
the sharp poison reaches the brain piercing the heart–[and] knowledge,
intelligence, memory and all are lost at the end.
These two sonnets celebrate Shakespeare as an exponent of universal morality—a
kind of emphatically didactic and liberal humanist reading that was recurrent in
the reception of Shakespeare in 19
century Bengal. Macbeth, which was much
familiar to the English-educated Bengalis thanks to the colonial education system
instituted by the English, especially generated such readings. Such readings
would often be evoked to defend the primal sensationalism of the play’s action
and characterization, as is seen in the poems mentioned above. In line with this
tendency, the essayist Akshay Chandra Sarkar in an article published in the
periodical Navajivan serially between 1887 and 1889 accepts the play as a
cautionary fable, reading its protagonist as a superlative exemplar of human
corruptibility and the atrocity consequent upon it. Comparing Macbeth with
Hindu mythological characters and equating criminality with sinfulness, Akshay
Chandra observes,
We have heard of Lord Rama’s unfair killing of Bali [in the Ramayana], the
killing of the boy Abhimanyu by seven charioteers [in the Mahabharata], the
killing of the mournful Drona as a result of Yudhisthira’s falsehood [in the
Mahabharata], the killing of the sleeping children of the five Pandavas by
Ashwatthama [in the Mahabharata], but we do not find such an outrageously
sinful murderer [as Macbeth]. As I have told at the beginning, Macbeth’s sin is
the greatest of sins. (723; translation mine)
Purna Chandra Basu, another commentator, is perturbed by the amoral, corrupting
force of the play when he declares: “Murder is everywhere in Macbeth; it has murder
at its beginning, it has murder at its middle, it has murder at its end. At first it’s
Duncan’s, at the middle it’s Banquo’s, and the play ends with Macbeth’s
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Shakespeare, Macbeth and the Hindu Nationalism of Nineteenth-Century Bengal
Given this recorded evidence of a moralizing and apologetic approach towards the
violence staged in Macbeth, it is curious that a 19
Bengali adaptation of the play
should pile on the horror rather than attenuating it. Haralal Ray’s Rudrapal Natak
(published 1874) strikingly suggests the Witch-equivalents as practitioners of
Tantra, and shows them indulging in atrocious rituals. Even if we try to relate the
portrayal of the Witches in this Bengali play to the rise of Hindu nationalism in
colonial Bengal, the violence unleashed by them in the play flies in the face of
conventional morality and sits uneasy with any programmatic rehearsal of cultural
revivalism. In its configuration of the Witch-equivalents, Rudrapal Natak seems
to decouple religion from morality, hence problematizing its gestures towards a
religion-based national identity. The present article will examine the ambiguous
religio-cultural motivation of the play and try to gauge the possible implications
inaugurated by its peculiar adaptation of the Shakespearean mythos and ethos. The
article will also explore how the thematic of violence inherent in this adaptation of
Macbeth maps onto the cultural aspirations of the Bengali Hindu community
about its self-representation in a particular point of colonial history.
This issue of
the Witch-equivalents will be taken up shortly after considering the political
context for the Bengali adaptation.
Rudrapal, like the subsequent Macbeth adaptation entitled Karnabir,
seeks to adapt and relocate the cultural signifiers of the Shakespearean original to
a Hindu milieu. It renames the dramatis personae, imparting to the play a suitably
medieval and Hindu register and befitting the historical romance that was a
murder,—almost the entire play is a slaughterhouse. In the meantime, when Lady
Macbeth appears to announce that her hands cannot be cleansed, the slaughterhouse
becomes all the more illuminated” (42-43). Though his reaction to the play was far
from the norm among the English-educated Bengalis, he argues for the play’s
attractiveness and ability to emotionally move the reader/audience, and therefore, he is
in the same league Akshay Chandra Sarkar or Girish Chandra Laha. All these three
commentators, incidentally, belonged to the Bengali Hindu community, which
received an early benefit of the colonial education. By adapting the resources of
self-representation made available by the colonial contact, the (upper-caste,
upper-class) Bengali Hindu community sought to define its cultural aspirations and
identity first against those of the Indian Muslim community and subsequently against
those of the British colonizers.
There are records of six Bengali translations or adaptations of Macbeth that were
composed in the 19th century: Harinath Ghosh’s literal translation of 1850 which is no
longer available; Haralal Ray’s Rudrapal Natak (published 1874); Taraknath
Mukhopadhyay’s Macbeth (published 1875); Nagendranath Basu’s Karnabir
(published 1885); Girish Chandra Ghose’s Macbeth (produced 1893, published 1899);
and, Ashutosh Ghosh’s Macbeth (published 1894). Out of these, Rudrapal was
performed at the Great National Theatre, Kolkata and motivated Girish Chandra
Ghosh’s own famous translation of Macbeth for the commercial stage. The striking
portrayal of the Witches as Hindu ascetics performing violent rituals is exclusive to
Rudrapal, considering all Bengali translations or adaptations of Macbeth till date.
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Abhishek Sarkar
popular means among the educated Bengali Hindu for fantasizing about a pristine,
illustrious Hindu past. In the play, for example, Macbeth is rechristened as the
eponymous Rudrapal (the word rudra in Sanskrit denoting “the ferocious/irate
one” and is one of the names for Lord Shiva in the Hindu pantheon), while Lady
Macbeth becomes Chaturika (meaning in Sanskrit, “the clever woman”). Scotland
in the play is renamed as Panchanad (literally “the land of the five rivers,” i.e., the
Punjab) and its capital is identified as Lahore (25), whereas Delhi in the Bengali
play replaces the England of the original (49). More fascinating still, both
Rudrapal and Karnabir identify the Norwegian invaders using the Sanskrit
appellation yavana, which was a catch-all term (at least among the educated
Bengali in the 19
century) for all ritually impure, non-Hindu people endangering
the Hindu way of life, and used repeatedly by 19
century Bengali Hindu authors
such as Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838-94) to designate especially the
Muslims. It has been remarked that Rudrapal was written and produced under the
influence of the Hindu Mela, which was an annual festival organized in Kolkata
from 1867 onwards (Bhattacharya xxxii). The clearly designated objective of the
Hindu Mela was to remind the Bengali Hindus about their glorious heritage
(supposedly obfuscated by centuries of political persecution and cultural
marginalization under the Muslims and subsequently the British) and prepare
them for a nationalist revival (Raychaudhuri 7). Rudrapal does actually mention
the word Musalman once while referring to the prisoners taken during the war
with the invaders, the equivalents of the Norwegians in Shakespeare’s play
(Ray 3). The use of the term yavana implicitly but efficiently taps the nostalgic
myth already mentioned above, that of a glorious Hindu past corrupted by the
inroads of the Muslim and the British colonizers.
Chaudhury and Sengupta have tried to emphasize the political
implications of Karnabir, situating it in a picture of pro-nationalist ambition in
India. According to them,
The morally satisfying ending [of Macbeth] would be apposite in the depressing
aftermath of the Great Uprising (1857). Accursed time finally redeemed through
the restoration of the legitimate line of Duncan holds out an optimistic hope for a
defeated populace who had recently attempted a similar restitution by
resurrecting the Mughal heir, Bahadur Shah of Delhi, as the emperor of
“free India.” Macbeth also exemplifies the solitary alienation of a frustrated
overreacher consumed by his megalomania and the spiritual crisis between desire
and conscience, which could be read as a providential indicator of the inevitable
self-destruction of the encroacher: a wishful but predictable fantasy of the
colonised psyche…Macbeth proves a fertile ground for experimenting with
depictions of a despotic regime and its disastrous consequences. (10)
Chaudhury and Sengupta also remind that the aftermath of the Great Uprising
(also alternatively called the “Sepoy Mutiny” in British colonial annals and the
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Shakespeare, Macbeth and the Hindu Nationalism of Nineteenth-Century Bengal
“Rebellion” or the “First War of Indian Independence” by Indian nationalist
historians) saw the rise of nationalist organizations among the educated middle
and upper classes, and that, as a result, “To curb anti-colonial activities in the
cultural sphere, the British introduced repressive measures like the Theatre
Censorship Act (1876) and the Vernacular Press Act (1878)” (1). This is a
percipient and resourceful reading, but it tends to sidestep the fact that sentiments
against the colonizing regime were hardly homogenized, and that records of
pro-British sympathy among the Bengali during the Uprising are legion.
Consequently, the aftermath of the Uprising would not be uniformly “depressing”
and “accursed,” even for the elite minority of Bengali Hindu intellectuals who
pioneered nationalist aspirations in Bengal or India. In any case, the gestures
towards nationalism that may be located in Rudrapal are of a reductive and
exclusivist brand, based on the celebration of elite Hindu concerns—something
close to what Chaudhury and Sengupta remark about the cultural policy deployed
by Karnabir. Even if we accept that Rudrapal is an anti-colonizer play in disguise
(with its protagonist supplying an Indian surrogate for foreign tyrants preying on
the country), the claim that “mainstream orthodox readings that would be
dismissed as conventional today were radicalised by the late 19
century colonial
context” (Chaudhury and Sengupta 10) is rendered less effective by the fact that
Macbeth has been a staple of the English literature syllabi introduced by the
colonial regime. It is possible to argue that Rudrapal goes for a more complex
agenda, trying to resuscitate the cultural prestige of the Hindu community and
instil national pride within it while (at least provisionally) accepting the
overarching colonial ascendancy of the British. It also needs to be recalled that
Hindu nationalism in Bengal was not necessarily predicated upon an aversion to
everything British or European. According to historian Tapan Raychaudhuri,
Modally, the emerging nationalist consciousness adopted the heritage of Hindu
culture as the focus of its identity and gloried in the Hindu past. Yet well into the
1870s, it also rejoiced that India was part of a glorious worldwide empire [that of
the British] and nurtured hopes of a steady progress under Britain’s providential
guidance. The contradiction between pride in the Hindu identity and faith in a
regime seen to be identified with the most vicious critics of the cherished [Hindu]
culture was apparently not obvious in the early phases of nationalism. (3)
Summing up historian Rajat Kanta Ray’s nuanced theorization of the Rebellion,
Biswamoy Pati accepts the lack of uniformity about the modality and impact of the
Rebellion of 1857 among the Indians as he comments that “[i]deologically, it reflected
a fetal national community that was opposed to civil society, which had outposts in the
enclaves of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras” (10). Pati also observes that “In areas such
as Bengal and the Punjab, they failed to ignite the country, and the Great Rebellion did
not go beyond the cantonments [in these regions]” (9).
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Abhishek Sarkar
A similar stance may be seen eminently in Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s
novel Anandamath (1882), which proved to be a defining text of Indian
nationalism and was hugely influential in installing in the Indian imaginary the
icon of the motherland as a Hindu mother goddess. Historian Tanika Sarkar
observes that the novel, which is “set in the transitional historical moment of the
late 18
century, against the backdrop of the famine of 1770, armed combat by
marauding ascetics of Naga Dasnami orders against the puppet Muslim nawab,
and the indirect control of the British in Bengal,” does not state clearly whom the
ascetic order of soldiers named santandal [“the band of the motherland’s
children”] battles against (173-74). She further points out that,
Even though they [the holy fighters] do accomplish the ouster of the puppet
nawab [i.e., the Muslim ruler of Bengal], they also are instrumental in ushering in
direct and complete British dominion. A divine voice tells the supreme leader
that this is providential, since Hindus need apprenticeship in modern forms of
power. The leader, however, remains disconsolate and unreconciled and
considers the historical mission of santans, the ascetic leaders, to be aborted,
since one foreign ruler is exchanged for another. Nationalists took this bitterness
as a call for struggle against the colonial power … (174)
The play Rudrapal, on the other hand, conflates the invaders with Muslims only
incipiently and that too in passing. In the plot of crime/sin and punishment/
perdition inherent in the play the transgressor [namely, the eponymous
protagonist] is not an ethnic or cultural other but a member of the Hindu patrician
class and a martial hero of Northern or Western India to boot, the type central to
nostalgic Hindu mythopoeia in the 19
century. If we have already agreed that the
play’s commitment to anti-colonial nationalism is at best highly camouflaged and
rarefied, its evocation of Hindu revivalism too, as we shall see, is hardly
unqualified and straightforward.
In a striking departure from Shakespeare’s original, the Witches are
refashioned in Rudrapal as bhairavi (female ascetics in the Tantric tradition)
rather than being identified with the more predictable appellations of dakini (the
Sanskrit term for a witch that Girish Chandra Ghosh later opts for in his faithful
translation of Macbeth) or its Bengali equivalent, daini. Probably taking a cue
from this play, Karnabir also identifies the witches as bhairavi although their
characterization is true to Shakespeare’s weïrd sisters. Rudrapal is remarkable for
making several scenic and narrative additions that heighten the importance of the
Witches and enhance the duration of their on-stage presence. For example, in the
opening scene the three bhairavis do not chant unnervingly cryptic and puerile
rhymes as in Shakespeare’s text, but they are seen entering each with a trishul (a
trident that belongs to the paraphernalia of Tantric ascetics), which they plant on
the ground before they speak in a grave, sonorous prose heavily laden with
Sanskrit words (Ray 1). Incidentally, Rabindranath Tagore as a 14-year old boy
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Shakespeare, Macbeth and the Hindu Nationalism of Nineteenth-Century Bengal
had translated Macbeth into Bengali, three scenes from which (all of them
featuring the Witches) were published much later in the magazine Bharati in 1880.
Prashanta Kumar Pal records in the first volume of Rabijibani that Rabindranath
as a boy was instructed by Rajkrishna Mukhopadhyay, scholar and essayist, to
render the witches’ lines distinct in terms of rhythm and diction (226). The
published excerpts of the otherwise lost translation bear out this tendency.
Similarly, the Witch-figures in Karnabir and Girish’s Macbeth are rendered
quasi-comic by their speeches. As opposed to this, Rudrapal shows the bhairavis
to be grave and authoritative beings throughout.
When the three bhairavis meet again after the inaugural scene, they are
not hankering after chestnuts or planning vengeance against a sailor’s wife like
the folkloric troublemakers of Shakespeare’s original. The second bhairavi
reports that she was helping a Brahman named Pinak in his necromantic labours,
as he was trying to perform esoteric penance sitting on a human corpse. In order to
remove all impediments, the bhairavi drew an icon of Goddess Kali on the
corpse’s forehead using the blood of a buffalo sacrificed before Chamunda, a
fierce goddess, which enabled Pinak gain his objective (Ray 4). Such exploits
align the Witch-equivalents with Tantra. The occult powers of the bhairavis
depicted in the play are comparable with the ancient concept of the eight siddhis
or miraculous powers whose achievement traditionally forms the goal of the
Tantric practitioner (Bhattacharyya 148). To sum up, what the bhairavis
exemplify is the amalgamation of holy terror and awe that is associated with
Tantra in the popular Indian imagination.
The Brahman Pinak actually takes the role of Hecate in Rudrapal. But he
is much obliged to the bhairavis and not superior to them as Hecate is to the
Witches in Macbeth. He features in a scene corresponding to the masque-like
manoeuvres of Hecate in Macbeth, but the scene in the Bengali play is downright
lurid and revolting—to the point of inadvertent self-parody. Pinak enters the stage
with a severed human head (Ray 37). The three women ascetics request the
Brahman to secure them some singularly rare substances. The first calls for three
strands of Lord Shiva’s hair from a cave filled with snow below a distant
mountain (Ray 37). The second bhairavi has a more elaborately-phrased and
recondite demand—she calls for the blood of a buffalo that has fed on the leaves
of an ashoka tree growing at the spot where the goddess killed the demon
Raktavija, and that has been sacrificed before Goddess Chhinnamasta on the
Vindhya mountain on the same day (Ray 37). The third bhairavi calls for the clay
under the demon-king Ravana’s funeral pyre that is eternally burning in Sri Lanka
(Ray 37). The first item, they add, has the property of producing frightful
hallucinations, the second can bring back life, and the third can generate fire out of
nothing. At the Brahman’s instance, three demons fetch the desired substances
before a hibiscus flower thrown by him towards the backstage can touch the
ground (Ray 38). Having accomplished this inhuman feat, the three demons dance
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Abhishek Sarkar
in a circle around their master Pinak (Ray 39). When Rudrapal meets them for the
second time, the bhairavis use the substances gathered with the aid of Pinak to
terrify him and mislead him in response to his queries. There are two gratuitous
horrors in Act 4, scene 1 of Rudrapal (corresponding to the scene of Macbeth’s
second encounter with the Witches): first, an ugly and enormous monster
materializes from the strand of Lord Shiva’s hair and rushes to decapitate
Rudrapal without any warning; second, a blood-drenched man with a sword stuck
in his heart attacks Rudrapal straightaway (Ray 40-41). The cumulative effect of
such sensationalism threatens to strip the Bengali play of the cautionary zeal and
exalted moral worth that the likes of Girish Chandra Laha and Akshay Chandra
Sarkar (quoted at the beginning of the article) appreciate in Shakespeare’s
The play Macbeth, one may observe, tries to condemn and alienate the
Witches as abominable beings whose presence cannot however ignored. On the
other hand, Rudrapal seems to incorporate the bhairavis quite brazenly within the
fold of Hindu imaginary. The play projects them as objects of awe and reverence
rather than downright detestation. Choudhury and Sengupta, commenting on the
bhairavis of Karnabir, observe that the use of the Hindu religious appellation
distances them from their Shakespearean counterparts. In their opinion,
The play [Macbeth] is firmly embedded within a Christian matrix that denounces
witches and black magic as unequivocal manifestations of evil. The Hindu
religion in contrast, accommodates Goddess Kali and the associated tantric cult
within its seamless bounds thereby legitimising the obscure yet potent occult
practices closely paralleling black magic. Although few actively embrace the
tantric cult because of the rigours and dangers involved, the average Hindu is not
compelled to castigate it as unmitigated evil. So the element of demonic horror
and aversion suggested in the original is missing. (12-13; emphasis original)
However, the bhairavis of Karnabir are predominantly folkloric miscreants,
singing and dancing malicious hags modally similar to Shakespeare’s Witches (if
not semantically identical to them thanks to the cultural divide). By contrast, the
bhairavis in Rudrapal are invested with a solemn religious aura and are treated
reverentially despite their grotesque practices. Given the nature of the rituals they
perform, it becomes difficult to agree with them notwithstanding the deference
they are consistently subjected to within the fictional/dramaturgic economy of the
It also needs to be remembered that Tantra did not enjoy total and unanimous support
from Hindus of all variety. Tantra as a body of arcane cultic beliefs and practices
became increasingly suspect in the 19
century and charges of iniquity and criminality
were raised against it both within and outside the fold of colonial Orientalist learning.
Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, a leading Hindu revivalist commentator and
Rajendra Lal Mitra, an eminent Bengali scholar of Buddhism, both detested Tantra
(Bhattacharyya 41-42).
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Shakespeare, Macbeth and the Hindu Nationalism of Nineteenth-Century Bengal
play. The inclusivity of the Hindu traditions cannot adequately explain away this
ambiguous and heterodox treatment. Despite the lurid and stomach-turning horror
that these female ascetics unleash in the play, they embody the most noticeable
links of the play with the Hindu ethos that it seeks to celebrate as part of a cultural
agenda. In Rudrapal there is no mention of the healing powers of the figure
corresponding to the English king Edward the Confessor of the original, which
makes the ascetics the only representatives of the Hindu religion as well as
supernatural prowess in the play.
As has been already suggested, the play consistently works towards
magnifying and ameliorating the eschatological standing of the Witch-equivalents.
For example, Banquo in the original identifies the weïrd sisters unhesitatingly as
“instruments of darkness” who “tell us truths; / Win us with honest trifles, to
betray’s / In deepest consequence” (1.3.123-25). But Vinaypal, the Banquo figure
in the Bengali play under review, refers to the female ascetics only as “strange
women” and does not use such strong words to describe their potentials of
misleading the credulous (Ray 7). Besides, Rudrapal contains no reference to the
Witches’ beards, which would help show the female ascetics as grotesque, liminal
creatures. There is also no equivalent in the Bengali play of Shakespeare’s eerie
term for the Witches, the “weïrd sisters” (1.5.7). Moreover, Macbeth in the
Shakespeare play addresses the Witches with strong words of disapprobation as
he meets them for the second time, “How now, you secret, black, and midnight
hags!” (4.1.47) Rudrapal in the Bengali adaptation steers clear of such abusive
language, but he accuses the female ascetics of dragging him into criminality. The
ascetics protest, asserting that they should not be blamed and that they never do
any good or ill to human beings (Ray 40).
Moreover, the play translates “fair is foul, and foul is fair” as the second
bhairavi’s solemn affirmation in prose, “Good omens and bad are all the same to
us. What do we care for the pleasure and pain of human beings?” (Ray 4) The
three then declare that they know everything that will happen: “At first evil will
triumph”; “Then evil will have a fall” (Ray 5). They utter in unison in the same
scene, “We know the future but we don’t help or harm anyone” (Ray 5). This
makes possible an explanation of the Bengali Macbeth’s fate in terms of the
time-honoured Hindu principles of karma and predestination. The Tantric text
Prapanchasara states after enumerating the special powers of the Tantric
practitioner that one who is endowed with the eight siddhis or supernatural
powers is a liberated soul, and as a corollary would not exploit these powers for
base material gains (Bhattacharyya 148). This is probably the eschatological
status that the bhairavis seem to enjoy in Rudrapal. It is difficult to accept their
self-professed disinterestedness at its face value, but the play seems to provide
them with an alibi to pose as impartial (but not inactive) witnesses of human
fortune. The play seems to mute or render irrelevant the issues regarding the
ethical or legal acceptability of Tantra. Rather, the question of ethicality or
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Abhishek Sarkar
legality is elided in this particular case for the dual purpose of evoking a Hindu
frame of reference and incorporating (albeit in an extravagantly lurid fashion) the
Shakespearean influence into the picture.
The fetishization of violence and cruelty achieved through the bhairavis
seems to be capable of a distinctive but muted cultural resonance when we try to
juxtapose and liken it to Bankim Chandra’s own romancing of violent resistance
in his novels as a masculine ideal for nation-building. Tanika Sarkar is of the
opinion that Bankim’s disillusionment with the pseudo-democratic public sphere
instituted by colonial modernity in India led him to idealize a heroic violence that
was incompatible with contemporary political contingency. According to her,
Bankim . . . was relentlessly critical of reformist aspirations and methods of work.
He saw reformist dependence on colonial legislation for initiating improved
family laws as a basic moral flaw, since this neither generated a will for change
within wider society, without which reform would be doomed, nor did it make
“men” of modern Hindus by vesting them with independence of effort and
hegemonistic capabilities. Any dependence on foreign rulers perpetuated and
exemplified for him the lack of a will to freedom and nationhood that had kept
Hindus subjected for centuries. Bankim spared no effort at mocking this
dependence on alien legislation as well as the emasculation it produced. . . .
Neither a radical nor a liberal form of democracy was compatible with the heroic
agenda that held his imagination. (166-67; emphasis added)
The overindulgent depiction of violence in Rudrapal, which incidentally
surrounds Hindu religious figures and ritual practices, may be seen as a similarly
fantastic attempt at conjuring up a spirit of daring and nerve—whose absence in
the history of Bengali Hindus was being increasingly rued at that time. Although
this picture of violence had no immediate counterpart in political reality and the
play does not call for prompt anti-colonial activism, it could be instructive (at least
in terms of symbolism) for the internal re-organization and cultural re-orientation
of the Bengali Hindu temperament. Besides, the fact that the horrific depiction of
the bhairavis is embedded in the patently imaginative construct of a
pseudo-medieval romance precludes the possibility of its reception as a model for
material emulation in the present.
Commenting on the nexus between colonial modernity and the Hindu
revivalism of late 19
century Bengal, Anustup Basu summarizes an influential
account of the origin of Hindu identity under the aegis of the Empire as he recalls:
A multi-veined project of Hindu nationalism started roughly in the latter part of
the nineteenth century, drawing from an Indological invention of a Hindu
“tradition” and past. A statist Indology of the colonial administration had, by that
time, already made certain sovereign selections . . . It was with the publication of
Charles Wilkins’s English translation in 1785 that the Bhadwad Gita began
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Shakespeare, Macbeth and the Hindu Nationalism of Nineteenth-Century Bengal
entering a modern realm of power/knowledge as the book of the Hindus.
Similarly, the Warren Hastings administration identified the Laws of Manu as the
singular compendium of Hindu law in the final quarter of the eighteenth century,
over and above a dozen and a half Dharmasastras [treatises on Hindu religious
law] and Smritis [compendia of religious regulations] like those of Gautama,
Baudhayana, or Yajnavalkya. (241)
Basu further points out the reductive and homogenizing tendency central to this
process of identity-formation:
The emergence of a “Hindu” people under the auspices of the colonial population
state . . . entailed a discursive consolidation of identity under the complimentary
monothemes of the subject, unity, and law. In the dazzling light of a new reason,
in the opened-out disciplinary spheres of art, literature, culture, history, religion,
the physical sciences, or philosophy, one could increasingly begin to talk about a
core, pan-Indian Hindu inheritance absolved of the influences of eight centuries
of Islamic culture. (241)
In keeping with this modality, the play Rudrapal tries to plant within the basic
structure of the Shakespeare play markers associated with a Hindu point of view.
In the process, it betrays some of the fissures and infelicities within the totalizing
project of Hindu nationalism. The play chooses the bhairavis as the potent
spokespersons of a rarefied and fantastic philosophy identifiable as Hindu, but the
representation of the bhairavis is hardly equal to the onerous project of cultural
revivalism. In other words, the bhairavis are not adequate as embodiments of the
allegedly “core, pan-Indian Hindu inheritance” that would be central to the
imagination of Hindu self-identity in the 19
If the infelicity in the depiction of the bhairavis in Rudrapal ruptures the
evocation of a seamless and urbane Hindu sensibility that would be attuned to
colonial modernity, the celebration of their violent ways, on the other hand, may
be interpreted as an attempt to bring out the inclusivity of the Hindu tradition and
defy the expectations of Western enlightenment. The anomalous representation of
the bhairavis would block the Orientalist attempt of fitting Hinduism to a template
offered by Christianity and the Age of Reason in Europe. To illustrate this process
of noetic imperialism, one may cite the case of William Jones (1746-1794), the
British administrator, jurist, Biblicist, philologist, Indologist and poet who was
greatly responsible for popularizing Hindu mythology and philosophy in Europe.
It has been noted that Jones saw Hinduism as a primitive religion urgently calling
for the paternal guidance of the enlightened colonial master:
Jones constructs a Hinduism that is still locked in its infancy, needing the help of
the progressive European culture. To state it boldly, my contention is that Jones’
“empathy” is that of a benevolent parent towards a child who has yet to grow into
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Abhishek Sarkar
maturity. His approach to Hinduism reflects his romantic and theological
presuppositions as well as his concerns as a colonial administrator. As with other
orientalists, Jones invents a magnificent Hindu past and a degenerate present, and
sets about recovering for Hindus their pristine past. … Associating the East with
“imagination” and the West with “reason,” Jones feels free to delve into the
world of Hindu mythology and make it accessible to the West. (Sugirtharajah
Similarly, the German Indologist Max Müller (1823-1900) “takes on the task of
discovering for Hindus, the “real” or “true” Hinduism which he locates in the
Veda” and “seeks to construct a purified form of Hinduism modelled on
Protestant Christianity, and takes upon himself the role of reforming or rather
Protestantizing Hindus who are seen to be in a state of infancy, stuck in their
idolatrous practices” (Sugirtharajah xv). The horrific depiction of the bhairavis in
Rudrapal would second and reinforce the Orientalist apprehension about the
degenerate state of Hinduism, but it also shows Hinduism in a shape that clearly
resists co-optation by European sensibilities.
The bhairavis within the symbolic construct of the play may be seen as
embodying the cultural autonomy of Hinduism, as envisaged by the author in a
strategic attempt towards communal self-expression. The Shakespearean
genealogy of these female ascetics and their affiliations with their loathsome
European counterparts need not compromise their status as autochthonic
signifiers of power and prestige, for there is ample evidence of Shakespearean
appropriation elsewhere that is designed to reinforce nationalist or traditionalist
pride in India. For example, the essay by Akshay Chandra Sarkar mentioned
above ends by citing Shakespeare’s staging of ghosts and the supernatural in
Hamlet and Macbeth, and posits it as a corrective to the overweening materialism
and positivism of the Western civilization. Calling Shakespeare a “great
philosopher,” Akshay Chandra concludes,
The reader has perhaps understood by now that using Shakespeare’s plays as a
platform we have been trying so far [in the essay] to save ourselves from a British
witch [meaning, the Western civilization with its reductive, rationalist approach
to the world] with the help of a British exorcist [i.e., Shakespeare with his varied
and open outlook]. If the effort is good, we trust, it will bear fruit sooner or later.
(745; translation mine)
By the same token, the Bengali play Rudrapal’s substitution of the almost
universally despised witchcraft of Shakespeare’s England with a celebratory
version of Tantra serves to show that Shakespeare did not operate solely within a
paradigm of reverential and straitlaced didacticism (as suggested by the excerpts
at the beginning of the article), but also invited creative engagement and served as
a platform for cultural re-formulation.
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Shakespeare, Macbeth and the Hindu Nationalism of Nineteenth-Century Bengal
Basu, Anustup. “Hindutva and Informatic Modernization.” Boundary 2 35.3 (2008):
Basu, Nage. Karnabir. Kolkata: Suresh Chandra Basu, 1885.
Basu, Purna Chandra. Sahitya-chinta. Kolkata: Bengal Medical Library, 1896.
Bhattacharya, Devipada. Introduction. Macbeth. Girish Rachanavali. Ed. Devipada
Bhattacharya. Vol. 4. Kolkata: Sahitya Samsad, 1974. xxx-xxxiii.
Bhattacharyya, N.N. History of the Tantric Religion: A Historical, Ritualistic and
Philosophical Study. New Delhi: Manohar, 2005.
Chaudhury, Sarbani and Bhaskar Sengupta. “Macbeth in Nineteenth-Century Bengal:
A Case of Conflicted Indigenization.” Multicultural Shakespeare: Translation,
Appropriation and Performance 10.25 (2013): 6-18.
Ghose, Girish Chandra. Macbeth. Kolkata: Abinash Chandra Gangopadhyay, 1899.
Laha, Girish Chandra. “Macbeth Pathe.” Prayas 1.10 October 1899: 630.
---. “Shakespeare.” Prayas 1.6 June 1899: 370.
Pal, Prashanta Kumar. Rabijibani [Biography of Rabindranath Tagore]. Vol. 1. Kolkata:
Ananda Publishers, 1982.
Ray, Haralal. Rudrapal Natak. Kolkata: n.p., 1874.
Raychaudhuri, Tapan. Europe Reconsidered: Perceptions of the West in Nineteenth-
Century Bengal. 1988. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Sarkar, Akshay Chandra. “Macbeth o Hamlet.” Akshay Sahityasambhar. Ed. Kalidas Nag.
Vol. 2. Kolkata: Indian Associated Publishing Co., 1964. 719-45.
Sarkar, Tanika. “Imagining Hindurashtra: The Hindu and the Muslim in Bankim
Chandra’s Writings.” Contesting the Nation: Religion, Community, and the
Politics of Democracy in India. Ed. David E. Ludden. Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1996.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. A.R. Braunmuller. The New Cambridge
Shakespeare. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Sugirtharajah, Sharada. Imagining Hinduism: A Postcolonial Perspective. London and
New York: Routledge, 2003.
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... The theatre of Bengali Renaissance derived immensely from Shakespeare's plays as theatre exponents like Michael Madhusudhan Dutta, Girish Chandra Ghosh, Haralal Ray Ardhendu Shekar Mustafi, Amar Datta, Sisir Kumar Bhaduri and Ahindra Chaudh went on adapting Shakespeare into Bengali. Indian Shakespeareanism was a deeply heterogeneous and mimetic phenomenon, reflecting larger discourses of British imperialism and bourgeois Indian nationalism in Victorian and Edwardian times (Bhattacharyya, 1964;Chatterjee, 1995;Sarkar, 2016;Marcus, 2017). Although Shakespeareanism began as a colonising and civilising mission in India, Shakespearean hybridity fostered a new Bengali sense of cultural and national identity which could muzzle the hegemony of British aesthetic sensibilities, the binary of tradition versus modernity, and the colonial falsehood of India's cultural inferiority . ...
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This paper uncovers new complexity for Shakespearean studies in examining three anecdotes overlooked in related historiography-the first Indian baptism in Britain, that of Peter Pope, in 1616, and its extrapolation in Victorian history as Calibanesque; the tale of Catherine Bengall, an Indian servant baptised in 1745 in London and left to bear an illegitimate child, before vanishing from Company records (like Virginia Woolf's invention Judith Shakespeare vanishing in Shakespeare's London); and the forgotten John Talbot Shakespear, a Company official in early nineteenth-century Bengal and descendant of William Shakespeare. I argue that the anecdotal links between Peter, Caliban, Catherine, Judith, Shakespear and Shakespeare should be seen as Jungian effects of non-causal "synchronic" reality or on lines of Benoit Mandelbrot's conception of fractals (rough and self-regulating geometries of natural microforms). Although anecdotes and historemes get incorporated into historical establishmentarianism, seeing history in a framework of fractals fundamentally resists such appropriations. This poses new challenges for Shakespearean historiography, while underscoring distinctions between Shakespeareanism (sociological epiphenomena) and Shakespeare (the man himself).
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Adaptation, a complex bilingual and bicultural process, is further problematised in a colonial scenario inflected by burgeoning nationalism and imperialist counter-oppression. Nagendranath Bose’s Karnabir (1884/85), the second extant Bengali translation of Macbeth was written after the First War of Indian Independence in 1857 and its aftermath - the formation of predominantly upper and middle class nationalist organisations that spearheaded the freedom movement. To curb anti-colonial activities in the cultural sphere, the British introduced repressive measures like the Theatre Censorship Act and the Vernacular Press Act. Bengal experienced a revival of Hinduism paradoxically augmented by the nationalist ethos and the divisive tactics of British rule that fostered communalism. This article investigates the contingencies and implications of domesticating and othering Macbeth at this juncture and the collaborative/oppositional strategies of the vernacular text vis-à-vis colonial discourse. The generic problems of negotiating tragedy in a literary tradition marked by its absence are compounded by the socio-linguistic limitations of a Sanskritised adaptation. The conflicted nature of the cultural indigenisation evidenced in Karnabir is explored with special focus on the nature of generic, linguistic and religious acculturation, issues of nomenclature and epistemology, as well as the political and ideological negotiations that the target text engages in with the source text and the intended audience.
Employing postcolonial categories, Sharada Sugirtharajah examines how Hinduism has been defined, interpreted and manufactured through Western categorizations, from the foreign interventions of the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Orientalists and missionaries to the present day. Her contention is that ever since the Orientalists 'discovered' the ancient Sanskrit texts and the Hindu 'Golden Age', the West has nurtured a complex and ambivalent fascination with Hinduism, responding to it in ways ranging from romantic admiration to ridicule. At the same, she focuses attention on how Hindu discourse has drawn on Orientalist representations in order to redefine Hindu identity and construct a monolithic Hinduism, both in the Indian and diasporic contexts.
Imagining Hinduism examines how Hinduism has been defined, interpreted and manufactured through Western categorizations, from the foreign interventions of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Orientalists and missionaries, to the present day. Sugirtharajah argues that ever since early Orientalists 'discovered' the ancient Sanskrit texts and the Hindu 'golden age', the West has nurtured a complex and ambivalent fascination with Hinduism, ranging from romantic admiration to ridicule. At the same time, Hindu discourse has drawn upon Orientalist representations in order to redefine Hindu identity. As the first comprehensive work to bring postcolonial critique to the study of Hinduism, this is essential reading for those seeking a full understanding of Hinduism.
Preface to the Second Edition Preface to the First Edition Introduction Tantric Literature External Influences & Interactions The Primitive Substratum Tantrism & the Earlier Forms of Indian Religious Systems Development of Tantric Buddhism Tantric Ideas & Practices in Medieval Religious Systems Tantrism & the Religion of the Masses: The Lokayata Tradition The Sophisticated Tantras with Sakta Orientation Tantric Art: A Review Glossary of Tantric Technical Terms Bibliography Index.
This essay is a critical evaluation of contemporary urban Hindutva in the light of Carl Schmitt's famous assertion that all liberal political concepts are transposed theological ones. Without agreeing with Schmitt's hard-right nationalism, one can see that from the discursive beginnings of Hindu nationalism in the latter half of the nineteenth century there has been an effort to “monothematize” a pan-Indian Hindu identity. That is, in the absence of an axiomatic church of “Hinduism,” there was a literary-modern effort to telescope myriad devotional traditions, eclectic beliefs, practices, and customs into a single edifice of Hinduness. This effort, however, failed to overcome the historical differences of caste, gender, class, and region and invent a singular, constitutive discourse of Hindu being. The essay speculates that perhaps, in recent times, this project toward a Hindu normative literary modernity has been displaced by an “informatic modernization.” A new urban Hinduness asserts itself more by its affects and spectacles than through the act of narration. This “informatic” public culture can orchestrate signs, emblems, mantras, and doctrines of disparate affiliations without completing a “story” as such. That is, it can do so without trying to resolve historical disputes that have dogged the career of Indian modernity (e.g., how exactly can caste be squared with scientific and democratic tempers?). The image of a “shining” Hindu normative metropolitanism is consolidated by groundless and nonobligatory mergers between neoliberal postulates and the pieties of a so-called tradition. The essay illustrates this phenomenon through some examples from popular Hindi cinema.
Macbeth Pathe.” Prayas 1
  • Girish Laha
  • Chandra
Sahitya-chinta. Kolkata: Bengal Medical Library, 1896. Bhattacharya
  • Purna Basu
  • Chandra
Basu, Purna Chandra. Sahitya-chinta. Kolkata: Bengal Medical Library, 1896. Bhattacharya, Devipada. Introduction. Macbeth. Girish Rachanavali. Ed. Devipada Bhattacharya. Vol. 4. Kolkata: Sahitya Samsad, 1974. xxx-xxxiii.
Macbeth o Hamlet.” Akshay Sahityasambhar
  • Akshay Sarkar
  • Chandra