One of the fondest memories of actor Utkarsh Mazumdar, the grand old man of Gujarati theatre, is from a 2012 London tour of the Gujarati adaptation of All’s Well That Ends Well by the Mumbai-based theatre group Arpana. Mazumdar and his cohort had just completed a ride in the London Eye, and were at the memorabilia section when the young man at the till, on learning that they were Indian actors who had travelled across two continents to perform Shakespeare at The Globe Theatre, promptly waived off their entire bill.
This month marks the 450th birth anniversary of William Shakespeare, and across Britain, a packed itinerary of tributes and celebrations are jostling for space. Echoes of that can be found in Mumbai, where Mazumdar has reunited with his co-actors from All’s Well. The play had premiered at the Globe Theatre in 2012, as part of The Globe to Globe festival, a veritable Shakespeare Olympiad in which 37 of Shakespeare’s plays were performed in different languages by theatre groups from around the world. In early May, Arpana has been invited back to perform a full season of shows at the very venue where the play’s journey had begun.
Working with an adaptation by writer Mihir Bhuta, director Sunil Shanbag supplanted the original’s French Renaissance with an Indian bygone era. Christened Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon, it is known as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”—not easily classifiable as either a comedy or a tragedy. Not least among these being the play’s gender politics, its protagonist Helena (or Heli, here) being essentially an abandoned wife willing to travel to the ends of the world (Rangoon, or Yangon, in this version) to win back her errant husband.
Mazumdar’s character alludes to the mythic and long-suffering Savitri as the cast rehearse the final denouement. Shanbag doesn’t pussy-foot around this, even given the social contexts of turn-of-the-century Saurashtra with its taboos and mores. He attempts to mute the original’s regressive tenor by inducing leading lady Manasi Parekh-Gohil to mellifluously render her part with soaring vocals (it is a musical, after all) that give her depth and nuance, and an iridescent interior world. For a moment, the spectre of Hindu patriarchy, still very much visible on stage, is upended to support the fruition of a woman’s unbridled desire.
The proto-feminist moorings are likely not why several British critics (none of them Gujarati speakers) have cited this Gujarati offering as a “solving” of the problem play. That has perhaps more to do with Shanbag’s use of the bhangwadi style of musical theatre that seems tailor-made for Shakespearean tropes, “which lend (themselves) readily to Indian storytelling, its high drama, excessive emotions, or philosophical ruminations,” says Shanbag, for whom this play was his first full-fledged tryst with a Shakespearean text.
In Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon, the bard’s morose soliloquies are supplanted quite organically, in what has been described as a masterstroke, by lilting songs composed by Uday Mazumdar. A mix of genres is typical of traditional Indian theatre, hence a spectacle mired in comic interludes and darker themes equally is never a misnomer here. This effortlessness of adaptation remains the production’s strongest suit.
What must be remembered is that Shakespeare has always been a tool of colonial “soft power”, not in the same vein as chicken tikka masala being a British mainstay. In the subcontinent, its purview was far more insidious, carrying as it did the baggage of cultural superiority. The Globe to Globe festival was critiqued as an attempt at recolonization, but it could equally be seen as “reverse colonization”. In Shanbag’s play, Mazumdar’s trader wields the clout of open enterprise, and announces that “without my say-so, even the waves in the Western seas remain subdued”, with no trace of irony. This touch of nationalism can be seen through the prism of Gujarati pride in an election year, but Shanbag clarifies that he draws upon a “dynamic theatre tradition that existed and thrived well before this contemporary, much more political, articulation of Gujarati pride”.
Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon will be performed at Mumbai’s Tejpal Auditorium on Sunday; tickets available at the venue. Its London performances at The Globe Theatre are from 5-10 May.