INTERCULTURAL TEMPESTS: India, Mauritius and London
Paper given at the conference Peripheral Centres, Central Peripheries, University of the Saarland 2002, by Michael Walling
My first encounter with India was through the medium of Shakespeare's play The Tempest, which the Anglophone playwright Mahesh Dattani invited me to direct with his company Playpen in Bangalore. It was as an indirect result of this project that I first worked with the Indian diasporic community in Mauritius, where I directed another Shakespeare play of great relevance to post-colonial societies, Macbeth. The wheel came full circle when, in 1999, I found myself back in London directing TOUFANN: a play by a Mauritian writer of the Indian diaspora, loosely and fantastically adapted from The Tempest. That Dev Virahsawmy had written TOUFANN in Mauritian Creole made the project even more of an adventure in the jungle of diasporic literatures: the production required a translation into English of a Creole play based on a classic English text. Moreover, like its Shakespearean ancestor, TOUFANN is a play obsessed with issues of reproduction, including (crucially) the reproduction of language. Having made a personal journey through this sequence of theatrical and linguistic dialogues, it makes little sense to me to talk in terms of centres and peripheries at all. We live in an Einsteinean Universe; one in which there is no absolute centre, but only the relative centre of where a particular subject stands at a particular moment. Having stood beside material associated with Shakespeare and colonialism or post-colonialism in both India, Mauritius and London, I find myself experiencing an artistic fluidity, responding continuously to the provocative sparks let fly by the ongoing clash between text and context. As Ariel sings in another post-colonial adaptation of The Tempest, Aimé Césaire's Une Tempête: "Nothing is, all becomes....."
Approaching the Shakespearean text in the context of contemporary Bangalore instantly threw into sharp relief the issues of interculturalism, language and reproduction with which the play is so deeply concerned. As early as the casting stage, Mahesh and I found ourselves dealing with the complex political aspects of the language question. A production of an English text by an English director was, perhaps inevitably, perceived as being Other to the experience of the actors presenting themselves for audition: there was a sense of the exotic, of a world and a text over which they could claim no ownership. Part of Mahesh's point in working with me on a classic English text was to question that sense of English text and language as foreign, or indeed colonial. In the context of the contemporary Indian experience, English is emphatically an Indian language of public discourse and indeed of private thought. Mahesh tells me that almost all his thought is in English, because his education was in English. At a similar conference to this one, at Bangalore University, Mahesh was asked why he didn't write in his own language, and replied with his disarming smile: "I do". He thinks in English, and so finds himself writing in English, even when he writes characters who would not realistically speak that language. Paradoxically, when we produced his play Bravely Fought the Queen for a British audience, we found it necessary to translate some of the naturalistic lines spoken by the elderly Baa and her favourite son Nitin from English into Gujerati: so enabling an audience less well acquainted with Indian multi-lingualism to understand what to an Indian audience is clearly a theatrical convention.
While Indian English is accepted as a language for plays by contemporary Indian writers, the thought that classic English might also be in some sense Indian proved more problematic. It was only slowly, through a dialogue among the actors, that we all began to understand the extent to which the language of the play represented a common legacy. The key figure, as in most post-colonial revisitations of The Tempest since the seminal reading of George Lamming in 1960, was Caliban, who was played by Prakash Belawadi. Prakash has quite a strong Kannada accent, and had initially felt himself to be unsuitable to appear in the play. It was only when it became clear that we were not dealing with what another of the actors called "the Queen's English" that he agreed to play this pivotal role, using his own accent. The relationship between the actor and his text has never seemed more dynamic to me than it was in Prakash's performance. On one level, it was simply a question of sound: "Sometime am I all vound vith addors" will live with me for ever. But the sound of Prakash's Indian English also underlined and localised the politics of the play:
"You taught me language, and my profit on't Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you For learning me your language!"
It was Prakash who took us deeper into the Indian-ness of Caliban, and so into the play's meaning for the audience we were approaching. I already knew that Shakespeare had probably drawn the character's name from Romany, in which it means "the black man". It was Prakash who pointed out that Romany in turn derives from Sanskrit, and the etymology of Kali-baan's name makes him clearly a dark-skinned Indian man, associated (and here's a model for Sycorax) with the black goddess Kali. To set this dark-skinned Kali-baan opposite a much lighter-skinned Prospero who draws his knowledge from books was deeply suggestive in an Indian context. It would have been too simplistic, and too schematic to give this Prospero the characteristics of the British coloniser: and it would also have avoided our work reflecting contemporary realities. While the people from the ship were clearly Westernised (and included the only white actor, playing Antonio), they were not portrayed as anything other than Indian. In their business suits, they were a familiar sight on the streets of Bangalore. Trinculo and Stephano, in their loud Hawaiian shorts and baseball caps, were similarly a part of contemporary Indian reality, representative, if you like, of the populist strand in global capitalism: the brash Coca-colonisation which wins Caliban to his new masters through the false god of the bottle consumerism.
In this context, the model which emerged most clearly for Prospero was that of the Brahminic magus: a figure who could control the illiterate Caliban, but found himself in deep enmity with his former allies on the ship. This approach to the character also made sense of his control over spirits, and led us towards our most dangerous decision of all: the parallel between Ariel and Krishna. I have to confess that I still feel a certain fear in acknowledging that we did this: I was certain that I would be hounded out of India for daring to tamper with the sacred aspects of the culture. Yet, astonishingly for me, there were far more objections to the perceived sacrilege of Shakespeare than that of Krishna. Only Laxmi Chandrashekar, who was after all writing in The Hindu, criticised us on the grounds that Krishna is a more complex and multifaceted figure than Ariel. This is undoubtedly true - but it doesn't stop the comparison being deeply suggestive. There is the androgyny present in both figures, the shape-changing and elusiveness, the transformative flute-playing: the fact that both are spirit-servants who end up educating their human masters. The moment when Ariel teaches Prospero about sorrow and forgiveness was a Bhagavad-Gita in miniature: the master was suddenly humbled by the spiritual power of the figure who had hitherto served him. In giving freedom to this Ariel, Prospero is made aware of how very unfree he is himself. He is left with the knowledge that his true link is to Caliban: "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine".
The questions of language and performance had to be faced in one other area of the play, which was the masque. This performance, presented by Ariel as Prospero's betrothal gift to Ferdinand and Miranda, is full, in Shakespeare's text, of classical allusions: it is through Greek myth that Prospero asserts what to him is most crucial about the engagement - that Ferdinand and Miranda should not have sex until they are married. Once again, we felt that we were touching on an issue of particular relevance in contemporary India, but one which the allusions in the text obscured rather than illuminated. We searched for an Indian parallel with the Stuart court masque, and found it in the presentation of myth through the traditional dance theatre form Bharatanatyam. We discovered a translation of The Tempest into Kannada by the poet Kuvempu, in which Indian goddesses, rather than Greek ones, performed the masque. And so this one section of the text was presented in the indigenous language of Karnathaka, through a traditional theatre form. The comments of the on-stage audience (Ferdinand, Miranda and Prospero), remained in English, lending an instant colonial resonance to Ferdinand's comparing the island to Paradise.
The most exciting aspect of Kuvempu's adaptation was that the last spirit to appear was the nymph Urvashi; the embodiment of sensual pleasure. In evoking the potential for Paradise in India, this Krishna-Ariel rediscovers the eroticism of Indian culture, so curtailed in the colonial period. So it made sense for us to bring Caliban into this vision of Paradise, suddenly not the outsider but the natural man, his sexual energy a parallel to that which Prospero so desires to surpress in Ferdinand (the two characters are constantly compared throughout the play). And so it made sense for Prospero to stop the masque in a sudden rage against Caliban and his conspiracy: Caliban, the dark man, the impoverished man, the figure who stalks our post-colonial imagination, demanding that his language become voice, that his knowledge become the curse.
Such at least was the interpretation we found for Caliban in Bangalore; an interpretation quite close to that of Césaire, though his Caliban, unlike Prakash's, is not defeated. I was initially surprised therefore to discover that in his "translation-adaptation" of The Tempest, Toufann, the Mauritian writer Dev Virahsawmy presents a Kalibann who is "a young man, around 25, of mixed race. He is good-looking, intelligent and hard-working." This Kalibann is far from being Prospero's adversary: he is his capable, if denigrated, assistant, the only person capable of understanding and continuing his master's work. As long ago as 1984, Wole Soyinka declared that "The Prospero-Caliban syndrome is dead"; and in 1999 (the year I translated and directed Toufann in London) David Dabydeen announced that:
"The Tempest belongs to the past. It needs to be drowned, really drowned. We can't go into the next millennium taking that wreck along with us for inspiration. What we are doing now is returning to what The Tempest and all this excessive attention to The Tempest - Prospero, Caliban, learning to speak and learning to curse - has occulted." (Wilkinson 1999 p. 123-4)
While Virahsawmy has not drowned The Tempest in his TOUFANN, he has certainly gone beyond the bipartisan confrontational model beloved of post-colonial readings, and created a new play in which both Kalibann and Prospero, as well as the other characters, demand to be understood in the context of a shared intercultural space: in which the very ideas of culture, language and inheritance are interrogated and challenged.
While the self-assertive Calibans of Lamming, Césaire and Edward Braithwaite "write back", Virahsawmy seems instead to "write with" or alongside the Shakespearean text, playfully reinventing characters to subvert an entire history of misrepresentation. Many of the characters are renamed so that they appear to have been shipwrecked in the play from the storms of earlier texts: so Alonso becomes Lerwa Lir (or King Lear), Sebastian becomes Edmon, Gonzalo is Poloniouss and Miranda is Kordelia. In the case of Trinculo and Stephano, Virahsawmy uses the names of clowns from Mauritian tradition - Kaspalto, whose name implies a drunkard of African origin, and is also the name of a very cheap branded wine; and Dammarro, an Indian junkie whose name means "take a breath" or "get a kick". This naming which is also a renaming is hugely important - a process which at once appears to accept a literary and linguistic heritage, at the same time as subverting it very deeply, through what Françoise Lionnet (to whom the play is dedicated) has called a "stunning act of signifying". Illustrating the point most clearly is Virahsawmy's reworking of the character of Antonio under the name Yago: a self-aware post-modern malcontent who complains: "Ever since that little runt Shakespeare used me to stir things up between Othello and his wife, everyone thinks I'm to blame for everything that goes wrong anywhere in the whole world!", and, in the final scene, "If only you literary critics would realise that I'm not all bad!" It's Yago's reinvention of the self which cues similar processes in the other characters, allowing Ferdjinan to subvert Prospero's apparent control over the lives of the rest, and over the entire construct of Toufann itself, a plot which Prospero has explicitly compared to "a modern play" in three acts. "It's like a play. I've written it, and now I'm directing it scene by scene. All the actors have to do is perform the way I want them to."
This playful re-appropriation of literary material is not simply a post-modern game: it is also characteristic of the cultural hybridity represented by Mauritius and other diasporic cultures. Mauritius is a particularly useful model for understanding processes of migration and cultural change, since, unlike other post-colonial spaces, it has no pre-colonial history to revisit or culture to rediscover. There is no indigenous population: the African or Creole group are the descendants of slaves from Madagascar and Mozambique, the Indians of indentured labourers imported after the abolition of slavery. More recent arrivals include Chinese traders and Filipino migrant workers. There is also a numerically small but economically and politically powerful group of Franco-Mauritians, the white descendants of the original colonisers. The island is very small - about 1,860 square kilometres - but has a population close to 1.2 million. This makes it one of the most densely crowded and culturally diverse spaces on the planet. In such an environment, the emergence of a national identity is fraught with problems. People tend to define themselves in opposition to other Mauritians (and hence through communal politics), rather than through identification with them. The one unifying factor is the common Creole language.
Writing literary works in Creole, which he (rightly) prefers to call "Morisien", Virahsawmy is making a clear case for the recognition of the language as a language of value and as a barometer of national identity. It is a measure of the inferiority complex in Mauritian culture, the legacy of slavery, that the lingua franca of the island is not officially recognised as being a language at all, let alone the national language. English and French occupy far more privileged positions in education, the legislature, the law and the media; a situation which can, for example, lead Mauritian schoolchildren to underachieve quite badly (imagine being examined in physics through the medium of a foreign language), or to people accused of crimes not understanding the process of the law. Recently there has at least been the introduction of news in Creole on Mauritian television during the French (though not the English) broadcasts, and of Creole liturgy in the Catholic churches. Virahsawmy himself was consulted on the orthography of this liturgy.
In one way then, Virahsawmy's use of Creole to approach Shakespeare is analogous to the translations of plays like Julius Caesar into ki-Swahili by Julius Nyerere, or into Xhosa by the PAC leader Robert Sobukwe: it measures the language of the de-colonised against that of the former coloniser, proving its worth against the perceived colossus, emphasising its ability to express "great thought". But Creole is something other than an indigenous language of a former colony: it is a comparatively new language, dating back to the 18th century, and emerging from the particular cultural mix of the Mauritian experience. As such, it includes words derived from French, English, Malagasy, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Telegu, Bhojpuri and Hakka Chinese, to name but a few. I've detected traces of Italian and Portuguese, though I've not idea how they got there! This does not, as its detractors claim, make Creole a bastard language, but a particularly creative and dynamic medium for the expression of emerging cultural hybridity. It reminds me of nothing so much as the extraordinary re-creation of the English language in the Renaissance period, when the opening of London to a broad variety of foreign influences led to the hybrid tongue which gave voice to Shakespeare. Lots of Shakespeare is French: a fact which comes in very useful when directing his plays in Mauritius! When directing my future wife, Nisha Dassyne, as Lady Macbeth, we realised that the Shakespearean "parley" is a Creolisation of the French "parler".
Virahsawmy's TOUFANN is a (highly successful) attempt to bring this dynamic language and its concomitant cultural identity into the realm of public discourse through the medium of theatre. As a public space of playful debate, the Mauritian theatre represents a potential alternative to the official theatres of judiciary and legislature, from which Creole is so firmly banished. It's all the more significant, then, that there are clear analogies between the play and the politics of the country since independence.
When I approached the play for its London production, I was concerned that we should cast it in a way which accurately reflected the ethnic mix of contemporary Mauritius, since the play's concern with interculturalism was one of its most powerful parallels with our own situation in modern London. I asked the author how he would ideally see the cast being made up in ethnic terms, and received a very clear fax, in which he stated that his Prospero was Indian, King Lir was white, and Kalibann a mixed race man of black African and white parentage. The rest of the cast's ethnic make-up could easily be construed from this, since the characters are largely related to one another. This was not, incidentally, a casting mix which the original Mauritian production had been able to achieve. Perhaps it didn't even seek to do so. In London, however, the various diasporas of the last fifty years have brought us a wealth of diverse acting talent. We were able to portray the interculturalism Virahsawmy had in mind, and in the process to learn something about our own situation, as well as that of Mauritius.
As we found in Bangalore, that Prospero himself should be a character of Indian ethnicity pushes TOUFANN well and truly into post-colonial rather than colonial discourse. It also makes sense of Virahsawmy's choice of the Hindi word for "storm" as his title. "Toufann" is not the usual Creole word for "tempest" - that would be "sikklon" - and its usage in the play suggests a deliberate attempt to manipulate language and thought. The word resonates through the play: when asked about the state of the prisoners, Aryel says: "Prince Ferdjinan is biting his nails in prison. And his father is in an even worse toufann." When Yago calls the storm "toufann", Ferdjinan points out "Now Prospero can even make you think the way he wants". When he's finally beaten, Prospero's response is "Toufann swallow me up! Just do what you want!" For obvious reasons, this was one term we didn't translate for the London production.
In constantly employing this Hindi word, Prospero uses language to emphasise his Indian identity, and to preserve his control over the island. At the start of the play, he reminds Kordelia that she was not born on the island but "in a palace". In our production, he showed her images of an Indian palace, of his younger self and his deceased wife in traditional Indian clothes, and of his Hindu wedding. Prospero defines himself and his family by reference to an Indian past, making sense of himself purely in ethnic terms. There's a clear resonance here with what Virahsawmy calls the "Hindu hegemony" in Mauritius: the fact that this one ethnic group (to which, it should be emphasised, Virahsawmy himself belongs) has been politically and economically dominant since independence in 1968. Prospero's plan is clear: he will draw the former white colonial power, represented by Lerwa Lir, to the island, where he will be revenged on them by marrying Kordelia to Ferdjinan and taking control of their domains. Given that the play was written in 1991, in the thick of the so-called "economic miracle" in Mauritius, a time when offshore banking and tourism were allowing the monied classes of the island to integrate with the West, we can see clear political comments in the play. What Virahsawmy appears to criticise is not pride in an Indian inheritance or the relationship with former colonial powers per se (indeed his use of a Shakespearean model would appear to condone this), but the resulting exclusion of non-Indian elements within Mauritian society from the potential benefits of this.
Virahsawmy's Kalibann is not only a character of mixed race, reflecting the reality of many Mauritians, he is also the worker on whose industry and skill Prospero's power rests, the secret lover of Kordelia and (it emerges in the final scene) the father of her (as yet unborn) child. While accepting his abilities in a condescending way, Prospero despises Kalibann as a "batar" (another word we chose to leave untranslated, although it clearly relates to the English "bastard"). The Creole word can refer either to children born out of wedlock, or children of mixed race. There is a clear political standpoint in Prospero's language here. The mixture of races is condemned by implication, and the children of such marriages bastardized by the culture. In so multicultural a space as Mauritius, the existence of this word with its double meaning suggests a political rejection of that very miscegenation which gives the island and its language their particular identity. In having Prospero apply the word to Kalibann (and Kordelia condemn its usage), Virahsawmy demonstrates the tendency of many Mauritians to seek an identity in their distant racial origins, rather than in the mixed reality of contemporary island life, culture and language. Kordelia's choice of Kalibann, and (even more provocatively perhaps), Ferdjinan's of the sexless robot Aryel, suggests a rejection of the politics of communalism and ethnic identity in favour of a new politics of cultural miscegenation.
That these issues are of deep significance in contemporary Mauritius was demonstrated during February 1999 (the year of our production), when the normally placid island erupted into several days of mass violence, rioting and pillaging, in which a number of lives were lost. The spark which led to this explosion was the death of the Creole singer Kaya in the custody of the predominantly Hindu police, after his arrest for smoking gandja at a rally for the legalisation of the drug. The Creole community interpreted this as the murder of one of their leaders for expressing his own cultural identity, and much of the anger shown in the subsequent riots can be put down to their ongoing exclusion from the "economic miracle". It was on shops selling electronic consumer goods that most of the rioting focussed: people were determined to acquire the technological products which have become the symbol of prestige in the contemporary world. It's no coincidence that Virahsawmy's Prospero is no magician but a computer genius, imposing his will on the people around him through the creation of technologically generated virtual realities - fictional spaces derived from his own imagination via the medium of the computer. Kordelia calls this "playing at god": a provocation which Prospero rather enjoys.
At the end of TOUFANN, there is a sense of continuing exclusion. Kaspalto and Dammarro, the butt of everyone's humour, remain outside the affable circle of reconciled characters in the happy ending. In our London production, we found ourselves evoking an image of Mauritius which an English audience would understand: a tropical island Paradise of cocktails and sun-loungers. That the underprivileged are excluded from this luxury is not to do with ethnic difference but economic structures. The myths of heritage are simply ways of maintaining those injustices. In response to Prospero's attempt to assert his racial and class prejudice as a "reality", Virahsawmy's Kordelia says:
"What reality is left? Since this morning no-one has had any idea of what was real and what was a dream. Dreams have become realities, and realities dreams. Fiction has taken the place of fact, and art is battling with life. There's a new form of reality struggling to be born."
Books cited and consulted include:
Césaire, Aimé: A Tempest (translated by Philip Crispin) London, Oberon 2000.
Chandrashekar, Laxmi: Remarkably Simple (review of The Tempest). The Hindu, Banaglore edition, 10th March 1995.
Dattani, Mahesh: Bravely Fought the Queen Border Crossings 2003.
Miles, William F.S.: The Creole Malaise in Mauritius from African Affairs (1999), 98, pp.211-228
Mooneeram, Roshni: Theatre in development in Mauritius in Banham, Martin; Gibbs, James & Osofisan, Femi (eds): African Theatre in Development. Oxford, James Currey 1999.
Virahsawmy, Dev: Toufann (translated by Nisha and Michael Walling) Border Crossings 2003.
Wilkinson, Jane: Remembering The Tempest. Rome, Bulzoni Editore 1999.