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Shakespeare goes Gujarati

Shakespeare goes Gujarati

May 8 2014

Arpana Theatre Company returns with acclaimed Indian language adaptation of ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’…

By Suman Bhuchar

THIS Gujarati adaption was first performed at the Globe in 2012 as part of the ‘Globe to Globe’ festival run by the venue where 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, were performed in as many languages by theatre makers from different countries.

Somehow this ‘problem play’ as it is often referred – engaged audiences and critics alike – partly because the Indians managed to solve the conundrums of the very intricate sub-plot of the work in an innovative ‘jugaad’ manner that would have delighted the Bard himself.

The plot – to keep it simple is this: Heli (originally Helena) is an orphaned doctor’s (vaid, as in traditional 19th century medic) daughter, brought up by Kunti (originally, Countess of Roussillon), and Helena is in love with Kunti’s pompous son, Bharatram (originally Betram) and she somehow needs to get him to love her back.

He, in turn, dreams of fighting wars and earning valour serving the King of France (fighting the Italians), but the King of France has an horrible disease which Helena manages to cure and as a result, the King lets her choose her own suitor, and she chooses Bertram.

Betram has to marry her, on the King’s orders, but says he will only accept her if she gets the ring off from him and carries his child – but he refuses to oblige.

So, Helena has to find a way of sleeping with her ‘husband’, without him realising that he’s really sleeping with a wife he’s spurned and steal his ring at the same time.

There are other intricacies woven into this core plot and in this Gujarati version, the story is transposed to 19th century India to a small town of Saurashtra called, Rasoli and then onto to Bombay, the big port city and finally abroad to Rangoon in Burma.

As director, Sunil Shanbag explained: “I was asked if I would do ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’, and frankly I didn’t know the play very well. When I read it again, I thought that it could adapt itself well to an Indian milieu – even though I knew it was categorised as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’, I felt in adaptation we could sort out what seemed to be the problem with the play.”

He reflected that it was very important for the company to make the play ‘our own’ and since the show was essentially for a Gujarati audience, the show needed had to have a life of its own outside the Globe festival.

So, along with writer, Mihir Bhutia, they decided to set the play in 1900s so as to make the Gujarati audience reflect on its own history.

“1900 is interesting because Bombay as a port city was prospering and there were lots of Gujarati migrants coming from the hinterland into the city to pursue trade. Large enterprises were being set up and it was the time of the opium trade, a very exciting period of history. Provincial France became Saurashtra, Paris became Bombay and Florence became Rangoon – so we shifted from wars and courts to the powerful merchants and trade.”

All’s Well That Ends Well” became “Sau Saaru Jenu Chhevat Saru” and features a company of nine actors and three musicians performing live on stage, in the Bhangwadi style, a 19th century urban musical style very popular in Gujarat.

Heli is played by the engaging Manasi Parekh – who sings her soliloquies beautifully and her reluctant beau is Chirag Vora and also features the veteran actor, Utkarsh Mazumdar playing the paterfamilias with a long name, Rao Bahadur Gokuldas Sawaram Bhatia (as opposed to the plain, King of France).

Mazumdar would be familiar to UK Asian audiences from his appearance in “Wedding Album” at Watermans in September 2009 (click here for more on that).

The 19th century is beautifully evoked through the costumes designed by Maxima Basu and the fashion of wearing a dhoti with a jacket and smart turban could really catch on.

There really is something magical about going to the Globe and seeing a show with no frills attached – the actors are in front of you strutting their stuff on a bare stage, while the audience is either standing in the pit being a ‘groundling’ or enjoying a bit of luxury by sitting on the half covered wooden seats. And as the dusk falls after the intermission, the second half of the play acquires an ethereal quality and there is nothing more pleasurable than seeing a 19th century Indian woman who finally manages to get the upper hand on her ‘self important’ husband!

Listings and links

  • ‘Sau Saaru Jenu Chhevat Saru’ (‘Alls’ Well That Ends Well’ by William Shakespeare) on for two last performances on Friday, (May 9) with a free pre-show talk at 6pm, Found In Translation and a final performance on Saturday (May 10) at 2pm. Tickets and info.
  • Heli – Manasi Parekh Twitter @manasi_parekh
  • Chirag Vora @chiragvohra (Yes this twitter spelling is different)
  • Utkarsh Mazumdar Facebook
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Written by Asian Culture Vulture