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Shakespeare’s Ashes: Celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare in Literature

Shakespeare's Ashes, hosted by British Council and Shakespeare Society of India, along with Ashoka University, commemorated the 400th death anniversary of the playwright over a two-day festival this October.

Office of PR & Communications

31 October, 2016 | 9 min read

The year 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Yet Shakespeare is arguably more alive than ever, performed across the world more than any other playwright. Even as his plays have acquired a global currency, they have been dispersed into and absorbed by, a myriad of local non-English forms and traditions. This is particularly the case in India. Shakespeare is a popular screenplay writer – or muse – in Hindi cinema, where plays such as The Comedy of Errors, Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Othello, and Hamlet have all received acclaimed Indian makeovers. More strikingly, his plays have found congenial afterlives in various local theatrical traditions from the Nautanki of North India and the Bhangwadi of Gujarat to the Jatra of Bengal and the Kathakali of Kerala. This dispersal is also, in a sense, a return, inasmuch as Shakespeare’s stories themselves derive from an extraordinary array of global sources that include tales from the Levant and the Silk Route.

The Shakespeare Society of India, in association with Ashoka University and The British Council recently conducted a two-day conference – “Shakespeare’s Ashes” at The British Council. The title of the conference is at once commemorative of Shakespeare’s death and recognizes the dispersed Indian post-lives that Shakespeare has enjoyed. It also hints at how Shakespeare’s stories have themselves always been comprised of the ashes of other stories, many of which have Asian genealogies.

“Shakespeare’s Ashes was an extraordinary conference — an opportunity to mark Shakespeare’s 400th death anniversary this year, but also an opportunity to celebrate his rich and varied afterlives in India.  It was extraordinary too because of the Chahat ki Dastaan, a specially commissioned translation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets into 11 different Indian languages and 11 different cultural forms.  The Chahat ki Dastaan showcased Ashoka University as a powerhouse of creative talent; best of all, it brought together faculty, students and staff in an amazing, moving, unforgettable ensemble piece — a wonderful reminder of how Ashoka’s culture is being co-created by talented people from *every* part of the university,” says Jonathan Gil Harris, Dean, Academic Affairs, Ashoka University.

Shakespeare’s Ashes scattered all over the globe is revived in culturally unique ways. The Conference comprised of events such as ‘Jugalbandis’ (Conversations between guest speakers on Topics like ‘A midsummer’s night redreamed’, ‘Desiring Shakespeare’ and a Shakespeare adaptation’), Seminars on Shakespeare and Folk Forms, Chahat ki Dastaan, and various Film-Screenings.

Undoubtedly, the highlight of the conference was ‘Chahat ki Dastaan’- a regeneration of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in regional languages, and through art forms like song and dance.

Madhavi Menon, Professor, English at Ashoka  concludes, “Ashes was a unique experiment on the Indian academic scene in as much as it combined the intellectual rigour of an academic conference with the energy, liveliness, and variety of a literary festival. Meditations on death in King Lear sat alongside Chahat ki Dastan, a translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets into Indian languages and performance styles. Films jostled with plays, high seriousness with low humour, fancy rhetoric with the performing body — this conference contained all that is best and most exciting about a Shakespeare play itself.  Shakespeare scholarship in India will never be the same again.”

The Conference successfully revived a holistic sense of Shakespearean works and proved to be a landmark, the first of its kind in India.

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