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Bilingualism, Theatre, and the Fate of the Vernacular

Contrary to Ramachandra Guha's arguments ("The Rise and Fall of the Bilingual Intellectual", EPW, 15 August 2009), bilingualism (actually multilingualism) thrives in Indian theatre. And perhaps when children are comprehensively schooled in the vernacular at the primary level, bilingualism (English and an Indian language) is more likely to take root.


Bilingualism, Theatre, and the Fate of the Vernacular

Sudhanva Deshpande

playwrights in most Indian languages, so you have to perforce read them in English.

There are other ways in which multilingualism is well established, and well entrenched, in Indian theatre. Think of some of our leading playwrights. Girish Karnad writes plays in Kannada and translates them

Contrary to Ramachandra Guha’s arguments (“The Rise and Fall of the Bilingual Intellectual”, EPW, 15 August 2009), bilingualism (actually multilingualism) thrives in Indian theatre. And perhaps when children are comprehensively schooled in the vernacular at the primary level, bilingualism (English and an Indian language) is more likely to take root.

Sudhanva Deshpande (sudhanva@leftword. com) works as editor at LeftWord Books, and is an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch.

read with interest Ramachandra Guha’s essay on the decline of the bilingual intellectual. The question he raises is doubtless important, and one can only thank Guha for flagging it. This note is offered in the spirit of extending the discussion.

However, some nitpicking first. Guha’s examples are illustrative rather than exhaustive, and there can be no quarrel with that. His examples are drawn from his friends, and there can be no quarrel with that either. With two of his examples, though, I do want to quarrel. Guha calls JP the “last active politician” who was both an “original” and bilingual thinker. That laurel must rest, surely, on the head of EMS, who was younger, active till later and, in my opinion (though Guha will doubtless disagree) more “original”. Guha’s larger point, though, is well taken – that breed of politician is extinct.

Guha also mentions Lohia in his list of bilingual politician intellectuals. This is a curious choice, since while Lohia himself was multilingual, his movement was trenchantly monolingual – so that social ists of that type, even outside north India, somehow thought of Hindi as being automatically lingua franca. So, in that sense, Lohia vis-à-vis language is a bit like Jinnah vis-à-vis religion – cosmopolitan in personal life, parochial in public!

Now, to extend the discussion. In Guha’s scheme, “bilingual” seems to mean basically vernacular and English. This is narrow, as will become clear in the following paragraphs, when I speak of Indian theatre, which has been gloriously multilingual.

Some of this multilinguality comes from pure necessity. You cannot be a serious theatre person, especially a director or playwright, unless you are familiar with Shakespeare, Brecht, Chekhov and Ibsen, not to mention Beckett and Shaw and T ennessee Williams. We simply do not have enough good translations of these

september 5, 2009

into English himself. He has also written original plays in English, as well as articles and essays. Habib Tanvir wrote plays, songs and poetry in Urdu, Hindustani and Chhattisgarhi, and lectures and essays in English. Among the playwrights he translated were Shakespeare and Brecht. Vijay Tendulkar wrote plays, stories, two novels and countless newspaper articles in Marathi, and also wrote lectures and essays in English. He worked extensively in Hindi films, and I feel fairly certain that he wrote his screenplays in English. G P Deshpande writes plays, poetry and essays in Marathi, and lectures widely and writes scholarly essays and books in English. Mahesh Elkunchwar, who taught English literature at Nagpur, writes plays in Marathi, and he also has one play to his name in English. Utpal Dutt, supremely multilingual, wrote plays and essays in Bangla, lectured and wrote essays in English, and worked as an actor in Bangla, Hindi and English. He could manage German well enough to read Marx in the original.

The critics and scholars are a league of their own. Nemichandra Jain wrote and lectured in English and Hindi. Samik Bandhyopadhyay writes and lectures with equal grace in English and Bangla. Shanta Gokhale has written plays in Marathi, writes on theatre in English and Marathi, and has translated Marathi plays and poetry into English. The musicologist Ashok R anade writes and lectures in Marathi and English, and has trained himself to read Bangla well enough to invest in subscribing to the leading literary journals in that language. Bhaskar Chandavarkar, who died recently, was a musician and musicologist, and could lecture and write with equal ease in English, Marathi and Hindi.

This bilingualism survives, happily, in younger theatre persons as well. Safdar Hashmi wrote plays, children’s literature, articles, and songs in Hindi, and also wrote articles, documentary film scripts and even one children’s play in English. Makarand

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Sathe writes plays and novels in Marathi, as well as essays and lectures in English. Chetan Datar wrote plays in Marathi, but also translated, for instance, Ramu Ramanathan’s English play into Hindi. Danish Hussain and Mahmood Farooqui, who have revived the 19th century form of story-telling called dastangoi, work with great ease in (highly Persianised) Urdu, Hindustani and English.

Then there are directors, a large number of whom have working knowledge of more than one (Indian) language (apart from English), and many of them have directed plays in more than one language. The king of multilingualism is Satyadev Dubey, originally from Madhya Pradesh who, as he puts it, “converted” to Marathi. He writes plays in Hindi, but directs (his own and others’ work) routinely in Hindi, Marathi and English, and occasionally in Gujarati. This also used to be true of Vijaya Mehta. Similarly prodigious was B V Karanth, a Kannadiga who trained in Benaras to become a Sanskrit and Hindi scholar – besides, of course, being a great director and music composer. Karnataka’s theatrical romance with Hindi continues in the person of Prasanna, who normally writes in Kannada and English, but has also written a Hindi play on Bharatendu Harishchandra.

Tradition of Translation

Long before translation and translation studies became fashionable in the western academy, Indian theatre had a thriving tradition of translation. Playwrights like Mohan Rakesh, Tendulkar, Badal Sircar, Girish Karnad were translated into several Indian languages almost simultaneously. To take one spectacular example: Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana was directed by Dubey in Hindi in Bombay, by Karanth in Hindi in Delhi and Kannada in Bangalore, by Rajinder Nath in Hindi in Delhi, all in 1972, and by Vijaya Mehta in Marathi in Bombay the following year. In fact, some important plays have been performed in translation before they appeared in the original language of composition – both Girish Karnad’s Agni Mattu Male and Govind Deshpande’s Chanakya Vishnugupta were first done in Hindi, rather than Kannada or Marathi.

There is another, more complex way in which theatre practice in India has promoted and enriched multilingualism. Let me explain this with a somewhat unusual example. Tucked away in a corner of rural

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Karnataka is Heggodu, about an hour’s drive from Sagara, home to a remarkable institution called Ninasam. It was set up by K V Subbana, and after his death is now headed by K V Akshara, a leading theatre director and teacher.

Ninasam does many things, but fundamentally it is a theatre institution. Indeed, it was formed as a kind of an itinerant, rural amateur drama troupe immediately after independence. Soon, Subbanna started a publishing house, Akshara Prakashan, and he gathered around this imprint the finest modern writers in Kannada. But Subbanna was not content to simply publish good new writing. He invited writers to Heggodu, and got them to read their work and discuss it with the locals.

Ninasam also began a film society, which made masters of world cinema, Kurosawa and Ray, Fellini and Bergman, Eisenstein and Goddard, household names in parts of rural Karnataka. Similarly, Ninasam runs an annual “Culture Course”. Structured around one theme, a number of speakers are invited to reflect on it. Through the seven-day course, there are performances every evening, which get discussed the following day. A large cross-section of people enrol for the course – school and college teachers, activists, housewives, students, IT professionals, government employees, etc.

Ninasam began a theatre training school, which offers a one-year course, after which most students choose to stay on for a year to be part of Tirugata, the Ninasam repertory. Each season Tirugata offers three plays. The mix of the plays is crucial. One is generally a Kannada play, one is a play from another Indian language, and the third a foreign play. Interestingly, the non-Kannada Indian play is often adapted to a Kannada situation, while the foreign play is generally translated, without any attempt to adapt the situations and characters to a Kannada setting. Now, although all the plays are performed in Kannada, there is, I would argue, a certain sort of multilingual practice that Ninasam engages in. At the very least, Ninasam ends up training people to translate from various languages into Kannada. It also helps prepare the intellectual and cultural soil in a way that people become more curious about other cultures and languages. Working in the mother tongue, then, can make you truly cosmopolitan.

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Misplaced Criticism

Which makes me think that Guha is perhaps misplaced in criticising the Left Front government’s efforts to deliver primary education to Bengali children in their own language. Rather than seeing it as an example of parochialism, I would argue, it should be seen as an effort to create a population that can think, read and write with ease in their own language. (And naturally, the logic of this must extend to linguistic minorities within the larger entity of the linguistic state.) There is much work on the theory of language learning that suggests that children who are insufficiently trained in any one language, especially their mother tongue, at the earliest stage struggle to learn any language well later in life. There is therefore much to be said for primary level learning to be imparted in the mother tongue.

This is not to suggest that the West Bengal experiment was without problems or flaws. In fact, that policy has now been reversed, and people have a choice of sending their children to English medium schools as well. This happened because, simply put, there was public pressure and a perception, not entirely misplaced, that English-medium education can provide a passport to some upward mobility. But surely, in its conception, the policy of primary level education in the mother tongue is not as foolish or myopic or parochial as Guha makes out.

Guha begins his article with that delightful story of the monolingual Mukul Kesavan and his frighteningly multilingual father. From that story, and from Guha’s own (intellectual) monolingualism, we can surmise that the larger movement from bi- or multilingualism to monolingualism is usually to the detriment of the vernacular, not English. The decline of bilingualism, even if we were to think of bilingualism as “English-and-vernacular”, is actually the decline of the vernacular. Both Guha and Kesavan went, I presume, to English-medium schools. Does this fact have something to do with their monolingualism? And the larger question, one beyond the scope of this intervention, is: if children do not learn their own language(s) at the primary level, would not these languages simply atrophy and become even less capable of being vehicles of higher-level discourse?

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