‘The Tempest’ in Tamil

Print edition : June 10, 2016

Mu. Ramaswamy in the lead role in "Suravali". Photo: Iqbal Singh

MY love for Shakespeare began when I was in what was then known as III Form (now class VIII) in school. I was weak in mathematics and my father engaged a special coaching master, a middle-aged man, who was unemployed but who was determined not to serve the colonial masters. He taught me more literature, which was his first love, than mathematics, which was, he had to reluctantly accept, his bread winner.

He introduced me to Shakespeare through Tales from Shakespeare written by Charles and Mary Lamb. The play I liked the most at that point of time was The Tempest. It was like a fairy tale with characters like the “blithe spirit” sweet Ariel, the scary Caliban and the magic master Prospero. My teacher was also a painter and he drew a beautiful sketch of the garden isle to which Prospero was exiled along with his child Miranda by his treacherous brother Antonio, who usurped power. My master asked me to colour what he had drawn, which made me love the play all the more.

Is the play really a fairy tale? The 18th and 19th centuries staged this play as a romantic comedy because the play ends well. Prospero forgives his brother and also the co-conspirator, Alfonso, the King of Naples, and agrees to give away his daughter Miranda in marriage to Ferdinand, Alfonso’s son. After his shelter in the island, Prospero has enslaved the only two inhabitants of that place, loveable Ariel and monstrous-looking Caliban, both of whom he sets free at the end of the play. “All’s well that ends well” and, as such, this play cannot but be a light-hearted romance is an argument that, perhaps, cannot be dismissed easily. But 20th century Shakespearean scholars consider The Tempest an intellectually loaded play with multiple layers of meaning. Caliban stands for anti-colonialism and is the spirit of freedom representing an African slave! Ariel stands for freedom in the abstract sense.

The striking point of the play is that the whole action in the drama is taking place in slightly less than four hours, not much longer than it takes to perform it on stage. In the last scene, Prospero invites all his former foes-turned-friends, as he has forgiven them, to supper. In Shakespeare’s days, a play used to start at 3 p.m. and close at 7 p.m., which was also supper time for the audience. It is the only play of Shakespeare where the time taken for the sequence of events in a play agrees with the real time experienced by the audience, that is, when illusion and reality have one running identity. Why has Shakespeare, who is known for his utter disregard for the unity of time and space, shown so much concern for the unity of time and for breaking the barriers between illusion and reality? In fact, in Winter’s Tale 16 years pass within two acts.

The play is all about power games in politics. Prospero is overthrown by Antonio in active collaboration with Alfonso. But Prospero, for his part, captures power from Caliban, the former ruler of the island. He enslaves both Ariel and Caliban, the original inhabitants of the island, through his magical prowess. After the shipwreck, an illusion created by Prospero, the King of Naples and his brother Sebastian wander in the island, when the latter makes a futile attempt to kill the king to capture power. Not to lag behind the pranks of the high and mighty, the stupid Stephano, the drunken butler, and Trinculo, the jester, as bidden by the freedom-loving Caliban, make a ridiculous move to kill Prospero to deprive him of his island sovereignty.

Prospero, a scholar extraordinaire like Dr Faust, gets fed up with knowledge, but, unlike Faust, does not sell his soul to the Devil. He takes exactly an opposite decision, to live like an ordinary human being sans power and unique identity. After his bitter experiences and enjoyment of power dressed in brief authority, Prospero, has come to the conclusion that

“We are such stuff

As dreams are made on and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.”

[The Italian painter] Leonardo da Vinci writes about a stone which has rolled down from the mountain top. People tread over it, animal hooves trample on it. Leonardo says: “This is the fate of those who abandon life of solitude, life devoted to reflextion and contemplation, in order to live in cities among people full of sin.”

We find Prospero in the same mood as Leonardo at the end of the play. In the “Epilogue”, he says:

“And thence retire me to my Milan, where

Every third thought will be my grave!’

‘But this rough magic,

I here abjure, and when I have required

Some heavenly music…

I’ll break my staff

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth.”

The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last play. Prospero’s last words are interpreted as Shakespeare’s bidding adieu to theatre, his renouncement of his “magical wand”, the world of music and language. It is said that he lived for seven years after retiring to Stratford-upon-Avon as a country gentleman without uttering or writing even a single word of literary and dramatic import!

Fransis Bacon said Shakespeare belonged to mankind, as all his plays have universal appeal. I decided to adapt this play in Tamil in a creative way so that it can directly communicate with even a non-English knowing person, who may not be aware of Shakespeare. All the characters are given Tamil names and they speak Tamil with all its dialectical variations, according to their social status. My play, Suravali, has a pronounced political overtone, which makes it contemporary.

I have not translated the play but I have trans-created it to suit the Tamil cultural ambience. It is now a Tamil play with Tamil characters, befitting the cultural and political climate in the context of the Indian psyche.

I wanted Magic Lantern, with a highly sensitive director like Pravin and his no less talented and sophisticated actors, to do the play.

When I saw the full rehearsal, I felt greatly impressed. The conceptualisation of the play by the director and his actors was brilliant. My textual words were no longer literary but became dramatic characters by themselves. The music integrated very well with the dramatic moods that were meant to be conveyed. I felt very happy to know that the doyen of modern Tamil theatre, Dr Mu.Ramaswamy, is in the lead role.

I am sure the production will be a milestone in the dramatic history of the Tamil plays.

A letter from the Editor


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R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

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