South Asian Aesthetics

University of Pennsylvania, Fall 2014

Session 22: Aesthetics Across Cultures

Scene from William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Directed by Tim Supple. Photo: Tistram Kenton.

Scene from William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Directed by Tim Supple. Photo: Tistram Kenton.

Guest speaker: Manpreet Kaur (Columbia University)

One question that we have consistently run up against in the course is whether and to what extent aesthetic values, concepts and thinking are tied to the particular social and temporal context in which they are produced.  This session pushes us to consider that question further by engaging with works of, and thought about, the aesthetics of art and performance that span multiple cultural contexts.

We will do so  by foregrounding not works of theory (as we usually do), but rather artistic works themselves– specifically two comedies of William Shakespeare, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Twelfth Night.”  We will both read the ‘texts’, i.e the scripts of the two plays, and experience them in performance (albeit recorded performances, which are not quite the same the thing).  Here is where things get interesting.

The production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with which we will be concerned is that directed by Tim Supple and performed by an all-Indian cast during 2006-2007.  Supple (himself from England) recruited Indian actors and performers from a number of South Asian traditions, and incorporated South Asian elements into the set design, costume design, blocking, physical acting, and– perhaps most strikingly– into the dialogue of the play.  The dialogue is performed in seven Indian languages (including English), with different characters speaking in different tongues.  This experiment yields dialogue that, theoretically, no one member of the audience can ‘understand’, leading to fascinating effects through which we become aware of the different ways in which we do, in fact, understand.

The production of “Twelfth Night” with which we will be dealing, “Piya Behrupiya,” is the creation of The Company Theatre based in Bombay, and ran in 2012.  The company has translated much more than just the dialogue of the ‘original’ (which has been rendered in a very colloquial form of Hindi): costumes, songs, and elements of physical acting and dance from popular Indian theater traditions have been combined to distinguish registers, enhance characterization, and amplify comedic effect.  Consequently, much new material has been added to the ‘bones’ of Shakespeare’s script; this is of course the case with any production of a play, yet this production ‘adapts’ Shakespeare’s text in a more radical way that gives us space to think about whether and where a line between ‘translation’ and ‘adaptation’ can be drawn (and what drives us to draw such a line in the first place).

Finally, to help us think through the issues that these plays and productions raise, we will read Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator.”  In defining translation as a ‘mode’, Benjamin grapples with the concept of ‘translatability’ and the question of just what it is in a literary or other work that we wish to translate in the first place, if the work’s informational content is incidental to this more important, affective object or quality.  This leads him to consider many of the questions that we have wrestled with over the course of the semester: what makes a work ‘art’?  Who is a work of art ‘for’, i.e. who is the audience, and what qualifies someone to be the audience for a work?  What role does language play in all of this, since language is anything but a transparent medium, and multiple languages are not systems of equivalent terms?

We are lucky to have Manpreet Kaur of Columbia University joining us for this session and helping us to work through the texts, performances and issues at hand.  Manpreet is a graduate of Lady Sri Ram College in New Delhi and of Jawaharlal Nehru University where she completed degrees in both the English department and the School of Arts and Aesthetics.  In addition to having taught English literature at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi, Manpreet has been active in the Indian theater scene for quite some time as an actor, dramaturg, and also as a coordinator for the Shakespeare Society at St. Stephen’s.  She brings this academic and practical expertise to her study of Indian religious traditions, in which she is currently completing a PhD at Columbia University in New York.  This also makes her the ideal guide for Thursday’s journey through the worlds of Shakespeare, nauṭankī, Parsi theatre, kalari, etc.

There is so much more that one could have included in a session like this– Tejaswini Niranjana’s Siting Translation, Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak’s “The Politics of Translation,” Peter Brooks’s production of the Mahābhārata, Vishal Bhardwaj’s film adaptations of Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet…  Our task in this session is perhaps akin to the task of translation: the number of potential readings and case studies is infinite like the number of potential translations of any given literary or artistic work, and our results or conclusions can only be provisional, like any given translation.  Hopefully though, our discussion will not only allow us to survey the ground that we’ve covered over the course of the semester, but inspire us to keep thinking about these issues even after the course is over.

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