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An Indian Romeo and Juliet

In 1908, S.V. Srinivasiar translated Romeo and Juliet into Tamil, adapting it using his own Indian cultural perspective.

Jennifer Reid

India’s relationship with Shakespeare dates back to the early 1600s, when there are reports of Hamlet and Richard II being staged upon an East India company ship called The Dragon.  Towards the middle of the 18th century translations and adaptations in Indian languages of Shakespeare started to appear in print.  The translators often Indianized Shakespeare’s original texts, changing the names, locations and imagery, adding music, dance, new characters and subplots, and adapting or removing scenes that were offensive to Indian beliefs and tastes. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s collection of Indian language translations dates back to the very beginning of what is now an established practice.

Tamil Romeo and Juliet by S.V. Srinivasiar
Romeo and Juliet, translated into Tamil by S.V. Srinivasiar

This is a 1908 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in Tamil by S.V. Srinivasiar. The author has tried to stay faithful to Shakespeare’s original themes; however, as was standard, he has changed the setting and the character names to suit the tastes of the Tamil reader.  Numerous adaptations have been made to suit the Indian taste; for example, all references to kissing have been omitted.  One interesting adaptation is described by Srinivasiar as thus: 

“To accord with modern usage, the old accustomed feast as the Capulet’s where Romeo...meets and falls in love with Juliet...has been converted into an annual Kolattam Feast (Jathrai), common in the Tamil country, so as to make it possible for young girls of Juliet’s age to appear in public and play and dance”.

Often translators include long prefaces or introductions in which they outline the reasons why they undertook the translation. These can be very helpful for the researcher in giving an insight into the author’s mind. This publication is dedicated to “Mr. J.H. Stone, M.A., F.R. Hist.”, the author’s former tutor at  Presidency College, Madras; from this preface, we can ascertain that this is Srinivasiar’s first attempt at translating Shakespeare, and his aim is that by translating Shakespeare into Tamil, he will open up the “greatness of the prince of dramatists” to new audiences that do not have access to the original.

Tamil Romeo and Juliet Introduction by S.V. Srinivasiar
Introduction to Romeo and Juliet, by S.V. Srinivasiar

In the introduction, the author goes into more detail about how and why he has chosen to translate the original in this way. Srinivasiar attempts to explain his motivations for making his extreme editorial choices by commenting on the difficulties of translating not only a language, but a culture:

“Of late there has been a natural tendency on the part of educated Indians to express in their mother-tongue, many of the beautiful ideas they find in the English language.  This attempt is no doubt beset with almost insuperable difficulties.  First and foremost comes the inefficiency of the South Indian Vernaculars to serve as a vehicle for Western Ideas. The Tamil language though a living one does not exhibit any signs of life or growth and one is almost tempted to think that the rigor mortis has set in ... To render into this language the spirit of a Shakespearian play is not an easy task.  For instance, the pre-matrimonial love and courtship, the brides freedom of choice, the free intercourse of men and women in public feasts and dances, the greeting of women by men with kisses in public, the liberty of the fair sex and the equality of the sexes are strange and perhaps in some cases repulsive to the modern Hindu mind”.

He concludes his introduction by making another interesting comment on the equality of the sexes, saying that he hopes that his approach to the translation should prove that “the book will be easy reading, even in the hands of women”!

Although these might seem like strange comments to our modern eyes, in the right hands, translation and adaptation of a different culture’s texts can be a tool for political or social change.  Indeed, a number of publications in the Indian translation collections at the SBT have been undertaken by social reformers in India.  For example, Merchant of Venice was translated in 1880 by Kandukuri Veeresalingham Pantulu who is remembered as a social reformer who brought about a renaissance in Telugu culture, and is credited with arranging the first widow remarriage in India.

Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela is a 2013 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.
Today, adaptation of Shakepseare in Indian languages continues. Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela is a 2013 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.