Conditioned to Detest

Theological Influence in the Reception Patterns of

Intercultural Performances

Rani Bhargav


  The Burden of Interculturalism

Intercultural performance, as we understand, can be labelled as the inevitable bastard child that was conceived from the years of imperialistic interaction of the West with the Oriental people and their cultures. Particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century – the era of postcolonial redemption of the East – intercultural performance has fashioned an exalted position for itself, primarily to provide for the Western audiences’ craving for the “exotic”. I call it a bastard because of the unfailing discord in the receptions of an intercultural performance in the two participating sites, each carping about the propriety of their cultural representation in it. The collaborative process results in the manifestation of a performance piece that, in most cases, tends to crumble under the onus of bridging two polar cultures and flounders in a state of identity crisis, unable to gain acceptance in one or both the parent cultures. Of course, I do concede to the innumerable benefits of this practice and, in fact, deem it necessary not only for a recognition of the less known Oriental theatre forms on the global stage but also for their economic stability and prolonged sustenance that it engenders. However, this essay attempts to augment the surfacing of the inherent problematic nature of interculturalism in general and intercultural performance in particular and to provide answers to justify the inevitable bastardization of the form that happens so often.

The essay attempts to delineate the problematic nature of theological conditioning in the reception of intercultural performances, particularly in the context of Shakespeare and Kathakali in India. It aims to explore and question the widely assumed universality of Shakespeare in terms of its relevance to certain Indian folk theatre forms coeval or antecedent to Shakespeare. The folk theatre form of Kathakali serves as a comparative parameter to gauge the propriety of juxtaposing western theatrical traditions with the strictly codified indigenous Oriental theatre forms, some of which forebear their Western counterparts by hundreds of years. In terms of the methodology, the essay employs the case study of a seemingly meticulous intercultural production – Kathakali King Lear – and its reception patterns, primarily in the participating cultures.

Kathakali King Lear

While Peter Brook’s nine-hour spectacle of colossal proportions, The Mahabharata, exemplifies Pavis’s model of Western cultural appropriation from Oriental theatrical traditions, Kathakali King Lear stands champion to Bharucha’s model in its unrelenting strive for equanimity in cultural participation and its sincere attempt to avoid preclusion of audiences from either partaking culture. It aimed “to be more than a superficial dressing up of Shakespeare’s Lear in Kathakali costumes as an exotic novelty for Western audiences”(Zarrilli, 2000: 184). Drawing attention to producers’ motivations behind this intercultural experiment, Zarrilli states that…

For Malayalis the production was intended to provide a Kathakali experience of one of Shakespeare’s great plays and roles. Assuming that many in the European audience would know Shakespeare's play, the production was intended as an accessible way of experiencing Kathakali. (2000: 184)

However, whatever their objectives may have been, Kathakali King Lear poses an interesting case study primarily because of its equivocal reception in Kerala and England despite its scrupulous efforts at a reciprocally beneficial intercultural collaboration.

Kathakali King Learwas conceived by the Australian playwright/director David McRuvie and French actor-dancer Annette LeDay and was first performed on 28th July, 1989, on the proscenium stage of V.J.T. Hall in Trivandrum, Kerala. This was followed by a European premiere on 2nd September at the Festival of Roverto, Italy, followed by performances in the Netherlands, France and Spain. It was also performed in Singapore and the Edinburgh Theatre Festival in England in 1990.

The revised and abridged version of the Shakespearean text written by McRuvie ran barely twenty pages for a two-hour long performance and completely eliminated the Gloucester subplot, with emphasis on the bhavas (performer’s emotions)involved in the relationship between Lear and his daughters and the corresponding rasas (audience reactions) they evoked in the spectator. While the text underwent intense deconstruction and simplification to cater to the needs of Kathakali, the folk theatre form also had to assume a certain degree of malleability to represent Shakespearean character types that were undefined in its lineage of traditions(Zarrilli, 2000).

Zarrilli presents the critique of Apookoothan Nayar, a conservative traditionalist Malayali Kathalaki connoisseur, and institutes it as the yardstick of reference to gauge the responses of the community he represented. Nayar, with regard to the propriety of the performance through the lens of the Kathakali heritage, censures it for its representation of the worldly or lokadharmi , the ‘lower’ aesthetic, as opposed to that of the supernatural and the divine, the ‘aesthetic of the mind’(Zarrilli, 2000).

Kathakali King Learsparked mixed reactions amidst English counterparts as well as in its various venues. Alfred Weiss, in his review of the Edinburgh Theatre Festival of 1990, said:

The harmonious blend of movement, music, singing, costumes, and makeup made the Kathakali King Lear beautiful and deeply moving. This successful adaptation of the play to an Indian theatrical tradition served as a reminder of the universality of Shakespeare's drama…(Weiss, 1991).

Min Tian believes that certain severe critiques that the performance received in English circles can not be attributed to just the “mutilation of the original Shakespeare text” but rather to “Kathakali's highly encoded language of gesture and movement being incompatible with the logocentric nature of Shakespeare&#3
9;s text”(1998). Most believed that the performance had, as Tom Morris put it, “little to do with Shakespeare” (1990). Zarrilli touches on the fundamental issue of this collaboration by stating that the “codes and conventions easily read by those within one culture may be opaque to those outside” (2000: 187).

The Matrimony of Religion and Theatre in the East

It is impossible to underplay the role of religion in the Indian culture. The country was established as secular by constitution after its independence in 1947; however, it is to be noted that over 80.5 percent of the population are Hindus (according to the census of 2001). Having evolved as the progeny of Vedic Brahmanism, Hinduism asserts itself on to the high seat of theology not only for its status as the oldest surviving religion of modern India but also for its indispensible role in the moulding of Indian history, culture and the daily lives of people. The core literature of Hinduism – the four Vedas, the Sanskrit texts of the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Upanishads, the Puranas – cumulatively form the quintessence of this faith and serve not just as discourses on theology but also as models of instruction in morality and philosophy.

The period between the sixth and the ninth centuries in southern India saw the inception of the philosophy of the bhakti (‘devotion’) movement, which disseminated to central and northern India over the medieval ages. The movement, through its literature, aimed at displacing the Sanskritized and ritualized proponents of Vedic religion with the notion of tenacious devotion as the path to salvation. The bhakti literature that evolved during this period consisted of translations of the Sanskrit epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, sanctifying them as prime channels of Vaishnav devotion and accentuating the emphasis on their core philosophy of “devotion for salvation”(King and Brockington, 2005). In the twelfth century, when the movement had entrenched an enduring position for itself in the Vaishnavite temples of Kerala, Jayadeva’s popular Sanskrit dramatic poem Gitagovinda was introduced. Gitagovinda, a “musical opera of unique lyrical beauty and charm”, was an expression of ‘Vasudeva Ratikeli Katha’ or the amorous sports (lila) of Radha and Krishna, whose songs had “the best advantage of the performer, providing a wide range of dramatic possibilities inherent in the text for stage representation”(Varadpande, 1982).

In the mid-seventeenth century, the Zamorin (ruler) of Calicut, Manaveda, inspired by Gitagovindam, composed a cycle of eight dance-dramas in Sanskrit encompassing the entire life of Krishna from his incarnation (Avataram) to his ascension (Swargarohanam). These dance-dramas came to be collectively known as Krishnattam and have been performed, through the years, by only one troupe under the direct patronage of the Zamorin of Calicut(Zarrilli, 1984: 47). “The deeply devotional spirit of Krishnattam is illustrated by the fact that devotees (bhaktas) at Guruvayur Temple believe that even being present and watching a performance is an act of propitiation for which one receives the Lord’s blessings”(Zarrilli, 1984: 47). Kathakali was bred from the subsequent expansion of the repertoire of plays in Krishnattam to include other mythological tales from the epics, and it effectively dates back to the writing of eight new dance-dramas based on the Ramayana by Vira Kerala Verma, the Rajah of Kottarakara, a principality in eastern Travencore. These plays were initially called Ramanattam, but the dance-drama form adopted the appellation of Kathakali with the eventual inclusion of other plays from Hindu mythology(Zarrilli, 1984: 49).

The Hostility of Religion and Theatre in the West

The above exposition not only establishes the magnitude of religious intervention in the evolution of Indian folk theatre but also distances it from the conception and maturity of its contemporary Western theatrical traditions. Of course, our current understanding of these Western theatrical practices and their evolution is governed, for the most part, by their initial deprecation followed by subsequent assimilation by the church. After the fall of the Roman Empire and with the gaining authority of the church and its disparagement of theatrical activities, theatre between the sixth and the tenth centuries, though extant, remained a strictly surreptitious affair, thus limiting the scope of its present historiographic study. In the tenth century, the church began to make use of dramatic interludes as conduits for the dissemination of its doctrines amongst the people. This was bolstered by the organization of the church year around the principal events of the Old and New Testaments, which encouraged further proliferation of liturgical drama(Brockett, 1979). In terms of the performance space, these liturgical plays, which were confined to cathedrals and monasteries for over two centuries, finally found their way to outdoor spaces in the early thirteenth century when they “spread as far east as Russia and from Scandinavia in the north to Italy and Spain in the south” (Brockett, 1979: 128).

This outlawed position of the theatre between 1200 and 1400, the period of transit from the auspices of the church to the commercial grasp of secular organizations, also dons a problematic facade of relative obscurity in terms of the availability of relevant tangible evidence to augment a detailed analysis of it. During this anarchist phase of the theatre, it also underwent certain redefining amendments like the abandonment of Latin, the language of the church, in favour of vernacular tongues(Brockett, 1979). The theatrical performances were invariable accompanied by religious diatribes, which culminated in the strong Puritan confrontation of drama in the sixteenth century. This was epitomized by the English Puritan William Prynne’s “literature of denunciation” published in 1633, Historio-mastix, an “encyclopedia of  invective…culled from two  thousand  years  of  writings  against the theatre,  seasoned  by  Prynne's  own  tedious,  repetitious,  but often forceful arguments”(Morgan, 1966: 340). In England, the period of interregnum (1642–1660) and the establishment of Puritan authority during that time led to the closure of all theatres. The reinstatement of monarchy in 1660 with the return of Charles II from exile and his patronage of the theatre led to a reprisal and renewed exuberance in the promulgation of dramatic activities. Two theatre companies under the proprietorship of William Davenant and Thomas Killigrew received grants sanctioning the monarch’s approval to the staging of plays in their premises (Zwicker, 1998). Despite the theatres being ensconced under the aegis of royal patronage and the deposing of Puritan authority in England, they continued to resist the church’s importunate invective till as late as the mid-nineteenth century.

Kathakali – The Dance of the Gods… for the Gods

While the evolution of drama in south India ref
lects its fidelity to its theological roots percolating two thousand years deep to Sanskrit dramaturgy, its counterparts in the West have suffered ostracism and vilification in the name of the Lord since almost the beginning of Christianity. On one side of the balance are the folk theatre forms of south India like Kathakali and Yakshagana with their indulgent reliance on religious mythology, which function not just as consequential products of an acknowledgment of a divine force controlling the universe but also as a means of expression of one’s capitulation to the pre-eminence of this divine. On the other side are the Western theatrical traditions that preclude any involvement with this divine and were, for the most part of history, deemed as “morally corrupting” owing to their “appeal to the senses and… arousal of pleasure” by the self-proclaimed human voices of the divine(Astington, 2010: 12). Any attempt at an intercultural collaboration is not merely an endeavour to juxtapose Eastern and Western theatrical traditions or to purge the ignorance of one with regard to the other but is, in essence, a venture of reconciliation of two polar ideologies conditioned by two millennia of evolving social, cultural and theological milieus. It implicitly aims to cater to the diverse aesthetic tastes of two cultures and their representative audiences by establishing a common ground of mutual understanding from where each can bask in the singularity and novelty of the other. The quintessential problem of such an enterprise is that it attempts to be sweet and sour at the same time.

Considering the Communist dominance on the political panorama of post-independent Kerala, I find it pertinent to cite Maduro’s summarization of Marxist approaches to religion and extrapolate it to my current discourse on religious intervention in an intercultural performance reception. “Religion is not a mere passive effect of the social relations of production; it is an active element of social dynamics, both conditioning and conditioned by social processes” (Maduro, 1977: 366). In order for a Malayali connoisseur to appreciate this perceived bastardization of his beloved folk form of dance, drama, devotion and divine propitiation, he must first distance himself from the cultural implications of religion in his own lineage that have conditioned his prevalent mindset and way of life. The collaboration endeavours to appease a devout Malayali Brahmin connoisseur influenced since birth by the Kathakali performances in near-by temple grounds during religious festivals or a Kathakali artist who pays his respects to Lord Ganesha before the commencement of his daily practice and to make him come to terms with this production, which is ostensibly proverbial but with an inwardly altered religious dimension; a production that is not for the Gods, has no Gods in it and simply refuses to have anything to do with the Gods. Thus, an adaptation of Shakespeare in an Indian folk theatre form like Kathakali is, in spirit, an expulsion of this all-so-integral element of the ‘divine’ from its structure, an amputation of its theological roots. This rejection of its theological ancestry is not as detrimental to the success of the production as is the concomitant alienation of its cultural implications that, in turn, govern the nature of the reception.

The intercultural liaison, Kathakali King Lear, implied a replacement of the ‘divine play’ of the Gods and Demons with the more ordinary, mundane accounts about the frailty of human condition. It entailed the glorification of lokadharmi, the ‘real’ or the ‘pedestrian’, in place of natyadharmi, the ‘stylized’ or the ‘extraordinary’. These terms of differentiation prescribed in the Natyasastra, in their assumed interpretations and implied connotations, collectively constitute the aucityam bhodam or the ‘sense of appropriateness’. For most Kathakali connoisseurs like Nayar, this ‘sense of appropriateness’, which is governed by the Kathakali cultural heritage, deprecates the representation of mundane ‘realism’ aimed at pleasing the galleries (lokadharmi) and exalts the refined and ‘ideational’ performance of the supernatural or the divine (natyadharmi) (Zarrilli, 2000). King Lear isn’t the story of a God or an omnipotent king, a kshatriya, as understood by the Indian populace. It is the story of an old man whose actions lack justifications and crumble in the context of the customs and duties of the Indian princely clans. The percussionist Krishnankutty Poduval, who helped conceive the production, underlined the fundamental blockade in the Indian understanding of King Lear. He found it unsettling to rationalize Lear’s precipitous decision to renounce his filial obligations to Cordelia simply because of her acknowledgement of her matrimonial responsibilities (Kaladharan, 1989). As Zarrilli states:

Given the fact that social convention dictates that a daughter will naturally give her love to her husband, and that tragedy and the individual human weaknesses that prompt Lear’s downfall have little resonance in Kerala culture where kingship was historically idealized and related to maintenance of the cosmic order, to some Malayalis, Lear’s behaviour toward Cordelia appeared naive, and even silly (2000: 195).

Thus, for Nayar and the other connoisseurs, this production stands guilty of transgressing these strict boundaries of the ‘sense of appropriateness’; not only for its renunciation of the divine in favour of the ‘worldly’ or the ‘lower aesthetic’ but also for its attempt to depict the travails of a bumbling old man canonizing the inflections of moral and righteous infirmity.

Conditioned to Hate

The seemingly insuperable barricade that religion poses in any intercultural collaboration triggers questions – What do we do now? Does this mean that we comprehend the futility of such enterprises and refrain from being party to any such future collaboration? Or does it mean that we present each culture with the entirety of the other without any intermediate adaptation or adulteration? Poonam Trivedi argues that the latter approach would merely aggravate the existing barrier of cultural opacity and cites examples of the failure of meticulously Shakespearean productions from the past to bolster her arguments – “Girish Chandra Ghosh’s Macbeth (1893), very painstakingly put by him in “Scots” style with elaborate realistic setting and costuming… failed to run for more than ten days” and “the National School of Drama’s Samrat Lear (1997), directed by John Russell Brown… did not make much of an impact because it had not run the risk of adaptive intervention” (2004: 174). The basic problem of such productions is that they refuse to acknowledge the existence of a cultural barrier, let alone attempt to alleviate any part of it.

And I certainly do not subscribe to the former approach of refrain. Through this essay, I have endeavoured to postulate the nuances of one of the most fundamental barriers in interculturalism. Despite underlining the futility of our attempts to apprehend these impositions, I do not advocate a complete withdrawal from interculturalism as a solution. Intercultural performance serves as an indispensible and probably the only agent in the promulgati
on of culturally diverse histrionic traditions. However, its favourable reception rests predominantly on the ability of the audience to recognize the magnitude of the venture that the collaboration has undertaken and to submit to the impossibility of complete cultural preservation; the success lies in the minds of the audience. A study of the reception of Kathakali King Lear presents a self-centred conceited critique of the production, obstinacy on the part of the people in distancing their preconceptions and predilections from their judgements. It reflects a doctrinaire attitude in their refusal to recognize the production as a lofty attempt at facilitation of cultural traffic between two disparate sets of people. It exemplifies how theology has conditioned them to detest.

Trivedi takes a step still further in her discourse supporting the proliferation of intercultural theatre, and I find her interpretations befitting in the context of my arguments here. She rightly points out our lack of sufficient knowledge about the original Shakespearean productions and hence perceives all such current productions as attempts “to rediscover or uncover a Shakespeare unmarked by centuries of performative detritus” (Trivedi, 2004: 189). In this light, she asserts that “The Indian attempts at making Shakespeare folk are not too far removed from the “original impulse” – the search for the original Shakespeare that is animating the mainstream today” (Trivedi, 2004: 189). This production of Kathakali King Lear enjoyed just as much liberty as any other conventional Shakespearean production in terms of interpretation and adaption; no more, no less. It behoves us to accept this premise before we can judge any production. But then again, as Karl Marx said, religion is the opiate of the masses.

Rani Bhargav is a student at the University of Bristol, UK, studying MA in Performance Research. Please contact her at for detailed references in her article.


1. Posts at the India Foundation For the Arts, Bangalore:

    India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) is looking to fill two senior positions – Director, Programmes 

    and Director, Marketing and Business Development.

2. International Actor's Fellowship 2011, Globe Theatre, London:

    Extended application deadline for Indian Applicants: 10 March 2011

3.Sahitya rangabhoomi Pratishthan's Vinod Doshi Fellowship

    The Sahitya Rangabhoomi Pratishthan, for the sixth consecutive year announced a unique     fellowship of Rs. 1 lac each to five experimental theatre activists having outstanding talent.

The fellowships are named after late Mr. Vinod Doshi, former Chairman of Premier Automobiles Ltd.  Mr. Doshi, an industrialist by profession, had varied interests in the field of art and culture.   His passion was theatre and he spared no efforts for the promotion of modern theatre.  He not only was a patron of modern theatre movement during the sixties and seventies but also translated plays from Marathi into English and acted in plays too.

The funds for Vinod Doshi fellowship programme of Sahitya Rangabhoomi Pratishthan are received from Lalchand Hirachand Premier Trust. The Lalchand Hirachand Premier Trust is a public charity Trust and donates over Rs. 1 crore every year to support education, health and cultural activities.

The five fellows for the year 2011-2012 are Ms. Geetanjali Kulkarni, Ms. Choiti Ghosh, Mr. Bijon Mondal, Mr. Alok Rajwade and Mr. Ashish Mehta.The five fellowships will be conferred to the artists in a formal function at the hands of renowned  playwright and senior critic Ms. Shanta Gokhale on 13 February 2011 in Pune, Maharashtra.