Samsaria – an Indian adaptation of Hamlet by Shomee Chakrabartty


SEE Magazine
Copyright © 1998. All Rights Reserved.


Samsaria – cycle of life. “He wanted to root it in India because of Indian philosophy being very cyclical. What you do affects what you will be in your next life, it’ll affect your path and it revolves in a cycle.”

As part of River City Shakespeare Festival ’98, the Nataraja Studio presents Samsaria, an East Indian adaptation of Hamlet. The brainchild of Shomee Chakrabartty, it was presented last year at the Provincial Museum and recently won the Sterling Award for Outstanding Choreography. Choreography? You bet. This is not your standard Hamlet but a full-fledged East Indian entertainment epic, rich with color, music, passion, violence, mythology and nary a Dane in sight.

Chakrabartty’s original idea was to explore his Indian heritage, employing Hamlet as a medium, while at the same time interpreting Hamlet through Indian traditions. This time around he’s going a few steps further.

Traditionally, directors toe the line that Shakespeare draws on the stage in Act 3, Scene 2 when he has Hamlet instruct the players to “suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance: that you o’erstep not the modesty of Nature . . .”

Chakrabartty has taken more to heart Hamlet’s prefatory words to the speech above, “be not too tame neither: but let your own discretion be your tutor.” He has, for instance, made the play-within-the-play a “dumb-show” done in traditional Manipoori dance forms, actually changing Shakespeare’s words into actions.

Nor does he stop there. Some of the text is sung, but not necessarily to Indian tunes. Most of the music was composed for this production by locals Bryan Reichert and Brad Bowie. Because some of the seven dancers are trained in classical Western ballet, the dances, though based on traditional Indian forms, are much more readily accessible to Western sensibilities and, according to at least one of the cast, “very, very cool.”

An aspect of the production that everyone I spoke with commented on was the rather egalitarian nature of the play’s development. Instead of the authoritative, single-minded director’s vision that everyone was to bend themselves toward, Chakrabartty encouraged input from all 16 cast members.

Not that the text or the story were compromised into a mishmash of the multitude of personalities involved. Each member was encouraged to bring to the play aspects of his or her cultural heritage that might clarify or heighten emotional values crucial to understanding the play. Seems rather appropriate for a Canadian production.


I spoke with Nisha Sajnani and Mark Henderson who play, respectively, Kamala (Ophelia) and Kalia (Claudius).

NS: “He’s had a chance to bring so much more into the play because it’s being shown to a large audience. It’s a far more international cast than it was last year. Last year he was aiming for it to just be an Indian adaptation of Hamlet and this year it’s a cross-cultural adaptation. The influences of all of us come from different backgrounds and we’ve made a point of making that known, (sharing) how we would do things in our own culture.”

MH: “One example is Oana (Toma, who plays Mirabai, the equivalent of Hamlet’s Queen Gertrude). When she’s doing the Gaieatrean mantra, which is a Sanskrit mantra about the realization of self, she’s put that to the traditional Rumanian tune for the Lord’s Prayer. She’s going to sort of Indian-ify it a bit, but, it works!”

Which caused me to wonder just how, or where, a mantra might fit into Hamlet. Reflecting on the melancholy Prince’s penchant for morose soliloquy, however, and the dark qualities of the play – murder, vengeance, incest, loneliness, abandonment, treachery – why rely on music and lighting alone? Song and dance are extensions of music that surely amplify emotional content; and are essential ingredients in Indian epic, both traditional and modern. And isn’t a mantra supposed to be an aid to reflection and enlightenment?

I asked if Chakrabartty interwove any Indian tales or stayed principally to the structure of Hamlet.

NS: “(Chakrabartty) makes reference to a battle from the Mahabarata, a large epic story . . .”

MH: “The Mahabarata, especially that part – the Baghavad Gita – at that moment of crisis, is just another reflection of the same human condition as Hamlet went through. There’s this big war, come for various reasons . . . and one of the problems is that a lot of (the hero’s) friends and brothers are on the other side . . . on the side of the evil king And he must kill them.”

SEE: “What are the most important changes that (Chakrabartty) has made to the story? Has he cut anything out that will strike anyone familiar with Hamlet as necessary but not there?”

MH: “Well, there’s one that’s very big, but I’m not going to reveal it. I can’t, because that would wreck the surprise.”

NS: “There are some that he put in there, and there are some scenes that he changed with Ophelia because of Ophelia’s character, being that it’s usually very affected and very circumstantial. She becomes what she becomes because she can’t (create her own life) . . . she only succumbs to it. (Chakrabartty) didn’t want it that way, because a lot of Indian women, that’s exactly their entire life . . . They can’t (resist) because they don’t know any different. So he changed Ophelia. A few scenes he has added or taken away are just there to allow her to assert herself. Ophelia’s a lot stronger in Samsaria.”

MH: “In a lot of ways (the changes) just serve to illuminate things that were already there in the character, but that you just didn’t get to see. I mean, if the character was played brilliantly, you might see them, but more often than not, with one or two exceptions.”

NS: “Well, Ophelia’s (usually) fairly forgettable, and I’d like to have it not so.”

What will almost certainly be memorable, as in the wonderful Olivier version, is the fight choreography. Chakrabartty is certified in stage fighting and, as he plays the lead, Amrit Khan (Hamlet) will, no doubt, give special attention to the final duel with Laertes. I asked Sajnani how Chakrabartty is to work with.

NS: “He’s very dedicated to this project, and because he is, because he’s intensely in love with it . . . You feel that you can invest yourself. Right from the start it seemed that he wanted this to be a collaborative process, so his direction doesn’t necessarily come across as ‘do this, do that, this is how I want it.’ Maybe, to some actors, that’s what it needs to be, because it seems that even as we’ve been going through this rehearsal that some actors really need it to be that way. That’s . . . how he has created this rehearsal space; even this is one week before we’re opening and we’re still adding ideas, still being very collaborative about it.

Everybody has the right to say, ‘you know, I think it would work better this way.’ And it’s respected.”

MH: “He’s fun to work with. He’s spunky and he’s bright and he’s pretty open, and that’s most of what you need to do something.”

There is certainly no question that Shomee Chakrabartty is doing something. Hamlet is a massive, difficult play, and a masterpiece. To attempt any sort of reconstruction or interpretation outside traditional bounds is an heroic undertaking. All that I saw and heard of this “epic” production led me to believe it will be well worth the investment.

4 thoughts on “Samsaria – an Indian adaptation of Hamlet by Shomee Chakrabartty

  1. Samsara (Sanskrit: संसार) is the endless cycle of suffering caused by birth, death and rebirth (i.e. reincarnation) within Buddhism, Bön, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Vaishnavism and other related religions.

    According to these religions, one’s karmic “account balance” at the time of death is inherited via the state at which a person is reborn.[citation needed] During the course of each worldly life, actions committed (for good or ill) determine the future destiny of each being in the process of becoming (evolution or devolution). In Buddhism, at death the underlying volitional impulses (Saṅkhāras) thus accrued and developed are carried and transmitted in a consciousness structure popularly known as the soul, which, after an intermediate period (in Tibetan called the bardo), forms the basis for a new biological structure that will result in rebirth and a new life. This process is considered to go on until the person achieves moksha.

    If one lives in evil ways, one is reborn as an animal or other unfortunate being.

  2. Samsara is derived from “to flow together”, to go or pass through states, to wander between life and death[2].

    The concept of samsara (along with karma, reincarnation, and moksha) was first developed in India by non-Aryan people outside of the caste system. The spiritual ideas of these people greatly influenced later Indian religious thought. Buddhism and Jainism are continuations of this tradition, and the early Upanishadic movement was influenced by it. Reincarnation was adopted from this religious culture by Brahmin orthodoxy, and Brahmins first wrote down scriptures containing these ideas in the early Upanishads.

    The Sanskrit word “Samsara” is the root for the Malay word “sengsara”, which means suffering.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s