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Shakespeare in the “Post”Colonies: tackling colonialism’s aftereffects in the creative space

February 21, 2024

Shakespeare in the “Post”Colonies: tackling colonialism’s aftereffects in the creative space

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In the spring of 2021, Amrita Dhar and Dr. Amrita Sen of the University of Calcutta co-led a seminar, “Shakespeare in the ‘Post’Colonies,” at the Shakespeare Association of America Annual Conference. The seminar aimed to investigate a crucial paradox: William Shakespeare and his works play a central role in curricula worldwide due to legacies of English colonialism, yet they also offer a medium for creators in the post-colonial era to critique the colonial aftereffects. The success of the seminar and the engagement with “participants from over 10 distinct geographies of colonial/post-colonial inheritance” fed Dhar’s curiosity about Shakespeare further: “How and why were creatives today—theatre-makers, novelists, filmmakers, journalists and so on—using Shakespeare? What post-colonial questions did Shakespeare allow us to get at?”   

Two years later, after much hard work and anticipation, Dhar and her collaborators launched Shakespeare in the “Post”Colonies, a multimodal project exploring Shakespeare’s role in the post-colonial era. For Dhar, the project began with a “very real question about what the presence of Shakespeare meant in so many places of past–or present– colonial existence in the 21st century.” Belonging to a country that was colonized in the past, she is conscious of the fact that Shakespeare did not come “in perfect freedom or benevolence” to her and many others, yet his writings are a prominent and beloved part of many global literary cultures. This juxtaposition and Dhar’s love for Shakespeare inspired her to take on this project to investigate how this central literary figure evolved in the postcolonial creative space. She says, “Shakespeare came to me—as Shakespeare came to so many—through colonialism. Yet today, Shakespeare is mine and ours—and I love Shakespeare for the conversations Shakespeare allows us to have.”   

Dhar is a scholar of early modern English literature and disability studies and a trained Shakespearean. When she began planning the project in 2021, however, she knew she needed a collaborator “whose training and expertise brought on board the scholarship of postcolonial and contemporary literatures” to bring the necessary context to understand Shakespeare in this new age. She approached Professor Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́́. He and Dhar grew up in ex-British colonies, Nigeria and India, respectively, and studied in school systems centered on Shakespeare for years. He explains that “as a Renaissance scholar, Dr Dhar understands the central role early modern literature, especially Shakespeare, played in how colonial rule justified and instituted itself. As a student of [the] Anglophone Black Atlantic, I am familiar with the persistence of literary education in ex-colonies, even as the English canon of literary history is being dismantled.” Dhar was delighted by Adéẹ̀kọ’s response to her request: “Being the thoroughly magnificent senior colleague, mentor and interlocutor that he is, he said yes, and we have been working together on many aspects of this project ever since.”   

In 2022, Dhar and Adéẹ̀kọ́ applied for a grant through the College of Arts and Sciences so that they could interview “leading Shakespearean postcolonial creatives from around the world and put together an open-access digital repository of interviews that would appeal to wide, multicultural, non-highly specialized audiences.”   

Shakespeare in the “Post”Colonies is, as Dhar puts it, “an open-access digital repository of interviews.” It exists in two interconnected forms: a project website with audio recordings and transcripts, and a podcast feed released through Apple Podcasts. Adéẹ̀kọ appreciates the easy access of podcasts as it broadens the audience reach. Dhar, being a scholar of disability studies, prioritized multimodal access: “The idea is to reach listeners/readers of every stripe, locally and globally. In the first 30 days of the project’s release, the project site alone had registered over 1,500 visits. This tells me that our efforts towards multimodal welcome of readers and listeners are paying off!”   

As with any research project, there were a fair share of difficulties. Dhar is quick to recall more than a few: “figuring out time zones across the world in which to have these conversations; recording under hugely disparate internet and tech conditions from across the globe; post-recording editing for length and accuracy and flow and appropriateness; collation of supplementary multimedia; securing the internet domain and figuring out data longevity and storage; website design and web-page proofing.” Despite the hiccups, Dhar and Adéẹ̀kọ did not lose hope. “There was only one thing to do,” Dhar says: “take things one at a time and keep at it.”    

Regardless of the difficulties, Dhar and Adéẹ̀kọ made wonderful memories throughout the project. Dhar’s favorite part of developing this project was meeting with artists and creatives whose work she admires. She was delighted to have the opportunity to speak to Vishal Bhardwaj and “quiz him about his decisions on aspects of his films—Maqbool (2004), Omkara (2006) and Haider (2014)—all of which I have taught in my Shakespeare classes. How often do you get to just sit down and have an extended conversation with a critically and popularly acclaimed Bollywood director? And that’s just one example.” Adéẹ̀kọ’s favorite part was getting the chance to explain in accessible terms the motivations behind artistic creations that are “organized around concepts and works of select major actors and producers.”   

The passion Dhar and Adéẹ̀kọ share for this project is evident through their work. They are grateful for all those who have given their time and energy to participate in these “conversations with magnificent people who had brilliant things to say.” This project aims to remind people how crucial critical thinking, ethical doing and the arts are, and serves as a reminder of the importance of art, integrity, human accountability, politics, ethics and activism toward justice and postcoloniality. As Dhar says, “Shakespeare is almost an excuse for us to have conversations here about critical social justice matters today, and about the hold and reach of art.”    

To learn more about who the twenty-first-century Shakespeare is, Dhar and Adéẹ̀ko encourage you to visit Shakespeare in the “Post”Colonies online, or to listen through various podcasting platforms such as Apple Podcasts.    

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