‘The Merchant on Venice’ in California brings to the fore Indian religious prejudices

Review of play.

By Geetika Pathania Jain

SAN FRANCISCO: Indian emigrants bring to their adopted homelands not only their cuisine, their music, dance, and art, but also their prejudices.

Such is the premise of the brilliantly written “Merchant on Venice,” a play in iambic pentameter by Shishir Kurup that riffs on Hindu-Muslim animosity in contemporary Los Angeles.

A scene from Merchant on Venice
A scene from Merchant on Venice.

Performed by EnActe theater company in the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts in California, last month, the play boasts a lively, irreverent global cast, at least one Bollywood-style dance routine, plentiful pop references, and a keen satire of how religious animosities manage to infiltrate secularist institutions.

EnActe’s producer, Vinita Sud Belani promises, and delivers “a modern reinterpretation of people and places that you and I know a lot about.”

Belani has brought impressive productions to the Bay Area, including Noor, Empress of the Mughals, as well as Jean-Claude Carriere’s Mahabharata. The co-directors are Sonalee Hardikar and Amsalan Doraisingam.

Vijay Rajavaidya in Merchant on Venice
Vijay Rajavaidya in Merchant on Venice.

The play stays close to Shakespeare’s plotlines, featuring a vengeful Shylock-turned Sharuk character, intent on his pound of flesh. The buffoonish Tooranpoi, played by the talented Ranjita Chakravarty, provides comic relief at critical junctures. Suitors must choose from caskets containing high culture or mass culture offerings.

Regarding the play, writer Shishir states that “at one level, it’s very respectful of Shakespeare, and at the same time, very very irreverent, because if we keep things at a pedestal, we will never go beyond the museum, and I think that’s dangerous.”

That Sharuk cannot use his knife in the final moment speaks of a humanity that seems lost in the real-life paroxysms of communal violence that continue as a scourge of officially secular, contemporary India.

Devendra, played skilfully by Malaysian actor Amasalam Doraisingam, is the Hindu merchant who is the nemesis of Sharuk. Each views the other with a simmering suspicion that threatens to bubble up at every perceived provocation.

“Your temples stand besides our mosques, but we know as little of your religious practices as you do ours,” says Sharuk, played with vigor by well-known Bay Area actor Vijay Rajvaidya.

Merchant on Venice producer Vinita Balani Sud
Merchant on Venice producer Vinita Balani Sud.

‘The play has so much complexity,” said Rajvaidya during a subsequent conversation. “Both Sharuk and Devendra have immigrated to the US, but there is a sense of insecurity on Sharuk’s part as an Indian Muslim. The courts are justifiably seen as untrustworthy. The judge orders a full-fledged Hindu religious ceremony before the court proceeds, and is clearly not planning to allow Devendra to lose his bet, let alone any body parts: ‘We just did this to humor him.’ And Sharuk responds sarcastically: ‘The truth will set you free. Thank you.’ Even Devendra realizes that this is a setup: ‘No! To win this way is no win.’ The justice system is a sham.”

While Shakespeare enthusiasts will find the play compelling in its adapted form, it is possible that the convoluted plotlines might leave some audience members confused.

I found myself thinking about my school days in India, and the Indian Certificate Secondary Education curriculum that aided my knowledge of Shakespeare. An Irish Catholic nun taught us Merchant of Venice in a post-independence Indian convent school that had Hindu, Christian and Muslim students. “The quality of mercy is not strained,” she enunciated to her multicultural classroom. ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?” An appropriate lesson for pluralistic societies on all continents, held together for better or worse.

(Geetika Pathania Jain is an educator and cultural critic who lives in the Bay Area. She holds a doctorate in international communications.)

 

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