|Queen Victoria (Beatie Edney) dances with her Indian servant, Abdul Karim (Tony Jayawardena), in Tanika Gupta’s play, The Empress
London, April 21: Bengali playwright Tanika Gupta, one of whose ancestors was hanged by the British in Calcutta’s Alipore Central Jail, appears to have exacted sweet revenge.
The great-niece of Dinesh Gupta — of Benoy-Badal-Dinesh fame — has written a play, The Empress, full of fiery anti-imperialist speeches and shown Queen Victoria as being more than a little keen on her Indian manservant, Abdul Karim.
The Empress of India dances with the Munshi, as Karim came to be known, hangs on his every word, giggles when he flatters her outrageously, kisses his hand, learns helpful Hindustani phrases from him and then repeats earnestly: “Me tum se pyar karti hui (I love you).”
“With all my heart,” she adds in English.
Tanika’s play is not being staged in a tucked-away venue in East London above a dingy pub but before a global audience at the Swan Theatre in William Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon.
Yesterday was celebrated as Shakespeare’s birthday and the crowds were out on a sunny day in the streets of Stratford, decorated with bunting. Drums were being beaten, women were wandering around in period costume, and children posed for photographs alongside “Happy Birthday Billy” posters.
It is not known precisely when Shakespeare was born but he was baptised on April 26, 1564, and died on April 23, 1616. For the past couple of centuries, it has been a local tradition to mark the occasion on the weekend closest to his supposed birthday.
The Royal Shakespeare Company puts on the Bard’s work but it also encourages new writing, of which Tanika’s The Empress is an example.
On one night recently, some of the cast could detect bristling hostility among select English members of the cast.
Tanika’s history is that her mother Gairika and late father Tapan Gupta set up the Tagoreans in London with the aim of spreading the best of Bengali culture.
The story Tanika heard from her father is as follows: on December 8, 1930, three young Bengali revolutionaries burst into Writers’ Buildings in Calcutta and shot dead Col N.S. Simpson, the inspector-general of prisons who was apparently implicated in the torture of prisoners.
To avoid capture after a gun battle, Benoy Basu, 21, shot himself and died a few days later. Badal Gupta, 18, swallowed potassium cyanide. Dinesh, 19, had a bullet removed from his head and was restored to health before being tried and hanged on July 7, 1931.
Dinesh was the youngest brother of Tanika’s paternal grandfather, Pritish Gupta.
The Empress, set in 1887, the 50th year of Queen Victoria’s rule, is partly about her relationship with Karim, who became her confidant. On the ship that brings him to England, Tanika has imagined a 16-year-old “Rani Das from Bengal”.
Rani is an ayah hired to look after British children on the voyage to England. Like hundreds of other ayahs who are dumped once their ship has docked, Rani has to find her way in a strange land.
Tanika has tossed in Indian political figures who were in London at that time, among them Dadabhai Naoroji and an 18-year-old Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and included a passing reference to Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
Tanika explains what is at the heart of The Empress. “The story is the empire. India is part of the British empire, but at the same time there is the whole scramble for Africa in 1890. African slavery was abolished in 1833 but what they still need to run the empire are servants. These ayahs, sailors, domestic servants, all these people coming over to service the empire —that for me is what the play really is about.”
That may be so but the standing ovation the play received yesterday was probably more for the Victoria-Karim exchanges and how their growing relationship outraged the Queen’s family and other members of the court.
The Victoria created by Tanika is one that the people of Calcutta would warm to — especially since the Victoria Memorial with a large statue of the former Queen has become a much-loved landmark. She makes her Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, apologise for disparaging Naoroji as a black man.
Within days of Victoria’s death in 1901, Karim is packed off to India. All the letters Victoria had written to him are confiscated and burnt.
Victoria, who never visited India, is given the following lines towards the end of her life:
Abdul: You have always said how much you wished you could go to India....
Victoria: It is too late now. I can barely stand.... I would have liked to have visited the Taj Mahal and sat by the Ganges in the moonlight; I would have liked to have ridden an elephant.
Abdul: I have taken the liberty, Your Majesty, to ensure that if Her Majesty can’t go to India, then we will bring India to her.
Victoria is delighted as an Indian dance troupe performs, almost Bollywood-style. The sitar is played live by Sheema Mukherjee, niece of the late maestro Nikhil Banerjee.