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A twenty-first century Indian saga

  • Published at 11:39 am April 29th, 2021
Native Peer

Book review

“To be oneself, oneself to slay”– that remarkable anecdote uttered by the Buttonmoulder in Act V of the play Peer Gynt (quoted from the translated play by John Northam) by Henrik Ibsen sets off the philosophical journey of a man whose entire life has been a failed adventure. Indeed, Peer Gynt is the journey of a Norwegian country lad who aspires to be the emperor of the world and comes back to his native place after a circular journey across cultures. The Bengali version of Peer Gynt (1867) has recently been published as Native Peer by the theatre stalwart Kamaluddin Nilu as a “cultural adaptation” in which he has emphasised the philosophical side of the play. However, he declares in the introduction to his book that for creating a new artistic expression he needed to negotiate among several elements: sociolinguistic pluralism, cultural differences, emergence of a strong Hindu nationalism, religious fundamentalism against the state’s declared constitutional secularism, caste and class differences, expansion of neo-liberal economy vis-à-vis capitalism, migration, lack of women’s empowerment, sexism and body politics that define today’s Indian political scene. 

The adapted play shows the points of convergences as well as divergences with the original in several ways. The play substantially conforms to the idea of Trilok or Trailokya that conceptualizes the division of the universe into three states of existence in Hindu and Buddhist theology: Kamaloka, Rupaloka, and Arupaloka. Kamaloka is the world basically of desires and is inhabited by hellish spirits, ghosts, humans, animals, and lower demi-gods. Rupaloka is the celestial world of forms that is free of baser desires, and is the dwelling for gods. In this sphere the possible rebirth for the one who is faithful is determined. Arupaloka, the non-corporeal realm or the world of formlessness, is the threshold to the Nirvanic state. The text of Native Peer is divided into three segments accordingly, and in each the dramaturg has shown how Peer falls prey to the carnal desires or the devils, understands his destination, and through his catastrophes finally meets his salvation. 

The first part is called “Lok Peer” or “Peer of the folktales”. Peer Gynt has perhaps found its acceptance in our mind easily for its folkloric features, as Nordic folklore, though set in a different imaginary landscape, has elements that are common in folklores across cultures. An adventurous boy who is not skilled in economic activities, and dreams of becoming a king someday is a common character in folktales across cultures. However, Ibsen picks this character and employs him in a rather complicated existential narrative. Peer becomes the emperor of the world temporarily, only to realise that material achievements cannot lead a man to eternal happiness. This pessimism leads him to ask the ultimate question if there is any core of human existence. 

Nilu is a renowned theatre director with international acclaim, and no wonder his adaptation of the play would capture the contemporary sociopolitical and cultural situation of India. The book has come out in 2020 just before the pandemic engulfed the world, as if, to mock the globetrotter persona of Peer. The nativity of Peer is fixed in Native Peer as he seems to interact within a very specific time frame in neoliberal India that witnesses a newly emerged concept of Hindutva that betrays intolerance and anti-Muslim sentiment. The text juxtaposes sardonic humour with bitter criticism of religiosity and globalisation. In the scene where Peer meets the three troll women, the conversation reveals the identity of the trolls as Hindu fundamentalists –

PEER GYNT: I am thirsty. 

SECOND GIRL: We have drink. 

PEER GYNT: I love to have Pepsi or Coca-Cola. Oh, I am thirsty. 

FIRST GIRL: That is white people’s drink, not ours. You will get our own Soda Gau Jal. Holy mothers’ water. 

This surely reflects the present-day Indian scene in which bottled cow urine is advertised on Amazon India for about two hundred rupees a litre, a crude example of a nation’s retrogressive journey vis-à-vis global consumerism.

Also Read: Colonial India through Women’s Eyes

The naming of the characters interestingly creates a parallel between the local and the global: Peer as a global citizen and Anitra being the universal prostitute retain their original names, but the other characters get new names of Indian origin. This mixture of cultures comes as a strong contrast to the monocultural political activism of the emergent Hindutva. Nilu compares this with Nazism rather overtly when he uses in the court scene of the Troll king “Horst Wessel Lied” or the Horst Wessel Song that was the anthem of the Nazi Party from 1930 to 1945. Though he familiarises Indian readers and audiences with the European music, he avoids presenting the voice of the Bøyg in the dark even though the Indians are somewhat familiar with Kierkegaard’s philosophical claim that “faith always pertains to what is not seen, be it the invisible or the improbable”, as there are religious communities that believe in the invisible God. Indeed, Nilu moves around the Kierkegaardian philosophy that the notable man must consider a great thought to overcome the darkness and that he must have faith, as faith sees best in the dark; but instead of doting on this darkness Nilu introduces a semicircular mirror castle in the scene, again a Kierkegaardian metaphor of moral vision and imagination. The reflections of the main character and the audiences in the broken pieces of the mirror create a visual that illustrates the aspects of Peer’s moral cognition. This vision of oneself and many selves certainly refers to Peer’s moral disintegration and self-examination. To perfect his moral agency the appearance of Sharoda (Solveig) in the next scene is necessitated. The idea of the heavy moral burden and hearing the voice of the beloved brings back the philosophy of “moving the mountain” as Kierkegaard writes, “A sufferer, touched and moved, can perhaps listen to another’s loving, sympathetic, heartening words.”. Yet it is not time to disburden, and to have the final call Peer takes a detour to the outside world. In Nilu’s words this is “Biswa Peer” or “Peer of the World”, the second episode. 

The second part of the play takes place in a symbolic space created by the mix of cosmopolitanism and capitalism at its pick. The ballroom of Hotel Incredible India in which the classic song “Money” by Pink Floyd sets the tone of greed, lechery and exploitation claiming the soul of Peer who does not listen to his inner voice that came earlier through Sharoda. Gradually Anitra engulfs his blind desires and leaves him more devastated; and towards the end of the episode Peer’s salvation is signalled by Sharoda’s song: 

Since I’m your source of life 

And your final destiny

You’ll have to come back to me. 

Keeping alignment with the Ibsenian text, Nilu makes Peer meet the crazy mob of the asylum, but his mad men are all religious people reading holy books; all fanatics of the world are put together. There we meet Naked Peer in the titular last episode of the book in which we meet Peer sitting on garbage and uttering: 

I’m not from the East or the West […]

For I belong to the soul of my beloved.

His beloved Sharoda, however, is not presented on stage any more, because Nilu makes Peer embrace the Sufi tradition whose salvation lies in the grave, and Peer digs his grave in the quest of a destination. Sharoda as the passage that links the Jivatma (soul) with the Paramatma (the supreme soul), and denies the presence of it rather covertly. 

The Indianised Peer Gynt brings a fresh understanding of the play in the rightist turn of the sociopolitical and cultural scene in India, and perhaps this is how a classic text overcomes the barriers of time and space. 


Sabiha Huq is Professor of English, Khulna University, Bangladesh, and is a member of the International Ibsen Committee.  She can be reached at [email protected]

Native Peer

 By Kamaluddin Nilu

Dhaka: Batighar, 2020, 108 pages, 

ISBN: 978-984-8034-71-2

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