Reception of Franz Kafka in India
Indians eagerly embrace the genius of the famous German language writer
Translations, adaptations, paintings and even sculptures reveal an increasing influence of Franz Kafka's works on India's artistic and literary landscape.
By Faizal Khan
In July this year, the Western Indian city of Pune's popular Expression Lab, a happy hunting ground for experimental theatre enthusiasts, staged three plays of the same story on the same day. The plays were each called A Report to an Academy, all solo performances of Franz Kafka's short story of the same title written more than a century before. The plays were in three different languages – the original German, English and the local Marathi language.
"There were also three different actors," recalls Soumyabrata Choudhury, who directed and performed the play in English. "The response from the audience to the plays was extraordinary," adds Choudhury, who is Associate Professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Choudhury first performed A Report to an Academy at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi almost two decades ago.
Vaibhav Abnave, a filmmaker and independent researcher from Pune who recorded the performances at the Expression Lab, is now completing a movie on the three plays. The film will be titled Three Monkeys and explore the human-animal relationship and how cinema encounters stage. "Kafka dismantles our presumption about what it means to be human, living and progressed," says Abnave about A Report to an Academy, Kafka's story of a man called upon to submit a report concerning his previous life as an ape.
From theatre to cinema and literature to art, the influence of Kafka's works are increasingly visible across India. There are translations of the author's short stories and novels available in Indian languages like Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam and Urdu. Adaptations of Kafka's works like that of A Report to an Academy in Pune occur with growing regularity in Indian theatre. Filmmakers openly talk about Kafka's influence on their productions. Whether it is literary non-fiction or news reports, titles and headlines draw the word, Kafkaesque, to book covers and front pages of newspapers.
"The name Kafka evokes worldwide a variety of interpretations, metaphors and images with something universal in them," says Rosy Singh, Associate Professor at the Centre of German Studies, School of Language, Literature & Culture Studies of JNU, New Delhi. "In India, Kafka is often interpreted with a local colour and adapted for current contexts," adds Prof. Singh, who has done extensive research on reception of Kafka in India.
For more than a decade, adaptations of Kafka's short stories and novels have been a recurring theme in theatre festivals in Indian cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Pune. At the National School of Drama (NSD), Delhi's repertory theatre festival in 2006, one of the highlights was Kafka – Ek Adhyay (Kafka – A Chapter), a play on the Czech writer. Staged several times again in the following years, Kafka - Ek Adhyay, written by NSD graduate Asif Ali Haider is set in a sanatorium where Kafka's fiance Felice Bauer is visiting the writer who is undergoing treatment for tuberculosis.
When a new theatre company opened in New Delhi two years ago, its inaugural play in Hindi was an adaptation of The Trial. Rama Theatre Natya Vidya's Giraftari (which means arrest in Hindi) directed by Rama Pandey used folk traditions of India to look at contemporary Indian society through the struggles of Kafka's character with authority and justice. Prism Theatre, another stage group in New Delhi, too adapted The Trial in Hindi in the same year, replacing Joseph K. with Kumar, a software engineer arrested on his 30th birthday.
The Trial also received an adaptation in Hindi in 1989 by celebrated Indian playwright Mohan Maharishi as Joseph Ka Mukadma (Joseph's Court Case). Three years ago, the popular Bharat Rang Mahotsav, a national theatre festival organised by NSD in New Delhi, staged Upashya, a play in Marathi language based on Kafka's short story, A Hunger Artist.
Four years ago, Pune-based theatre director Zameer Badrunnisa brought together Kafka and 15th century Indian poet Kabir Das in a new play, Suno Bhai Kafka (Listen Brother Kafka). "The play was based on the imaginary meeting between Kafka and Kabir," says Badrunnisa, who studied German at the University of Pune. "There were Indian spiritual stories in the play that responded to Kafka's stories," he says, referring to Kabir's poems that questioned religious obscurantism and women's inequality.
Indian artist Paribartana's mother Bishnupriya Mohanty (left) and aunt Sarojini Mohanty (right) reading from Rupantara, the Oriya translation of The Metamorphosis by famous Indian writer Kamalakanta Mahapatra as part of his artistic project, Five Million Incidents, at the Goethe Institut, New Delhi | © Paribartana Mohanty In September, Indian artist Paribartana Mohanty joined his mother Bisnupriya Mohanty and aunt Sarojini Mohanty to read from Rupantara, the Oriya translation of The Metamorphosis by famous Indian writer Kamalakanta Mahapatra as part of his artistic project, Five Million Incidents, a new exhibition at the Goethe Institut in New Delhi. "The Metamorphosis is also about family," says Mohanty about reading Kafka's novella in Oriya, his mother tongue. His work, which mainly composed of conversations with his family, explores relationships and nationalism in contemporary society. "How do you understand family as a unit when people are coming together today through different ideologies?" says Mohanty, who tries to understand the answer through the existential dilemma in The Metamorphosis.
Translations of Kafka's works in Indian languages also include, Kafka ki Lokpriya Kahaniyan (2016), a collection of stories in Hindi published by Prabhat Prakashan, Durgam, a Malayalam translation of The Castle, an e-book of The Metamorphosis in Tamil, and a 1962 Urdu translation of the novella, titled Kaya Kalp, by Intizar Husain. Another Urdu writer and teacher, the late Naiyer Masud, a former head of Persian department at the Lucknow University in Uttar Pradesh, translated 20 short stories of Kafka in 1978. Mukadmo, a Gujarati translation of The Trial, is available at a cover price of roughly and one-and-a-half euro.
"There is also a book, Kafka in Ayodhya and Other Stories, by Singapore-based Indian journalist and writer Zafar Anjum, which imagines Kafka going to Ayodhya (where a 16th century mosque was demolished in mob violence in 1992), with a copy of The Metamorphosis in his suitcase," says Rosy Singh, who taught German at the Delhi University for nearly two decades before taking up her current position as Associate Professor at JNU three years ago.
Mumbai-based independent filmmaker-producer Anurag Kashyap's 2007 film No Smoking has a character named K. "K. is a chain smoker who wants to quit smoking. He visits a rehabilitation centre that resembles Kafka's world. The fusion of real and dreamlike worlds, the topography of the apartment blocks and slums, the labyrinthine situations and the fear of the protagonists are quite Kafkaesque," says Singh, whose doctoral thesis was on the famous Czech writer. "India doesn't have a Kafka, but the country has different ways of understanding and adapting his works," she adds.