Assam came under the direct control of the British in 1826,in pursuance of the treaty of Yanda. Simultaneously with the British came another group of foreigners, the American Baptist Missionaries, to whom Assam owes the ushering in of a new age in literature, for it was their journal Arunoday, the first of its kind in the Assamese language that heralded the advent of Modern Assamese literature. The advent of Shakespeare in Assam almost coincided with the coming of the British into the land. The new rulers staged Shakespeare plays in their clubs and on ceremonial occasions and though the masses had hardly any opportunity to witness them, a selected few were fortunate enough to have a close view. Assamese students in Calcutta had a more frequent and more intimate contact with Shakespeare plays and, like most of their Bengalee counterparts, they were deeply impressed. On the other hand, the spread of English education brought Shakespeare closer to the intelligentsia of Assam who fell easy victims to the charms, and more so the prestige, of the great dramatist. No wonder that the young scholars and writers of Assam developed a Shakespeare—consciousness which in some cases veered dangerously to Shakespeare-idolatry.
The influence of Shakespeare on Assamese literature is threefold. The direct impact is, of course, on the dramatic literature of Assam. This is followed by the indirect impact of Shakespearean stories, with their special set—up, on Assamese novels and narrative poems. The third influence is on poetry proper.
The influence of Shakespeare on the dramatic literature of Assam is also three-fold, involving formal” innovations, new technique of characterization and direct translation, The story of Assamese literature is an old one. Barring Parijat-Haran of the Maithili poet Umapati Upadhyaya, the ‘Ankia’ playlets of Sree Sankardev are the earliest specimens of dramatic efforts among the modern Indian languages. The torch of dramatic literature lit by Sankarclev and ably nursed by his followers gradually died down in the post-Vaishnava period to be replaced by a new flame kindled by the English. This new dramatic literature of Assam was a child of Shakespeare. There was no division into Acts and Scenes in the Ankia-nat of Sankardev. Such formal innovations as we find in modern Assamese drama are a direct borrowing from Shakespeare. The change is first detected in Gunabhiram Barua’s play Ram-Navami (1857). As a play of transition it carries un-mistakable signs of affiliation with the older drama. Here we find the inevitable Sutradhara and also the time-honoured convention of ending the play in a song of the lachari type. But the influence of Shakespeare is apparent in the division of the play into eight scenes. In the days following, the influence of Shakespeare on Assamese literature grew appreciably. Acts, Scenes, Stage-directions, soliloquies etc. in the Shakespearean tradition became vital components of the new drama. Quite naturally, in the First phase of the changeover, the growth was slow and halting. It was in the Jonaki era that the new drama sprang into vigorous life, greedily seeking newer avenues. The high priests of this new drama were Lakshminath Bezboroa and Padmanath Gohain Barua. Both of them were influenced by not only the form and technique of Shakespeare plays but also the Shakespearean way of characterization. Gajpuria and Priyaram of Bezborua’s play, Chakradhwaj Sinha were modelled after Falstaff. A large number of characters in Assamese drama have come into being, following the line of the Shakespearean clown. The special type of Shakespearean women, playing decisive dramatic roles in the guise of men, have inspired a number of such romantically intriguing characters in Assamese drama. We find such characters in Padmanath Gohain Barua’s Lachit Borphukan, Sailadhar Rajkhawa’s Pratapsinha, Prasantalal Chowdhury’s Nilambar and also in a novel of Gohain Barua named Bhanumati. Shakespeare’s influence is also evident in long soliloquies, rhetorical speeches and occasional sprinkling of lyrics. Gohain Barua and Bezborua remain the ablest imitators of Shakespeare in the formal and technical aspects of drama.
A more comprehensive assimilation of Shakespeare was effected by a group of four young Assamese who had studied in Calcutta colleges. They were Ratnadhar Borua, Gunanjan Borua, Ghanashyam Borua and Ramakanta Borkakoti. Together they produced the first full-scale translation of Shakespeare in the shape of Bhramranga which is the Assamese counterpart of The Comedy of Errors. It was not, of course, a word for word translation and an interesting feature was the substitution of Shakespeare’s blank verse by prose.
The poet-philosopher Durgeswar Sarma wrote two plays called Chandravati and Padmavati, modelling them on As You Like It and Cymbellne. Chandravati retains the set-up of the old drama, but attempts to bring it in line with the new mode. Padmavati, modelled on Cymbellne, is an unpublished play. Here the dramatist has tried to give the story an Indian colour by substituting England and Rome by Avanti and Ujjaini. A similar adaptation of Cymbeline is found in another Assamcse play called Tara. Indianisation has been effected through building up the plot against the background of the clash between the Mughals and the Rajputs.
Debananda Bharati’s Bhimdarpa is an echo of Macbeth while Padmadhar Chaliha’s Amar Lila is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. The Merchant of Venice and King Lear were recreated by Atul Chandra Hazarika in the shape of Banij Kunwar and Asru Tirtha. None of these is a Literal translation; they are rather free adaptations with a conscious effort to lend them a local look. As a result, many of the characters of the original have lost their Shakespearean quality in the process of being Indianised.
Karmavir Nabin Chandra Bordoloi also tried his hand at writing plays of the Shakespearan type. His Tarun-Kanchan, Bishad Kahini and Danduri Daman are variations of Troilus and Cressida, King Lear and The Taming of the Shrew respectively. Of these, only Tarun-Kanchan has come out in the journal, Abahan, the other two are still to be published. Another successful adaptation of Shakespeare is Sailadhar Rajkhowa’s Ranjit Sinha, based on Othello, which has been a great success on the stage.
Conforming to the present-day need of one-act plays and radio-plays, attempts have been made to clip Shakespeare into radio versions. Phani Talukdar’s Assamese adaptations of Macbeth and Hamlet, and Narayan Bezborua’s Julius Caesar have been very successfully broadcast through All India Radio, Gauhati.
The impact of Shakespeare on Assamese literature is not confined to drama alone. It has penetrated into the novel also. Many an echo of Romeo and Juliet is heard in Rajani Kanto Bordoloi’s Manomati, while Miri Jiaroi has a plot clearly modelled on that of the same play. Romeo and Juliet peeps also through Lakshminath Bezborua’s Padum Kunwari, while Padmanath Gohain Borua’s Bhanumali shows the indirect influence of both Romeo and Juliet and As You Like it.
In the penetration of Shakespeare into the sphere of the novel, Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare has played a vital role. It has not only encouraged retelling in prose the more popular plots of Shakespeare but has also tempted the young Assamese novelist to incorporate plot-outlines and character-sketches of Shakespeare into their works. As regards poetry proper, Shakespeare has acted as an effective inspiration to some highly _ successful poetic flights. Hiteswar Borua’s ‘Desdemona’ is a notable example of such poetry. The Sonnets also have a deep influence on Assamese poetry. Not only have they been instrumental in bringing into existence a fairly capable sonnet literature in Assam but have also enriched the poetic idiom of the Assamese language.
On the whole, Shakespeare’s influence on Assamese literature has been of a. far-reaching nature. In form, tone and content, the modern drama of Assam has been directly shaped by Shakespeare. But one has to admit that the influence has not been as deep as it has been wide. Nevertheless, modern Assamese drama has been built on an impetus received from Shakespeare and though today Ibsen is more in vogue, Shakespeare still remains the base to start from.
Nanda Talukdar(1935-83) who has about half a dozen biographies to his credit. His chief biographies are :Kanaklal Baruah(1972),of the reputed historian of the early Assam and a civil servant under the British, Vanbhular Kavi Dowrah(1970),one of the major romantic poets of mid-20th century,and Hem Baruah(1978).He also edited Anandarama Dhekial Phukan Rachana Sangraha(1979),the complete works of Anandarama Dhekial Phukan.His latest biography is Surya Kumar Bhuyan(1983).