The Shakespeare of Mauritius

All his life, a Mauritian man of letters, Bhishmadev Seebaluck, was inspired by Shakespeare and died a few days before the birthday of the bard celebrated on 24 April every year. Kul Bhushan remembers a dear friend.

An author, a playwright, a dramatist, a journalist, an educationist, a littérateur and, above all, a gentle and loving soul, Bhismadev Seebaluck is no more. The cultural scene in Mauritius has lost its shining star. He contributed immensely to the literary and cultural scene in this island of sun, sea, sand and relaxed living with his articles, books, plays and the promotion of Shakespeare.

Enthused by Shakespeare, Bhismadev Seebaluck, wrote weekly letters to the bard in his newspaper column for over four decades and also translated his play into Creole, the local language, and performed it on stage.

In a laid back isle famous for its swaying dance, Sega, Bhishma made the bard a topic of common conversation when in 1980s he started a weekly column, ‘Dear Shakespeare’, in the leading Mauritian weekly and it continued for over four decades. Sharing a very personal rapport with the great English playwright, Bhisma addressed him every week as ‘My dear Billy’. His keen observation, wit, satire and mockery in these articles garnered sustained acclaim till December 2016. Selecting some memorable and really witty articles, he published three anthologies under the title, “Dear Shakespeare’.

The head of English Department at the University of Alberta in Canada, Stephen H. Arnold, introduced this book thus: “Written to Shakespeare as if to a pen pal, most of the collection of short, humourous pieces were taken from a weekly column in a Mauritian newspaper. Their author who takes delight in writing irreverent drama and film criticism, presents a collage of sarcasm about typical Third World problems endemic in this island where African and Asian blend under a Western veneer.”

Later, Bhisma translated “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ into Creole, the local language, and directed it on stage for the common people to enjoy the classic comedy. He emphasized the famous line from this play, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

His plays bearing the stamp of sweet sarcasm laced with bitter honey include ‘The Angels’, ‘The Young Ones’, ‘Thorns and Roses’ as well as the epic ‘Mahabharata, The Eternal Conflict’. As the founder member of Mauritius Drama League and the director of the Arts Institute of Mauritius, the founder member of Mauritian Writers’ Association and the President’s Fund for Creative Writing in English, he was a cultural trailblazer and trendsetter. No wonder he was honoured with a top Mauritian national award; Order of the Star and Key of the Indian Ocean in 2012.

Passionate about books, he devoured them from an early age and later wrote 25, translated classics into Creole, published books and edited them. While in primary school, Bhishma developed a love for books. He recalled, “I was in the sixth grade when I had for the first time a book of Shakespeare’s in my hands. It was “Tales from Shakespeare” that I found at home. “Later, he lived with his aunt in Port Louis to attend secondary school. Here he had his first encounter with Rabindranath Tagore. “She had a photo of Tagore with his large beard and his big white hair hung on the wall. I was attracted by this picture.”

At the same time, he discovered the Nalanda library and devoured novels, plays, poems and magazines. During college, in he studied other Shakespeare plays Macbeth, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and others. “We had even mounted the play Julius Caesar,” he remembered. Of course, he was calling, “Friends, Mauritius, Countrymen, lend me your ears.” And they did.

After reading Tagore’s Gitanjali during his youth, he was trying to translate it into Creole for the benefit of fellow Mauritians. But it was difficult since he did not understand a lot of words and phrases. He had to wait until 2011, after watching this classis in Hindi and Bengali on stage and meeting a very learned person that he could translate it into Creole and present it on stage.

After his high school certificate at the Queen Victoria Royal College of Arts, he joined the railways as a clerk. But his heart was in English literature and so he left for New Delhi where he was admitted to the Hindu College for BA Honours in English. On his return, he taught English at the same Royal College in Port Louis and later was appointed a senior officer in the Ministry of Education. Due to his understanding of education and culture, he was appointed Advisor to the Ministry of Art and Culture. During this time, his literary output blossomed along with his contribution to journalism.

As a dramatist, he was very skillful at presenting Shakespeare on stage in English and in Creole as in the cane of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and also Tagore’s Gitanjali and other stories like Post Office. His masterpiece was adapting for stage the greatest Indian epic, ‘Mahabharata, The Eternal Conflict’ in Creole.

One of his books, “A Day Called Tomorrow’, partly written in New Delhi, went on to be prescribed as a text for BA students at the University of Mauritius. Other books by him were: On the Wings of Destiny: A. Raouf Bundhun, The Shattered Rainbow, The Young Ones, The Angels, Appointment with Death, The Three Wishes, The Hunter Hunted, and some school texts. He wrote some 25 books; school books, novels, plays and anthologies. “The course of true love never did run smooth,” is another well-known quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bhishma had his ups and downs with his true love of language but ultimately he triumphed.

On his numerous transit stops in Nairobi during the 1980s to fly to other destinations in Africa and Europe, he stayed with me and so I made a great friend; and enjoyed his hospitality in 1990s in Mauritius too. The last time, I met him was when he came to Delhi in 1999 to write his novel. But he was always in touch with his heart.

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more,” moans Macbeth. But not Bhisma who lives in his writings missed by his wife Jinny who stood by him through thick and thin, caring and sharing, and his children Mitradev and Shaili.

“My dear Billy’ is how Bhismadev Seebaluck addressed Shakespeare in his newspaper columns and his book. He wrote 25 books, including a novel that is a university textbook.