How is George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, an early twentieth-century English play meaningful in India now?
Shaw's play is an attack on the pre-World War I British class system, which is similar in some ways to India's current caste system. Although now illegal, the effects of the caste system are still pervasive in India, as outlined in a recent CNN article by Ravi Agrawal titled "India's caste System: Outlawed but still omnipresent."
Both the British class system and the Indian caste system operate on the assumption that the class you are born to is the one you belong in. It contends that lower class people are innately inferior to those of higher classes or castes. According to this ideology, everyone should accept their place in the social order without a murmur.
In Pygmalion, Shaw intends to show that this assumption is ridiculous. Almost nobody from Henry Higgins's well-heeled, middle-class world believes a lower-class Cockney flower seller could be passed off as an aristocratic lady. However, Eliza Doolittle, with voice and accent coaching from Henry Higgins, does just that. In educating her to become a lady, Higgins punctures the class pretensions that maintain that upper class people are innately superior to those born poor. As Shaw's play shows, it is nurture, not nature, that makes us who we are.
Today in India, many of the Dalit caste are still despised and denied opportunity based on their birth. If set in an Indian context, Shaw's play could teach a lesson that a Dalit caste woman is as talented and capable as one from a higher caste.
In one way, what makes George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion interesting reading for the contemporary Indian student is precisely because of the degree of cultural difference. Just as it is important for British students to read Indian literature, so too it is important for Indian students to read British and other non-Indian world literatures.
Specifically, though, Pygmalion reflects the historical situation of the British Empire, which had a tremendous effect on India. Also, as types of English accents still affect employment opportunities for many Indian students, and perceptions of class and accent are still very much intertwined, the treatment of the subjects by Shaw should be of interest.
Higgins, the linguist who teaches Eliza how to speak in an upper class manner in Pygmalion, articulates the relationship between class and language in his comment:
"You have no idea how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her. It's filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul." Act 3