Poetry wire Literary Review


Sanskrit poetry from Vidyakara's treasury  

“The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my children,” wrote Keats in a letter in 1819. How these Romantics loved to romanticise! (That’s how the word romanticise came into being). The stars-through-the–window bit attracted me though, for India is burning under the sun, and the thought of stars is a consolation, even though one needs to visit Ladakh to spot them.

How did our ancient Sanskrit poets tackle summer, the ice-less, fridge-less non air conditioned summer? Daniel H.H. Ingalls was the first to give me an idea in his translations from Sanskrit Poetry: Vidyakara’s Treasury. Nissim Ezekiel gave me the book. To those of us who know it only through English translations, Sanskrit poetry almost sounds like a love-making manual. If you go to the Ritusamhara, an anthology dubbed as pre-Kalidasa by Daniel Ingalls, this is the impression you get. Whichever season you choose, Vasanta (Spring) or Sharada (Autumn) or Hemantha (early Winter) lovemaking takes central-stage.

With the rains, of course, the bards go overboard. The months of Shrawan and Bhadon were created solely for lovemaking, we all know. Irrigating fields and replenishing wells and ground water were ancillary. And though, if we believe our leaders, our forbears knew of inter-planetary travel and head transplants (some of our current politicians need head transplants, incidentally) they didn’t have a clue about El Nino. How did they tackle summer, Grishma?

While they talked of drying ponds and tree bark peeling off, they could also turn coy. ‘ The little parrot, parched with thirst,/ resting on a fair maid’s bosom,/ will sip at the necklace pearls which grace her breasts/ in hope that they are water.’ Did that silly parrot think she had herpes or what?

From Vidyakara’s Treasury comes this gem: ‘ To drive away the busy gnats from the reddened corners of his eyes/ the water buffalo shakes his horns/ and tosses up a rope of moss...’ The droplets then trickle between his eyelids and all is well again. Rajasekhara exceeds himself when he says that the ‘cooling flute’, wine chilled with water’ and (listen to this) ‘women’s breasts should feel as cool as snow’ — these are the summer boons from the love god. They needed moral policing, these bards, from our St. Valentine’s Day storm troopers who go knocking people on their heads; or perhaps from the venerable Mr. Batra, who bans books with a phone call.

How can one ignore Kalidasa:

The wayfarers’ hearts are scorched by the fires of separation

nor can they bear the wind-blown parched earth sizzling under the sun.’

A bit too perfect, the sizzling earth and fires of separation juxtaposed so adroitly. He sounds here more like a fine craftsman rather than the great inspirational poet that we know.

Our poets didn’t think of infernal fires that crowd Western religious texts and literature. To quote at random, Revelation 21:8 states: “But the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral (etc)... their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur.”

In Canto XIV of The Inferno, Dante finds a desert of red-hot sand where flakes of fire drift over Blasphemers — a reference which will be welcomed by Pakistani law-givers. I am open to correction but Indian scriptures and our literature is not bothered about fires and red hot sand — we face all this year after year.

Martha Ann Selby, who holds a Ph.D. from Chicago University in Tamil and Sanskrit, Head of Department, South Asian Studies at University of Austin, has done some fine translations from Tamil poetry in her books Grow Long Blessed Night: Love poems from Classical India and The Circle of Six Seasons. She picks poems from that Sangam poetry classic, Kuruntokai. The husband about to go alone on his travels, is told by the friend of the wife:

But if she comes along with you

Even the jungles will go sweet.”

And here is summer in its stark heat with no erotic frills.

Summer has seen

the bottom of the pond

as its never been seen before:

it’s catfish and tortoises

fried by the heat

its thick muck dried to stone.’

Even today the art of describing the seasons vividly is not dead. Take poet Priya Sarukkai Chabria, engaged at present in translating the ninth century Tamil mystic Aandaal’s songs: At Gobi’s ‘pebbly shore’ she meets ‘the gouged green of an oasis. Here the scent of water unfurls its damp banner before it’s seen’.   


- Priya Sarukkai Chabria

Burnt sky, burnt earth, burnt water

Surround me. Burnt hopes too.

You’re right

Time has charred me

See what I’ve become:

Stretched sand of a riverbed

too hot to walk upon

and this breeze

from a phoenix ‘s wings.

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 7:11:35 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/keki-n-daruwalla-on-ancient-sanskrit-poets-art-of-describing-seasons/article7407904.ece

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