Literary Review

Indian classical texts get the kiss of life

The translators of the Murty series are highly regarded scholars.  

One of the most profound limitations of the field of post-colonial literature has been its stubborn and insular English monopoly. It is ironic that a field that makes much of the ethical commitment to the colonial world reproduces that asymmetry by almost exclusively focussing on literature written in English. There is little excuse as, since the 80s and 90s, many Indian publishing houses have produced extensive translations from regional literatures.

On the other hand, the systematic translations of classical texts (Sanskrit, Tamil, Farsi, and Pali) and medieval texts (the older forms of Telugu, Punjabi, Kannada, Bangla, and so on) has not been quite so easily forthcoming. Much of this work (with the exception of Sanskrit) was limited to purely scholarly circles with their corresponding recondite journals.

This is why few intellectual and literary ventures have more transformative potential than the Murty Classical Library of India series. A set of translations of the books from the classical and medieval tradition, some works in the series include the 18th century Punjabi poet Bullhe Shah’s Sufi lyrics, hymns (the Therigatha) by Buddhist nuns from the beginning of the Common Era, Abu ‘l-Fazl’s masterly 16th century History of Akbar, the great 16th century Telugu poet Allasani Pedana’s The Story of Manu, the beloved 16th century Braj Sursagar , and more. Though one is nostalgic about the older teal-coloured Clay series that the Murty series replaces, one is grateful that the merits of the latter well supplement the strengths of the discontinued Clay series. One of the innovations in the Murty series is that the left-side page has the regional language script.

The series is generously subsidised, with many books priced at just over Rs. 200. The translators are highly regarded scholars from across the world. It is a pity that only a few translators are located in India. Genuine scholarship (as opposed to political rhetoric) on Indian cultural and intellectual traditions has mostly been eviscerated in India. Indeed, one of the great hopes for this series is that it will be a part of the revival of that very scholarship, as opposed to mere pride.

The series has the potential to generate the next layer of scholarship and the hope is that some of this new scholarship will take place in India itself, in school classrooms and colleges. Therefore, the equally substantive next step to take is to ask that these texts be taught in Indian universities.

Without this support, it is unlikely that the series will be able to do much by itself. Ideally, new pedagogical methods must be designed to make sure that these texts work in Indian classroom settings and are in sync with existent syllabi. The paralysed spaces of the curricula of most Indian universities can come alive with the introduction of these almost lost treasures. Instead of tedious, fruitless debates on invading Aryans or the sources of rivers, one might be able to enter into more substantive discussions.

Here, from the Therigatha, is a take on the existential question of the self’s relation to celibacy and freedom vis-à-vis domesticity. The nun’s name itself means “free,” so she writes: “And I am quite free, well-free from these three crooked things, mortar, pestle, and husband with his own crooked thing.” The aesthetics of religious thought often lies in its enigmatic and teasing circularity. Here is Bullhe Shah: “You made Adam’s body like Muhammad’s. You said he / was to enter paradise. Then it was you who made/ Satan come there. He came out of there as Adam.” Other than the lyric forms, the classical and regional languages also possessed elaborate narrative forms. One might single out Peddana as a master who could fuse both sound and the gait of a plot in a way both unprecedented and unsurpassed. And few works have more emphatically dominated the India’s religious mood and sentiments as Sursagar.

It is a matter of deep discredit that despite the abundant rhetoric on Indian tradition, few enterprises in India have actually generated any concrete body of work. The Murty series, which apparently hopes to publish as many as 500 titles, is a noble exception, and can serve as guide and impetus. One hopes that other imaginative pedagogical projects will pick up the strands from here — else all this hard-won and exultant wisdom will be lost again. New scholarship will have to be inaugurated to meaningfully relate this series to contemporary intellectual conversations. Both the past and the present can only be mutually nourished by this dialogue.

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2021 10:43:57 PM |

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