Monday, September 14, 2015

Indian classics born again. It also reminds us of the lack of excellence in our campuses

Indian classical poetry ranks among the best that mankind has produced. As symbolic of a civilisational pinnacle, Kalidasa has only Dante coming near him. If we do not hear Allana Peddana's name in this context, it is because there has been no translation of this Telugu classicist in any language. Now an English translation has appeared bearing the imprint of the Murty Classical Library of India, Harvard University Press.

What is particularly charming about Peddana is his adherence to the accepted norms of the time (around 1520). While his stylistic splendour -- of which little seems lost in translation -- puts him in a class of his own, his focus is on the gods and the king. Krishnadevaraya, king of the imperial state of Vijayanagara, was a writer himself. So the chemistry between the patron and the poet was particularly productive.

Peddana's Manucharitramu (The Story of Manu) opens with praise to the gods, each stanza asking Shiva, Brahma, Lakshmi, Saraswati to "give Krishnaraya, our king, all the good things he wants". Then he pays homage to good poets, mentioned by name, and attacks bad poets, mercifully unnamed. The attack itself is merciless:

A rogue poet, for want of any other means
to feed his family,
Steals, in desperation, from the vast forest of
palm-leaf manuscripts,
But scholars catch him at it, his poetry
loses its charm,
and he is put in the stocks under the
gaze of the king.

Peddanna also described, with poetic effect, how the king commissioned him to do the work. "They say", he quotes the king as saying, "that out of the seven kinds of children a person might have, the only one that lasts is a poem". So he proceeds to create that child, each chapter beginning with accolades to the king and ending with the author's signature statement: "The great poem called The Birth of Svarochisha Manu was written by Allasani Cokkayamatya's son Peddanarya, known to all as the 'Creator God of Telugu Poetry'...." What self-confidence! What conviction in the worth of one's own creation! It looks like he was stating an accepted fact, for no one challenged him.

It is only when we actually delve into books like this that we realise the grand concept behind the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) and the intellectual rigour with which scholarship is employed to give it shape. Anand Mahindra donated $10 million to Harvard and Ratan Tata $ 50 million, the largest ever contribution in Harvard's history. By comparison, Rohan Murty's donation was a paltry $ 5.1 million. But the conceptualisation behind it made it spectacularly rich.

Mahindra's funding went to the University's Humanities Centre, facilitating its seminars, conferences and other academic pursuits. Tata's money was used to build new offices and residential quarters for the Harvard Business Centre. But the Murty donation ensured Harvard's involvement in bringing India's ancient literary treasure house to the attention of the world, a gain for India as well as a gain for Harvard.

The meticulousness with which the planning is done -- contentwise and designwise -- is truly impressive. Every work is a fresh translation, commissioned specially for the series. The type fonts are also specially created to ensure neatness and readability. There are Murty Hindi typeface, Murty Gurmukhi, Murty Telugu. We are told that these newly developed fonts will be made available to the public for non-commercial use.

The scholarship assembled for the series is notable too. We can see that there are dedicated scholars, sitting in their university research rooms, pouring over rare texts and acquiring expertise to translate from Pali and Punjabi and Telugu into English, their umbrella being a university designation, such as Lecturer in Buddhist Literature, or Professor of the Practice of Persian and Other Near Eastern Languages. We feel sad that there is no university in India that provides the environment for such scholarship to flourish. Occasionally a D.D. Kosambi would rise, but on the strength of his own intellectual prowess; his uniqueness, too, was utilised by Harvard in its Oriental Series.

India may not become nourishing ground for academic excellence in the foreseeable future if state interference in the IITs and IIMs -- to say nothing of the universities -- is any indication; we are going from strength to weakness. This makes initiatives like the Murty-Harvard partnership doubly welcome. Five volumes are out, five more will come out next year. That will be just the beginning. Before us is the grand vision of 500 volumes in 100 years. Bring them on.