The Murty Classical Library celebrates India's many pasts

The revival of the past does not mean seeking absolute truths in myths or scientific formulae in poetry.

 |  4-minute read |   16-01-2015
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Once, you had to seek out the beautiful teal-jacketed books of the Clay Sanskrit Library to read Kalidasa's Kumara Sambhava or Krishna Mishra's Prabodhachandrodaya in English. There, past meant Sanskrit. And when John Clay, the investment banker who put his money where his passion was - getting Sanskrit literature translated into English - died in 2013, there was nowhere to turn to. Now, there is the Murty Classical Library of India. Between the dull-rose covers of its books, it binds a great, luminous heterogeneity.

There are five books, each distinct, revealing the many linguistic lineages and literary traditions of this land that has only recently been slapped together into one political entity. Check this for variety: Therigatha, poems of the first Buddhist women, originally in Pali, from 2,000 years ago; Abu'l Fazl's Akbarnama (Volume 1), in Persian, from 1596; Sufi lyrics of Bullhe Shah, in pre-modern Punjabi, from the eighteenth century; The Story of Manu by Allasani Peddana, in Telugu, from the sixteenth century; and Surdas's verses in Old Hindi from the sixteenth century.

The past had its own anxieties and prejudices to contend with surely, but let us not hoist our own false pieties and little knowledge onto that past. These five books show that there is no homogeneous past, no pure, blue-blooded tradition, to lay claim to. And that while some of the glorious texts were written in Sanskrit, the vibrancy of other languages and their literatures should be read and celebrated.

Open Abu'l Fazl's Akbarnama and you will be delighted, even surprised, by the pages he has devoted to Akbar's horoscope. He writes about the polymath Fathullah Shirazi's calculations, before launching on a detailed description of each house in the horoscope that even Bejan Daruwalla will enjoy: "The mir, employing Persian and Greek principles to extract the ascendant, ascertained that the ascendant was Leo."

As Christopher Bayly has written in his book Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India 1780-1870, "Akbar and Abu'l Fazl were fascinated by Hindu astronomy and the Hindu and Muslim traditions were cross-fertilised once more, with translations of texts being made from Arabic to Sanskrit and vice versa."

Those who say Kiss of Love, which has been raging in the small towns and cities of Kerala, is a slight on the country's traditions, should pick up Allasani Peddana's Manucharitramu (The Story of Manu) and read about a mass love-making rendezvous outdoors. He writes:

"Women became angry when their lovers, in the midst of making love, called them by wrong names (always a fatal mistake); bowing their heads, they appeared to be crying silently as their lovers tried to console them, caressing their cheeks, but in the tears falling silently and settling on noses like a nose ring made of white pearl the men caught sight of their own reflections, full of light, which they mistook for their partners' smile and therefore tried to kiss them - and now the women, still angry, slapped them on their cheeks with their delicate hands, so the men, taken aback, turned pale, enriching the moonlight beyond measure. Like white flour sprinkled everywhere, the moonlight was burning white, and women, pretending to be too shy to make love in that brightness, coaxed their lovers into the shadow of the bushes, but the moonlight, penetrating through the quivering leaves, dispelled the darkness and disclosed on their bodies all the tell-tale signs of love."

You don't have to read for edification; although that is very good and necessary, you can read for pleasure:

  • "In a sky filled with moonlight, the moon itself
  • Was a white pill that the great pharmacist who is Time
  • Concocted from mercury and served in a pot of milk
  • To men in love, to prolong their passion."

Or read Bullhe Shah's Heera wail her romantic heresies:

  • "Hajjis go to Mecca. My Mecca is my beloved Ranjha. Oh I am crazy
  • My betrothal is to Ranjha. My father pressures me harshly.
  • Hajjis go to Mecca. My Mecca is having my bridegroom in the house.
  • The hajji is within, the ghazi is within. The burglar and the thief are within."

The revival of the past does not mean seeking absolute truths in myths or scientific formulae in poetry. You needn't look at Ganesha as the first god that underwent plastic surgery, when the imagination that created an elephant-god, and the philosophy that underpins it, itself is infinitely awe-worthy. The Murty Classical Library tells us that we have several awe-worthy pasts to take delight in.


Charmy Harikrishnan Charmy Harikrishnan @charmyh

Senior editor, India Today.

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