At the Murty Classical Library of India, we want to represent the extraordinary richness of the Indian classical tradition and celebrate its variety. The books chosen for the launch – Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women; Abu’l Fazl’s The History of Akbar; Bullhe Shah's Sufi Lyrics; Allasani Peddana's The Story of Manu; and Surdas’s Sur’s Ocean – are meant to do that.
It was in 2010 that most of the details of the project were worked out between Rohan (Murty), me and the Harvard University Press. Some scholars were already working on the books we were interested in. The rest we immediately commissioned. We wanted the series to convey a sense of the rich tapestry of India’s literary world. So we have one of the great Telugu works from South India by Allasani Peddana; one of the great Persian histories from the 17th century; the oldest version of the Sur Sagara and the hidden classic from the Buddhist tradition, the Therigatha, possibly from the fourth century before the Common Era.
We wanted to go beyond Sanskrit. While it is very important that the world understands the vision of John Clay – the New York philanthropist who founded the Clay Sanskrit Library, an extraordinary undertaking – Sanskrit lived in a sea of Indian linguistic diversity. Nobody spoke Sanskrit at home. Sanskrit poets lived among different languages. Making sense of Sanskrit means making sense of that diversity.
I have been studying Kannada and when I met with Rohan and his wonderful family, his mother Sudha Murty and I could talk about the great treasures from Old Kannada from ninth and tenth century and Sudha was perfectly aware of the importance of these texts. It came together beautifully for all of us: the historical project, the literary project, the personal project. The Murty Library’s mission is to show how rich and diverse the world of Indian literature is. Sanskrit is a part of that but Sanskrit is not the end of it.
I have been studying Indian literature for more than 40 years and even for someone like me, even now, the complexity and the variety of its poetry and storytelling is truly breathtaking. We will be expanding into philosophy and science, in the years to come.
It may sound megalomaniacal but we really believe that we can have, within a century, 500 books in multi-library shelves, the same way that the Loeb Library has 500 books in the Greek and Latin shelves, and I can guarantee you our books will be more beautiful and diverse than the Greek and Latin ones.
Which books will the Murty Library translate? People in India have cherished literature for so many millennia across so many different regions. They didn’t just copy and recopy manuscripts in a mindless way. They weighed, critiqued, analysed and prioritised books. It is a complete myth to say that the British colonialists created the canon of Indian literature or that the Murty Library is going to invent its own canon. People in India have themselves been producing the canon of their literature and thinking about their literary heritage. Those constitute our first group of classics that we want to translate. Then there are other works that sometimes fall off the literary map by sheer happenstance, or hazards or accidents of history, like the Therigatha, the songs of the first Buddhist women, the first anthology of women’s literature in the world. We want to resurrect such books that have been forgotten by tradition.
These classical books provide us with an extraordinary range of how human beings have lived their lives. When we spend time among those eloquent dead, we realise the possibilities of being human, we realise a variety of aspirations, of political, social and aesthetic worlds. The present way of living is not the only one, there have been other ways. This classical past disrupts our quotidian, predictable, familiar ways of being human. You see Bullhe Shah dancing as a nautch girl before his teacher. If you immerse in classical Indian literature, what you get is freedom and variety.
My dream is that in the digital versions of these books, eventually you will be able to pick the script you want to read the book in. You could push a button and read Bullhe Shah in Perso-Arabic script. You could push a button and read Ghalib in Devanagari. The script communalism that has marked so much of the 20th century will be resolved thus by the push of a button – that is my dream.
But the worrying fact is that there is a dearth of classical scholars, and this is true across the world. The number of people who can translate Old Marathi to accessible English, I am afraid, I can probably count on one hand. The number of people who can really read and understand tenth century Kannada and put it into accessible English I can count on two or three fingers. One of our hopes, as the series grows, as the books are dispersed across the world, is that there will be students who would want to achieve scholarly confidence in classical studies.
(As told to Charmy Harikrishnan.)