Art & Culture

Why we should read Indian classical literature

vritti.bansal@intoday.comJan 18, 2015 | 15:33

Why we should read Indian classical literature

I was a student of computer science at Harvard, but I was always curious about things far beyond it. I did graduate courses in Panini’s grammar, nyaya and Vedanta philosophy, and developed a keen interest in ancient India. At Harvard, I was exposed to the Loeb Library, which translated Greek and Latin books into English, and the Clay Library, which translated Sanskrit books, of which Professor Sheldon Pollock was the general editor. I wanted to do something similar but I was not sure what. It was then, in October 2009, that a common friend introduced me to Pollock who had this extraordinary idea that we should not only translate Sanskrit texts to English but also a variety of vernaculars, which could be counted among the classics. That is how this journey began.


We want to publish at least three to five books a year. We have 36 books signed up, which make up 48 volumes. And among these 36 books, the great 12th century Tamil classic Kamban Ramayana will come out next year. We will also be publishing for the first time in English the sixth century text Kirataarjuniya by Bharavi, an extremely difficult but beautiful work in Sanskrit. We are publishing Ghalib’s ghazals and other works, including his letters.

Other works that we will soon bring out are Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas, Annadamangal by Bharatchandra Ray, Guru Granth Sahib and other texts in languages like Apabhramsha, Kannada, Prakrit and Sindhi. Our point of reference is the Loeb Library, which has survived for more than a hundred years.

We are giving the young Indians a choice. They read Wordsworth, Shakespeare, TS Eliot. They should also be able to read Surdas and Bullhe Shah. I never had that choice when I was growing up in Bangalore. In our education system we do not seem to go far back into the past and study it. We stop at the 18th or 19th century. We don’t know what happened 1,000 or 2,000 years ago. We don’t study ancient India. We don’t realise what our shared heritage is. Classics tell us what that is. They help us think about where we have come from and where we might go.


One of the things the Murty Classical Library will do is provide readers in India and the world with the basic material – accurate texts with as precise a translation as is possible – upon which they can build scholarship.  

We will eventually be having e-books. The discussions on it are ongoing. I want these books to be accessible to as many people as possible, to reach as many as possible. We have also created new typefaces, which will be distributed free to educational institutions and not-for-profit ventures so that they can also use these fonts. These fonts hark back to an older tradition of printing. We have been fortunate in receiving the assistance of two remarkable designers of Indian fonts, Fiona Ross in London and John Hudson in Vancouver. They spent days on a single akshara. They even went to the British Library to look at manuscripts of Indic texts to ensure that our books will be appropriately representative of the classical writing style. We have developed 17 new fonts.

I chose Harvard’s publishing arm, Harvard University Press, to bring out these books because it has a long history of doing this sort of translation projects. They brought out the Loeb Classical Library books that lasted a century, among others. They have the mechanism in place and attract the best scholars. If I were to spend every single day of my life on this then I might be more willing to publish it out of India. But the fact is that I am not a scholar. I want to ultimately be a reader of these books. Therefore, it was very important for me to have an institutional set-up that will manage the money, work with the editors, publish the books.


We want these series to be alive and kicking for a long, long time to come.

(As told to Charmy Harikrishnan.)

Last updated: January 18, 2015 | 15:33
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