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5 March 2015

Many gods, many voices: the Murty Classical Library is uncovering India’s dazzling literary history

 The Murty Classical Library of India tackles a multilingual, epic tradition.

By Neel Mukherjee

Classical Indian literary tradition is dizzyingly multicultural and multilingual. The vastness of the subcontinent and the number of peoples and languages it contains ensured this plurality. Administratively, too, a state of multum in parvo prevailed: successions of empires and dynasties only ever managed to rule limited (if large) parts, leaving autonomous regions under different powers. No one empire before the central Asian clan that came to be known in the 16th century as the Mughals managed to bring far-flung areas under a centralised administration and local societies continued to exist even under their expanding rule.

From around the beginning of the Common Era for a millennium, Sanskrit held a long, unbroken sway as the language of power and culture before being contested by vernacular languages. Knowledge of Sanskrit would certainly unlock a large quantity of classical Indian literature for modern readers but – as with Europe and Latin – it is possessed by only a select few. Yet Sanskrit allowed Prakrit languages, the “natural” or informal languages, to flourish in a way that, over time, gave them enough power, complexity and confidence to overthrow it as the language of literary production.

Over and above the obsolescence of Sanskrit, what has been crucial in impeding a wider dispersal within the subcontinent of classical Indian literature is regionalism. India has 23 languages, including English. Very few educated Indians now know more than two. A native Marathi speaker, for instance, unless he or she was educated in Telugu or Bengali, would have little access to the literature in those languages. Because no language has ever unified India (unless we count English), translations of these texts present problems. Into which language should they be translated for the widest possible readership?

Two texts have surmounted these challenges: the epics the Ramayana (5th to 4th century BCE) and the Mahabharata (from before 300BCE to after 300CE). The historian A K Ramanujan once said that no Indian ever hears the Mahabharata for the first time. Both epics have an extraordinary penetration into the Indian mind, with vernacular versions over the centuries, public readings and recitations, performances of dramatised episodes, films, children’s books (I first read the epics in beautiful Bengali versions made for young readers by the film-maker Satyajit Ray’s grandfather), the Amar Chitra Katha comics (to which I owe more than half of my knowledge of the Indian classics and mythologies) and spectacularly popular television series keeping them alive. The epics of Homer, Virgil and Ovid just do not have this kind of purchase on the European mind.

But what about the vast majority of San­skrit texts other than these two epics? What about the ocean of vernacular literatures? Enter the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI). Modelled on the Loeb Classical Library, the series seeks to publish the great works of classical literature produced in India over almost three millennia – the longest continuous multilingual literary tradition in the world – from the 1st millennium BCE to 1800. The project, possibly one of the most complex in the realm of scholarly publication, has been made possible by a generous bequest of $5.2m from Rohan Murty, the son of the technology billionaire and founder of Infosys, N R Narayana Murthy (the spellings are different for father and son). This is an extremely rare case of Indian philanthropic support for the arts and culture.

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Love Supreme: a 19th-century image of Krishna

The Loeb Classical Library is a cornerstone of recent western culture. An enterprise initiated and funded by the American banker James Loeb (1867-1933), it has published, beginning in 1912, more than 500 volumes covering the important works of ancient Greek and Latin cultures with the aim of making them widely accessible. They were bilingual editions, with the Greek or Latin text on the left and a translation on the facing right; in keeping with the principle of accessibility, the translations were often literal and the critical apparatus was minimal or absent (problems that have been addressed in recent years). The octavo volumes – green for Greek books and red for Latin ones – are instantly recognisable.

The Loebs set the template for several such large-scale projects: for example, the I Tatti Renaissance Library and the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, both published by Harvard University Press, and, pertinently, the Clay Sanskrit Library, by New York University Press under the general editorship first of Richard Gombrich and then, from 2007, of Sheldon Pollock. Pollock has now reappeared at the helm of the MCLI. A Sanskrit scholar, he is a professor of south Asian studies at Columbia University and his theory of the “Sanskrit cosmopolis” in his book The Language of the Gods in the World of Men (2006) transformed the field of Indic studies. He has now drawn together a team of the finest international scholars to translate and edit texts for the MCLI series.

Uniformly clad in beautiful cerise jackets with a signature feather motif wrapping around the spine and spilling over on to the front and back of the dust jacket, the five inaugural volumes are a perfect illustration of India’s heterodox tradition. The languages featured are Sanskrit, Pali, Telugu, Panjabi (in Gurmukhi script) and Persian; the earliest was composed over two millennia ago and the latest in the 18th century; the geographical span stretches from the north-west to what is now Andhra Pradesh in the south and farther south to Sri Lanka; the genres involved are history, lyric poetry, song, epic and Buddhist “utterances”.

Three volumes out of the five are somewhat better known, if only by name, than the other two: Abu’l-Fazl’s The History of Akbar, a translation from the Persian of the first part of his history Akbarnama, which deals with the birth and the reign of the greatest Mughal emperor; Bullhe Shah’s Sufi Lyrics, written in Panjabi; and Surdas’s Old Hindi Sur’s Ocean. The remaining two, Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women, written in Pali, and Allasani Peddana’s Telugu The Story of Manu, are more recondite; I had never heard of them. One of the great benefits of this kind of project is that it illuminates lost things, brings back to recognition texts that were once crucial.

Abu’l-Fazl (1551-1602) was commissioned by Emperor Akbar (1542-1605) to write a history of the Timurid dynasty that ruled over India: “Timurid” because the Mughals of India were descended from Tamerlane (1336-1405). This first volume, edited and translated by Wheeler M Thackston, begins with Akbar’s birth but then loops back to trace his lineage all the way back to Adam. The volume ends with Akbar as an eight-month-old infant.

The Mughal emperors were good with commissioning records of their lives. Much more importantly, they and other members of the Mughal nobility were excellent patrons of the arts. During the reign of Akbar, a period of great economic prosperity (the Mughal empire at this point was richer than the Safavid or Ottoman empires), large numbers of artists, scholars and poets, drawn by the lure of lavish patronage, moved from Persia and central Asia to India, thus creating a rich and cosmopolitan literary culture. Abu’l-Fazl’s history remains one of the most valuable cultural artefacts of this time.

Getting into Abu’l-Fazl’s grandiose and dense text can be a struggle for contemporary readers but two important pieces of information can facilitate matters. First, Abu’l-Fazl was not simply recording history; he was involved in a full-scale apotheosis of Akbar. The second point is regarding Sufism. This mystical movement not only influences the style and vocabulary of Akbarnama but its entire philosophy, too. Akbar is modelled on the Sufi notion of the perfect man.

Sufism had a far more direct and tangible bearing on the work of Bullhe Shah (c.1680-1758). Considered to be the greatest master of the Sufi lyric in Panjabi, he was a follower of Shah Inayat (c.1643-1728), who lived in Lahore. Not much is known about Bullhe Shah’s life but the lyrics, direct and accessible in their style and emotional appeal, remain popular even now, not least because a significant part of their transmission has been oral, through performance by Sikh and Muslim singers.

The chief form of Sufi poetry was the ghazal, a short love lyric with a prominent rhyme and characterised by a blurring of the boundaries between divine and romantic or erotic love. It was a form used to dazzling effect by the most accomplished Sufi poet, Jalaluddin Rumi (c.1207-73), and Amir Khusrau (c.1253-1325), the leading Persian poet of medieval India. Ghazals were sung at Sufi gatherings by professional musicians called qawwals. Their instantly recognisable form of music, called qawwali, now occupies a place in world music: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Pakistani singer who died in 1997, was a qawwal who brought Sufi ghazals to a wide international audience.

The lucid and informative introduction by the volume’s editor and translator, Christopher Shackle, takes readers through the trajectory of Sufism from Persia to India and the several orders within the movement in India. But most useful is a short essay on the themes of the lyrics. The poems that follow open up in all their appeal, universal and timeless in their great subject of love, endearing in their simplicity of expressiveness.

The number of poems attributed to Surdas ranges from 239 in the oldest manuscript, dated 1582, to 10,000 in one from the 19th century. Sursagar, or Sur’s Ocean, a body of poems (called pads) of varying length, mostly short, lies at the centre of the bhakti (or devotional) tradition and deals with the life of Krishna, from his birth and his amorous youth right through to his crucial role in the Mahabharata. Little is known about Surdas (the name means “servant of the sun”). Indeed, it may be entirely correct and consistent with the available evidence to talk about Surdas as an authorial construct, or a collective, or to speak of a “Sur tradition” instead of Surdas. The editor and the translator of this edition – Kenneth E Bryant and John Stratton Hawley, respectively – give their reasons for retaining “a sense of a single excellent poet standing at the headwaters of the Sur tradition”, adding: “Perhaps . . . the Sursagar might better be thought of as a river than as an ocean – gathering strength in the course of time, but gradually growing more sluggish and losing a good bit of the purity that could be tasted farther upstream.”

It is important to remember that Surdas’s pads are songs. They were intended to be performed – as they are, to this day – not to be read on the printed page. The bhakti mood of most of these pads does not necessarily imply that they were performed in a temple or worship environment. Courts, street-side gatherings and homes were all spaces in which these poems were sung. The 433 poems in this volume were composed in Brajbhasha, or Old Hindi, and have been translated with great feeling and lyricism. Extensive notes explain details, allusions, the dramatis personae and the unfolding of the beguiling Krishna narrative.

Allasani Peddana’s Manucaritramu, or The Story of Manu, written around 1520, was intimately connected to the reign of Krishnadevaraya, who ruled from 1509 to 1529 in Vijayanagara, the capital of the last imperial state in premodern south India. Peddana was Krishnadevaraya’s friend and court poet and the story of Svarochisha Manu, who was both ideal man and ideal king, ruling in a past cosmic age, was the textual manifestation of the power and culture of the Vijayanagara empire. It occupies a similar space to Virgil’s founding myth of Roman imperium and legitimisation of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

The Story of Manu also marked a paradigm shift in Telugu culture on several levels: from the oral to the written; from the public experience of hearing poetry being read out to the private experience of reading it; from flat characters who were vehicles for undisguised moralism to three-dimensional, novelistic figures, endowed with a complex interiority; from the notion of nature as an extension of the human world to its depiction, unprecedented in south Asian literature, as a self-driven, independent domain.

Eloquently outlining Peddana’s groundbreaking innovations and his acute awareness of himself as an innovator, the terrific introduction by the translators Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman makes the point that: “We might think of Peddana, like Dante, as the epitome of an entire civilisational moment.”

It is not surprising that, of the five volumes, Pollock is especially proud of Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women. Theris were “senior ones” among ordained Buddhist women. The poems were “uttered” – “inspired utterance”, or udana, is the elevated genre assigned to them – over 300 years, from the end of the 6th century BCE to the end of the 3rd century BCE.

The Therigatha has a lot of claims on our attention. It is among the first poetry of India; among the first poems by women in India; the first collection of women’s literature in the world. But these claims should not obscure its status as poetry. While the poems embody the world-view and morality of early Indian Buddhism, making them invaluable historical documents, they repay the reader’s attention generously. The first section comprises poems with one verse; the second, two verses; the third, three, and so on – until it ends with “the Great Chapter” on Sumedha, the princess of Mantavati, who, as an adolescent, repudiates her parents’ arrangements for her marriage and chooses the path of the dhamma (the teachings of the Buddha on the laws of nature).

Here is the beautiful, metaphorical resonance of the name of one theri, Punna:

The name you are called by means

full, Punna,

so be filled with good things, like the

moon when it is full,

break through all that is dark with

wisdom made full.

And here is a ribald surprise tucked into Buddhist wisdom about the cycle of life, articulated by Mutta:

The name I am called by means freed

and I am quite free, well-free from

three crooked things,

mortar, pestle, and husband with his

own crooked thing.

I am freed from birth and death,

what leads to rebirth has been

rooted out.

The poems get more complex as we proceed – there are dramatic monologues, dialogues and even miniature dramas involving several voices.

The introductions to all five volumes strike a wonderful balance between scholarly rigour and accessibility. The preparation of these texts has also clearly been very much a labour of love, light years away from arid, dusty, Casaubon-like scholarship. It is impossible to miss the tone of impassioned eloquence in the introduction to The Story of Manu, or the casually inserted comment in the introduction to Sur’s Ocean that the text had been four decades in the making – a comment made not in a spirit of exhaustion but with committed fervour. The notes are exhaustive but wear their learning lightly.

An important innovation of the MCLI books is that they are truly bilingual. I stress the word “truly” for a reason. The Clay Sanskrit Library reproduced the Sanskrit texts in English transliteration; the MCLI has opted for the original language, be it Panjabi, or Telugu, or Persian. Because of the vast range of languages that make up classical Indian literary tradition, Indic fonts had to be created and implemented. Most of these had to be designed anew and they will be made available, free of charge, to scholars all over the world for non-commercial use.

Empires fall, languages decay, dynasties become extinct and the longue durée perspective gives the lie to whatever – reigns, cultures, languages – appears to be monolithic when captured in a snapshot. India is entering an age of state-supported historical blindness and illiteracy: consider the absurd reference by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, to the elephant-headed god, Ganesh, as proof that transgenic cosmetic surgery was known to ancient Indians. At a time when historians are losing their jobs for
refusing to bow to thuggish mythologising and lies, the MCLI produces hard evidence for a complex past to counter the falling darkness. 

Neel Mukherjee’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel “The Lives of Others” is published by Chatto & Windus

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