Indian Literature Welcomes Its Latest Elephant: Choudhury

The greatest Indian publishing project in the last decade has involved more than two dozen remarkable poets, prose writers and dramatists brought together for the first time under one roof.

Interest in the work of these writers was flagging until the intervention of an American patron, John Clay, made it possible to broadcast more widely the marvelous rhythms, narrative structures, and moral cruxes in their work to non-Indian readers. The books were published in the U.S., a country that none of the writers in the series had ever visited, owing to constraints they couldn't help. But the fact that none of the writers was able to do a book tour may have meant that the works didn't enjoy as much attention as they deserved.

It's hard, though, to blame the publisher for this: Every writer on the list of the Clay Sanskrit Library had been dead for at least 800 years.

From 2005 to 2009, the CSL brought to readers around the world the excitement of the great works of ancient Indian literature in Sanskrit -- which is to India roughly what Greek and Latin are to the West -- in supple and musical English translations. The series was a global project, employing the services of the best Sanskrit scholars and translators of our time. It was both scholarly and accessible, supplying the original Sanskrit in Roman letters with an English translation on the facing page so that readers could hear for themselves the sound of Sanskrit, but casting the text into a contemporary idiom and into little green hardbacks that fit into the pocket of your jeans.

The series offered a tour of the riches of ancient Indian literature in 50-odd volumes: the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the plays of the great dramatists Kalidasa and Sudraka, the love lyrics of Jayadeva and Bhartrihari, the religious chronicles of Asvaghosha and the picaresque stories of Dandin. Cumulatively, the books offered a view of the Indian past that defeated any of the stereotypes widely circulated both in the West and at home. They were both religious and skeptical, sensual and moral, tragic and comic, knotty and lucid. At slightly less than $1,000 for the whole set, this was probably the cheapest top-class education in the life of a civilization that you could buy. In 2009, however, the CSL suddenly stopped publishing new titles because of difficulties with funds. It seemed as though the series had come to a close, a little further than halfway through its declared aim of publishing 100 titles.

Then, in 2010, the news arrived that N. Narayana Murthy, the head of India's best-known infotech company Infosys Ltd., had made a donation of more than $5 million to Harvard University Press not just to restart the project of publishing classical Indian literature in English translation, but to expand it to works in many languages other than Sanskrit. A press release said:

Harvard University and Harvard University Press (HUP) announced today that the Murty family of Bangalore, India, has established a new publication series, the Murty Classical Library of India, with a generous gift of $5.2 million. The dual-language series aims both to serve the needs of the general reading public and to enhance scholarship in the field.

The Murty family’s endowed series aims to bring the classical literature of India, much of which remains locked in its original language, to a global audience, making many works available for the first time in English and showcasing the contributions of Indian literature to world civilization. [...] Under the direction of General Editor Sheldon Pollock, William B. Ransford Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Columbia University, and aided by an international editorial board composed of distinguished scholars, translators will provide contemporary English versions of works originally composed in Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Marathi, Persian, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, and other Indian languages.

And Sugata Srinivasaraju wrote in Outlook, in a piece called "Digital Memory":

An extraordinary feature of the project is that each volume will be presented as a bilingual edition. That is, even a person unfamiliar with the original language will get a feel of its script, which will run parallel to the English characters. Given the fact that many regional tongues feel threatened by the all-conquering global stride of the English language, this project has been meticulously conceived to re-engage with them, and at least symbolically halt their decline. [...]

Narayana Murthy was not available for comment, but Pollock, in an interview to Outlook, explained the vision behind the project: “India possesses the longest continuous and richest multilingual literary tradition in the world. To forget this literature is not only to lose a resource for living of potentially immeasurable benefit, but to lose part of one’s self. As the Bhagavad Gita says, the loss of memory entails the loss of mind.”

Justifying the generous endowment for a literary endeavour, he said: “We are by no means unaware of the material problems facing India—poverty, disease, resource depletion...the list is long. But philanthropy is not a zero-sum game; a rupee for culture is a new rupee, not a rupee taken from water resource management schemes.”

Late last year, Harvard University Press announced that it was holding a design competition, open to all, for the layout and logo of the new series, with its first volumes projected for 2013. In January, it published the winning design from a pool of 160 entries, fashioned by the American designer Andrea Stranger.

While the design is indeed very elegant, what stood out for me was Stranger's logo for the series, which gives to Indian literature the latest of its many elephants.

Like the lotus, the elephant is a symbol with a specifically Indian weight and significance, worked up over thousands of years into a multitude of meanings. Ancient Indian literature and painting are full of references to elephants real and symbolical, whether the mythical five-headed Airavata, the carrier of the god Indra, or the many different classes of elephants detailed in the Sanskrit manual the Gajashastra, or Book of Elephants, or the parable about the three blind men and the elephant, or the great cloud of Kalidasa's poem The Cloud Messenger, that looks like "an elephant kneeling down on a river bank."

The elephant stands for longevity, constancy, inscrutability, benevolence, strength and wisdom, but also uncontrolled passion, as when an intoxicated lover in Dandin's Dasakumaracharita compares himself to "a rutting elephant breaking free of my chains." Indeed, it is a commonplace in classical Indian literature to compare the gait of an attractive woman to that of an elephant, (although modern Indian women no longer enjoy or encourage such compliments rooted in their own traditions, and prefer instead that you mark appreciatively their Louis Vuitton bags or their independence of thought).

Stranger's elephant symbolizes the vast breadth and continuity of Indian literature, to be sure, but no one looking at it can fail to note what the MCLI Website calls "a subtle touch of modern whimsy," one that both invokes a tradition and adds to it. (Stranger's elephant reminded me of Solomon, the very independent-minded elephant who is sent all the way from India to the king of Portugal in Jose Saramago's recent novel, "The Elephant's Journey.") As modern Indian literature in English wins ever more readers around the world, one hopes that, starting in 2013, the elephant of the MCLI will carry to many new outposts the abundant pleasures of classical Indian literature in translation.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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