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Literary gems of India, immortalised in a series

- Murty Library to catalogue vast classical canon in one of the most complex publishing projects ever

Jan. 3: When the Loeb Classical Library was founded in 1911, it was hailed as a much-needed effort to make the glories of the Greek and Roman classics available to general readers.

Virginia Woolf praised the series, which featured reader-friendly English translations and the original text on facing pages, as "a gift of freedom." Over time, the pocket-size books, now totalling 522 volumes and counting, became both scholarly mainstays and design-geek fetish objects.

Now, Harvard University Press, the publisher of the Loebs, wants to do the same for the far more vast and dizzyingly diverse classical literature of India, in what some are calling one of the most complex scholarly publishing projects ever undertaken.

The Murty Classical Library of India, whose first five dual-language volumes will be released next week, will include not only Sanskrit texts but also works in Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Persian, Prakrit, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu and other languages. Projected to reach some 500 books over the next century, the series is to encompass poetry and prose, history and philosophy, Buddhist and Muslim texts as well as Hindu ones, and familiar works alongside those that have been all but unavailable to non-specialists.

The Murty will offer "something the world had never seen before, and something that India had never seen before: a series of reliable, accessible, accurate and beautiful books that really open up India's pre-colonial past," said Sheldon Pollock, a professor of South Asian studies at Columbia University and the library's general editor.

That literary heritage can seem daunting in size. While the canon of surviving Greek and Roman classics is fairly small, the literature of India's multiple classical languages includes thousands upon thousands of texts, many of which, as the writer William Dalrymple recently noted, exist only in manuscripts that are decaying before they can be translated or even catalogued.

The Murty Library, Pollock said, aims to take in the broadest swathe of them. "We are a big tent," he said. "As long as it's good and interesting and important, it's going to be in the Murty Classical Library."

The editions, which come wrapped in elegant rose-coloured covers, are intended, like the Loebs, "to be around for 100 years," Pollock said.

But to some scholars, the project also comes as a timely if implicit rebuke to hardliners associated with the ruling BJP or outfits allied to it, with their promotion of a unitary Indian identity based on selected Sanskrit religious classics.

The series "debunks the myth of a Hindu orthodoxy as being the only classicism we have," said Arshia Sattar, an independent scholar and translator in Bangalore. "In a strange way, the editors are creating a new canon."

The library, which will be celebrated late this month at the Jaipur Literary Festival, arrives at a fraught moment in India's long-running battles over language and national identity.

Last month, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj declared that the Bhagvad Gita should be designated a "national scripture". In November, efforts to make the teaching of Sanskrit essentially mandatory in CBSE schools prompted an outcry.

"Classical" status has meanwhile been granted to other languages, including Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam, even as once-vibrant Indian scholarship in the older literature of those languages has withered away.

When it gained independence in 1947, India had a pioneering generation of homegrown classicists of the first rank.

But today, scholars say, its universities produce and retain few classical scholars with the interpretive skills required by a project like the Murty, which has drawn its entire advisory board and most of its translators, South Asian and western alike, from American and European institutions.

"Everyone here will praise this library and talk about the glorious civilisation it represents," said Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, a poet and translator now retired from the University of Allahabad who was not involved with the project.

"But then Indians will wake up and realise they've done very little to preserve or translate their own texts."

The Murty Library fills a scholarly void. The last comparable project, the Clay Sanskrit Library, a series inaugurated by New York University Press in 2005, closed shop prematurely after four years and 56 volumes when its benefactor, the financier John Clay, ended his support. (Clay died in 2013.)

After the Clay Library's demise, Pollock, who had taken over as its general editor, reconceived the project to extend far beyond Sanskrit.

He shopped around in India for a new benefactor, to no avail. He then brought the idea to Sharmila Sen, executive editor at large at Harvard University Press, who connected him with Rohan Murty, the son of the Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy. (The two men spell their surnames differently.)

The younger Murty, at the time a 26-year-old doctoral student in computer science at Harvard, put up $5.2 million to endow the new library, which will eventually be digitised, in perpetuity.

"He really understood the need for it," Sen, who acquired the series, said. "We were both educated in the same kind of India, where we knew way more about Shakespeare and Wordsworth than about the classical texts of our own region."

Some works in the first release will be familiar to many Indians even if they have never read them. Sur's Ocean, a 1,000-page anthology of more than 400 poems attributed to the 16th-century Hindi poet Surdas (edited by Kenneth E. Bryant and translated by John Stratton Hawley), includes verses that have deeply penetrated popular oral tradition.

Others are appearing in full translation for the first time. The Story of Manu, a 16th-century south Indian epic poem about the first human being (translated from Telugu by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman), has never before been translated into another language, Pollock said. (Like most of the original-language text in the series, the Telugu script is printed in a custom-designed font.)

The inaugural volumes include two works from the Muslim tradition with broad contemporary resonances.

The ecstatic Sufi lyrics of the 18th-century Punjabi poet Bullhe Shah, translated by Christopher Shackle, have been sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and featured in Bollywood movies.

The first of multiple projected volumes of Abu'l-Fazl's History of Akbar, translated from Persian by Wheeler M. Thackston, chronicles the early life of a Mughal emperor celebrated today as a unifier who promoted religious pluralism.

The initial Murty release also includes the Therigatha, an anthology of verses by and about the earliest ordained Buddhist women, first written down in Sri Lanka more than 2,000 years ago and considered some of the world's oldest surviving women's poetry.

Those verses, which capture the women's relief at being free of constricting roles as wives and mothers, have been embraced by modern Buddhists seeking a vision of Buddhism as concerned with the oppressed, the translator, Charles Hallisey, said.

But they have yet to claim their rightful place in the broader canon of world literature, in part because of the stiffness of previous translations from Pali, a dead language, he said.

"These verses are so vivid," Hallisey said. "The challenge was to translate them as poetry, rather than as something more conventionally Buddhist."

The spare poems of the Therigatha, with their longing for transcendence and their glimpses of ordinary life, may travel easily across the millenniums. But to Pollock, what makes a work a classic is not its familiarity and universality but its utter, irreducible strangeness.

The goal of the Murty "is to ensure that everyone can hear these strange voices - not just scholars in their studies, but kids standing at railway kiosks," he said. "Now, those kids will be able to pull a book down off the shelf and hear these voices, too."

New York Times News Service


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