The BS column: The missing Indian canon

(Published in the Business Standard, April 19, 2010)

In the library sales from the crumbling houses of Calcutta, or Delhi, or the hillstation homes, the keen-eyed book buyer would often come across sets of bound classics. These were usually in the printer’s binding—vellum, blue leather and gold—or occasionally bound in red with the owner’s initials stamped on the spine or on the frontispiece.

Over the decades, the contents of these classics changed. Everyman’s Library of classic works was a favourite, as was the Modern Library set; but depending on the owner’s tastes, you might have complete sets of histories, or the World’s Greatest Short Stories, or Masterpieces of World Literature, or a complete set of Greek mythology. You would very rarely find a similar set of Indian classics—individual books, almost always a Mahabharata, a Ramayana and perhaps the great poets or favourite Hindi, Gujarati and Bengali writers.

But complete sets were hard to find, even in the most literate of households, because the concept of a classics shelf for Indian literature didn’t sit comfortably in our imaginations. There were exceptions: Oxford University Press and Penguin India have both produced excellent translations and classics sets, but there has been no authoritative equivalent of the Loeb Classical Library. As of this week, a handsome donation by Infosys’ Narayan Murthy to the Harvard University Press might change that. The project he has in mind would be the Murthy Classical Library of India—with dual-language editions of Indian classics in several languages, from Hindi to Punjabi to Malayalam.

Just a few years ago, the Clay Library project, funded by the philanthropist John Clay, began publishing the beautifully produced Clay Sanskrit Library. It’s one of the very few series I actively regretted not being able to publish—it went to Random House instead of my nascent publishing house—and I remember how beautiful the Clay volumes of Kalidasa and Dandin looked, bound in eggshell blue, the acid-free paper turning smoothly to the touch of your fingers.

Gurcharan Das, as formidable a reader as he is a writer, speaks with affection of the “battle books” (Books Six to Nine of the Mahabharata), in “beautiful, parallel texts in English and Sanskrit”. But the Clay project has been disrupted by the illness of John Clay, and there’s some uncertainty about its future. And the Murthy Classical Library, by spreading its net wider than Sanskrit, promises to deliver something we’ve never really had—a comprehensive look at our literary heritage, even if it might take decades to complete.

What do we currently read in the way of our own classics? We don’t have an easy equivalent of “the Classical Canon”—in the sense of a list of classic literary works that would be considered essential reading for any thinking Indian. Most of us imbibe the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, almost by osmosis, whether it’s through the great authoritative translations or through your grandmother’s retellings or via a more popular comic-book or TV serial version. After this, it splinters according to individual preference—there are very few outside the academic world who would read, simultaneously, the Rajatarangini and the Cilappatikaram, Shakuntala and the Buddhist song-cycle of the Charyapada.

Back in my university days, there was an unconscious acceptance of the idea that you could read in translation—we read Chaucer and Homer without questioning the difficult medieval English of one or the translation from Greek of the other. It rarely occurred to even enthusiastic readers to wonder why we couldn’t similarly study the Mahabharata. This isn’t an argument for cultural representation; just a way to underline the fact that we have a large blank shelf in our households where the Indian classics should be. Where this space is filled with classics selected at random, it’s often limited by the language we know best—we’ll read our own region’s greatest authors, but not roam too far abroad. Murthy’s donation is a way of acknowledging that this is a country where we often read, and think, in translation. It’s just not reflected on our bookshelves.

Tailpiece: Years ago, critics in Calcutta dissed Shankar’s writings: he wrote for the masses, and his bestselling books were too populist to be considered serious literature. The Bengali writer makes no claims himself to literary greatness, but I think it’s going to please him tremendously that Chowringhee is on the shortlist for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The other shortlisted fiction includes two books in German, two in French and one in Italian—Chowringhee, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha, is the only Asian contender this year.





3 responses to “The BS column: The missing Indian canon”

  1. Qalandar Avatar

    Superb — and wonderfully evocative — piece, as much about the pelasure of reading as about the Indian "canonical"…

  2. Praveen Vaidya Avatar

    Basicallly, we are poor readers. We never cared for our classics. There are many classical works in India and readers may some time not find it.

  3. Raah-Dikha Avatar

    Chowringhee is amazing – who cares if it is populist as long as you recognize and enjoy it? Readers are often anxious to prove their pedigree by their reading list. Poor readership of Indian classics is perhaps more tied to whether we do our primary reading in English or in other languages. for example, i read, write and speak English and Hindi so can and often do read what is available in those languages. I do not read and write Telegu, my mother tongue by birth and the reasons are many. I was brought up as a military brat to think of India rather than to have a regional identity, I did not really find a "modern" (read upwardly mobile, west-oriented) society in AP as a child and was not aware of my own biases. Add to this the fact that there are so few, if any, translations available of works such as Amuktamalayada or the poetry of Nannaya. I sometimes perceive a peculiar insular conspiracy in India – every region takes pride in making its language and literature unavailable to the outsider, unless the person learns their language!

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