On Thursday, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen will be inaugurating a series of books in New Delhi which is, arguably, unlike any set of works published before. For, Sen will be launching the first five books of the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI), set up at Harvard to publish English translations of ancient Indian classical texts, not only from Sanskrit but a host of Indian vernacular languages, from Bengali to Telugu to Hindi to Kannada.
The books, five of which will be published every year for the next hundred years, will offer readers around the world and in India access to unique works that one would otherwise find difficult to find in a library, let alone a book store. For instance, among the first works being released is Therigatha, an anthology of poems in Pali written by the first Buddhist women which might well be the oldest examples of women’s writing.
“I started this (MCLI) four years ago, when I was in Harvard University. In Harvard, for example, if you want to learn classics, they teach you only Greek and Latin. Our question was why only these, why not old Tamil poetry or Punjabi play or Malayalam text? So, now, we're doing these translations and making them available to people in India and the US,” Rohan Murty, who had donated $5.2 million along with his family to launch MCLI, had told Business Standard earlier. Murty did his PhD in computer science from Harvard University and had recently taken leave from the university to spend a year as executive assistant to his father and Infosys founder Narayana Murthy. “This is the first time this is being done with Indian texts — people are used to seeing Greek and Latin texts, now they will start seeing books in ancient Tamil, Hindi and other Indian languages,” he said. Murty was clear that though there would be some works in Sanskrit the focus would be on the vernacular languages.
Abu’l-Fazl’s The History of Akbar (Part I), considered one of the most significant works of Indo-Persian history; Bulleh Shah’s Sufi poetry; The Story of Manu by 16th century Telugu poet Allasani Peddana; and Surdas’ poems in old Hindi, Sur’s Ocean (Sursagar), are the other works that will be released on Thursday. Each book will have the original script on the left side and the translation in English on the facing page. There will also be explanatory comments and textual notes with each work, bound in a deep pink cover. “This is unprecedented,” said writer Girish Karnad. “Usually, classical Indian works mean Sanskrit or Tamil, but they have brought together some of the most significant works in Indian languages and are making them available in a beautifully set edition. It’s an extraordinary gift to the people.” This is something that needed to be done and I’m so glad Rohan Murty and Narayana Murthy have put in so much money into it because then it doesn't become a foreign enterprise, we are bringing out our own riches, he said. The point the library makes, Karnad added, is that there is no such thing as a single Indian sensibility, which is pertinent in the current political context. “There is a wide variety of sensibilities, of cultural contexts and situations, which these books also bring out. It’s not just the literature.”
Heading the initiative in the role of general editor is Sheldon Pollock, renowned Sanskrit scholar, and Arvind Raghunathan, professor of Sanskrit and South Asian Studies at Columbia University. Pollock, who was also one of the editors of the Clay Sanskrit library, had reportedly approached the Murthy family to do something along the lines of the series of books translated from Sanskrit at the initiative of investment banker John Clay. But it was Rohan Murty who convinced the family to make the commitment. “The threat posed to knowledge, as fewer and fewer people today can gain access to the great works of literature and thought of their classical past, is MCLI’s reason for being,” Pollock writes, on the Murty Classical Library website. Scholars from 18 countries are working together on the translations, of which there is already a 20-year backlog now. Following the launch in New Delhi, the books will be launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival and in Bengaluru, by Fields Medal winner Manjul Bhargava. The books, published by Harvard University Press, will be available in India and the US. True to MCLI’s commitment to make them accessible, the paperback editions will be available in India at Rs 295 from January 16.
“In school, we read Shakespeare and Dickens, which was great but I wish that we had also read some Indian classics. So my hope is that 18 years from now, our kids will be reading these books,” Murty remarked.