Where was the mango tree, where the koilbird? When were they kin?
Mountain gooseberry and sea salt: When were they kin?
—Allama Prabhu, in A.K. Ramanujan’s Speaking of Siva (Penguin Classics)
As Prabhu, a 12th-century mystic, says in a Kannada vachana, it is sometimes strange to see a connection between two disparate things or happenings, but it can, nevertheless, be a reality. Similarly, it may be difficult to associate N.R. Narayana Murthy, an eminent technologist, with a project on Indian classical literature at Harvard University, but it is, indeed, a reality. So much of a reality, in fact, that this project might just, in the time to come, overshadow the legacy Narayana Murthy has left behind at Infosys.
Less than a fortnight ago, Harvard University announced that the ‘Murthy family of Bangalore’ had established a new publication series called the Murthy Classical Library Series (MCLI) with a generous gift of $5.2 million. It also announced that renowned scholar Sheldon Pollock, who is currently Ransford Professor of Sanskrit and Indian studies at Columbia University, had been named the general editor of the volumes. Although there have been many such classical series published by various institutions, including Harvard itself, like the Loeb Classical Library or the Clay Sanskrit Library, or the earliest of all—Max Mueller’s 50-volume Sacred Books of the East series, what sets this exercise apart is that it makes a significant departure from the Orientalist project of the last couple of centuries, by aiming to look beyond Sanskrit and religion, and dipping into India’s multilingual literary heritage. In other words, the Murthy series seeks to broaden the idea of India. It promises to be pluralistic and inclusive.
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.”
He also pointed out that like other spheres, culture too needs a model of sustainable development. “Without the ‘humanities’, how human are we? What would it mean to win the world and lose one’s soul? This danger is especially real and present in the era of globalisation,” said Pollock. Arguing that colonialism and westernisation had “already nearly destroyed India’s capacity to know its past”, he said “globalisation threatens to destroy its will.”
The delicate irony here is that the software services and outsourcing business that Murthy so successfully ran for years is widely regarded as the most visible and successful vehicle of India’s rapid and reckless globalisation. It is also seen as an industry that has shrunk the connotation of the word ‘knowledge’. Moreover, those familiar with Murthy’s strident advocacy of the English language as a means of speeding up India’s economic progress will view this gesture of setting up a multilingual humanities project as a remarkable course correction, or at least a pleasant surprise.
It is such an “amazing endowment”, says Pollock, that it can allow MCLI to be published “for as long as books are published”. In a century from now, the library may contain nearly 600 volumes, and may include not just literary texts but also “some great monuments of systematic thought whether in philosophy, literary criticism, political theory and the like”.
Since the MCLI intends to publish fresh translations in contemporary English, the toughest challenge before it is of finding scholar-translators. For this, Prof Pollock says, in cases where scholarship exists without a matching competence to render it into English, a team approach will be encouraged: “A literary translator would work with a scholar possessing a deeply philological understanding of the text and its intellectual and historical contexts.” For India, there is a collateral benefit, namely the revitalisation of classical studies in India, a goal that Pollock has passionately pursued in recent years.
Some works being considered for translation in the first phase include: the Kamban Ramayana, the first complete translation of the entire Tamil epic; Biharilal’s ‘satsai’ (Hindi); the works of Bulle Shah (Punjabi); Peddama’s Manucaritamu (Telugu); Amir Khusro’s The Eight Paradises (Persian); Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsha (Sanskrit); the Mangal Kavyas (Bangla); Prabhatiyam and other works of Narasimh Mehta (Gujarati). Although contracts have not been issued as yet, the first MCLI volume is expected to roll out in 2013.
I’ve always held Narayana Murthy in very high esteem (Digital Memory, May 10). Through sheer determination and drive, he was able to put his company, Infosys, among the top IT and software solution providers in the world. Now, he is spearheading a project to discover the other India—away from computers, smartphones and highrises—her culture and ancient heritage. The Contrarian, London
In a sense, it was the British who invented Hinduism as we know it today. Without them, India’s Hindu heritage would have been lost. Iqram Jahaz, Jaipur
The Murthies have done well to establish the mcli at Harvard because Indians respect something only when it comes from the West. S.S. Nagaraj, Bangalore
Mr Murthy could consider a classic in his own language Kannada—the Pampa Bharatha—for translation. Sriganga B.K., Bangalore
I suppose this is how transfer of wealth takes place. Wealth is created in India and goes out as generous grants abroad. How people crave for attention from the West! Gajanan Netravali, Mumbai
This step of Narayana Murthy’s will be the next revolution in our knowledge base. Mahesh R.G., Gulbarga
Narayana Murthy’s effort is flattering but flawed (Digital Memory, May 10). The 18th-century European scholars laboured on two coordinated fronts to kill India’s roots in its classical past. First, they learnt Sanskrit and mistranslated most texts in that language to agree with their Greco-Roman worldview. Second, by ‘developing’ vernacular languages, they engendered a disconnect with Sanskrit, leading to its weakening. Now that colonisation is replaced by US-led globalisation, it’s fitting that Mr Murthy, in his infinite wisdom, follows in the footsteps of the old, myopic scholars.
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