April 01, 2020
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Digital Memory

The Infosys czar trains his focus and funds to an Indian classics project at Harvard

Digital Memory
Illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
Digital Memory

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.

“Colonialism nearly killed India’s capacity to know its past;globalisation threatens to destroy its will.”
Sheldon Pollock, Columbia University

This unique project will present, in English translation, canonised classical texts available for centuries in various regional tongues like Kannada, Tamil, Oriya, Telugu, Punjabi, Urdu, Persian, Gujarati, Bangla and so on, besides Sanskrit. 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. These ‘definitive’ volumes will seek to serve both the general public and academics, with introductions, critical footnotes and exegetical endnotes. To oversee the project, the Harvard provost has set up an executive board of six, an editorial panel of five scholars and an advisory panel of scholars in adjacent fields.

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.

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