The Fifth Metro: Found in translation

A new venture puts English renderings of ancient Indian texts within reach of Indian reader.

Written by Saritha Rai | Updated: January 13, 2015 3:52 am
books-l What makes the endeavour noteworthy is that the philanthropy is supporting it.

 

A Cornell- and Harvard-educated computer scientist, whose research interest is in embedded computing and distributed computing systems, has founded a new classical publication series that methodically puts English translations of ancient Indian texts within reach of the average Indian reader. Rohan Murty, son of Infosys co-founder and former chairman Narayana Murthy, generously gifted $5.2 million (about Rs 25 crore) to Harvard University in 2010. The first fruits of that generosity — a set of six Indian classics translated and presented in dual-language glory — will be launched later this month in Bangalore and New Delhi, as well as at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

The first set of books in the Murty Classical Library of India, bound in beautiful rose-and-gold covers, include the Punjabi poet Bulleh Shah’s Sufi Lyrics; Akbarnama, the 16th century chronicle and biography by Abul Fazl; the 16th century poetry of Surdas, Sursagar; and Therigatha, a poetry anthology in Pali by Buddhist women, one of the first recorded examples of women’s literature in any language in the world. Some of these full translations are available for the very first time. The series will have over a hundred books from Indian literature over the last two millennia translated by world-class scholars and authorities on the works. It will encompass classical Sanskrit, as well as a bunch of regional Indian languages, prose and poetry, history and philosophy, and Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim literature.

What makes the endeavour noteworthy is that the philanthropy supporting it is unusual in a country where many rich Indians give to causes like education, healthcare and rural development. For example, Bangalore technology billionaire Azim Premji has gifted over $2 billion (Rs 12,000 crore) mostly to education. Premji is the most giving Indian, whose generosity, according to one recent estimate, is worth six times that of the next biggest philanthropist, Anil Agarwal of the London-based mining group Vedanta. In a poor country, each of these causes is worthy and deserving. Yet, the uncommon philanthropic pursuits — such as Murty’s or Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan’s $10 million fund to set up a brain research centre in Bangalore — sparkle.

Murty, a junior fellow at Harvard, took a sabbatical to join Infosys in 2013 as executive assistant to his father, who had returned to the position of executive chairman at a troubling time for Infosys. Father and son, who spell their last names differently, quit in mid-2014, when Infosys appointed a new outsider CEO. Murty now holds 1.38 per cent
of Infosys.

Murty was spurred to make the unusual donation because, he is quoted as saying, while he studied Shakespeare in school, he had no access to classical Indian texts such as Kalidasa’s Shakuntala. The classics, published by Harvard University Press and edited by noted Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock of Columbia University, will come with the original language text on the left-hand page in specially commissioned new typefaces, and the English translation on the facing page. To increase accessibility, the books are affordably priced. Digital versions will follow. The gift presents varied classical literature in diverse Indian languages to the average Indian, and makes it available to newer generations of Indians. It also makes Indian classical works accessible to the global reader.

Pollock writes on the Murty Classical Library website: “Taken all together, they give India the single most complex and continuous multilingual tradition of literature in the world. And this is what, in all its complexity and multiplicity, the Murty Classical Library of India seeks to present to readers.”

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