Bhasa and Dandin
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Bhasa and Dandin
REVIEWS: A tale of two classics
Reviewed by Asif Farrukhi
For a long time classics consisted of an exclusive group of books, focused entirely on Greek and Latin masters and regarded as the intellectual birthright of the privileged ones. The canon was defined by the exclusion of works written by African-Americans, foreigners, women and others marginalised from the mainstream. Literary attitudes were formed by the likes of Lord Macaulay who had recommended sacrificing entire libraries from the East for a few books from the West. Needless to say, the transportation was unfair and unnecessary.
His Lordship would have been shocked and scandalised to observe that the reputable British publishers printed age-old books, recovered and retained from the languages of the East and called them ‘classics’. But classics they are, being hundreds and thousands of years old and retaining their attractiveness for each new age by being open to different interpretations of their meanings.
The publisher is doing a commendable job in making such books available, that too in a new and attractive format and keeping with the well-known series of international classics. The introductory essays make the background information available and the translations are highly readable and follow a contemporary style.
The books have finally been rendered free from the laborious and archaic style of the translators from the colonial period that treated them as literary or cultural curiosities. Nonetheless, their untiring labours are encapsulated in archaic and conventional manners which serve to keep away contemporary and non-specialist readers who pick up books for pleasure and information.
The series brings to life ancient writers with whom we need to renew our acquaintance. Bhasa is one such writer and as a Sanskrit playwright, he suffers from not being Kalidasa. The Sanskrit language once pervaded the entire subcontinent and further beyond, as the translator notes in his highly informative Introduction, and from what remains of that literature, the figure best known is, of course, Kalidasa. He would perhaps be the only writer from Sanskrit that people in our part of the world are acquainted with because of his play. More than 1,500 years ago, Bhasa was famous and in fact, the upcoming Kalidasa had to establish his reputation by inviting comparison and competition with him.
The works of the ancient master were lost for centuries, being partially rediscovered in the early days of the 20th century. The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays by Bhasa brings together six of his plays, united by the thematic origin from Mahabharata, the treasure-trove of myths and legends. Bhasa’s greatest strengths are stated to be his skilful handling of dialogue, legend and dramatic action, combined and blended together. The translator points out the great innovation of the playwright being that the hero of the play dies on the stage and there is no conventional happy ending, an innovation which may otherwise have lost its novelty for us. For the modern reader the plays are short and fast-paced, and make an invaluable introduction to the world of classical Sanskrit theatre.
Fiction writer and poet, Dandin belonged to the Pallava period and lived around 650-750AD somewhere close to where Chennai is located today. He is described as a novelist, but that may be stretching the definition of this modern day genre to regard his works as such. At his best, he is a fiction-writer and storyteller and as such, excels in his art.
Dandin is described as a realist rather than a moralist by the translator as he ‘presents life as it is’ as he praises the work for its entertainment value rather than moral or didactic. The adventures of a raj kumar and his nine companions form the basis of this amusing collection. Geography and distance are no limiting features for these companions as they range across almost the entire South Asia and in doing so paint a delightful picture of their society and its ways.
The common feature of both the books is the translator and he must be commended for having rendered the classical texts in versions which are highly readable. That he must have faced enormous difficulties in his task is borne out from the introduction to the Dasa Kumara Charitam in which he notes that ‘given the differences in literary convention and linguistic construction between the two languages, literal or even too faithful translations — often become unreadably awkward.’ He goes on to list the 10 gunas or virtues which Dandin adhered to in his style but has mercifully spared the reader a painful adherence to these himself. The avoidance of such virtues is in fact the saving grace of these readable versions.
The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays by Bhasa
127pp. Indian Rs200
Tales of the Ten Princes by Dandin
189pp. Indian Rs250
Translated by A. N. D. Haksar
Penguin Classics, Penguin Books, India