When the Loeb Classical Library was founded in 1911, it was hailed as a much-needed effort to make the glories of the Greek and Roman classics available to general readers.
Virginia Woolf praised the series, which featured reader-friendly English translations and the original text on facing pages, as “a gift of freedom.” Over time, the pocket-size books, now totaling 522 volumes and counting, became scholarly mainstays and design-geek fetish objects, their elegant green (Greek) and red (Latin) covers seen everywhere, from the pages of Martha Stewart Living to Mr. Burns’ study on “The Simpsons.”
Now, Harvard University Press, the publisher of the Loebs, wants to do the same for the far more vast and diverse classical literature of India, in what some are calling one of the most complex scholarly publishing projects ever undertaken.
The Murty Classical Library of India, whose first five dual-language volumes will be released this week, will include Sanskrit texts and works in Bangla, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Persian, Prakrit, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu and other languages. Projected to reach some 500 books over the next century, the series is to encompass poetry and prose, history and philosophy, Buddhist and Muslim texts as well as Hindu ones, and familiar works alongside those that have been all but unavailable to nonspecialists.
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The Murty will offer “something the world had never seen before and something that India had never seen before: a series of reliable, accessible, accurate and beautiful books that really open up India’s precolonial past,” said Sheldon Pollock, a professor of South Asian studies at Columbia University and the library’s general editor.
While the canon of surviving Greek and Roman classics is fairly small, the literature of India’s multiple classical languages includes thousands upon thousands of texts, many of which, as the writer William Dalrymple recently noted, exist only in manuscripts that are decaying before they can be translated or even cataloged.
The Murty Library, Pollock said, aims to take in the broadest swath of them. “As long as it’s good and interesting and important, it’s going to be in the Murty Classical Library,” he said.
The editions are intended, like the Loebs, “to be around for 100 years,” Pollock said. But to some scholars, the project also comes as a timely if implicit rebuke to the Hindu nationalists of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, with its promotion of a unitary Indian identity based on Sanskrit religious classics.
The series “debunks the myth of a Hindu orthodoxy as being the only classicism we have,” said Arshia Sattar, an independent scholar and translator in Bangalore. “In a strange way, the editors are creating a new canon.”
The library, which will be celebrated late this month at the Jaipur Literary Festival, arrives at a fraught moment in India’s long-running battles over language and national identity. Last month, the country’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, said the Bhagavad Gita, a Sanskrit religious text, should be designated a “national scripture.” In November, efforts to make the teaching of Sanskrit essentially mandatory in schools for the children of government employees prompted an outcry.
When it gained independence in 1947, India had a pioneering generation of homegrown classicists of the first rank. But today, scholars say, its universities produce and retain few classical scholars with the interpretive skills required by a project like the Murty, which has drawn its entire advisory board and most of its translators, South Asian and Western alike, from U.S. and European institutions.
“Everyone here will praise this library and talk about the glorious civilization it represents,” said Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, a poet and translator now retired from the University of Allahabad who was not involved with the project. “But then Indians will wake up and realize they’ve done very little to preserve or translate their own texts.”
Some works in the first Murty release will be familiar to many Indians even if they have never read them. “Sur’s Ocean,” a 1,000-page anthology of more than 400 poems attributed to the 16th-century Hindi poet Surdas (edited by Kenneth E. Bryant and translated by John Stratton Hawley), includes verses that have penetrated popular oral tradition, while Surdas himself figured in a quiz-show question in the movie “Slumdog Millionaire.”
The inaugural volumes include two works from the Muslim tradition with broad contemporary resonances. The ecstatic Sufi lyrics of the 18th-century Punjabi poet Bullhe Shah, translated by Christopher Shackle, have been sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and featured in Bollywood movies. The first of multiple projected volumes of Abu’l-Fazl’s “History of Akbar,” translated from Persian by Wheeler M. Thackston, chronicles the early life of a Mughal emperor celebrated today as a unifier who promoted religious pluralism.
The initial Murty release also includes the Therighata, an anthology of verses by and about the earliest ordained Buddhist women, first written in Sri Lanka more than 2,000 years ago and considered some of the world’s oldest surviving women’s poetry.
Those verses, which capture the women’s relief at being free of constricting roles as wives and mothers, have been embraced by modern Buddhists seeking a vision of Buddhism as concerned with the oppressed, the translator, Charles Hallisey, said.