15 May 2009

Subhashitavali: An Anthology of Comic, Erotic and Other Verse

Translated in English by N. D Haksar
: Penguin
Year of Publication: 2007
Price: 200 Rs

Verses on marital sensuality

The common understanding has always been that Sanskrit literature is serious. For primarily that reason alone, Subhashitavali (quite a tongue twister this) is a standout work in the oeuvre of Sanskrit classical literature. In fact, this can be a showcase work to prove how the language has produced its share of fun and flippant verse.

So what is the book all about? Written over 2000 years ago, this consists of a unique compilation of epigrams (circlet of well-said verses) by Sanskrit scholars and poets, including some very famous ones like Kalidasa, Vyas Muni and Vaalmiki.

Though reputed in literary circles, Subhashitavali is hardly known to general readership and was never translated in English, until very recently by N. D Haksar – a well-known translator of Sanskrit classics.

While the book has a definite ‘heritage’ value attached to it, its easy, readable content is probably what has led to its English translation. Also, its rich compilation of erotic verses that must have been a tempting proposition for the publishers. While tackling a number of themes – from nature to morality to worldly truths (a la Bacon’s essays), quite obviously, it is the erotica that is its central highlight.

Warring lovers making up in bed seems to be the predominant theme here and the result is a touching yet titillating peek into marital sensuality.

“Lips with colour kissed away,
Eyes bereft of kohl, tresses straggling on the face;
But at dawn, contented,
Their glory is more
Than of the night before
When merely ornamented.”

There are other sage observations as under;
“In pain, look at the greater pain,
In pleasure, on some greater pleasure
To grief and joy not surrender—
Both are your foes in equal measure.”

While there’s no reason you cannot enjoy these translated verses, one can never dismiss the chance that some of the original’s essence may have been lost here. Also, while some verses are extremely enjoyable, there are many others that are pretty ordinary.

Sample this:
“Tell me truly, O my love
what is it you do to me:
to hear you is a real pleasure
to see you is pure ecstasy.”
“Though they hide the heart’s desire
To begin making love,
The couple understands each other
Just by fleeting glances.”

So what makes Subhashitavali worth a read? The very fact that these verses were written thousands of years ago, offering a timeless perspective into marital eroticism (with its sexual politics, concept of beauty and issues of morality) makes it readable enough.
Also amidst all the moral policing that one sees today, with self-interest groups using India’s cultural past to thrust their own agendas, this piece of work quite remarkably lends a perspective into the sexual sensibilities of the time.
From a purely literary point of view, this is a mixed bag. The verses range from the pious to the profane, the earnest to the cynical, the elegant to the crass and the lyrical to sententious.
But for most part, this is a welcome diversion from the regular stuff.

-Sandhya Iyer

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