A Literary Causerie




Why is a classic a classic? The question may sound tautological, if not altogether facetious. For, a classic is a classic. Or, with apologies to Gertrude Stein, a classic is a classic is a classic. In other words what are the essential features that mark a classic out from the rest of the hundreds of thousands of books, written through the ages? T. S. Eliot has a famous essay on the subject and other scholars and critics there are who had written whole volumes covering the same ground.


Looking at it from the layman’s point of view, a classic is something that lasts, that has stood the test of time arid outlasted most of its contemporaries. Only a few at the world level have survived the changing fashions of time and circumstance–Homer’s  Illiad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeniad, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Tale of Genji, the Book of the Dead, The Analects of Confucius, and, of course, in our own country, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. They go to the root of the matter, the first principles of human conduct, of good and evil, of life and death, dealing with problems in such a way as to give them a universal appeal. Their lessons have a universal validity.


Not that every literary classic is likely to be appreciated equally well by all, irrespective of social disparity or cultural affinity, not to speak of a knowledge of the relevant literary background. Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Othello, for instance, can hardly be enjoyed by a group of non-English-speaking bedouins of Saudi Arabia in the same way as by an audience of English Elizabethans. Some social groups may find nothing wrong in a younger brother doing away with his elder brother, the reigning king, and usurping his queen as well as his kingdom. There is, of course, the apocryphal story of some Arab Chieftains, who, on watching the bedroom scene in “Othello” in which the jealous Moor throttles the gentle Desdemona on suspicion of infidelity, exclaimed: ‘Serve her right–the slimy slut!” Difference in social mores could have much to do with this kind of response.


The case of Ramayana and Mahabharata stands on quite a different footing. As far as India is concerned, they occupy a place without any parallel in any of the civilised countries of the world. They are considered not merely as literary classics, but religious classics as well, with a compendium of social and spiritual values. As for the Ramayana, it is cherished by the Hindus in particular, as the book of books, along with the Bhagavad Gita, the Bhagavatam, the Vedas and the Upanishads. It is to the Hindus, what the Bible and the Illiad put together are to the Europeans.


The popular appeal of the Ramayana tradition is, however, not restricted to the Hindu community or to the Indian sub-continent. It extends to what Indian nationalists might love to recall as greater India–from Laos and Cambodia to Nepal, and from Indonesia and Malaysia to Sri Lanka. In fact, The Ramayana tradition in Asia was the central theme of an international Seminar organised by the Sahitya Akademi, in co-operation with the Government of India, in New Delhi towards the end of 1975. Fifteen delegates from other countries participated in this Seminar, along with more than 30 from India.


All the forty-odd papers, presented at the Seminar, have since been edited by the eminent Professor of Sanskrit and Indologist, Dr. V. Raghavan (who himself had taken an active part in the Seminar) and brought out in book form by Sahitya Akademi. It was a pity that he did not live to see it out from Press.


In his strenuously researched and well-documented paper on The Ramayana in Sanskrit Literature, Dr. Raghavan discusses the different Ramayana versions existing in Sanskrit itself, like the Bhusundi, Aananda, Adbhuta and Adhyaatma Ramayanas, apart from those in the Jain and other traditions. The Ramayana tradition in Kannada is dealt with by Prof. V. Sitaramaiah, while Dr. C. R. Sarma dwells upon the Telugu versions–mainly those of Ranganaadha Bhaaskara, Molla and Katla Varadaraaju. In a comparative study of Kamban (Tamil) and Tulasi (Hindi), Dr. S. Shankar Raju Naidu concludes that their objectives were similar as they effected departures from Valmiki’s version. The cult of Rama in Tamil Nadu, as represented in art and thought is a gradual evolution, according to Dr. R. Nagaswamy.


A deep classical background and a sharp contemporary sensibility are harmoniously blended in his paper by Prof. Umashankar Joshi, who underlines the human element in the Ramayana story. He also points out that its appeal is through rasa (or “aesthetic comprehension”). “Because Valmiki sometimes dares present Rama and Sita at humanly human”, he observes, “he succeeds also in presenting them as divinely human, or, shall I say, humanly divine.”


Inscriptions cannot reach the absurd antiquity to which Indian tradition assigns the Rama story (Treta Yuga), according to Mr. D. C. Sircar. Ramayana in Indian sculpture is described by Dr. C. Sivaramamurti, while Ramayana in the arts of Asia is discussed in a perceptive and wide-ranging paper by Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan.


A classic has to be re-interpreted in every age and for every generation, and the Sahitya Akademi’s present effort might be taken as its contribution to this process of re-interpretation and understanding.


Turning from a cherished classic to a reputed classicist, one thinks of Mahamahopadhyaya Prof. S. Kuppuswami Sastri, whose birth centenary was celebrated on a grand scale, but in a fitting and meaningful manner, by the Research Institute, that bears his name in Mylapore, Madras.


Apart from a variety of thoughtful Seminars, there were two important Birth Centenary publications.


One was the Birth Centenary Commemoration Volume, Part I, presenting a collection of Prof. Sastri’s writings and a Kavya on him, in Sanskrit, entitled Gurucaritam by Prof. N. Ramakrishna Bhat.


Prof. Kuppuswami Sastri, compared to an iceberg by some, was more of a scholar than a publicist and more of a dedicated teacher than a prolific writer. He was a deep student of Mimaamsa, Tarka and Vedaanta, no less than of Saahitya and Alamkaara. He was also a stickler for precision, anxious to present problems in perspective, rather than to overstate them for effect or emphasis.


A rapid glance at the titles of the paper included in this volume is enough to give an idea of the range of his interests, and catholicity of his taste, and his preoccupation with balance and proportion. They include: Problems of identity in the cultural history of Ancient India; “Purnaism” (corresponding to “Holism”, associated with Field-Marshal J C. Smuts) in Indian philosophy; Highways and Byways of Literary Criticism in Sanskrit; Authorial Polonomy and Homonymy in Sanskrit literature; Sri Ramakrishna and the Message of Hinduism; and Library Movement as viewed by a classicist.


There is also a critical appreciation of Saktibhadra’s Ascarya Cudamani, a play with a variation on a Ramayana anecdote, which was brought to light by Prof. Sastri himself.


Another Centenary publication is a research work by Dr. S. S. Janaki (Curator of the K. S. R. Institute) on Gadyakarnaamrta OF Sakala-Vidyaa Cakravartin. It represents a doctoral thesis for the Madras University. The text in Sanskrit is a literary work in prose, with a lot of historical significance, belonging to the 13th and 14th centuries of the Hoysala period of Mysore region.


Besides helping in the correct identification of places like Mahendramandalam (with Dharmapuri), the author clarifies many obscure points in a text that throws light on the contacts between the powers in the Karnataka and the Tamil country, including contemporary religious, cultural, social and literary contacts.


In these days, when platform lectures on national integration and stipendiary sermons on Aadaan-Pradaan are belied by regional movements of linguistic parochialism and campaigns for “Sons of the Soil” theory, it gladdens our hearts to recall that there was a time in our history when mobility of thought could not be prevented by slowness of transport and there was no taboo on cross-fertilisation of ideas. In this connection, students of South Indian History do well to read Buddhism in the Tamil country by Prof. T. N. Vasudeva Rao.


The book, though published recently, was written many years ago by the author as a thesis for the M. Litt. degree of Annamalai University. It is commended in a foreword by Prof. K. K. Pillai, the eminent historian of South India.


Though it is generally believed that Buddhism had declined in Tamil Nadu by about the seventh century, the author points out that it had survived in certain parts of the region down to the 12th and 13th centuries.


Referring to certain literary works, not all extant, like “Vimbasaara Kadai”, “Siddhaanta togai”, “Tiruppadikam”, “Virasoliyam”, the author concludes that the Buddhists had contributed substantially to the growth and development of Tamil literature.


Not only the Buddhists, but the Jains as well, as one could see from the Tamil Pancha Kaavyas (the five classics of Tamils literature), of which two at least are particularly relevant in this context–Manimekhalai and Ceevaka Cintamani.


If there is one scholar whom the modern world of Tamil letters should thank for having brought these Sangam classics into public view, it is Dr. U. V. Swaminatha Iyer. His life is a saga of single-minded devotion to the classical literature of the Tamils, part of which was recorded in his autobiography in Tamil, En Carittiram; published in 1950, after serialisation in Ananda Vikatan earlier. It has now been brought out in its English version, in a condensed form, under the title The Story of My Life. The translation, done competently and faithfully by Mr. S. K. Guruswami, was ably edited by the late Prof. A. Rama Iyer, a seasoned teacher of English.


Quite a few modern Tamil scholars had taken up the study of and research in the classics, where Dr. U. V. S. Iyer had left off. One of the younger and more resourceful of them is Dr. R. Vijayalakshmi, an accomplished linguist, who brings to bear a multiplicity of perceptions for a clearer view of the areas that still remain dark in the classics.


Inspired by Henry Gifford’s observation that “no single literature stands complete”, she began to study the contribution of Jaina authors to Indian literature in general and Tamil literature in particular. This was stimulated by a new awareness acquired during her study of the Civakacintamani at Oxford, for which she had since been awarded the degree of D. Phil.


This soon led her to an interest in Brhat Kathaa, whose original text (in Prakrit) is now lost. A comparative study of Perunkatai and other versions including Brhat Kathaa Sloka Sangraha, Kathaa Sarit Saagara (Sanskrit) and Vasudevahindi (Praakrit), under the guidance of the late Prof. L. Alsdorf (of Hamburg) had resulted in certain conclusions, that should induce a rethinking among the traditional, unilingual scholars.


She says, in summing up, that the stamp of Jainism which we see in Perunkatai is due to the basic fact that the original Brhat Kathaa itself probably has a Jaina origin, adding, however, that the Jaina character of the work is not the result of a deliberate intent, but faithful adherence to an original Jaina source.


As in literature, so in the arts, plastic or performing, it is not possible to peak of a monolithic tradition covering the whole country or even a large region. This general guiding principle subserves the indepth study of Traditional Indian Theatre in its many streams (Publications Division) by Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, who has devoted a whole lifetime to an understanding of the origin and evolution of the performing arts. The substantial, well-produced volume covers all the major art forms from Kutiyattam, Yakshagaana Bhaagavata mela and Kuchipudi, through Ramayana and Ramalila, Raasalila, and Krishnalila to Tamasa and Yatra.


The multifarious character of traditional Indian theatre, covering folk as well as classical forms, is aptly summed up by the author, when she says: “Its Maargi and Desi or its Naatya Dharmi and Loka Dharmi aspects are but two sides of the same coin or two concentric circles with the same centre. The axis of the circle has a regional identity and the centre an Indianness which holds the totality together!


The Kalakshetra, abode of Indian art in all its forms in their basic unity and blossoming diversity, has a new quarterly of its own, in its third volume. Numbers 3 and 4 in this volume present a rich variety of authoritative articles by Mrs. Rukmini Devi Arundale (Bharata Natya Sastra in practice), Mr. K. Chandrasekharan (Kuravanji Dance), Kamban’s epic as shadow play (V.RamasubramaniamAundy”), among others. Other articles include those on the Chidambaram Temple, Divinities and ornaments, Yantra worship, Thevaram Hymns, etc.


Tamil Nadu Lalit Kala Akademi (Ovium Nunkalai Kuzhu) has recently brought out a useful reference book. It  is a Who’s Who of artists and craftsmen of Tamil Nadu, including art critics, art organisations, museums and art galleries.


The spirit of reconciliation in matters cultural (critical as well as creative) is eloquently embodied in the C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, which is a centre for Studies in Tradition, Thought and Culture of India. In fact, Voice of Samanvaya is the suggestive title of its journal, which publishes special articles by contemporary scholars, along with varied material culled from the archives of Dr. C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar. “European literature as it strikes an Indian” (Vol. IV) and “The Basis of Indian Art Expression” (Vol. V), both by Dr. C. P., are among the highlights of the most recent issues. At the Cross Roads, Culture of the Art of Dance and South Indian Music, also by him, are from another issue.


Dr. C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar was one of those far-seeing statesmen, who believed firmly in Indo-British partnership. He lived like a prince and died suddenly, while on a visit to London. There was another dynamic personality who lived eight or nine decades earlier. He also believed in Indo-British partnership. He not only lived like a prince, but was popularly called by this prefix. He was Prince Dwarakanath Tagore, grandfather of Rabindranath Tagore and friend and follower of Raja Ram Mohun Roy. Curiously enough, both of them died in England.


Recalling these two friends, Roy and Tagore, Prof. Max Mueller described the former as “one of the great benefactors of mankind.” Of the latter, he said: “I knew him well while he was staying at Paris, and living there in good royal style. He was an enlightened, liberal-minded man, but a man of this world rather than of the next.”


These and many other facts from the life of Dwarakanath Tagore by Krishna Kripalani (NBT, India) are brought to light in their proper perspective.


A sensitive writer, who had devoted the best part of active career to a study of Gurudev Tagore’s life and work, Mr. Kripalani had cast his net wide in the collection of source material for a full-length biography of the prince. The result is a substantial book, that is reliable as well as readable. Elegance of style and vividness of presentation have been achieved without sacrificing precision of detail or meticulous documentation.