Rohan Murty takes ancient Indian texts to the world

The first five books of the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI), an initiative by the Harvard University…

The first five books of the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI), an initiative by the Harvard University Press to publish English translations of ancient Indian classical literature, were launched in New Delhi on Thursday. The translated works will be from Sanskrit and Indian languages including Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Kannada, and Punjabi.

“I started this (MCLI) four years ago, when I was in Harvard University. In Harvard, for example, if you want to learn classics, they teach you Greek and Latin. Our question was, why only these, why not old Tamil poetry or Punjabi plays or Malayalam texts? So now we’re doing these translations and making them available to people in India and the US,” Rohan Murty, who has donated $5.2 million, along with his family, to launch MCLI via an endowment, told the audience at the launch. Murty did a PhD in computer science from Harvard University and had recently taken leave to spend a year as an executive assistant to his father and Infosys founder Narayana Murthy. “This is the first time this is being done with Indian texts — people are used to seeing Greek and Latin texts, now they will start seeing books in ancient Tamil, Hindi and other Indian languages,” he said.

It is planned to publish three-five translations every year, offering readers around the world and in India access to unique works that one would otherwise find difficult to get hold of. For instance, among the first works released is Therigatha, an anthology of poems in Pali written by and about the first Buddhist women. This might well be one of the oldest examples of women’s writings.

Abu’l-Fazl’s The History of Akbar (Part I), considered one of the most significant works of Indo-Persian history; Bulleh Shah’s Sufi poetry; The Story of Manu by 16th-century Telugu poet Allasani Peddana; and Surdas’ poems in old Hindi, Sur’s Ocean (Sursagar), are the other works that were released. Each book will have the original script on the left side and the translation in English on the facing page. There will also be explanatory comments and textual notes with each work, bound in a deep pink cover.

Heading the initiative in the role of general editor is renowned Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock, and Arvind Raghunathan, professor of Sanskrit and south Asian studies at Columbia University. Pollock, who was also one of the editors of the Clay Sanskrit Library that shut down after its sponsor, investment banker John Clay, stopped funding, had reportedly approached the Murthy family for a similar effort. But it was Rohan Murty who convinced the family to make the commitment. “The threat posed to knowledge, as fewer and fewer people today can gain access to the great works of literature and thought of their classical past, is MCLI’s reason for being,” writes Pollock on the MCLI website. Scholars from 18 countries are working together on the translations, of which there is already a 20-year backlog. “These books will cater not just to the general readers, but also to students and scholars. Thus, we will ensure that the books are not unreadable, but clear,” said Pollock. “We already have 28 books with 48 volumes that will be published in the next seven years. The plan is to publish over 500 books by 2114,” he added.

The books will also be launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival and in Bengaluru. As per MCLI’s commitment to make them accessible, the paperback editions will be available in India for R295 from January 16, while the hard-bound editions will cost R1,495.

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