The Life of Harishchandra, a 13th cen-tury Kannada classic by poet Raghavanka, is the latest volume
brought out by The Murthy Classic Library of India which is bringing out extremely well edited and professionally worked out English translations of classic Indian texts for not just a global audience, but to Indian readers as well. In fact, as the translator of the present volume notes in her introduction, there is a glaring disconnect with such texts and they are as alien to a modern Indian reader as they might be to any outsider, thanks to the colonial education system and the kind of modernity it brought in. As Sheldon Pollock, the General Editor of the series, says the Indian literary past has become a ‘closed text’ for most of the present generation. The key to open it, ironically, is English again! The modern readers can now approach the classics, in a literal sense, through their English version which are printed side by side. It is like referring a reverse dictionary. Yet English can serve only as a half key, and the other keys (which may be more than one!) will have to come from our own memories and sensibilities, however distorted they may be by colonial modernity. Take for example the story of Harishchandra.
It is a pan-Indian story, with an archetypal theme familiar to most Indians through various sources, even though they might not be acquainted with the textual narrative in great detail. The story is still a part of the general Indian cultural milieu and the worldview it upholds is not altogether alien either. While for Gandhiji it provided the moral strength to evolve his politics and philosophy, for common folk Harishchandra continues to be a symbol of the impossible ideal, but ideal nevertheless. (‘Are you Harishchandra’s grandson!’ is a common expression in Kannada even today to mockingly refer to anyone who claims to be speaking truth, but without much credibility.) Thus it is not its ‘universality’ (which a classical text is supposed to embody) but its provinciality that makes it speak to us in a familiar language, even if it happens through English. Perhaps English now functions as a password to open those closed texts, by shedding some of its earlier colonial baggage. Like their use, perhaps languages change their functions too over a period of time.
One way this transformation in language function happens is through the act of translation. Translations do not merely reproduce the original text in a new language; they also modify the target language. The change is not just at the syntactic level. It brings in a new flow of rhythm and swing, and hence a certain freshness to the language. Nowhere is this more evident than in translations of Indian classical texts which employ a wide variety of poetic devices like alliteration, onomatopoeia, parallelism and so on to create a particular mood or situation. For instance, here is a passage with a fresh rhythm describing a hunter attacked by a wild boar during King Harishchandra’s hunting spree:
Running for his life screaming,
hair flying in all directions;
clothes come loose, caught in the shrubs;
hobbling steps with feet pricked by wild thorns;
food loosened from the food pack,
spilling out of the shoulder bag;
bruised knee with fresh cuts and gashes;
breathless, nostrils dilating –
When someone stopped him to ask,
all he could say was:
‘No, no not hu…hu…huli, not…tiger,
but ha…ha…handi, boar,
right behind…chasing…’ (6:17)
At the same time, as it always happens, the translator has to choose one among many meanings. Take for example, the title itself. In the original text is called Harishchandra Charitra. The term charitra connotes at least three meanings: history, character, characterization. But calling it by any one of these terms would have distorted the English title and even restricted its meaning. In a way The Life of Harischandra, by its simplicity seems to capture the essence without limiting itself to any particular meaning.
The Life of Harishchandra is the first Kannada classic that has been brought out in this series and there could not have been a better choice, for it is a quintessential Kannada text in its setting and use of language. Though the story of Harishchandra is old—it is traced to Vedic times and appears in various Puranas—Raghavanka renders it as a full-length classical narrative, with all the features of epic poetry both in its descriptive quality and architecture. It has ashtadasha varnane (eighteen types of description) with the karuna rasa as a predominant emotion. In its structure, it follows all the requirements of an epic narrative in its elaborate structure, ornate description, extolling the virtues of the king who has to undergo immense suffering, including a compulsory sojourn in the forest. More importantly, Raghavanka shifts the location of the story from Kashi in north India to Hampi in the south, replacing the Ganga with Tungabhadra. The final redemption of Harishchandra happens in the sacred presence of his favoured deity Hampi Virupaksha. The text resonates with rich geographical details of the place, of its flora and fauna, the culture and idiom of Kannada. In addition, the poet makes some crucial changes in the original story and introduces new elements to heighten the character of Harishchandra as a king par excellence, committed to truth beyond all other values. In the puranic version, Harishchandra is a liar, one who sacrifices someone else’s son to save his own. But Raghavanka chooses to write the story of a king who sacrifices his kingdom and even his family to keep his word to prove that ‘Hara is Truth and Truth is Hara’. It is an unusual work for it breaks from the conventions of its time in its treatment of the theme. While other poets preferred to sing paeans of kings for their victories and valour, Raghavanka favoured the story of a king who stood by his word, thus upholding truth as a moral value superior to any other.
Harishchandra Charitra is known for many other unique features. Kannada critics have noted how he pioneered the use of vardhaka shatpadi (a composition of six lines in two parts, where the first two lines are short, with five matras, and the third one line longer with six matra). It is supposed to be a matured metrical form, that provides adequate space and flexibility to deploy diverse rhythms and expressions, which could be strung together in different patterns. More importantly, there is the caste question that comes to the fore at some crucial moments in the narratives, a feature that is seldom brought in in other epic poems. For instance, the narrative begins with a detailed description of the dispute between the two sages, Vashishtha and Vishwamitra, about Harishchandra’s truthfulness which sets the story moving. In fact, Harishchandra becomes a victim and not the cause of their clash. While the former is a Brahmarshi (Vedic sage), the latter is a Rajarshi (Kshatriya) and they represent two different varnas. During their heated debate, Vahishta accuses Vishwamitra: ‘The saying, “The tongue speaks the caste” is proved right today. The heart of a Brahmarshi, a Brahman sage, is undefiled. But you are a Rajarshi, a mere Kshatriya sage. How can you be otherwise? How can you refrain from speaking ill of others, and threaten and berate them?’ (2:32)
The caste question resurfaces in the encounter between the holathis (two young ‘singer queens’ created by Vishwamitra to seduce the king) and Harishchandra; and again between Veerabahu (the chandala, in charge of the cremation ground, who buys Harishchandra) and the king. The two holathis are Raghavanka’s creation and their encounter with Harishchandra creates a space for interesting debate on what constitutes true virtue. They ask the king to marry them as a reward for their enticing dance and music which had pleased the king immensely. But as they are low born, the king refuses. The holathis ask him, when he could enjoy hearing their music, seeing their dance, praising them for their acclaimed art and smelling the fragrance of their bodies, how is it that only their touch is defiling?
How is it that, among the five composite senses,
One is superior and the other four inferior? (7:19)
But their argument fails, and Harishchandra chases them away as he believes that maintaining his caste purity is a part of his dharma as a king. Commenting on this aspect of caste, many centuries later, Babasaheb Ambedkar argues how India is the only society where caste based discrimination has been legitimized as sanctioned by a divine order. According to him, it is one of the chief reasons for its unaffected perpetuation over centuries. However, we see a sort of reversal of the social order when later in the story Veerabahu offers to buy Harishchandra. The king feels outraged: ‘Look at this arrogance! Look at this holeya’s nerve to say that he will keep me in his employ, me, a mighty king born to the Sun dynasty…’ (11:18). The king wonders if it ‘is the sign of the times or the consequences of my karma?’, but is put down by the logic of Veerabahu who
argues that since the king has offered himself to be sold without any condition as to who should buy him, he cannot raise objections now. He accuses Harishchandra as going back on his promise: ‘The words you spoke have turned against you now. I speak nothing but the truth. Who is the real holeya if not the one who carries defiling untruth?’ (11:21)
The evocation of truth silences the king. The epic seems to suggest that commitment to truth is of higher value than giving up one’s dharma. Many Kannada critics, including a big name like Kuvempu, have argued that the questions raised by Veerabahu dig into the very foundation of the Varna system. They attribute this element in Raghavanka to the influence of the 12th century social revolution led by Basavanna who in very clear terms had stood against the caste/varna system and the ritualistic Vedic dharma itself. However, critical opinion on this issue is varied. Critics have pointed out that in spite of several critical references to caste, the dominant resolution of the text veers towards endorsing the Vedic and Brahmanical order, symbolized by Vashishta. Raghavanka was a shaivaite himself, but he might be reflecting the spirit of his times where the influence of the Vachana movement had started to wane, giving rise to a revival of the old order.
Though The Life of Harishchandra is all about upholding truth, what does it imply? The poem is often seen as a journey of a man who loses everything dear to him for the sake of truth. But it is not a philosophical exploration or journey undertaken to pursue truth as an ontological exercise, leading to a realization of some heightened consciousness. Rather, truth here is a given, established fact. It is a simple but firm act of keeping the promised word. Perhaps it is for this reason that Harishchandra has captured the imagination of people across time and space. Yet, as the translator has justly observed in her highly insightful and valuable introduction, it would be difficult for a modern reader to appreciate ‘the triumphant pursuit of an absolute and singular truth at the cost of all other values, including equality, respect for women, and the dignity of labour’ (p. xxx). The two holathis and Chandramati become victims of this pursuit. Though they do raise some disturbing and pertinent questions about Harishchandra’s behaviour, they are ultimately made to sacrifice their selves to elevate the character of the hero.
Ideological questions apart, like any other epic it draws attention to itself through its rich tapestry of poetic devices and narrative techniques. Its density of detail and craftsmanship pose a number of challenges to a translator. Each shatpadi functions as a stanza, made up of several strings or ‘thought units’ which need very careful parsing to make sense. Moreover, Raghavanka uses different narrative techniques: sometimes the whole shatpadi is full of descriptive phrases; sometimes, it presents an argument in a dramatic fashion; in other places the lines are evocative, full of local details and cultural references. Since Raghavanka firmly locates the narrative in Kannada milieu, he deploys a variety of local idioms native to Kannada which do not have equivalents in English. He is also a ubhayakavi who is capable of offering both visual and listening treat to discerning readers. Hence Harischchandra Charitha is at once a hadugabba, a singing text, as well as odugabba, a readerly text. While the former makes the sounds predominate over sense, the later demands the readers to dwell into the nuances of the stated word with great care.
The challenges for the translator of such a text are far too many: first one has to unpack the shatpadi, then take out the strings one by one and if need be break them further, and then rearrange them to suit the demands of the English syntax. Vanamala Viswanatha has done a highly commendable job in translating the epic narrative by deploying varying techniques to meet the manifold challenges. While in some cases she has retained the poetic form, in places where the text is engaged in taking the story forward, she uses a prose format. In some stanzas, Raghavanka clinches a point or sums up an action in the last line, whereas at some places he states the cause and then goes on to describe the effect in great detail. This pattern cannot be maintained in English which has a different, almost opposite, syntactical pattern when compared to Kannada. Quite often, Vanamala has reworked the text by reversing the order to suit the demands of English and still retain the flow of description as in the original:
For the king’s worship,
The young women gathered the choicest flowers:
flowers not quite green, not quite white, not quite red;
not quite open, their petals not quite visible;
flowers with their inner body intact;
their outer petals not too unfolded, their inner petals not too shut;
flowers untouched by sunlight and untrodden by bees,
unshaken by wind and unbitten by frost;
and flowers not single or entangled with other flowers. (3:55)
Raghavanka is equally well-known for the dramatic quality he infuses into his narrative. Though the shatpadi uses a run-on versification pattern, there is a built in dialogue quality which is brought out in a dramatic format in English. For instance, the angry exchange of words between the two sages is presented in a dialogue form:
Vasishtha: ‘When will Harishchandra’s ordeals begin?’
Vishvamitra: ‘Whenever I feel like it.’
Vasishtha: ‘How long would they last?’
Vishwamitra: ‘As long as Harishchandra lives on this earth.’ (2:28)
While attempting to translate a highly entangled text, a translator has to wear many robes. She has to be an interpreter, an explicator and a mediator between two cultures. Above all, she should be able to exercise her creative freedom while translating ambiguous words/expressions. Raghavanka’s text demands all these roles, and Vanamala seems to have slipped from one role to another with ease, but the backstage rehearsal must have been a highly arduous task. One can only wonder at the amount of time, patience, scholarship, creativity that has gone into the creation of the English version. As she puts it, it is ‘a process of transmigration’. This is equally applicable to the reader. Reading a classic, whether in the original or in translation, demands patience and attention to detail. In this fast paced world, where the attention span is abysmally low, where sustained reading itself is seen as a burdensome exercise, reading classics will certainly have a therapeutic value. Every classical story carries its own reward, a phalashruti, (literally a fruitful gift). In Raghavanka’s words ‘reading great literature makes our life worthwhile, not just here and now but in the hereafter as well.’
The offer is open, waiting for the takers.
V.S. Sreedhara is former Head, Department of English, Vijaya College, Bangalore University and former Deputy Director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, National Law School of India, Bangalore.