×
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

Memorable nods to love and brevity

Schelling, a North American poet, translator and teacher, has published several books of classical Sanskrit and Prakrit poetry, and in his words, the long-vanished worlds of these poems come alive in all their sensual glory.
Last Updated : 01 June 2024, 20:12 IST
Last Updated : 01 June 2024, 20:12 IST

Follow Us :

Comments

Reading The Cane Groves of Narmada River, an anthology of classical erotic poetry from ancient India, compiled and translated by Andrew Schelling, one thing is clear: our ancestors were much better at expressing love and lust than us and did so with fewer inhibitions.

This anthology was first published by the legendary San Francisco-based publishers and booksellers, City Lights Books. A newer edition was published in India by Aleph Book Company a few years ago. Schelling, a North American poet, translator and teacher, has published several books of classical Sanskrit and Prakrit poetry, and in his words, the long-vanished worlds of these poems come alive in all their sensual glory.

These are not the usual epic poems we associate with Indian classical literature but much shorter verses of less than 10 lines. As Schelling explains in his introduction to the book, these are “…called khanda-kavya — piecemeal or “fragmentary” poems”. They may be short but they pack more emotion and heft than poems ten times their length.

The first part of the book includes selections from one of the earliest collections of classical poetry, the Sattasai (or Seven Hundred Songs), assembled by King Hala of the Satavahana dynasty who, at one point, ruled the Deccan. Hala probably compiled the poems in the second century CE, according to scholars. These poems were written in Prakrit. The world that the Sattasai has preserved for posterity is one of the small tribal hamlets of agriculturists and hunters — a world where rivers, forests and birds and the rains (or lack of them) animate love (and lust), songs and poetry. These poems also, as Schelling explains, “are celebrations of a particular watershed — the upland mountainous region north of Bombay”. Also featuring heavily across the poems are the Tapti and Narmada rivers. Quite a few of the poems — to which Hala attributed authorship — were written by women. There is longing and yearning in these verses (like any romantic poetry worth the descriptor) but there are also complaints and elegantly wrought frustration. Consider this verse by Meghanada (Sattasai 2.64): No one to share a/quick glance/no one to lie with in bed/and whisper about pleasures or fears —/this hateful village/full of the/narrowest people/there’s no one even to joke with.

If some question the relevance of classical poetry in our time, point them to the above lines — judging one’s neighbours and finding them wanting has been a millennia-long exercise.

The second part of the book comprises poems from Sanskrit sources, which probably date from between the sixth and eleventh centuries. In the thousand years after Hala’s anthology, classical poetry was written by “professional courtiers”, Schelling says — unlike the Sattasai which had poets from a range of castes and occupations. Courtiers may have written them but the Sanskrit poems are no less evocative or powerful as those in the Sattasai and underscore the continuum of the human condition. Besides the praise and desire for lovers and scolding those who refuse love offered to them, these poets also grieve ways of lives destroyed by mercurial rulers and the exploitation of the impoverished.

I go back to these poems often and lose myself for a few brief minutes in the histories and landscapes they evoke, and the joys and griefs the poets have immortalised. Nothing much is known about King Hala — except that he lived at some point in the distant past and set about collecting these poems from various parts of his kingdom. Even if we don’t know where he was born and when or what he looked like, through the Sattasai we know of his firm belief that when it comes to love, one must learn from poets, not pundits. And who could argue with that?

The author is a writer and communications professional. When she’s not reading, writing or watching cat videos, she can be found on Instagram @saudha_k where she posts about reading, writing, and cats.

That One Book is a fortnightly column that does exactly what it says — it takes up one great classic and tells you why it is (still) great.

ADVERTISEMENT
Published 01 June 2024, 20:12 IST

Follow us on :

Follow Us

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT