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'Well Said' Epigrams


A.N.D. Haksar

THUS SPOKE BHARTRIHARI
By Ramesh Chandra Shah
Rajpal & Sons, New Delhi, 2010, pp. 99, Rs.150.00

VOLUME XXXIV NUMBER 10 October 2010

The verses of Bhartrihari are among the most quoted from secular Sanskrit literature. Their almost timeless topicality and often poignant brilliance won them a repute both widespread and long-standing. At least twenty-five were included in the thousand year old anthology of poetry, the 11th century Subhashita Ratna Kosha of Vidyakara, and others can be seen in many later collections. Their manuscripts have been found from Maharashtra to Bengal and from Tamilnadu to Kashmir. These verses are of the genre known as subhashita. The word literally means ‘well said’; and is used normally for single epigrammatic stanza, the meaning or mood of which is complete in itself. Bhartrihari’s verse epigrams are grouped in three shatakas or centuries on Niti or worldly life, Shringara or passion and pleasure, and Vairagya or renunciation. Apart from their felicitous phrasing, succinct imagery and aphoristic impact, many have an individuality which invests them with a personal touch. This last quality reflects the poet’s ‘extremes of pain and pleasure, despair and exultation, sophistry and conviction, indulgence and detachment’ to quote the present translator. ‘Compelled by a strong sense of personal irony’, to quote another from the USA, ‘Bhartrihari sees man’s position as paradoxical in a transient, seductive world.’ These aspects doubtless add to the ancient poet’s attractiveness for modern sensibilities. Expectedly, Bhartrihari has been translated into English many times. The earliest renditions on record are by B.G. Wortham (London 1886) and P. Gopinatha (Bombay 1896). Sri Aurobindo (1924) translated only the Niti verses, and G. Bailey and R. Gombrich (2005) only those on Shringara. In between there have been wider samplings by Indian, British and American translators—M.R. Kale and J.M. Kennedy, J. Brough and B.S. Miller among others. The work under review is thus yet another addition to an already formidable list. Shah’s translation presents a selection of the original Sanskrit stanzas in the Devanagari script on one page together with his English renderings on the other. This facilitates comparing the originals with his renditions. He has done them all in rhymed verse, also confining each piece to four lines to follow the original’s format which is generally of this size. Most of his renditions read smoothly, but others seem constrained by the stylistic structure he has chosen. To use rhyme or not is a recurring question in any verse translation into English of Sanskrit poetry, which is itself rarely ...


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