Book review : Translation of an epic value

Book review : Translation of an epic value

It gets tough when descriptions and Peddanesque knots are involved, but the A translator plods on bravely. Srinivas Sistla has given us a reason to...

It gets tough when descriptions and Peddanesque knots are involved, but the A translator plods on bravely. Srinivas Sistla has given us a reason to celebrate; the first A full-fledged translation of Allasani Peddana's Manu Charitra Prema Nanda Kumar book2The linguistic embroidery of Allasani Peddana is justly famous. The brilliant court-poet of Emperor Krishnadeva Raya, and hailed as Andhra Kavita Pitamaha by virtue of being the author of the first prabandha in Telugu, Allasani Peddana has transformed an episode in the Markandeya Purana into an epic of great charm. After a detailed, autobiographical introduction to his own literary career, Srinivas proceeds to launch his translation with a comparative study of the Sanskrit Purana tale, its Telugu translation by Marana (14th century) and the detailed narrative classic of Allasani Peddana. A favourite and friend of Emperor Krishnadeva Raya, Peddana (15th century) takes up the events leading to the birth of Swarochisha Manu. To put it briefly, a Brahmin Pravara gets from a siddha a magic unguent. On applying it to his feet and thinking of the Himalayas, Pravara is transported to that region. He is not able to return for with his wandering around the lovely areas, the ointment has melted away. Meanwhile he meets a lovely gandharva girl (celestial damsel), Varudhini. Varudhini falls in love with Pravara but he excuses himself and vanishes from the place, meditating upon Agni. Taking advantage of the situation, a Gandharva puts on Pravara's form and makes love to Varudhini. The son born of this union is Swarochi who becomes the king of a city built on the Mandara Mountain. The heroic Swarochi marries Manorama, a niece of Varudhini. Then follow several scenarios that together seem to be a debate on ekapatnivrata (vow of monogamy), for Swarochi has married Vibhavari and Kalavati also. Deers and does and swans speak with clarity of purpose, and miracles are a dime a dozen. Finally Swarochi marries a transformed doe and their son is Swarochisha who is kind-hearted, truthful, pure and a tapasvin (ascetic). His prayer on the ten incarnations of the Lord Vishnu reminds us of such a prayer in Amukta Malyada. A pleased Mahavishnu crowns him as the second Manu. So ends the epic poem. A grand theme from India's extensive Purana literature, the story of the celestial damsel Varudhini has been embellished by the master poet as if to demonstrate certain ardent scenarios in the Kama-Sutra. Though the poem has been held in high regard by contemporaries as also recent scholars like Viswanatha Satyanarayana, Manu Charitra can be a trap for the enthusiastic translator because of its simple theme and flowing narrative. The soulful descriptions of nature come through with satisfactory ease as when Pravara detects the presence of a woman by the scent in the air:
From there a wafting breeze that carried The aroma of musk, camphor and betel leaves Along with the aroma of many other things, Suggested the presence of a young woman.
It gets tough when descriptions and Peddanesque knots are involved, but the translator plods on bravely. As long as we do not worry about the intended significances of certain terms in the original, the translation, almost literal, moves with ease. Srinivas has done his homework well, having got together the available commentaries and critical studies on the poem. His own Holmesian statements are interesting, if not always convincing. But all that is beside the point. The important gift for us on hand is the first full-fledged translation of Manu Charitra into English, an event we ought to celebrate. After prayers to Vishnu and his guru Satakopa Muni (the seventh pontiff of Ahobila Matha), Peddana gives a whiplash to the thieves who have no idea of intellectual property rights. A quick history of the founding of the Vijayanagar Empire and Krishnadeva Raya follows. On a request from the Raya, Peddana proceeds to compose his poem opening with the handsome Pravara. The epic poet has accurately assigned similes as when he describes the young Brahmin:
Due to his great detachment, His bodily charms and beauty Appear like the aroma of sampenga flowers For black-bee like lustful women.
Thanks to the magic ointment, he is able to satisfy his wanderlust in going around the Himalayan scenes, presided over by Shiva and Parvati. Varudhini cannot understand Pravara's desire to get back to the poverty of his thatched home. But he says that giving in to cupid's ways would deprive him of Brahmananda (spiritual ecstasy). Pat comes the reply from the besotted maid: "Had Brahmins expelled sage Parasara / For mating with Matsyagandhi, the daughter of King Dasa?" She spews out more examples but he does not care to reply. He withdraws from the scene with the help of Agni. The rest is Varudhini's story with the fake Pravara. The epic moves forward aswasa (canto) after aswasa, and soon Varudhini's heroic son becomes the husband of Manorama. We get to have a detailed description of a royal wedding and then Varudhini's grandson Swarochisha Manu is born. Crowned king by Vishnu, he rules his land effectively, with the usual utopian description bidding us good-bye:
Sufficient rains occurred at regular intervals, and Crops grew tall and even their roots bore grains; Men lived a healthy life for above hundred years, And increased their sons, grandsons and wealth �
It is not the story-line alone but the plentiful information packed in the prose passages that keeps us glued to the text. What a joy it is to read the detailed forest scenes when Swarochi goes to hunt! One realises the truth of the Raya's statement: Desa bhashalandu Telugu lessa (Telugu is the best of all the vernaculars). There is a 3D effect thanks to the sounds of the language, opening up a desire to go to the original, surely the mark of a good translation. The sound effects of Swarochi's hunters preparing items for cooking: They held in their hands large pieces of meat and in the air flipped them, which made diga-diga sounds. Against bushes on fire, they held some pieces, which made baga-baga sounds. As tigers' moustaches bring forth misfortunes, they burnt them, which made chudi-chudi sounds. As it reads, the translation is done well, and we get to have a total view of the epic. For this, the world of literature owes the translator a deep sense of gratitude. All the same, the work is not without some rectifiable faults. Scholars and translators cannot afford to be in a hurry. A detailed and learned introduction running to more than one hundred pages calls for repeated scrutiny so that avoidable passages can be shorn away to help the reader remain focused on the poem. Again, for the next edition, the translator will have to go through the text carefully. Gawky and wrong usages could play havoc with the reader's attention as when he says "Pravara out rightly rejects Varudhini", "a woman pleading a man" and "Allasani Peddana was different, and gave wise advises". A select glossary would have been helpful to know what is meant by a term like 'bandela-doddi' (cattle-pound). However, the fake Pravara's reference to "both ways-spoiled revanda" needs no such help thanks to the detailed comment placed at the beginning of the introduction. As with the earlier works of Srinivas, here is also a visible treat with pictures set up at the appropriate contexts, whether it is a sampangi flower or the planet Rahu or mating deer or Agni. They form a gallery of scenes (mostly sculptures) from all over India. Three cheers for the translator-publisher and a hearty welcome to Manu Charitra!
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