At a time when there is raucous debate on India’s real and imagined past, a library of rare ancient Indian classics — one going as far back as 3 BCE — has been launched. The first set of books ranging from Bulle Shah’s works in Gurmukhi and the Akbarnama in Persian to Surdas’ poetry and Manucharitramu in Telugu was released on Thursday evening by eminent economist Amartya Sen. The next set of translations will include Kamba Ramayanam, Ramcharitmanas, Ghalib’s poetry and 6th AD Sanskrit scholar’s work Kiratarjuniya and Bharatchandra’s Anadda Mangal. Over the next seven years, the series, named the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI), will publish 48 volumes of these classic works, translated from around 14 Indian languages, including Sanskrit and near extinct vernacular forms. The big plan is to have 500 books on the MCLI shelves.
India has the single most complex and continuous tradition of multi-lingual literature in the world and a lot of it is inaccessible. These classics are far ahead of the West. Philanthropic projects like MCLI are trying to fill this gap by making this literature available in the best possible way for the general reader as well as students and scholars. Even general Indian readers, who are curious about ancient India but had access to very few literary sources, will be benefitted.
The ancient India that shines through in these books may not always be flawless, as some of us would like to believe. But it offered full freedom of expression, a freedom even Europe and China did not. MCLI will show in its aggregate a world of expressive diversity and freedom that was unparalleled in world history. English translations have made all Western classics accessible to general readers. Philanthropic projects like MCLI must step up the initiative to make Indian classics available to English readers.