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How to translate love for the Instagram generation

A new anthology of nearly 200 love poems aims to make Sanskrit-Prakrit poetry as popular in English as Rumi and Dante

Sanskrit-Prakrit love poetry was in conversation with treatises such as ‘Kāmasūtra’. This image features scenes from the text in a Hindu temple. Image: Wikimedia Commons

By Prashant Keshavmurthy

LAST PUBLISHED 10.04.2024  |  04:10 PM IST

The most conspicuous feature of this anthology of some 150 Sanskrit and 50 Prakrit love poems, How To Love in Sanskrit, is that it domesticates premodern poems into English in ways that offer immediate pleasure to a reader ignorant of Sanskrit-Prakrit poetic and gender conventions. 

Like the poet W.S. Merwin’s 1981 rewritings, informed by J.M. Masson’s translations, in The Peacock’s Egg: Love Poems from Ancient India and Peter Khoroche and Herman Tieken’s 2009 Poems on Life and Love in Ancient India: Hāla’s Sattasai, this anthology aims to popularize its poetry on the assumption that how people made love centuries ago in India was no different to how they do so anywhere today.

On this assumption, the translators, Anusha Rao and Suhas Mahesh, commanding wide bilingual erudition and a feel for contemporary global English, have laboured to cast their net wide: “The 200 or so verses in this book were selected after examining over 10,000 verses from over 150 Sanskrit and Prakrit works […] many nearly forgotten." They include the originals in transcription at the end, allowing Sanskrit-Prakrit-conversant readers to compare them with their translations. Such comparison reveals, in keeping with the criteria the editors set forth in their introduction, what the translation theorist Lawrence Venuti would call a “domesticating" strategy that assimilates the Sanskrit-Prakrit to idioms and values current in English today. Take poem 49, for example, which is from Kalidasa’s Birth of Kumāra:

puṣpam pravālopahitaṃ yadi syān muktāphalaṃ vā sphuṭa-vidruma-stham

tato ’anukuryād viśadasya tasyāḥ tāmrauṣṭha-paryasta-rucaḥ smitasya

The translation is titled Pearls and corals. Though originally untitled, these poems do work with titles because modern English poems bear titles; and because premodern Sanskrit anthologists assembled poems under thematically titled chapters. The translation:

A white blossom enfolded

in the blush of fresh shoots –


view all

A pearl set

in flaming coral –

only they might hint at the perfection

of her dazzling smile

and red lips.

The translation explicates what is implicit in the original – namely that the blossom is white because it’s a metaphor for her teeth; and adds something absent in the original, namely that the blossom and pear “hint at the perfection" of the beloved’s radiant smile playing on her red lips. The original simply says anukuryāt – “would equal." The translation also elides the original’s optative tense and connectors “if" and “or" in favour of modernist ellipsis, blank spaces and free verse line breaks. Such minimalism cuts to the semantic chase, editing out secondary detail; hews to semantic accuracy; and relinquishes meter and alliteration (on p sounds) in favour of meaning. This domesticates the original, serving the translators’ stated purpose: to make Sanskrit-Prakrit poetry as popular in English as Rumi and Dante.

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But at what cost? Is it really true that amorous love felt no different in pre-colonial India than how it feels today? While we can only conjecture the historical reality of amorous love, we can certainly say that Sanskrit-Prakrit love poetry was in conversation with treatises in two disciplines (śāstra) – Kāmasūtra in erotology and Mānavadharma-śāstra in ethics. By and for elite men, both disciplines present male-female dualism as natural; and both assume and aim to perpetuate elite male dominance. Sanskrit-Prakrit-Braj love poetry interacts variously with these two neighbouring discourses. Removing such love poems from this context and translating them as if they were freestanding poems has the advantage of attracting what Sanskrit scholasticism called “worldly" (laukika) or lay readers. But it problematically assumes that such a reader can’t or wouldn’t want to even approximate a “trained" (parīkṣita) reader. 

Daniel Ingalls didn’t make this assumption in his 1965 An Anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry, his translations from Vidyakara’s 12th century anthology of subhāṣitas. His prefatory notes to his chapters on love in its different modes explicate the conventions on which the poems play. But even Ingalls ignores the love poems’ interactions with the prescriptive ethical discourses I mentioned. This is even truer of Khoroche and Tieken’s translations from Hāla’s Sattasai. Their introduction frames the poems as images of “the untidy reality of life" confronting the exhaustive classificatory neatness of Kāmasūtra theory. And yet, consider poem 2 from Rao and Mahesh’s selection from the Prakrit Sattasai:

As the girl at the well

pours out water

making it trickle thin

and thinner still,

the traveller bends,

eyes upwards

sipping the water

through cupped hands

spreading his fingers wide

and wider still.

'How to Love in Sanskrit', edited and translated by Anusha Rao and Suhas Mahesh, Harper Perennial (2024), 320 pages, Rs. 599.

This poem, whose rhymes and line breaks make it more poetic than its prosy counterpart 516 in Khoroche and Tieken, “went viral in old India. Umpteen other works across languages quote and imitate it." What Rao and Mahesh, like Khoroche and Tieken, don’t note is that it is the male traveler’s Kāmasūtra-sanctioned prerogative to marital infidelity that the poem rejoices in. It becomes easy to elide this traditional gender context when translators ignore the many medieval commentaries on the Sattasai, an elision that presents the lay reader with a culture-neutral scene of flirtation that could take place anywhere today no differently to the Deccan of 100 CE.

But assumptions about natural gender differences in ambient premodern scholarly literature inform the fine grain of love poetry. Vatsyayana declares in the Kāmasūtra:

A man’s natural talent is
his roughness and ferocity,
a woman’s is her lack of power
and her suffering, self-denial, and weakness.

Their passion and a particular technique
may sometimes lead them even to exchange roles;
but not for very long. In the end,
the natural roles are re-established.

This should make us look askance at the apparent egalitarianism of the sexual role reversals in poems 145 and 146. In poem 123 a husband falls at his angry wife’s feet. Unlike the translators, the Kāmasūtra explains her anger: he has been unfaithful as the culture entitles men to be. It also explains her reaction when “their toddler / giggling at the game/ climbed on his back / and her anger vanished / in a burst of laughter." Rather than winsome forgiveness, she is restraining herself, as expected of women, in response to the man’s Kāmasūtra-prescribed gesture of falling at her feet.

Or take the whistling noise Damayanti makes as Nala makes love to her in Śrī Harṣa’s 12th century Naiṣadhīya-carita: “Then, whistling [sītkritāni], trembling with lust, she declared wordlessly that her husband’s mouth, while kissing, was like the cool-rayed moon." Read without awareness of the Kāmasūtra, the sound seems like nothing more than a sexual eccentricity. But Damayanti and Nala are in fact following Vatsyayana’s script which prescribes kinds of moaning for the woman who is being slapped in prescribed ways by her husband: “As a major part of moaning she may use, according to her imagination, the cries of the dove, cuckoo, green pigeon, parrot, bee, nightingale, goose, duck, and partridge."

Not all the poems translated here need such contextualization. Many do work by themselves as timeless mood sketches and maxims. But they are a minority and give a misleadingly contemporary impression of the tradition. The translators’ will to make this tradition contemporary leads them, delightfully, to include a few contemporary poems, including by Suhas Mahesh. But the same commitment also frequently results in a colloquialism that levels speech-registers and erases historical distinctiveness. While it seems correct to criticize an earlier translator’s “O deity! Be pleased to ordain for our beloved (one) an addiction to other women", I wonder if the prosy informality of the leaner replacement doesn’t fail differently by avoiding the poetic altogether:

Dear God, 

make him hang out

with other women more.

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Elsewhere, a poem says: “she put her phone on silent." But “poetry", Roman Jakobson wrote, “is organized violence committed on everyday language." Does translating stylized Sanskrit poetry into chatty globalized English without doing the English any violence not lose the chance to interrupt everyday linguistic habits like all good poetry should?

An alternative might have been to aim for a consistently formal register of contemporary English (like Ingalls) and bookend each chapter with a preface and explanatory notes (like Gordon L. Fain’s 2010 Ancient Greek Epigrams), letting the reader work out the relations between the poems and the literary, erotological and ethical conventions on which they play. Perhaps the outcome would lose readers with patience only for Instagram poetry. But it would hold the attention of lay readers interested in learning to enjoy poetry for its cultural specificity and create a readership resistant to the instant reading gratification that social media fosters. These quibbles aside, I commend Rao and Mahesh for this generically wide-ranging and bilingually erudite introduction to a literary tradition where even the god Shiva, not wanting to offend Parvati sitting in his lap even as he tried to ogle at the nymph Tilottama who was circumambulating him reverentially, grew a face in each of the four directions:

From Brahma to insects,

this whole world 

is created 

by the sexual union 

of man and woman.

Why the embarrassment

when even four-faced Shiva

lusted after a girl?

Prashant Keshavmurthy focuses on Persian literature, with specialization in the Persian poetry of pre-colonial South Asia.