Love in a Dead Language

CHENNAI: Sanskrit, it would seem, is too serious a language to write love poems in. The ‘language of the gods’, with too much tradition and religion attached to it, would surely not lend itself to sweet nothings. A new book of poetry proves us wrong. ‘How to love in Sanskrit’ (HarperCollins), a collection of Sanskrit love poetry, translated and edited by Anusha Rao and Suhas Mahesh, brings together verses and short prose pieces by celebrated writers such as Kalidasa and Banabhatta, Buddhist and Jain monks, scholars, emperors, and even modern-day poets, and sheds light on the simultaneously tender and exhilarating side of the “fusty-musty language of hymns, priests and godmen”.

Rao is a scholar of Sanskrit and Indian religion currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Toronto and Mahesh is a scholar of Sanskrit and Prakrit who is also a materials physicist. For the editor-translator couple living in Toronto, Canada, who speak a mélange of Kannada, English, Sanskrit and Prakrit at home and frequently quote and adapt lines from their favourite verses in everyday conversations, the book is an act of making Sanskrit poetry accessible and, more importantly, enjoyable to everyone.

Love is a bridge

“We’ve seen people reading translations of Homer in airports, Rumi on park benches and Gilgamesh in buses. But why never Kalidasa or Banabhatta? Sanskrit works are extraordinary literature of course; we’ve soaked in them for years and years. Friends would ask us for suggestions on what to read, but we had no confident recommendations. Everything out there is either Victorian, smugly moralistic, thickly academic or plain old boring. We felt compelled to remedy the situation, and decided to write something that anyone could pick up and enjoy. And what better theme to bridge the ancient and the contemporary than love?” says Mahesh about the impetus behind the book.

The collection, which includes sections titled ‘How to Flirt’ and ‘How to Quarrel’ to ‘How to Make Love’ and ‘How to Break Up’, features love poetry that speaks to today’s romantic sensibilities, which, doesn’t seem to have changed much from when poet and philosopher Shriharsha was describing the dimples of a lover in 1100 CE or when playwright Ishvaradatta was writing about the “heat of secret lovemaking” in 400 CE.

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