Kalidasa, the Sanskrit poet, is famous for his imagery. When translating his works, the difficulty for the translator would lie in trying to retain the imagery more than finding the equivalent word. In a simple and unassuming manner, AND Haksar manages just that. He successfully creates the mood all over again in the 21st century for English speaking readers.
Haksar’s language is simple and his approach straightforward, as has been his style in many works of translation. The translation keeps the verse format of the original. When Haksar translated Raghuvamsam, he kept in mind the grandeur the poet was trying to convey, the regal and righteous aura that surrounded the kings. In Ritusamharam, his style is in consonance with the mood of Kalidasa. Ritusamharam finds the poet painting a visual landscape and introducing characters to help the reader relate to the landscape. Chandra Rajan, in The Loom of Time, says that there is a metaphysical underpining to the poem, and the very title is indicative of that.
‘The word samharam (gathering in or collection) in the title of the poem has a specific metaphysical meaning of universal destruction when all creation is drawn in into Siva, its ground and source.’
Haksar lets that debate remain, for he resists one of the greatest temptations for a translator—to interpret. He more or less retains the dictionary meaning of the words wherever possible. The title itself has been variously translated as the Pageant of Seasons or the Collection of Seasons and so on. Haksar calls it A Gathering of Seasons, which is also the literal meaning and is evocative of the visual imagery of gathering up summer, monsoon, autumn, the wintry beginnings, winter itself and finally the much romanticized spring, much like gathering dried leaves, scores of papers or freshly bloomed flowers.
The book opens with the blazing sun announcing summer. The verse, since it is also being read in the peak of summer, resonates brilliantly. It sets the mood for the book:
Summer has arrived, my dear
The sun is fierce, the moon sought after;
To plunge in pools of shaded water
Is to be immersed in pleasure;
Lovely is the end of day
When desire calmed does stay
The summer heat just keeps increasing, so much that even those who are bitter enemies forget their enmity:
Troubled by the sun’s hot rays,
Scorched by the pathway’s burning sand,
No longer coiled, its hood contracted,
The cobra slowly pants and lies
As it now rests beneath the peacock.
Not just that. The next verse says:
… the frog has now leapt out
to sit under the shade provided
by the hood of a thirsty serpent.
Finally, the heat breaks into a forest fire and water is the motif that begins to form. The next season is the monsoon. As water drenches the earth and fills it with hope and fertility, Kalidasa’s favourite clouds appear all full and laden with rain.
After the rainy season, in autumn, men, whether for trade or other works, begin their travels. The vasakasajja nayika or the lovelorn maiden waiting for her lover and the lover reminiscing about his love appear as motifs:
The distraught traveller weeps today:
Glimpsing in the blooming lotus
The dark beauty of the eyes
Of his own beloved girl….
In rare verse we have the poet say nature is even more beautiful than women:
The graceful gait of elegant women
Is now vanquished by the swans,
The moon like glow upon their face
By freshly opened lotus flowers,
The mischievous twinkle in their eyes
By blue lilies blossoming,
And the playful flitting of their eyebrows
By the curling waves in river
A short section on the beginnings of winter is followed by winter itself, to end in the exuberant spring. All through one feels Kalidasa has been very sensitive to the environs, but only for the man. The woman figures only as a heat-assuager or a warmth giver! Kalidasa speaks of the seasons and primarily the romantic response or mood that it creates. Winter ends with a bang:
Full of candied sweetness and
The pleasing taste of rice and sugar cane…
A time for lovemaking intense
That likewise breeds some insolence,
But a time that also causes heartaches
or those separated from their lovers…
may this winter season always
bless with you happiness
In spite of the fact that Ritusamharam has been translated time and again, since 1792, as the translator says in his introduction, Haksar has been able to remain undaunted and find his own expression of Kalidasa’s description. A verse illustrative of that occurs in the description of summer. It reads:
A flock of panting birds is perched
On the trees with withered leaves;
A family of apes, fatigued,
Searches for some hillside grove;
A herd of wild oxen wanders—
All wishing for water;
And some brash young elephants
Suck it straight out of the wells.
In place of young elephants, some other translations, including MR Kale’s reads:
and a covey of sharabhas is straightaway taking up water from the wells
Sharabha is a part lion, part bird animal in mythology. Kale says in his notes that sharabha could also be read as karaba or the young elephant, as has been interpreted in the Sabdakalpadrum. Haksar’s choice is indicative of his intent to make the work intelligible to the contemporary reader. Leading one into mythology continues to lock it in time. To imagine an elephant dipping its trunk into a well makes it more real.
Haksar has made very little use of supplementary information to describe culture specific terms. One inevitable problem remains—the names of some flowers and birds. Haksar seems to use their English names where the terms are available and understood and keeps the Sanskrit names where they are not.
For instance, the bird chataka remains chataka and that greatly enhances the verse for a reader familiar with the symbolism and imagery associated with it. It is said to be unable to drink water found on earth and keeps calling to the clouds, till it gets the raindrop for which it is thirsty. Only an essay on the chataka bird would make the verse as evocative as the original one. Haksar has a short note on the chataka.
So too with the palasha flower. The red flower finds mention in much of Sanskrit and Prakrit poetry and tales. But here, Haksar has used the English equivalent, calling it the trumpet flower. This will probably make greater sense to the reader who does not know Sanskrit. But then a verse in the section on monsoon reads:
And the breeze rustling through
Groves of sarja and kadamba
Or arjuna, nipa, ketaki trees,
Carrying their flower scents
The verse is explained in the notes with the scientific names of the trees mentioned above. Such verses are few in the book.
Haksar’s work marks another era in translation, an era heralded by Chandra Rajan. Prior to her work, there were two distinct types of translations. One was the colonial legacy which translated Sanskrit works with the sensibility and understanding of the western reader. The second was the translation that was exceedingly concerned about being true to the original and keeping every nuance intact in English as it was in the original. Chandra Rajan, and now Haksar, have broken away from the two opposite ends to open up a new path—a path of ownership of the Sanskrit works which keeps the spirit and intent undisturbed. They are not burdened by the need to ‘preserve a legacy’. They are presenting with ease something they enjoy and in the process others enjoy it too.
The sweet and joyous coos of cuckoos
And the tipsy buzz of bees
Take but a moment to excite
The modest bashful hearts of brides
Even from conventional homes,
Sheltered and respectable.
Sudhamahi Regunathan, a former Vice-Chancellor of the Jain Vishva Bharati University in Ladnun, Rajasthan, is an author and translator. Her most recent book was Rishabhayan: The Story of the First King (2014). She has written The Colours of Desire on the Canvas of Restraint on a fellowship granted by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India.