Expanding the Pluriverse

Students of Sanskrit will recognise, in Kalyana Malla, the author of the erotic manual, Ananga Ranga. Since Sanskrit authors are not often situated, at least not to general readers, in a specific time and place—they tend to inhabit the boundless, calendar-free territory of Ancient India—it is not as well-publicised that Kalyana Malla lived in modern times, and was a prominent member of the 16th-century court of the Lodhi prince Lad Khan of Awadh. It was at his patron’s behest that he composed a verse fiction in four chapters, comprising 563 verses, titled Sulaima Charitra, the life of the king known to Jews as Solomon and to Muslims as Suleiman. Three of the four chapters are centred on Solomon’s father, King David, and his doings as commander in battle and voluptuary in the boudoir, far more the latter; the fourth chapter is concerned properly with Solomon. Translated into English, in prose form, as the Suleiman Charitra by the excellent AND Haksar, this enchanting text can now celebrate yet another phase in its onward journey across centuries and cultures. 

The sources of Sulaima Charitra are both Biblical and Islamic (since the two traditions branch from a common trunk, the Abraham, Isaac, Elijah, David and Solomon of one are the Ibrahim, Ishaque, Ilyas, Daud and Suleiman of the other). While the Bible, especially the Book of Samuel, is a key source for these stories, another and more proximate source are the Qisas al-Anbiya, digests of the lives of the prophets of (pre-)Islamic tradition, current in the Persianate courts of India. A third source is the grand compilation of tales, Alf Layla wa Layla or Thousand and One Nights, otherwise known as The Arabian Nights. And while Suleiman Charitra may appear to be no more than a literary curiosity—it was edited and published for the first time by the distinguished Sanskritist and musicologist V Raghavan as part of a series of miscellanies collectively titled Malayamaruta in 1973—it is a significant and instructive text.

Quite apart from the delight of the narrative for its own sake, Suleiman Charitra reminds us of three vital but forgotten realities. First, it is part of that large corpus of literary, scientific and philosophical texts that circulated in oral and scribal form among India, Persia, Turkey, Arabia, the Mediterranean and Andalusia between the 11th and 16th centuries. Even a cursory look at this transcultural corpus would make nonsense of the ‘clash of civilisations’ perspective, which focuses on the chasms between religious traditions, foregrounds narratives of war and conflict, and emphasises the figures of the invader, the iconoclast and the dogmatist. If we set this Huntingtonian perspective aside, we would also notice the activity of those who built bridges across the chasms: philosophers, storytellers, scribes, pilgrims, merchants and travellers, who approached the unfamiliar, not with fear, hatred or bigotry, but with curiosity, a desire for dialogue, and a flair for the collaborative production of culture.

This book inhabits the same confluential landscape as the better-known Mughal examples of the Razm Nama and Anwar-i Suhayli, the Persian translations of the Mahabharata and Panchatantra respectively, as well as Dara Shikoh’s study in comparative religion, Majmun-ul Bahrayn, which he had translated into Sanskrit for an inter-faith symposium as Samudra-sangama. Suleiman Charitra also finds adjacency with the prem-aakhyaans or Sufi romances written in Hindavi and Awadhi, beginning with Maulana Daud’s Chandayan (1379) and including Qutban’s Mrigavati (1503) and Mir Manjhan Rajgiri’s Madhumalati (1545). Indeed, Manjhan’s work, with Manohar and Madhumalati as its protagonists, and its deployment of Yogic allegories, might easily be mistaken for a Hindu text.

Second, Suleiman Charitra marks a double confluence. Its source material, being both Biblical and Islamic, demonstrates that these were osmotic rather than mutually segregated traditions across West Asia, North Africa and South Asia (remember that Jews had lived in India since the 2nd century BCE, Christians since the 1st century CE and Muslims since the 7th century CE, often in proximity). And the world into which this source material was conveyed, that of 16th-century northern India, was equally alive with exchanges among Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Awadhi and Hebrew. The ecumenical and culturally liberal nature of Kalyana Malla’s times may be gauged from the fact that he was commissioned to write a late Sanskrit text by a cultivated Muslim patron, a prince of Afghan ancestry ruling in Awadh. Presumably Lad Khan could have had access to the original stories in Arabic or Persian; but he clearly regarded it as important to commission a Sanskrit translation. And his choice fell, not on a dry-as-dust moralist, but on the same court poet who had already composed an erotic treatise in the tradition of Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra.

Third, Suleiman Charitra demonstrates forcefully that Sanskrit had not died quietly in the misty past. A court language it might have been, but by no means was it an effete or defunct medium. In Kalyana Malla’s handling, we encounter a Sanskrit perfectly capable of responding to new cultural and linguistic stimuli, absorbing and reshaping them for new audiences. The Sanskrit cosmopolis, as the magisterial Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock has called it, was alive and well in 16th-century Muslim-ruled Awadh, holding its own while obliging successor languages such as Hindavi and Awadhi to define their desi substance against its shastrika qualities, even while informing them with its classical persistences.

Suleiman Charitra is no simple rendition of West Asian material. Episodes over which the Bible casts a discreet veil, such as David’s seduction of Bathsheba, who was married to Uriah the Hittite, are spelled out in opulent detail in the Sanskrit version. The author of Ananga Ranga is in his element, so that his periodic moments of moral instruction pall in comparison with the forbidden erotic experiences that they are meant to caution against. Other adaptations are made: the prophet Nathan is transformed into a sage in an ashram; Joab becomes Jayavaha, Uriah the hapless Hittite becomes Urjasvala; Bathsheba, the flawed heroine of the tale, becomes Saptashuta, which is both phonetically close to the original and is etymologically equivalent.

The unsung hero of this narrative, I must point out, is the translator: the indefatigable AND Haksar, whose contribution to the cause of resurrecting the vibrant pluriverse of Sanskrit worldly literature is exemplary. In Haksar, we are blessed to have a translator of dynamism and versatility; a translator who acts as an editor and a cultural activist (although I suspect the scholar-diplomat may not welcome this description). I say ‘activist’ advisedly, for—at a time when Sanskrit is being forced down the throats of people as a vehicle of scripture and sanctimony—he has purposefully revealed to a general readership the tragic vision of the dramatist Bhasa, the biting satire of Kshemendra, and much that is bawdy, picaresque, vulnerable and wonderfully human in a long and rich literary tradition whose worst enemies are the myopes who claim to defend it from the pulpits of majoritarian revanchism.

*Originally Published in Open Magazine in April 2015