28 September 2007

Ancient Itch

Subhashitavali: An Anthology of Comic, Erotic and Other Verses
Selected and Translated from the Sanskrit
By A.N.D. Haksar
Penguin Classics
Pages 192
Rs 200

The blank, apologetic screen, where once FTV edified millions of Indians on the finer points of couture, announces our chronic sexual hang-ups, bawdy jokes in our newspapers and films nicked from the internet and foreign films laugh at our hobbled sense of humour, as devoid of originality as the Chinese watch industry. No wonder we are tired citing The Kamasutra as a belated proof of our once having been an unrivalled sexually liberated culture. And yet, we have nothing to show for having a long-standing comic tradition.

Now there is something to cheer us on both fronts: a new translation of an ancient source of titillation, that is also humorous.
Subhashitavali, literally ‘well said’ is a collection of erotic and humorous verses from the pens of some very venerable ancient bards like Valmiki, Bhasa, Bilhana, and the prolific and versatile Anonymous, compiled by Vallabhadeva in the fifth century CE. Scholars have been long aware of its existence, but the complete verses have never been before translated. Haksar’s light, sparkly translation effectively conveys rather than clouds the originals.

This new Penguin Classic kicks straight in the teeth the airy-fairy image of the past resembling one of those fake-white-beard serials. Clearly the producers of these dharma-soaps have not read their scriptures closely.

But make no mistake, the sacred is not forgotten in Subhashitavali. It remains an obsession even with the writers of the most louche verses. In fact, the compilation seems to be propagating the balanced Hindu way of life where everything is had in proportion. Accordingly, sex should be cherished as an essential, but not the only, part of a large smorgasbord that is life. Hence the sacred here has the profane in tow: Homage to Manmatha,/churner of the mind,/who dwells in lovely women/with round, uplifted bosoms,/comely hips and languid gait. (Vita Vritta).

Sex is there and in amazing variety. There is rampant promiscuity: priests are visiting whores, old men are itching for it, widows are caught with gigolos, indigent students make do with hand. There is courtship, foreplay, coitus, and there is the after-sex fag. There is guilty sex, there is orgiastic sex, there is natural à la-D.H.Lawrence sex, there is innocent groping, and there is accidental sex. A handful of verses deal with sex for only the lonely. Of course, there is casual sex too.

Staying on sex, women are no mere passive players -- fallow land to be ploughed, as any feminist would put it. A woman brags about her lover’s amorous skills who sings and kisses like a bird,/in making love he’s more/passionate than a rutting elephant., but rues that he is my wedded lord!. Such indiscretion from the ur-granny would shock a Cosmopolitan editor out of her Choos.

Rabid irreverence breeds sometimes mawkish, sometimes a liberating political incorrectness. Whores, clerks, priests, widows, women, old men, old invalids, impotent men, the sick. they all generally get the stick for their surfeit capacity or incapability in participating, meaningfully, in sexual activity, the most pleasurable human activity. And it’s not always in good taste.

Talking about the poetics, there is conceit, offering not just sensuous but intellectual gratification too, and there is ambiguity, occurring sometimes together, like in the special section on lovers and their go-betweens, where the comic and the erotic couple in a seamless union: Messenger, your face and bosom,/with your hand why cover more?/Lips and breasts, like soldiers brave,/look best while bearing marks of war.

And, it’s not all about sex or laughter. Brevity, accuracy, and evocativeness lend these verses rare sensuality, like Kalidasa’s masterly, minimal, portrayal of subtle emotions: She covered her lips/with her fingers again/as she timidly warned me/that I should refrain./I lifted her face,/she turned to my shoulder,/I do not know why/I did not then kiss her.

Curiously, no one has bothered to bring this compilation to light since brief appearence in the ‘80s of some of these verses in a largely forgotten scholarly tome by Lee Siegel, Laughing Matters: Comic Tradition in India (University of Chicago Press, 1987), an ‘original treatise on the aesthetics of comedy and the psychology of laughter.’ Perhaps, the verses seem too good to be true. As they say, past is another country.

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