Sunday, 21 September 2014


The following (as are some earlier snippets in this blog) is a rough extract from a new biography of Pandit Narayana Das. It is still a work in progress and the extracts are likely undergo changes.

Translating ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khaiyam’ into Samskrutam and Atcha-Telugu 

The reason that attracted Narayana Das to Omar Khaiyam could perhaps be a shared worldview towards life and religion. Both of them were Sun-worshippers and polymaths. In his introduction to the Rubaiyat of Omar Khaiyam, Narayana Das says “Omar Khaiyam commences his verses with the word “Khurshid”, which means the Sun; because I presume he was a sun worshipper…

Omar Khaiyam’s interests extended from poetry, music, philosophy and theology to mathematics, astronomy, geography, mineralogy and meteorology. Narayana Das’ interests extended from poetry, music and musicology, literature and linguistics, dance and acting, philosophy, theology and Vedic studies to astrology and medicine (Ayurveda). Of these ‘Vedic studies’ is itself a conglomeration of various branches of theology, philosophy, arts and sciences.

Neither of them was properly understood by his contemporaries during his life time. Omar Khaiyam was seen either as an atheist and hedonist or at the other extreme, as a mystical Sufi poet. In the case of Narayana Das although his proclivity to the Bhakti tradition was never in doubt, his philosophy of humanism might not have been fully understood. While Narayana Das devoted his life to the teaching of ‘Bhakti, Jnana, Moksha he condemned with vehemence some prevailing practices of his time as unacceptable, as he felt they were at variance with the spirit of Vedic philosophy.

As has been said earlier Narayana Das used to absorb knowledge from his environs just as a sponge absorbed water, and improve upon it. After coming into contact with the Hindustani musician, Mohabbat Khan at Vizianagaram, he cultivated the Hindustani genre of music to develop a Carnatic-Hindustani hybrid timbre. Similarly when he was thirty-seven he came into contact with a Maulvi, he utilized the opportunity to pick up the rudiments of Arabic and Persian from him, obtained books on their teaching and began developing his knowledge of the two languages.

His interest in Persian grew when he observed that Old Persian* has some resemblance to Prakrit, considered to be the colloquial form of literary Samskrutam. This could well be the case because Old Avestan, the precursor of the Iranian languages, was closer to what linguists call ‘Indic Samskrutam’ whereas Young Avestan was closer to Persian. In fact both Old Persian and Middle Persian were written from left to right like Prakrit unlike their modern day version, which adapted the Perso-Arabic script. In his Samskrutam introduction to “Rubaiyat of Omar Khaiyam” Narayana Das observed that although there were yavana** terms, much of the Rubaiyat Omar Khaiyam wrote was in Old Persian, which in his view was closer to Prakrit.

Over time, Narayana Das developed a great admiration for the Persian philosopher-poet. When he read Edward Fitzgerald’s English translation of the Persian quatrains, he felt they were not true to the original. It is now known that not only Fitzgerald’s translations were not literal but he also mingled the quatrains. Narayana Das picked up the original quatrains of Fitzgerald’s 110 verses and translated the original and the English translation into Samskrutam and Accha-Telugu.

Translating from one language to another could be a daunting task because it is not just conveying the meaning of words. A language evolved over time embeds the culture and traditions; beliefs and values; rituals and practices and history and legends of a society in its usage and idioms. If the translator is not proficient in either of the languages, he might miss the meaning altogether or the translation might appear to be artificial like a patchwork quilt. Good translation requires not only proficiency in both the languages but great technical skill to express the idiom of one language in the corresponding idiom of the other. As languages continue to evolve, meanings of words and usages change; metaphors that form the substrate of idioms might lose their relevance or the flavour of idioms might change. Therefore translating from an ancient language to another classical language requires great scholarship if one were to convey the true intended meaning of the original writer. 

Narayana Das translated Omar Khaiyam’s Rubaiyat when he was well into his sixties and published the book when he was sixty-eight. This was what former president of India Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, then Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University, had to say of the translations in his ‘FOREWORD’:

“[…] was greatly struck by his varied talents, remarkable linguistic equipment, and technical power of versification. […] The Telugu verses are written in what is called Atcha Telugu or pure Telugu, which is rather difficult. […] I am tempted to congratulate him on a performance which, taking all things into account, is certainly astounding.” 

The book opens with a prayer in four languages, Persian, English, Samskrutam and Telugu. The poem was written in the Kandam metre, one of the toughest prosodies in the Telugu language. Writing a poem in difficult prosody, with each line in a different language is an expression of Narayana Das’ penchant for the formidable.

He introduced Omar Khaiyam, the poet and his poetry in three languages, English, Samskrutam and Telugu. He used the introductions to express his deep admiration for Omar Khaiyam and his poetry. But the introductions were more than that. Narayana Das used them to express his worldview about his field of work, poetry and poets and to address questions like, ‘what inner urges, objectives or ideology should drive them?’ and ‘how should literature influence society?

In his English introduction he expresses the view that an original writer should take pride in having his works published as they are so that critics might see him in his true colours. It was for this reason, he says, it is not my habit to have my works corrected and recast by others’.  

He laments the propensity of literary critics to judge the work of writers based more on their outward appearance than a true evaluation of their literary work. Could Fitzgerald’s impression of how Omar lived his life coloured his translations of the poet’s immortal verses?

Did Narayana Das find a twin soul when he observed that Omar Khaiyam decried ‘all religious shows and philosophical discussions’ as ‘merely vain and whimsical actions for passing an idle life’? He says Khaiyam was vexed with the deep chasm between precept and practice of crafty philosophers. He therefore satirized their philosophy. For him pleasing society was true religion and devotion to Almighty was the happiest enjoyment. It was perhaps because of this perception that Narayana Das found in Khaiyam, a mystic rather than a romantic poet. He feels Khaiyam’s philosophy was largely misunderstood and his advocacy of wine, woman & music should be read as cryptic symbols for divine service, pure mind and meditation

* Old Persian was an Iranian language which was in use from circa 600 B.C.E to 300 B.C.E. The next phase in the evolution of the language between 300 B.C.E. and 800 C.E. has been designated Middle Persian and from 800 C.E. it is known as Modern Persian or Farsi.

** By Yavana terms Narayana Das was probably referring to Middle Persian.

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