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Murty's $5.2 million grant for Harvard's Indian classics series

By Arthur J Pais
May 06, 2010 00:28 IST
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Three years from now, when the Harvard University Press, a major publisher of nonfiction, scholarly and general interest books, marks its 100th anniversary, it will also publish the first book in the Murty Classical Library of India series.

The dual-language series aims both to serve the needs of the general reading public and to enhance scholarship in the field, Harvard Provost Steven E Hyman said. 'The Murty Classical Library of India will make the classical heritage of India accessible worldwide for generations to come,' he said.

This is the first time an undertaking to publish over 100 books from various Indian languages through a major publisher has been launched. The project was set up recently with a gift of $5.2 million by the Murty family.

"This is unprecedented," said Rohan Murty -- son of Indian information technology legend N R Narayana Murthy -- a computer science PhD student at Harvard. "There was the Clay Sanskrit Library which recently ended the series, but we shall be publishing books from all Indian languages."  

 "We gave our blessings to the project when we realized the concept Rohan has," said Narayana Murthy. He spells his last name with an H, his wife Sudha and children don't.

The Nobel Laureate and Harvard Professor Amartya Sen, whose latest book is also published by HUP, said in a statement:'There are few intellectual gaps in the world that are as glaring as the abysmal ignorance of Indian classics in the Western world. It is wonderful that the Murty Classical Library of India is taking up the challenge of filling this gap, through a new commitment of the Harvard University Press, backed by the discerning enthusiasm of the Murty family, and the excellent leadership of Sheldon Pollock — an outstanding Sanskritist and classical scholar.'

Pollock, the William B Ransford Professor of Sanskrit and Indian studies at Columbia University, will serve as the first general editor of the series and supervise the translators. For the Clay Sanskrit Library, he has translated several books including Rama's Last Act.

Sharmila Sen, a former Harvard literature professor and now the general editor for the humanities at HUP, "will play the key role in terms of the actual logistics of editing, design, production, and publishing," Rohan said.

Sen said no decision has been taken as yet regarding the first batch of three or four volumes to be published. "We are very conscious that translators are also the authors in a way," she said. "We want to produce authoritative and up-to-date translation." The Murty series, she said, will show that the ancient world of learning also includes "the wonderful texts from India."

"I want the newly translated books to reach young readers in India," Rohan said. "Many kids in India would not have read Kalidasa's Shakuntala." 

Sen echoed his thoughts. "One of the things that is motivating the people involved in this project," she said, "is that it is also for our children." 

 'We want everyone to read these books'

Rohan 'Lyric' Murty, the brain behind the $5.2 million Murty Classical Library of India to be published by Harvard University Press, admits that growing up in Bangalore, he hardly paid attention to the serious aspects of religion.

But all that changed when Rohan came to Harvard in pursuit of a PhD in computer science after studying at another Ivy League school, Cornell.

"Like most Indian kids who come here to study, I too was focused on my major," he says. "I did not think of taking courses in literature or philosophy or history."

But he was a voracious reader. Four years ago he started reading Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman, which aroused his interest.

"I said to myself, closing of the Western mind? In India we thought the Western mind was always open," he says, chuckling.

Soon he was reading books on Byzantium history including John Julius Norwich's A Short History of Byzantium and early decades of Christianity.

"And that kind of reading led into reading about Islam," he continues. "But I must say that I was reading the popular books on the subject. What interested me most is the philosophy of religions. Soon I began to ask myself, how much do I know of Hinduism and Buddhism and Jainism?"

He decided to enroll in philosophy classes, and took elective courses under Harvard philosophy Professor Parimal Patil.

"He is a remarkable man and an engaging teacher," Rohan says. "He gave up his medical studies halfway through because he was more interested in philosophy. I love that kind of passion. I liked the first course I studied under him so much that I continued taking more courses. I was fascinated in particular by the debate by Hindu and Buddhist philosophers. The course had Phd students in philosophy, and me. Professor Patil was very patient with me."

Rohan came across the Clay Sanskrit Library, which over nearly a decade published over 50 new translations of Sanskrit classics. Columbia University Sanskrit professor Sheldon Pollock, a key figure in producing the series, approached the Murty family about producing more books.

Narayana Murthy said he did not show much interest in the project. But when Rohan got excited, things suddenly changed.
"The Clay Sanskrit series was not endowed," Murthy said of the project launched by retired oil entrepreneur John Clay who had studied Sanskrit at Oxford over 50 years ago. "It was going from year to year. I said to myself Rohan is 25 and if he wants to popularize ancient Indian literature and make it accessible not only to Americans or people at large, we should back him up," Murthy continued. "We are very happy our son has taken up the project of bringing our classics to global leadership."

With three or four books published each year, Rohan said, "I hope it will continue for at least 100 years. We want the books to be as good as the finest books published by Harvard University Press and that is why we will wait for at least two years to produce the first book."

His family is full of educators and writers including his paternal grandfather, a schoolteacher, and mother Sudha Murty, a novelist and social worker. In a way, he is continuing the family tradition, Rohan said. 

The books will also be priced at low cost to reach Indian readers, he added: "We want everyone to read these books."

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Arthur J Pais