Ringing in the ancient...
Italian writer Robert Calasso is profoundly in love with Sanskrit and Indian mythology. RANJANA NARAYAN catches up with the author of "Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India" during the Katha Utsav-2004 in New Delhi.
YOU CANNOT but marvel at the way he talks about the Upanishads, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Shatapada Brahmana and the Vedas. His deep interest in these ancient works has spurred him to write "Ka", a bestseller based on Indian mythology. Italian author Roberto Calasso reels off the names of Indian mythological characters and sections from the Vedas with such ease that you start searching your memory for help to place the names in proper perspective.
In India recently to participate in the Katha Utsav-2004 at New Delhi's India International Centre, Roberto Calasso was at his best while discussing what he loves most - mythology and writing. When he was about 17, Calasso read a translation of the Rig Veda. "I started reading the Upanishads and Bhagvad Gita through translations. I did not know Sanskrit, but my interest in reading the works in the original made me learn Sanskrit. I love Sanskrit, it is the perfect language... What the Greeks did with their stories, India did with Sanskrit. I have taught myself to appreciate the Upanishads," he says with evident pride. Calasso has read the Ramayana and Mahabharata as translated works and in their original form as well in Sanskrit.
Why did he name his book "Ka" ? "It means `who' in Sanskrit. There is a hymn in the Rig Veda - `to who should we offer the sacrifice?"
"The 50-plus Calasso finds the Shatapada Brahmana, "very interesting". "There are astonishing stories. There is no counterpart in Greek mythology. The Gods come after a long process. The rishis or seers come before the Gods. It is unique. One goes down through Varuna, Indra, the Vedic pantheon, then come Vishnu and Shiva," he says animatedly.
There are 15 parts to "Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India", which has been translated into English by Tim Parks. The stories are interconnected and the 14th one deals with the Buddha.
What made him write the book?
"A writer never knows. I just felt an urge to write. It took me seven years to write `Ka'. It has been received very well in Italy. It is a kind of marriage of `Cadmus and Harmony', my previous book based on Greek mythology. The fifth part is on the `Brahmanas'. The treatises on ritual attracted me. For the formulation of stories I go back to the real texts."
The `Garuda' episode of "Ka" was set to dance by eminent Bharatanatyam exponents V. P. Dhananjayan and his wife Shanta during the festival. The Garuda episode from the Bhagavata Purana tells the story of Garuda's mother Vinata and her sister Kadru. How Garuda tries to free his mother who has become a slave to Kadru (the mother of snakes) because of a deal between them that whosoever's eggs would hatch afterwards would serve in bondage to the other.
Calasso enjoyed the performance very much. He found a "young dancer from Kerala especially brilliant."
His precocious five-year-old daughter Josephine, who is obviously her Daddy's darling, was basking in the attention being showered on her. Trying to gently chide her in Italian for being naughty, Calasso says in between the conversation, "her English is developing".
"Ka" is being translated into Hindi by Raj Kamal Prakashan, informs Calasso. Katha is doing the Bengali and Malayalam translations of the book, and a Tamil translation is also on the anvil.
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