Education, English Classroom, English Studies, Research and studies in English, The Art of Seeing

Speaking at a Ceremony to honour Dr.Prema Nandakumar and Ms. Shraddhavan at SACAR


The text of Dr Murali Sivaramakrishnan’s speech in which he has discussed the contribution of Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Ms. Shraddhavan in the field of research and English language follows:

Auroratna Award 1

‘In English we use a phase which goes like “To carry coal to new castle” which means when one goes to new castle one does not carry coal. So when I come to SACAR and this might appear rather overburdened if I try to introduce either Prema Nandakumar or Shraddhavan because I don’t know them. I know very little about them. In fact I know so little, when I look all around you, most of you know more about them than I do because I am familiar with their work. As persons I have not had the occasion to meet either Sri Aurobindo or the Mother but I came to Sri Aurobindo through the work of Srinivasa Iyengar. Prof. Iyengar has been a kind of eye-opener for me. Then I started working on Sri Aurobindo. I am sure Prema-ji started working on Sri Aurobindo ten years before I was born even, I think, because in the 1950s, she was working on Savitri. In 1957 she started working and by around I think 1960 when she finished her book—her monumental work—I was just a kid. Eventually, when I came to do my work so many years later, her book on Savitri was a piece of revelatory sort of experience for me and that I found quite challenging in two ways because I have always felt that the work of Sri Aurobindo needs to be read in multiple dimensions at the same time. Of course we have Sri Aurobindo as the rebel; we have Sri Aurobindo as the creative writer; we have Sri Aurobindo as the political thinker, the historian, the sociologist, the person who has interpreted the Vedas and the Upanishads, a scholar extraordinary who also participated in the freedom movement of India; we have to see him and his work in a multiple sort of dimension and the kind of comparative element that both Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Shraddhavan provided, I think, were real eye-openers for me specially her work in comparing Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri with Homer’s epic which I don’t think anybody in the history of the world would have attempted because here is a work which is the longest work in the English language—Savitri with 24,000 odd lines—which happens to be the longest work available in the English language barring perhaps Nikos Kazantzakis’ Odyssey: A Modern Sequel which runs into 33,333 lines. So if you consider that as a translation, here is an original work in English which is the longest work and to compare that with another epic of multiple dimensions like Homer’s Odyssey or Iliad is something which a person with genuine intellectual and at the same time spiritual calibre can attempt. And that is what I found most intriguing in the work of Dr. Prema Nandakumar. So, it is a pleasure to talk about the work of somebody who has actually cleared the way or paved the way or made new wood in the scholarship in relating epics of two separate cultures, two separate cultural backgrounds, two separate idioms. So this is what I found most intriguing about Dr. Nandakumar’s work.

‘And of course Prof. Kittu Reddy has already mentioned Bharati’s translation. That is something which I wanted to cite also. Of course there is a big debate going on in the Tamil circle in support of Dr. Prema Nandakumar’s translation of Bharati; that apart if we were to look at the selections which she had made, it is not the entire corpus of Bharati of course. But whatever she has done with her discerning eye that, I think, is something which has come from her own reading of Sri Aurobindo’s work because Sri Aurobindo has specifically said that the critical eye that operates in poetry is almost superior to the critical eye that operates on poetry. So in that way she has been able to bring together the critical eye in separate perceptions and to be discerning to identify the kind of noteworthy work of Bharati. That, I think, is a good introduction. More than that Prema Nandakumar has done extensive work in bringing Tamil writings and brining regional and discursive elements of a particular cultural ethos in which Sri Aurobindo himself lived. Forty odd years he lived here in Pondicherry and that is something which is amazing for us because he never left Pondicherry. He has continued to be here and he has also translated Andal; he has done some tremendous attempts in bringing together so many other works which were around him. I don’t know whether he was aware of Tamil language, whether he could speak…’

Dr. Prema Nandakumar said: ‘He knew Tamil language. It is there. And he readPanchali-Shabdnam. He was the first to translate Kulasekhara Alwar into English.

Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan continued: ‘So that way Prema Nandakumar has been able to bring together a totally different cultural ethos into the study of Sri Aurobindo and she has been able to distribute, or rather, been able to bring together these elements into the discourse of Sri Aurobindo and other scholarship around Sri Aurobindo. To that extent, I think, her work is most admirable. And I am a person who loves to look at her work from a distance and I think I have great respect for Dr. Prema Nandakumar. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to honour her.

‘To talk about Shraddhavan: I know that Shraddhavan came here in early 1970s perhaps. Before that she has been a poet in the English language and I have had many occasions to sit near her and talk to her of British poetry. And I was always taken in by the astuteness and the clarity of the rhythms and eloquence of poetry that she has been able to pick up. She had told me that she had worked in the lines of Charles Tomlinson, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, W. H. Davies and I could hear the reverberations of the late Modernist and the late romantic British poetry. I consider that as a romantic poetry because Ted Hughes was somebody who revived or brought together Tomlinson, W. H. Davies and others who brought together a sort of a romantic element in the line of British poetry back into the flavor bringing together the human and the non-human elements. That, I think, Shraddhavan has brought into me new shraddha. Shraddhavan has been a kind ofshraddha for me through her writings. And I have followed her English in SriAurobindo’s Savitri. [To Shraddhavan] That is an essay a part of which you had presented at my department when you came there—The Englishness of Savitri.

‘I don’t know whether many of you here are familiar with the kind of controversial work written in the late 1970s which is called The Pedigree of Savitri. I am surprised. Even at SACAR I don’t think you have that essay. It is a controversial essay which actually most counter to… Are you familiar with that by any chance?The Pedigree of Savitri? When I read that essay I was working on Sri Aurobindo in the early 1980s. I came here in 1986 and I was working in the Ashram Archives. There I found this particular reference and then I had to go to Hyderabad to dig up in the Osmania University journals and I came across that article. I found that Shraddhavan’s work on Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri and language actually brings together the lost connection between Sri Aurobindo and European early modernist poetry. At many times I always felt that Sri Aurobindo was somebody who was unable to communicate with the rest of the world. Poet and a person who lives in the present has to always have a kind of connection with what is happening outside. One cannot be a recluse all the while. Sri Aurobindo was never a recluse. You know, I have always defended this view-point. Many people have said: “Oh, here is a man who has chickened out in the phase of action, who has already moved away and who stayed at Pondicherry in the French resort.” They said that he did not want to step out in the British eye because he was afraid of action. But I also wrote a little bit in Sri Aurobindo’s Action and there I have tried to bring together this attitude of action and inaction and the kind of withdrawal that Sri Aurobindo did. So Sri Aurobindo was somebody who was all the time exposed to the multiple elements around him at manyplaces. He was open to that. He always liked to look at what was happening outside. And Shraddhavan has been able to pick up the element of the quality of language, the tonal variation and the subtle nuances of the English language which Sri Aurobindo carried with him as a remnant of his European learning. And that is something which she has been able to link with the spiritual quality of the language. I have read many other scholars trying to expound the quality of spiritual resonance in Sri Aurobindo’s poetry but Shraddhavan’s shraddha has been unwavering and steady. And I don’t think there is any other person who deserves this award in the present other than these two people.

Auroratna Award 2

‘So it is a great honour for me to be able to share whatever I feel about these two Masters who have led the way and opened up their way for people like us who like to see the quality of poetry and philosophy at the same time. Thank you very much.’

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