Sunday, March 13, 2011

SAVITRI - Sri Aurobindo's epic poem

SAVITRI — Idhayaththai Allum Iravaakkaaviyam — 2 Volumes (Savitri: The Immortal, Soul-entrancing Epic) (Tamil): A.I. Ravi Arumugam — Tr. in Tamil; Narmada Pathippagam, 10, Nana Street, Pondy Bazaar, T. Nagar, Chennai-600017. Rs. 1200.
IT IS significant that in a literary context where brief lyrics and mini-poetry seem to rule the day, Indian poets have kept the flag of the long poem flying in glorious colours. Even more important is the thought that these poets have drawn generously from our epic sources. Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) received lasting inspiration from the legend of Savitri in the Mahabharata.
He began to write a narrative in English on the great theme when he was a professor in the Maharajah's College, Baroda, but his imprisonment in 1908 in the Alipore Bomb Case played havoc with his manuscripts. It was only in the 1930s that Sri Aurobindo returned to the work. When he attained Mahasamadhi in 1950, the epic poem was almost complete.
Almost fifty years a-growing, the brief episode in Vyasa's epic was transformed into a spiritual dynamo by Sri Aurobindo. Published in its complete form only in 1952, Savitri — A Legend and a Symbol has about 24000 lines of blank verse spread through 12 books divided into 49 cantos. As he said when explaining an earlier narrative poem,Love and Death, his attempt was to project ideal love which is, "a triune energy, neither a mere sensual impulse, nor mere emotional nor mere spiritual." When giving this concept the material envelope of a poem, he proceeded to render an adequate picture of love in the image of the heroine.
Savitri is seen as a perfect housewife but then she is also the yogin who has strengthened herself by gaining universal consciousness. "An ocean of untrembling virgin fire," says Sri Aurobindo of her and indeed he sees her as the glorified body of the redeemer of mankind.
While extending the frontiers of Vyasa's references to Aswapati's penance (jitendriyah) and Savitri's Yoga, Sri Aurobindo brings in all our yesterdays as an upward spiral of evolution captured in his Yogic vision as also all our tomorrows to be fashioned by what we are today. Are we ready to help the divine worker transform life on earth into a life divine? This is the challenge flung at us by Savitri.
Necessarily the epic poem is a diorama full of spiritual experiences that blend indistinguishably with current realities. Sri Aurobindo was the lord of the English language. He said that one of the reasons he was writing in English was to infuse the language with spiritual diction.
So we have Savitri, probably the one long epic of 20th Century that is studied throughout the world today, memorised, recited and taught in innumerable academic and non-academic institutions. But then, its sweep and depth, and the sublime style have made the poem the despair of translators. Tamil translators, in particular, have been wary of approaching the poem. There have been a few like Triloka Sitaram and Vijaya Sankaranarayanan who have translated selections, and they have done well. But the massive epic apparently preferred to wait in Time for a complete translation.
The wait for half a century has not been in vain. It is a pleasure to handle this beautiful publication with Henri Cartier-Bresson's portrait of Sri Aurobindo on the cover. And Ravi Arumugam's in-depth study of the poem and allied literature has yielded rich dividends. He has wisely chosen to translate the entire work as easily readable prose paragraphs touched by the poetic elan of the Tamil mystics of the past.
His prayerful involvement in the poem has done the rest. The metaphysical mode of the narrative calls for a firm grip on the story line. Fortunately, the translator has not spared any effort in keeping us well-informed through his detailed introduction and footnotes while entering the mysterious territory of a mystic poem that glides across Vedantic and Tantric spaces.
In this effort, he has brought back several significant Tamil words into currency and embroidered new phrase combinations that are logical and poetic at the same time. Certainly this book is a precious gift for the Aurobindonians who read Tamil. Also, it is a welcome guide for all readers who search for truth's clear streams. Above all, the work is an infusion of strength to Tamil literature and proves once again that the language is as vibrant as ever.


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