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Classical language Odia: the tasks ahead

Odia was accorded the status of a classical language by the Government of India in 2014 and the Government of Odisha declared March 11 as the Shastriya Odia Bhasha Divasa (Classical Odia Language Day). It was observed the first time in 2015.  It is being observed every year since then. The National Education Policy 2020 supports the promotion of the classical languages. One of the issues the First World Odia Language Conference, to be held from February 3 to February 5, 2024, will be deliberating on is the promotion of the linguistic heritage of Odisha, which, in other words, means our classical literature. As far as I know, there is a general agreement among the scholars that the classical phase of Odia literature ranges from Charyapada to BhimaBhoi. 

The question is what can be realistically done in this regard at this time when the study of our classics is virtually restricted to the post-graduate students of Odia and a few researchers, working in the department of Odia in the universities where Odia is taught at the Masters level. The vast majority of students read whatever extracts from the classics are prescribed in the syllabus just for the purpose of examination. Once the examination is over, their reading of the classics ends. Let’s not be judgemental of them. It may be that they do not relate to either the language and the style or the contents of the classical texts. Not un-understandable. The times have changed. The world has changed and the literary taste of the readers has changed. This lack of involvement with the classical texts is by no means the situation in Odisha; it’s almost the same elsewhere in the country.

In this context, we must think what can be done to make the present and the future generations in Odisha aware of theirglorious literary heritage and what can be done to inform the non-Odia readership, within the country and outside, about the richness and inventiveness of our classical texts.

As for the first, we must retell our classics, keeping the main target audience, namely the younger generations, in mind. We have “Pilanka Mahabharata (Mahabharata for Children)” based on Vyasa Mahabharata, but not Pilanka “Sarala Mahabharata”.  We have Byasakruta Mahabharata, but not Saralakruta Mahabharata. We watched B.R. Chopra’s Mahabharata serial, which was based onVyasa Mahabharata composed in Sanskrit language and some regional language versions of this great work but the works consulted did not include Sarala Mahabharata. In short, we have grown up with Vyasa Mahabharata, not Sarala Mahabharata. In this situation, it would not be surprising to find that many Odias would tend to have a negative view of Sarala Mahabharata. It may be an entirely unreasonable attitude but it is true that often we recognize the value our work only after the outsiders do so. Although Sarala Mahabharata has received some scholarly acclaim in Odisha in the twentieth and the twenty-first century, it has not led to the composition of a version of Sarala Mahabharata for children or for the general audience.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that C. Rajagopalachari’s Mahabharata increased the reach of Vyasa Mahabharata enormously all over the world. There is need for a version of Sarala Mahabharata written in modern prose in Odia and in English and the other Indian languages, taking C.R. Rajagopalachari’s book as the model. SupriyaPrashant’s rendering of Sarala Mahabharata in modern Odia, in the form of thirty-three stories, which has been serialized in “Katha”, is a commendable effort in this direction.

It would probably not be incorrect to say that many people, young and elderly, have learnt the story of Mahabharata from B.R. Chopra’s eminently popular serial. If our celebrated classic Sarala Mahabharata, for example, is to be disseminated among the present generations, it strongly needs to be presented through the medium of cinema. To start with, out of many impactful stories, which lend themselves readily for effective cinematic presentation, some thirty or forty can be chosen to be presented through this medium in the form of a serial. The film-makers of Odisha might find implementing this project rather risky, although there is just no reason for this apprehension, in which situation, the State Government must come forward to support this effort. All these observations apply to another great classic, namely, Jagamohan (or Dandi) Ramayana by Balaram Das.

Now, there are now inventive and interesting story-tellers in Odisha, such as Ms.Prachitara Mishra and those associated with “Recite World”, who are making internet videos to disseminate our literary and cultural heritage. Their contribution would be very significant in the effort to bring our classics to our younger generation, quite a few of whom seek knowledge from films and videos, rather than books.

It is extremely important that our classics must reach the non-Odia readership. The wider readership must know the richness and depth of thought embodied in them concerning various matters of profound significance relating to life and death, nature of virtuous living, the human condition in the world, the human aspiration to transcend the human limitations and relationship between God and the humans, among a host of others. 

Now, translating the classics into English and some other major languages of the world and into other Indian languages is the obvious thing to do. Often the importance of translating into other Indian languages has not been adequately appreciated. India can be said to constitute one “culture area”; therefore the speakers of other Indian languages are likely to engage better with the classics of one language than those outside this area. Besides, comparisons between episodes in the Odia composition and the composition in another language would be possible, once the translations are available and similarities and dissimilarities between the treatments of the subject would be noted. This is what has been done in the case of Vyasa Mahabharata and Sarala Mahabharata and this kind of work needs to be done with respect to Sarala Mahabharata and its equivalent in other languages. Work from this perspective has hardly begun.

Turning to the question of the translation of our classics into English. For instance, if Sarala Mahabharata is to be translated today, would it be translated in verse (the P. Lal model) or in prose (K.M.Ganguli or more recently, BibekDebroy model)? In my opinion, these would constitute reference material for Vyasa Mahabharata researchers and are most likely to have a library existence. This is not to say that a complete, almost verse-by-verse translation of Sarala Mahabharata must not be done; this is only to say how it is likely to be received today by the target audience.

If Sarala Mahabharata must reach a wider – global – audience, then the model of rendering it into English should be C. Rajagopalachari’s Mahabharata or R.K. Narayan’s The Ramayana. There can be more than one such retellings, because each re-teller makes his own choice of what to include and what to exclude in order to present the essence of the work. This is inevitable in the case of a very long narrative like Sarala Mahabharata. This kind of retelling can be supplemented by works on the model of DevduttPattanaik’s “Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata” (not necessarily with illustrations) in order to reach a wider audience, who would like to have the basic knowledge of the text.

To conclude, there is much to do and there is much to achieve for our great heritage works. Let’s have self-belief and let’s take the first step forward in this effort.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)

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