Sunday, 7 February 2010
The Shilappadikaram by Prince Ilango Adigal is the story of a doomed young couple. The husband abandons his wife for a dancer. He squanders his fortune on his mistress, breaks up with her over a somewhat petty tiff and then goes back to his wife, who naturally accepts him. Broke and disgraced, he drags her on an arduous trek to Madurai, where, using his wife's gold anklets as capital, he will start afresh. Unfortunately, in Madurai, the queen has just lost a gold anklet, so he is captured and executed while trying to pawn his wife's anklet. His wife, in a frenzy of grief, confronts the king, who, learning of this miscarriage of justice, dies of shame. Then, the girl wanders around, rips off her right breast and causes the city of Madurai to burned down in divine retribution. We are told that it is all because of past life sins - the standard Hindu explanation for anything and everything.
I really don't care much for the central story.
What I did love were the numerous vivid descriptions of *everything* - from the tuning of a musical instrument to the many weird and wonderful magical creatures and places along the way to things like the layout of the city of Madurai and the weapons and torture instruments kept at the sentry posts in its walls. No one in this story can carry on a conversation with anyone else without telling a dozen or so apropos anecdotes, and these stories-within-the-stories are a treasure trove of morally edifying and quaint folk tales. There are several interludes of song and dance where the words of all the songs everyone sings are written down, and these passages often achieve a high degree of beauty, even in a translation that seeks to preserve neither meter nor rhyme.
The translation I have is the one made by Alain Danielou for Penguin. It is full of anachronistic words, such as genii, fairies, Eros and so on, when it would have been more accurate to use the appropriate Indian word, whether it was apsara, rakshasa and so forth and footnote it the first time. The use of words from completely different traditions was extremely dissonant. I could also have done with more comprehensive introductory material, putting this work in better context, exploring tropes and storytelling devices, and with some amount of annotation - this translation has none at all.
All in all, a fascinating book for all the peripheral detail even if I thought the story itself was the sort of thing that still forms the staple of normative melodramatic cinema and television shows.
Posted by JP at 09:00