The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 5, 2002
Time Off

Fame is the food dead men eat
Manohar Malgonkar

"FAME is the food that dead men eat", wrote Austin Dobson. He must have been thinking how some of the most eminent writers, musicians, painters, poets, who remained only narrowly known and lived in poverty all their lives, to become famous only after they had died.

Mozart, for instance, or Hals.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, today a towering figure among composers, to whom the accolade ‘genius’ is freely applied; there are Mozart festivals held in celebration and there are at least a score of Mozart biographies. He died at the age of 35, still a struggling artist. True, he had a few friends, but none of them accompanied his coffin because it was raining hard, and the coffin itself was a cheap one, provided by the authorities of that most musical of Europe’s cities, Vienna. They say that only Mozart’s dog was at his graveside when he was buried, but the whole process of burying him had been so slipshod that, a few days later, when Mozart’s widow, Constance, went to the cemetery to put some flowers on his grave, no one could tell her where it was.

And Franz Hals. The debate still rages: is Hals, or Vermeer, or Rembrandt the greatest Dutch painter? The fact is that the Dutch can be justly proud of all three of them. The point here is that, while Franz Hals was alive and working hard for what might be said to be just "bred money", his countrymen were not at all kind to him. Today, of course, his paintings are regarded as the crown jewels of the national museums, but they didn’t bring him even a decent living, and he remained destitute throughout his long life. When Hals was 72, he was obliged to sell all his possessions to pay off his creditors, and what they left him was "one table, one chest of drawers, three mattresses and a few blankets."

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The ‘menace’ of wildlife
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Before September 11 — and after
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The anger of gods
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Good words, sinister connotations
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Unravelling the Kashmir story
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A land stalked by the ‘thought police’
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More on Jeffrey Archer
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Archer shoots a Crooked Arrow
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A glimpse of Nepal’s past
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High-profile parties and protocol
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Stories that make authors rich
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Unknown heroes or icons
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Degrees of intolerance
June 10, 2001
Red hands and red faces
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Pictures that speak
May 13, 2001
Treasures in princely museums
May 6, 2001
Battle honours for staying power
April 29, 2001

It was not until Hals was in his mid-eighties that the rich patrons of art in Holland became aware that, if only to make sure that he would go on painting their portraits, he would have to be put on a pension. But then being ‘sensible’ about money is a national trait of the Dutch. So they made sure that Hals’ pension would barely cover the minimum living expenses of his family, but discourage any thought of slacking off on his daily grind at the easel.

So there was no let up for Franz Hals; even in his old age he had to go on working. He died at the age of eighty-five. Still a poor man.

At that, as Hendrik Van Loon laments, "for every reputation that survives ...hundreds are lost." And this is more true of our own land than of Europe which Van Loon had in mind. Our Hall of Fame would really have no likenesses of our literary greats at all; only the frames, ornate and guilded, with scribbled names which might quite easily be wrong, in place of portraits.

The Vedas, which have conferred on us the honour of producing the world’s oldest literature. They form a massive compilation of the wisdom of the times, put together with sensitivity and skill. They pertain to a civilisation of which nothing else survives, only perhaps some buried tools. The Vedas, so old that, The Oxford History of India singles them out as "standing on an isolated peak of remote antiquity."

With that distinction, we have to remain content. Because while we give thanks to the rishis or whoever the compilers of the Vedas were, we have no knowledge at all of their names. The Vedas just got written; that is the truth — undeniable, since they’re all there. Or were they, as some people believe, "a revelation, complete as they stand, without any process of development?"

The antiquity of our epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, is less remote, and the authorship reasonably certain. The Ramayana was written by Valmiki, the Mahabharata, by Vyasa or at least the bulk of Mahabharata, was written by Vyasa, and other nameless writers added bits and pieces so that "the greater part of Mahabharata, was complete by A.D. 2000."

The two epics, between them, have served as minefields for other eminent writers and poets to write what might be described as minor epics, such as Raghuvamsa, Kumarsambhava, Kirat-Arjun yuddha, and Shishupal-wadha. Here too, as in the case of the epics, the works themselves are there, but we know very little about their authors other than their names: Kalidasa, Banabhatta, Magha.

In our fabulously rich heritage of classical literary works — hymns, versified stories and plays, the language used is the same, Sanskrit. Granting that, in ancient and medieval times, Sanskrit was not the nearly-dead language that it is today, it was at no time the language of the streets — of day-to-day conversation. Then, too, India had its baker’s dozen of regional languages to say nothing of a hundred or so dialects. So the question naturally arises. How had our epics achieved their popularity, since the man in the street, the woman in the kitchen, had never studied Sanskrit and indeed were untutored even in their own languages? Learning, let it be emphasised, was the privilege of the Brahmins — with the Vaisyas, or trading class contenting themselves with rudimentary arithmetic.

One theory is that the epics were taken to the people by professional bards who sang them out, episode by episode as it were, at village gatherings. But then how did these bards themselves know the stories — they certainly could not read the Sanskrit language.

But then some puzzles will remain unsolved. The reality is that, most Hindu children absorb the basic stories of both our epics even before they learn to read and write. What is more, very few of them get to read the epics even in later life. I myself did not read the Ramayana till I was well into my thirties, when I came across an English version.

And what a let-down that was? The prose was stilted and pedestrian; the narrative had little of the power, the vibrancy, the grandeur of the version of the Ramayana that I had grown up with. It was like an operative performance scaled down into a puppet show — wooden.

The epics were known as great stories, not as literature, if only for the reason that, for close on a thousand years, there were no credible translations. The man who finally translated the Ramayana into Hindi, the language of the north, is Tulsidas. Yes?

So what do we know about him? The Oxford History says that he lived in the reign of Emperor Akbar, or late 16th century. But other scholars disagree. Other than that, whatever is known about Tulsidas is in the realm of folklore.

O.K. Tulsidas was only a translator, maybe a skilled and faithful translator, but never a great poet in his own right. So perhaps it is not surprising that we know so little about him. But we don’t know much more about the greatest of our writers in Sanskrit, Kalidasa, acknowledged as our Homer and Shakespeare — the Master. The author of Raguvavamsa, Kumarsambhava, and that world classic Shakuntalam.

So who was he? Where did he live? — when? These questions are still in the sphere of research. There are eminent scholars such as Dr Bhandarkar, Professor Keith, and Sir William Jones, to name only a few, who are not sure even of the time in which Kalidasa lived. Some have decided that he lived in Kashmir; others that he lived in Ujjain; and there is a story that he finally died in Sri Lanka.

And as to the time in which Kalidasa lived, their findings differ so widely as to seem farcical: from the 4th century, B.C. to the 11th century A.D. Fifteen hundred years!

What does it matter, anyhow? and, come to think of it, how many of us have actually read the Shakuntal even in a translation let alone, the Raghuvamsa, in Sanskrit!