By Sonali Raj
Title: Sur’s Ocean – Poems From the Early Tradition
Author: Surdas; Trans. John Stratton Hawley; Ed., Kenneth E. Bryant
Publisher: Harvard University Press
It is surprising that the books published by the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) haven’t been widely reviewed despite the international attention the project received. Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition, a translation of the early poems of Sur Sagar, is a contentious volume with right wing propagandists saying it is sacrilege that a quintessential Bhakti poet should be translated by Americans. These purists, however, do not sit down to do the work themselves.
Translated by John Stratton Hawley, a professor at Columbia University, and edited by Kenneth E. Bryant, an Indologist from the University of British Columbia, the book is divided into eight sections, beginning on a dark rainy night in the month of Bhadon, when Krishna was born.
With 757 pages of poetry, Sur’s Ocean is perhaps the most forbidding-looking volume published by the MCLI but it is actually very easy to read. However, the volume doesn’t have 757 different poems; each poem translated in English is printed alongside its Devanagari counterpart.
Surdas wrote in Braj even though the court language was Persian. His poems were performed outside of the court in fairs and temples; the language frequently reads like everyday speech, and this quality is well-reflected in the English translations: “Mother Yashoda, rest assured— / we’ll both be home in five or seven days, / brother Haladhar and I. / Meantime, now and then, check on my flute, / check on my staff and the horn I blow. / Don’t let Radhika pilfer away / any of my favorite playthings.”