Funded by the Narayana Murthy family, the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) will release its first set of six Indian classics translated into English in 2013.
A hundred years ago, James Loeb had visualized that everybody should be able to pull out books of Greek and Latin literature from their jacket pockets and read a few lines whenever they pleased. That’s how the Loeb Classical Library, sponsored by Loeb, a banker by profession, was created. It was first published by William Heinemann and Co. starting 1911. Loeb handed the series over to Harvard University in 1933.
The Harvard University Press (HUP) has developed it since and increased the number of books published (518, and growing) substantially. The books from the Loeb series come with the original Greek or Latin text on the left-hand pages with an English translation on the right. The books with their bright green and orange coloured jackets have come to be easily recognizable over the years on many library shelves.
Access to classics: N.R. Narayana Murthy (left) with his son Rohan. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
The team at MCLI, a unit of HUP, is working with a similar vision: It aims to fit all of India’s classical literature into your phones, iPads and computers and any new technology that the future might throw up. Though all the books will first be out in print—in the same format as the Loeb series—the team believes that universal accessibility can be achieved only by digitizing the text.
The MCLI project was set up in 2010 with a gift of $5.2 million (around Rs 25.5 crore now) from Rohan Murty. “I went to school in Bangalore and studied Shakespeare as part of my school curriculum but never got any exposure to Indian classics,” says Murty, a computer science PhD student at Harvard and Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy’s son.
The project took off when Murty met Columbia University Sanskrit professor Sheldon Pollock (who now heads the editorial board of MCLI), who at the time was already producing the Clay Sanskrit Library, which had published more than 50 new translations of Sanskrit classics over a decade.
The archive is a series of translations of books in the classical languages of India: not just Sanskrit, but all the ancient Indian languages. “The idea was to put all the linguistic diversity in a shelf,” says Sharmila Sen, executive editor-at-large, HUP, who announced a logo and jacket design competition for the books on 1 September. “The aim is to find talent that will be able to envision a design that will be relevant not just in 2011, but also a hundred years from now,” says Sen. The design will also apply to the digitized versions of the books. The winner of the design competition will get $10,000 in addition to credit for the design on every book published in the series.
The first set of six books will tentatively include the Tamil Kamba Ramayan, Abul Fazl’s Akbarnama, Punjabi Sufi poet Bulleh Shah’s collection of poems, the works of Waris Shah, Surdas’ Sursagar, part one of the Bengali Hindu religious texts Mangal-Kavya, composed somewhere between the 13th and 18th centuries, and also the Therigatha in Pali which is known to be the first recorded writing of literature by women in any language in the world.
The biggest challenge of the project so far has been to find translators who can also write idiomatic English. Part of the project also includes creating new Indic fonts for the Indian languages.
“Our design team is working on that. We will soon have a series of fonts known as the Murty Indic Tamil, or something on those lines,” says Sen, adding that fonts will be given free to any organization and individual working with Indian languages. “It is, in a sense, a gift to the world.”
Though most publications by HUP have been marketed in the US and UK, this project will set up the challenge of marketing the books in India, and that too at affordable prices.
“India is the third biggest consumer for English-language books across the world after the US and UK, so this also works as a great way to enter the market,” says Sen.
Visit www.murtylibrary.com to register for the jacket design contest. Entries are open till 1 December.