In the 15th century CE a literary phenomenon occurs in eastern India that becomes very prominent by the 16th century. Poetic versions of Vyasa’s Mahabharata appear in Bengali, Oriya and then in Assamese,—a remarkable synchronicity indeed.
Kobi Sonjoy of Laur in Shrihatta, East Bengal, was the first to retell the complete Mahabharata in Bangla in his own inventive way for regaling village audiences, composing it in payaar metre in the first half of the 15th century. This was prior to the rule of Sultan Hussain Shah in Bengal (1494-1520) and likely pre-Chaitanya (1486-1533) as traces of Vaishnava bhakti are lacking while some Shakta elements exist. Kobi Sonjoy created a new genre in his retelling, the Pauranik fairy-tale, adding fanciful episodes not to be found in any version of the epic. Around the same time Sarala Das composed his Oriya Mahabharata in verse during the reign of Gajapati Kapilendradev (1435-1467). Sometime later, Rama Saraswati composed the Mahabharata in Assamese verse under the patronage of the Koch king Naranarayan (1540-1587) with a strong Vaishnava bias. These poets added considerably to Vyasa’s text by inventing stories redolent with local flavour.
However, the first prose translation of the Mahabharata in any Indian language is that by Kaliprasanna Singha (1840 or 1841 to 24 July 1870), a genius who passed away when just 30 years old. At the age of 13 or 14 he established the Vidyotsahini Sabha for matters of import, such as instituting an award to encourage widow-remarriage. He left Hindu School in 1857 at the age of 16 and established the Vidyotsahini Theatre in his own house where he enacted Venisamhara. Encouraged by its success, in the same year he translated Kalidasa’s Vikramorvashiya. In 1858 he wrote the play Savitri-Satyavan and in 1859 Malati-Madhava. These plays were staged in his theatre with him in the main role. Purana-sangraha, a collection of Puranic stories from the Mahabharata was published between 1860 and 1866.
Kaliprasanna’s greatest literary feat was his faithful translation of the Mahabharata into Bangla prose in 17 volumes, the first work of its kind in Bengali literature. It was begun in 1858 with a team of seven pandits provided by Ishvarchandra Vidyasagar and completed in 1866, omitting and adding nothing. He had only 3000 copies of each volume printed, being unsure of the reception. The Harivansha was excluded as he found its composition to be plainly later than that of the epic. However, he did plan to publish its translation along with those of the Puranas, as the title page of his Mahabharata indicates.
What the team of editors of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, took forty years to arrive at—the “critical text” of the Mahabharata—teenaged Kaliprasanna began at the age of 18 in 1858 all by himself, collating manuscripts from the Asiatic Society, Shobhabazar Palace, the collections of Asutosh Deb, Jatindramohon Thakur and his own great-grandfather Shantiram Singha’s collection in Kashi. He acknowledges with gratitude the help he received in resolving contradictions in the texts and making out the meaning of knotty Vyasakuta verses from Taranath Tarkavacaspati, teacher at the Calcutta Sanskrit Vidyamandir. He records with profound gratitude that Ishvarchandra Vidyasagar began a translation of the epic and had published some parts of it in the Brahmo Samaj’s Tattavabodhini magazine, but stopped the work on hearing of his project. Vidyasagar not only went through Kaliprasanna’s translation but supervised the printing and the work of translation during his absences from Calcutta. Kaliprasanna writes that he has no words to express the benefits Vidyasagar showered upon him. He specially thanks several friends, viz. the famous poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt for promising to turn the best parts of the translation into Amritakshar metre and a play; the Purana expert Gangadhar Tarkabagish, Raja Kamalkrishna Bahadur, Jatindramohon Thakur, Rajendralal Mitra, Dvarkanath Vidyabhushan (editor of Somprakash), Rajkrishna Bandopadhyay (professor of Bengali literature in Presidency College), Nabinkrishna Bandopadhyay (former editor of Tattvabodhini), Dinabandhu Mitra (the playwright of Neel Darpan) and Kshetramohon Vidyaratan (editor of Bhaskar). Deploring the death of 10 members of his team of translators, he thanks those engaged till the end, as well as the proof readers, each by name.
Daily in the evening the translation, as it progressed, was read out to Raja Radhakanta Deb and other prominent leaders of Hindu society such as Raja Kamalkrishna Bahadur and Rajkrishna Mitra. In villages, he writes, the translation is read out in important gatherings morning and evening. He pays a fulsome tribute to Kashiram Das’ translation in Bengali verse, regretting that details of his life and dates are not recorded anywhere. He leaves out discussion and summaries of Sanskrit literature based on Asiatic researches and Max Muller’s edition of texts to avoid any controversy that might harm the unrestricted acceptance of his translation.
The work took eight years to complete and was printed at Kaliprasanna’s own Tattvabodhini Press. Most amazing of all, he provided it free of charge to readers who wrote in. They were even advised not to send any postage stamps to cover despatch costs. In every district an agent was appointed to distribute the book so that it could be obtained without spending anything. It was and remains a unique project of making wisdom literature available without charging anything for it.
Many laughed Kaliprasanna’s herculean effort to scorn, ascribing it to a quest for immortal fame by buying up pandits to translate. His response was merely to state that he had craved no public fame, but only hoped that should, by the grace of God, the Bengali language still exist anywhere in the distant future and this book fall into someone’s hands who might be able to make out its meaning and understand the pillar of glory of the Hindu race that was the Bharat, then all his labour would have succeeded.
Kaliprasanna dedicated his translation to Empress Victoria in gratitude for the British having rescued Bharatavarsha from the mortal clutches of the Mughals. He compared his offering to the devas’ offering the Parijat flower churned out of the ocean to Purandara-Indra. Behind the translation lay a faith that it would redound to the country’s good. He hoped that Hindusthan would be lit up during her reign by hundreds of lamps of Sanskrit literature—as it was during Vikramaditya’s reign by Kalidas etc. and in Queen Elizabeth’s reign by Shakespeare etc.— making her reign unforgettable.
We may well be surprised at the absence of any mention of the 1857 Mutiny although the translation was started the next year, the year of Queen Victoria’s Imperial Proclamation in November 1858. The elite of Bengal were not enamoured of the aborted uprising, preferring to proclaim their loyalty to the British Empress as vociferously as possible.
It is another matter that because of the notoriously short memory of Bengali intellectuals the 150th year of the publication of the first Bengali prose translation of the complete Mahabharata is not considered worthy of commemoration.
First published in the 8th Day Literary Supplement of The Sunday Statesman of 23 October 2016.