A welcome and exotic addition to the Clay Sanskrit Library in 2009 is the Bhattikavya translated by Oliver Fallon. Additionally known as the Ravanavadha, it is a condensed rendering of the Ramayana in the mahakavya style. Where Valmiki’s epic is a universe of a story, spreading in every dimension to form a great playground for the reader or hearer, Bhatti’s version is a refined little garden wherein the soul in tranquility may observe its responses to the art of the kavi. In the former, we clutch onto the coattails of a great cast of characters and remain, chapter after chapter, in excitement, or exhaustion, or suspense. In the latter, the essences of Rama’s world enter our hearts like dyes released one by one into water.
From the gentle loftiness to which Bhatti has elevated us, we can occasionally peer across and see Valmiki’s giant work thundering past at ten times our pace, with all manner of poppings and bangings firing out from the great cloud of dust thrown up by its trailblazing. It is as though we are gliding serenely in a vintage Rolls-Royce, while a racing Bentley roars past – both on roughly the same journey, but we have time to soak up the landscape, while they constantly wrestle with the beast.
Yet this is no easy alternative to reading the epic. Knowledge of the Ramayana is not essential to enjoy Bhatti’s story, but the intensity and power of one of his verses would not be so apparent without at least a cursory reading of the same episode in Valmiki. Besides, the Ramayana is longer by over 22,000 verses, its last book not being covered at all by Bhatti, so a great deal has been set aside.
Fallon’s efforts have produced an agreeable English text that belies the daunting complexity of the Sanskrit. It is smoother and more accessible than that of Leonardi, the last European to publish a translation nearly 40 years ago. Leonardi’s unloved book, which does not include the Sanskrit, is not made entirely redundant by this new version, notwithstanding that the Italian does to some of Bhatti’s verses what Rama does to Surpanakha. Anyone who construes a line such as, “She tried to squat in an indecent way,” warrants some kind of recognition. Few people can do any justice in translation to the highly ornamented style of mahakavya, and much of the art, or science, of alamkara works only in the original. This is a frustrating limitation, but one that has clearly been recognised by the translator here. He does well to present Bhatti in readable English with a certain understated charm. It is a responsible, no-nonsense approach that has produced a book this reviewer wishes had been available when he was flattened by Bhatti at a mercilessly early stage in his studies.
More so than with many Clay editions, one is grateful here for their house style of punctuating the Sanskrit transliteration. When we dive into canto ten’s barmy yamaka overload, it is a relief to have something like the following broken up:
samiddha|sarana dipta dehe Lanka mat|esvara
samid|dha|saran|adipta dehe ‘lam|kamat|esvara.
So much for the poetry. What of the grammar? For in his introduction Fallon rightly describes the Bhattikavya as “one of the boldest experiments in classical literature”, and this is precisely why a new edition was such a desideratum. Bhatti designed the poem to furnish examples of Panini’s towering Astadhyayi of a thousand years before. It is a lively and inspirational testament to the status of vyakarana in Indian learning. The notes following the translation list the numbers of the Paninian sutras illuminated by the verses. This is a handy resource and possibly the extent of what could reasonably be explored within the limits of the dinky Clay volumes. A brief account of how to decode a simple sutra is supplied in the introduction, and suffices to show to the uninitiated that Panini is not an area to be casually dipped into.
At this, a line is drawn under the poem’s didactic purpose. To get any further with Bhatti’s lesson, a copy of the Astadhyayi (with commentary) is necessary, and this is not the sort of thing the Clay library does. However, the penultimate verse of the closing canto tells us, “vyakhyagamyamidam kavyam”- “This poem is to be understood by means of a commentary.” Students of Bhatti – outside of India, at any rate – are poorly served by the difficulty of obtaining the Jayamangala commentary which appears to still be available only with Joshi/Sharma edition of 1914. Let’s get it on the internet, and help open the poem up to new students. As it is, those who are already connoisseurs of Bhatti will be glad to have this fresh little translation to hand – and leave Leonardi trying to squat indecently a little further up on the bookshelf.