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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Erotic Poems from the Sanskrit

edited by R. Parthasarathy

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To purchase Erotic Poems from the Sanskrit

Title: Erotic Poems from the Sanskrit
Author: various
Genre: Poetry
Written: (Eng. 2017)
Length: 130 pages
Original in: Sanskrit
Availability: Erotic Poems from the Sanskrit - US
Erotic Poems from the Sanskrit - UK
Erotic Poems from the Sanskrit - Canada
  • An Anthology
  • Translated and with an Introduction by R. Parthasarathy

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Our Assessment:

B : solid introductory/overview volume

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       R. Parthasarathy's anthology of Sanskrit poems includes poems by thirty-seven identified and thirty-five anonymous poets; they are predominantly male, but seven female poets are represented. The poems are drawn from sixteen works, the vast majority composed between the fourth and seventeenth century. Most of the poets are represented by only a single poem, with only six represented by more than two: Bhartṛhari (12), Amaru (5), Bilhaṇa, Kālidāsa, Vallaṇa, and Vidyā (three each).
       In his Introduction, Parthasarathy gives a quick overview of Sanskrit poetry, from 'The Role of the Poet' to a a basic guide to 'Reading a Sanskrit Poem'. In pointing out differences from traditions most readers are probably more familiar with, and noting, for example: "The notion of individual self-expression was foreign to the culture at that time", he provides some helpful guidance. So also in suggesting readings -- often with comparisons to Western touchstones -- of particular poems, both in the Introduction and, to a lesser extent, endnotes on individual poems.
       Parthasarathy acknowledges that his selection is a personal one -- "It comprises poems that I have enjoyed reading and that have excited me" -- and that he has also taken translatability into account, selecting poems that he found: "manageable within the resources of modern English verse". Parthasarathy also focuses more on content and context, and, significantly, prosody is of secondary interest here; so also the volume is not a bilingual edition -- though one example in his Introduction is shown transliterated, in literal translation, and then in a verse translation, giving at least an impression of how the poetry can work in the original, and how the use of language can differs from in the English.
       Though billed as Erotic Poems from the Sanskrit, the collection isn't particularly salacious -- and arguably quite a few of the poems stretch the term 'erotic' a great deal. Parthasarathy does address how (differently) sex is treated in Sanskrit literature; among the elements that modern readers might find slightly disturbing is the emphasis on fingernail-marks: "Fingernail marks are a prelude to lovemaking and are therefore treasured as souvenirs", he notes in the endnote to the first poem already, and there certainly are lots of traces of (intense) scratching in the collection. As far as variations on erotic themes go, among the most amusing examples is (mathematician) Bhāskara II's poem 'Elementary Arithmetic', an actual math problem/brain-teaser that cleverly gets the reader/student's attention with its opening premise: "A woman's necklace of pearls broke while making love" but isn't very sexy beyond that.
       The poems selected are largely short verses, the vast majority between four and eight lines, and none appreciably longer. (Curiously, the longest poems in the volume are found separately, only in the Introduction.)
       There are quite a few successfully suggestive poems, such as Śaraṇa's 'Girl Drawing Water from a Well':

As she lifts her slender arm to pull on the rope,
her breast shows on that side;
her conch-shell bangles shake and clink,
almost snapping the thread.
With her generous thighs spread apart
and her shapely buttocks thrust out as she bends,
the outcaste girl draws water again and again from the well.
       Quite a few poems focus not on the sexual act itself but its traces -- nicely in the anonymous 'The Sheets', for example:
Smudged here with betel juice, burnished there
with aloe paste, a splash of powder in one corner,
and lac from footprints painted in another,
with flowers from her hair strewn all over
its winding crumpled folds, the sheets celebrate
the woman's pleasure of making love in every position.
       Amaru's 'Who needs the Gods ?' is one poem that captures the act itself -- and concludes with that question, at the height of its exhausting frenzy. Here and for the most part, expression is circumscribed, the language tending to the delicate rather than obvious or blunt; the rare examples of raw language -- the "hot-assed woman" in Jaghanacapalā's 'Wife', or the anonymous 'Thank Offering' -- stand all the more starkly in contrast to the delicacy of most of the collection; a few more graphic examples might have made for a better balance.
       Bhartṛhari's amusing take, 'Poets' Excesses', is certainly a good choice for a collection like this:
Surely her face is not the full moon,
her eyes are not a pair of blue lotuses,
nor is her soft body made of gold,
yet deceived by poets' excesses,
a foolish man, despite knowing the truth,
will worship a woman's body
that is no more than skin, flesh, and bones.
       At its best, of course, the effect poets strive for is, as described by Vallaṇa in 'The Essence of Poetry':
The essence of poetry
is not in what the words say
but in how they say it.
This and not some special flavor
give pleasure

Not naked
but glimpsed in a flash
through silk ruffled by a breeze
does a woman's breast
give pleasure.
       The breadth of the collection is very large, and any sense of period or style(s) is largely lost in the alphabetical-by-author arrangement and the very short and limited number of examples from each. Nevertheless, as an introductory sampler Erotic Poems from the Sanskrit certainly offers a great deal -- and is also very much a collection that can simply be enjoyed as is, if one doesn't want to concern oneself too much with more specific historical and linguistic detail. (That said: there is a lot more to Sanskrit poetry -- a lot.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 February 2018

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