September 25, 2017

Those Sanskrit long compounds: how do they sound?

Filed under: Sanskrit Literature — Tags: , , — Giulio Geymonat @ 7:16 pm

It is a shared belief that a very important feature of any piece of poetry is the specific way it sounds: in a sense, what distinguishes poetry from prose is exactly the fact that with prose the same meaning of a given piece could, at least in theory, be conveyed by a different syntax and/or by different words, while poetry can’t be changed not even for a single sound, or else it vanishes away.

In this respect, when considering Sanskrit poetry, it is important to remember that Sanskrit is the only ancient language of which we know precisely the way it was pronounced, in as much as it inherited the results of centuries of phonological enquiries over the correct pronunciation of Vedic formulas and prayers.

On the other hand, coming back to the distinction made between prose and poetry, when considering Sanskrit long compounds (and short too, for that matters) it is clear that all the members of a given compound cannot be turned around, not a single one, unless the meaning of that compound changes dramatically.

This is logical enough: if a compound is a single word whose overall meaning depends on the combined meaning of the stems occurring in it, if one changes the sequence of the stems the combined meaning is also bound to change (a bit like if one changes the sequence of the digits of a given number).

This is to say that the prose passages made up with long compounds are very often comparable to a kind of “unmetrical” verses, both because the sequence of the members of the compounds cannot be altered without affecting the meaning (so that they have poetry’s “unchangeableness”), and because the compound overall sound achieves clearly, at least in many instances, a specific and looked for acoustic effect that we cannot but call poetic.

Generally speaking, I mean without looking specifically at long compounds, it is impressive to what extent Sanskrit writers make efforts to keep a tight link between the meaning of what is being said and the sounds employed to say it.

Going back specifically to metrical poetry, what characterizes Sanskrit metrics is the existence of dozens of different meters each with a fixed number of syllables and/or with a different sequence of short and long syllables (other kinds of verses also exist in Sanskrit: verses that do not have the same number of syllable in each quarter, and verses that do not adopt as the metrical criterium a fixed sequence of long and short syllables, but a fixed overall “duration” of the verse in its totality, no matter if such a duration is produced by long or short syllables).

When we consider the various metrical patterns, besides “short” verses (from 8 to 11 syllables per quarter-verse) and “medium” verses (up to 15 syllables per quarter-verse) Sanskrit poetry often presents “long” verses, with up to 21 and more syllables per quarter-verse, having, as said, the same pattern of short and long syllables repeated in each quarter; one, two or maximum three caesuras break up the sequence of the syllables, imposing a sort of sub-rhythm to the one produced by the sequence of short and long syllables forming the quarter.

In other words, if it’s true that Sanskrit is the only ancient language of which we know the correct, and once for all fixed, pronunciation, and that this is indeed something of an immense value when reading the creations of poets, it does not mean at all that reading Sanskrit verses (or prose passages making use of long compounds) is something easy: as usual with Sanskrit, the opposite is certainly quite true, both because of the specific difficulty of reading long compounds and, even more, because the poets, as said, play a lot with sounds, and, as it is always the case with classical India, complexity and difficulty are very much valued in themselves (Sanskrit kAvya is generally characterized by what could be renamed horror semplicitatis).

Because poetry, and in any case play on sounds, can’t be appreciated without being heard, as a supplement to my previous post on the gratifying difficulties of translating Sanskrit long compounds, I will now get back to those long compounds taken from the Malatimadhava of Bhavabhuti, text and translation slightly changed as taken literally (and not as a stem) (if one wants to have more details about the translations please refer to the previous post), and record a reading of them (not at all to be considered the perfect one, but one done carefully and with a personal pleasure).

Let’s start from cUDApIDakapAlasaMkulagalanmandAkinIvArayo

“possessing water of the heavenly Gange dripping from the numerous skulls used as a chaplet on top of the hairs”

My reading of it:cUDa

The very next line of the same verse:

“possessing splendor mixed up with flames of fire from the eye on the fore-head resembling lightnings”

My reading of it: vidyut

In the next verse, across the second and the third quarter, the nine stems compound: nandihastAhatamurajaravAhUtakaumarabarhitrAsAn

“from fear of the peacock of the god Kumara attracted by the sound of the drum hit by the hand of Nandi”

My reading of it: nandi

Act I, verse 38 first quarter:

“O friend of the scent of the thick juice of flowers dripping down from the sheath of jasmines looking weird because of the buds opening up!” (it’s a vocative referring to a wind blowing out of a garden).

My reading of it: unmIlan

Now a compound of 17 stems occurring in a prose passage of act I of the same drama:

“delightful for the intriguing ornaments in the form of rows of buds agitated by swarms of quantities of bees all assembling after having been attracted by the (buds’) fragrant substance whose perfume is intoxicating, sweet and coming forth” (the compound refers to a tree).

My reading of it: ullasita

This is a 20 stems compound: uttrastamattakalahaMsavibhramAbhirAmacaraNasaMcaraNaraNaraNAyamAnamaJjIramaJjuraNitAnuviddhamekhalAkalApakalakiGkiNIraNaraNatkAramukharam

“in a noisy manner with the clanking sound caused by the jingles of the melodious little bells of the girdle of several strings mixed with the sweet sound of the anklets resounding loud for the movements of the feet beautiful with a grace of a royal swan delighted and at the same time frightened”

My reading of it: uttrasta

Now a longer one, of 24 stems, composing the first quarter of a very long verse (number 23 of act V): pracalitakarikRttiparyantacaJcannakhAghAtabhinnenduniSyandamAnAmRtazcyotajIvatkapAlAvalImuktacaNDATTahAsatrasadbhUribhUtapravRttastuti

“possessing a praise begun by many creatures being afraid by the laughs continuous and, even so, intense released by the rows of skulls getting alive because of the drippings of the life-giving ambrosia oozing down from the moon wounded by the blows from the nails dangling all around the elephant-hide that is moved about” (it refers to a dance of Shiva)

My reading of it: pracalita

Finally verse number 19 of act V of the Malatimadhava
guJjatkuJjakuTIrakauzikaghaTAghUtkArasaMvalgitakrandatpheravacaNDaDAtkRtibhRtaprAgbhArabhImais taTaiH |
antaHzIrNakaraGkakarkarapayaHsaMrodhakUlaMkaSasrotonirgamaghoragharghararavA pArezmazAnaM sarit ||

“(Here is) the river on the other side of the cemetery, possessing a gurgling and at the same time vehement roar, due to the flowing off from the bed of its stream, caused by the obstruction of its waters by faded bones and skulls found within it, with its bank fearful because of their slopes being filled with the terrifying howling of grieving jackals mixed with the shrieking of quantities of owls making the bowers buzzing”

My reading of it: guJjat

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Powered by WordPress