Goa Diaries – A Q & A with Venetia Kotamraju, Founder, Rasala Books

We met Venetia Kotamraju, Founder, Rasāla Books at Publishing Next 2012 in Goa. Rasala publishes India’s most beautiful & almost forgotten poems in translation. These exquisite volumes of Sanskrit poetry, accompanied by contemporary English translations, allow the general reader to enjoy ancient India as imagined by her poets. Rasala also offers annual subscriptions which include two volumes of poetry and an annual anthology. Venetia is a Sanskrit enthusiast who has been working in the publishing industry for just under five years. She has a degree – sadly only one unlike her Indian contemporaries, she says – in Classics and Sanskrit from Oxford. Venetia has now settled in Bangalore with her husband, loves to travel within India and enjoy what she has to offer.

Here’s our Q & A with her:

1. Wow, you are a British national who fell in love with Sanskrit language and poetry? Just how and when did this happen?

Well I guess first of all I fell in love with India, or rather one particular Indian – my husband Gautam. I was reading Classics (Latin and Greek) at Oxford at the time, and because of my growing interest in all things Indian half way through my degree I took up Sanskrit as an additional language – all three are of course sister languages. After finishing university, I moved to Bangalore and was lucky enough to find some wonderful Sanskrit teachers who deepened my love of the language and in particular Sanskrit poetry or kavya.

2. Its apparent that Rasala Books is a labour of love. When did you start it?

For the first five years in Bangalore, I worked in a corporate job – pursuing my Sanskrit whenever I could outside the office – and managed to save a bit of money. I had long had a dream of setting up a Sanskrit publishing house but it wasn’t until my colleague Dr Shankar, who is an acclaimed Sanskrit poet and asthavadhani as well as being a psychiatrist, came on board that it became a reality. I resigned from my job and Rasala was born.

3. What’s the big picture objective of Rasala Books?

Both Dr Shankar and I believe that Sanskrit kavya should be enjoyed as well as studied. This poetry is often exquisitely beautiful, it’s rather like a Rajasthani miniature – incredibly vibrant, highly stylised and intricately detailed. The visual imagination these poets had would give today’s best animators a run for their money. The audio element is also very important: poets use an array of techniques to create sound effects which can delight and amaze (for instance some verses have four lines that sound absolutely identical but each have a different meaning). Given all of this, to relegate such poetry to dull, inaccessible, reader-unfriendly books is to kill it. We want to set it free, to allow people to enjoy it. For us this means creating beautifully produced books in which the Sanskrit can be read alongside a contemporary English translation which does its best to capture the poetry and poetic effects; and also staging poetry readings and recitations.

4. The perception about Sanskrit is that it is an obscure and complex language. Is this true?

As with many things in India it’s difficult to generalise about Sanskrit. You can have simple Sanskrit – my husband and I speak Sanskrit at home from time to time, not the Sanskrit of Kalidasa but the basics. I’m sure most Indians would be able to understand this kind of Sanskrit: ‘bhojanam siddham?’, ‘aam, siddham. aagaccha. Kaaryam samyag aasid adya?’…. Kavya can be much more complex but often the most beautiful verses are the simple ones.

5. Is there a wealth of Sanskrit / vernacular literature out there that will hopefully reach the masses now?

There is so much Sanskrit literature – and I’m sure vernacular literature as well – that is trapped in rapidly deteriorating manuscripts across the country, not yet preserved, deciphered, printed let alone translated. We are focusing initially on poems which haven’t yet been translated into English or are rare and difficult to access.

6. How many books have you published / intend to publish?

Rasala brought out its first book in July and the second one, The Conquest of Madhurā: Gaṅgādevī’s Madhurā Vijaya, should be out by the end of this year. This second book will be of particular interest to South Indians and history lovers. Madhura Vijaya is a rare mahākāvya – discovered only in the 1920s – written by a 13th century queen of Vijayanagara in celebration of her husband’s successful invasion of the Muslim-ruled Madurai. Once we have these first two out, and have established a standard for Rasala books, we will start commissioning translations and hope to bring out about three books a year – not more than that because we want to ensure each book meets the high standards we have set ourselves.

7. How has been the response from Sanskrit aficionados?

Those that have read our books so far – both Sanskrit aficionados and those who are simply lovers of poetry and literature – love them. Many people assume that a Sanskrit book is by default something that is either religious or designed for study. It is hard to change that misperception but when people do read this poetry – much of which is love poetry – they soon realise there is more to Sanskrit than they thought.

8. How does one buy your books?

Readers can buy our books via the Rasala website (http://www.rasalabooks.com/how-to-buy/) or Flipkart. Rasala’s books are also available as eBooks.