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South Asia Department

Maddalena Italia



Maddalena Italia
Maddalena Italia
Email address:
Thesis title:
The erotic untranslatable: the modern reception of Sanskrit love poetry in the West and in India
Year of Study:
Internal Supervisors


I completed my BA and MA in Classics at the University of Milan, with my MA dissertation focusing on the Sanskrit figure of speech śleṣa (“Śleṣa, or 'double meaning': traces of stylistic continuity from the Ṛgveda to Sanskrit kāvya literature”). At SOAS I took the MA Languages and Cultures of South Asia, majoring in Sanskrit Literature; during this Master's programme I also took up the study of Hindi. My SOAS Master's dissertation (“Non-verbal communication in Sanskrit kāvya literature: an emic perspective”) dealt with the theoretical frameworks through which literary body language is analyzed in Sanskrit systematic thought on drama and literature (nāṭya- and sāhityaśāstra).

PhD Research

My thesis will be organized as follows:

Śṛṅgāra Latinized: Sanskrit erotic poetry and the Classics

In the text under analysis, Peter von Bohlen's Latin translation and commentary on Bilhaṇa’s Caurapañcāśikā and Bhartṛhari’s Śṛṅgāraśataka (1833), śṛṅgāra is assimilated to the amor of Latin elegy – as can be inferred from the lexical choices in Bohlen's translation – and to the eros of Greek lyric poetry and epigrams, which are frequently quoted for comparison in the commentary. The continuum śṛṅgāra—eros—amor is a powerful resource to overcome the chronological and geographical alienness of the aesthetics of śṛṅgāra; however, as I will argue, this process of assimilation is not free from tensions.

Eroticism and the aesthetics of dhvani: what is erotic in Hāla's Gāhā Sattasaī?

Śāstrī's Vyaṅgyasarvaṅkaṣā (“Suggestion as the touchstone for everything”) is the most recent Sanskrit commentary on the Gāhā Sattasaī; it dates back to 1933, and accompanies Śāstrī's Sanskrit translation of the anthology. Śāstrī does not subscribe to an interpretation of the gāhās as systematically suggesting śṛṅgāra rasa; however, his commentary bears witness to the close relationship between a dhvani-based hermeneutics and the cropping up of śṛṅgāra even in verses where explicit erotic elements are absent. What type(s) of eroticism does Śāstrī detect, or reconstruct, or imagine in the gāhās?

Erotic Kālidāsa and modern Indian poetry

In this chapter I intend to explore the reactions of Indian intellectuals and poets to the less savoury aspects of Kālidāsa's production, focusing on two works (the Meghadūta and Kumārasambhava) where the treatment of śṛṅgāra is often quite graphic. I will look out for tensions and frictions between the much-revered Sanskrit tradition – embodied by Kālidāsa, the champion of śṛṅgāra kāvya – and modern Indian writers and nationalists, for whom the Sanskritic aesthetics of śṛṅgāra, or śṛṅgāra itself as a topic for poetry, constituted at the same time a resource and a burden.
In addition to Tagore's comments on, and poems inspired by, the Meghadūta and Kumārasambhava, I will examine the works (commentaries, essays and translations of the aforementioned works by Kālidāsa) of Hindi writers such as Mahāvīraprasād Dvivedī, Haśārīprasād Dvivedī, Ram Chandra Shukla, and of the Bengali poet and essayist Buddhadeva Bose.

The 'survival' of  śṛṅgāra kāvya

(Bhartṛhari's Śṛṅgāraśataka; Amaru’s Amaruśataka; Bilhaṇa’s Caurapañcāśikā)

All the texts analysed in this chapter highlight – or generate – elements of modernity in the Sanskrit original. Each translation or rewriting of the Amaruśataka, Śṛṅgāraśataka or Caurapañcāśikā presents the kāvya poem not as a philological curiosity, but as a living text that speaks of allegedly universal, atemporal emotions in a uniquely hybrid idiom. Such an idiom combines kāvya tropes, imagery and landscapes – both emotional and physical – with modern diction, rhythms, and intertextual resonances.
The aesthetics of these translations or rewritings often strikes as radically different from that of the original. Śṛṅgāra becomes a source of inspiration, an excuse to express personal feelings (or, better, a personal aesthetics of feelings), rather than a stimulus to engage head-on with the nature and multiple nuances of śṛṅgāra itself. Does śṛṅgāra 'survive' even in these translations and rewritings which do not retain the aesthetics of the original? Ultimately, can śṛṅgāra be translated?

PhD Publications

Italia, M. (2011). Book review of “Yigal Bronner, Extreme Poetry: The South Asian Movement of Simultaneous Narration”. Pandanus ’11: Nature in Literature, Art, Myth and Ritual 5 (1): 152-6.

PhD Conferences

Paper presented at the Sixth International Indological Graduate Research Symposium (IIGRS 6), held at the University of Hamburg, Germany, on 6-8 October 2014: “Śṛṅgāra, Amor, Eros: Nineteenth Century Latin Translations of Sanskrit Erotic Poetry”.