SOAS University of London

South Asia Section, School of Languages, Cultures & Linguistics

Maddalena Italia

BA (Milan), MA (Milan), MA (SOAS, University of London)
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Maddalena Italia
Ms Maddalena Italia
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Thesis title:
The erotic untranslatable: the modern reception of Sanskrit love poetry in the West and in India
Year of Study:
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Maddalena started working on her doctoral thesis in September 2013, after completing her MA (with Distinction) in Languages and Cultures of South Asia at SOAS. Before moving to SOAS, she earned her BA and MA in Classics (both cum laude) from Milan State University. Her first MA dissertation focused on the Sanskrit figure of speech śleṣa (“Śleṣa, or 'double meaning': traces of stylistic continuity from the Ṛgveda to Sanskrit kāvya literature”). Her 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).

Maddalena has been awarded a SOAS Doctoral Scholarship to cover her tuition fees for the full three years of her PhD. She has also received the Ouseley Memorial Scholarship for the academic year 2015-16 to complete her doctoral research.

During the academic years 2014-15 and 2015-16, Maddalena has been teaching Sanskrit Language (level 1) to graduate and undergraduate students at SOAS; from October 2015 to January 2016 Maddalena has also taught Directed Readings in Sanskrit.

PhD Research

Maddalena's research aims to offer new insights and a better understanding of the history of the modern reception of Sanskrit erotic poetry. In her PhD thesis (working title: “The erotic untranslatable: the modern reception of Sanskrit love poetry in the West and in India”), Maddalena analyses commentaries, translations, and rewritings of Sanskrit erotic poetry produced by modern intellectuals – Orientalists, Indian nationalists, colonial and post-colonial translators, poets, and philologists.

Maddalena's thesis is organized in three sections:

1) Śṛṅgāra, Eros, Amor: Sanskrit erotic poetry through the lens of nineteenth-century Western philology

The first section aims to shed light on the type of knowledge produced in a selection of early nineteenth-century European commentaries-cum-translations of Sanskrit erotic poetry. In particular, this section focuses on how Western philologists positioned this exotic erotic poetry within their broader project of linguistic, literary, and cultural comparativism.

The core of this section is a comparative analysis of Peter von Bohlen's Bhartriharis Sententiae et carmen quod Chauri nomine circumfertur eroticum (Latin translation and commentary of Bilhaṇa's Caurapañcāśikā and Bhartṛhari's Śatakatraya; Berlin, 1833) and Antoine-Léonard de Chézy's Anthologie érotique d'Amarou (French translation and commentary of chosen verses from the Amaruśataka; Paris, 1831). In both works, the aesthetics of śṛṅgāra ('erotic love') is filtered and translated through the lens of Graeco-Roman classicism: indeed, Bohlen and Chézy constantly compare Bilhaṇa, Bhartṛhari and Amaru to Greek and Roman elegists and lyric poets.

This process of assimilation of Sanskrit poetry to the Graeco-Roman tradition marked a fundamental stage in the nineteenth-century reception of the aesthetics of kāvya in the West. Bohlen's and Chézy's intertextual and cross-cultural commentaries were justified from a theoretical point of view in the light of the phylogenetic relationship between the Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit languages. Furthermore, such a comparative approach had an immediate antecedent in Sir William Jones' oeuvre, in particular in a work such as Poeseos Asiaticae Commentariorum Libri Sex (1774), which consisted of Latin and Greek translations of, and Latin commentaries on, 'Asiatic' poetry (although it didn't include Sanskrit texts, still not accessible to Jones in 1774).

The establishment of a continuum śṛṅgāra—eros—amor allowed both Bohlen and Chézy to overcome the alienness of the aesthetics of śṛṅgāra. Although not free from tensions and contradictions, this assimilation of śṛṅgāra with the amor of Latin elegy, or with the eros of Greek lyric poetry, deeply influenced the way in which Sanskrit erotic poetry has been approached in the West until our days.

2) The many lives of a Sanskrit love poem: the Caurapañcāśikā enters World Literature

The second section focuses on a selection of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century literary translations and rewritings of the Sanskrit erotic poem Caurapañcāśikā. The central figures of this section are Sir Edwin Arnold (1832-1904), Edward Powys Mathers (1892-1939), and Giuseppe De Lorenzo (1871-1957).

This section deals with themes such as the opposition between the type of knowledge granted by the rigorous method of nineteenth-century philology and the 'unique understanding' of exotic erotic poetry that poet-translators claim to gain; the construction of a generic 'Orient' – a collage of different places, atmospheres, and cultures – as the privileged locus of eros; finally, and most importantly, the survival and success of literary, often remarkably free translations of Sanskrit erotic poetry, which become part of the (controversial) realm of World Literature.

Ultimately, this section seeks to question, criticize or reinterpret the ‘untranslatability’ of kāvya in the light of the survival of the Caurapañcāśikā through its reincarnations in Western-language translations. In particular, this section tries to answer the following questions: What does the success and longevity of Western-language – especially English – translations of the Caurapañcāśikā tell us about the ways in which non-Western poems become part of World Literature? Can we say that the Caurapañcāśikā has acquired a new/parallel canonicity (to that it has in Sanskrit literary history) in this process of re-writing, transmission and re-semantization? The Caurapañcāśikā is characterized by a particular aesthetics of the erotic: does such aesthetics survive in the poem’s ‘afterlife’ in Western-language translations? If it does survive, how is this aesthetics received by (different) modern audiences?

3) Erotic classics and the modern canon: the survival of kāvya in colonial and post-colonial India

The third chapter explores the forms in which the classical tradition of erotic poetry in Prakrit and Sanskrit survives in colonial and post-colonial India. The modern reception of śṛṅgārakāvya in India is mostly characterized by efforts to reconcile a 'classical' erotic canon with modern conceptions of love and eroticism, as well as with an evolving discourse on the ethical and aesthetic functions of love poetry. On the other hand, some intellectuals reacted to and rejected the Sanskrit erotic tradition, thus opting for alternative paradigms that could challenge the otherwise much revered tradition of kāvya.

In addition to Tagore's comments on, and poems inspired by, the Meghadūta and Kumārasambhava, this section examines the works (commentaries, essays and translations) of Hindi writers such as Mahāvīraprasād Dvivedī, Haśārīprasād Dvivedī, Ram Chandra Shukla, Kuṃvara Nārāyaṇa, and of the Bengali poet and essayist Buddhadeva Bose. A chapter of this section is dedicated to the genre of modern commentaries in Sanskrit, with particular attention to Mathurānātha Śāstrī's Sanskrit commentary (first published in 1933) on the Prakrit erotic anthology Gāhā Sattasaī.


  • 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.


  • “The many lives of a Sanskrit love poem”. Paper presented at the conference Reading the World: Challenging the Dynamics of Canon Formations hosted by the Institute of English Studies (Senate House), London, 3rd December 2015.
  • “When words say what words can’t (or mustn’t) say: non-verbal communication in Sanskrit kāvya and aesthetic theories”. Paper presented at the Seventh International Indological Graduate Research Symposium (IIGRS 7) held at the University of Leiden, 15th-17th October 2015.
  • “Latinizing (and Grecizing) Sanskrit Erotic Poetry: Nineteenth-Century Philology and the Continuum Śṛṅgāra-Eros-Amor”. Paper presented at the conference Erotic Literature: Adaptation and Translation in Europe and Asia organized by the CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities), Cambridge, 29th-30th June 2015.
  • “Śṛṅgāra, Amor, Eros: Nineteenth Century Latin Translations of Sanskrit Erotic Poetry”. Paper presented at the Sixth International Indological Graduate Research Symposium (IIGRS 6) held at the University of Hamburg, 6th-8th October 2014.