An Interview with Martha Selby on the Beauty and Value of Indian Poetry

Originally published at

Mittal Institute: Professor Selby, welcome to Harvard! In 2004, you spent a year at Harvard as the Walter Jackson Bate Fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. What drew you back to campus?

Martha Selby: I thoroughly enjoyed living in Cambridge and the whole Harvard “vibe” while I was a Radcliffe fellow.  The resources here are amazing, and I have enjoyed rekindling old friendships here on campus and forging new ones.  Harvard students are delightfully challenging, and I have especially enjoyed my experiences with the graduate student cohorts in South Asian Studies and in the Divinity School.

Prof. Martha Selby, Sangam Professor of South Asian Studies.

Mittal Institute: As a scholar of South Asian literature, you have taught courses on Indian literature, Hindu and Buddhist religions, history of Indian medicine, and gender formations in the classical and modern periods. What aspect of South Asian literature most interests you? And how did you first become interested in the field?

Martha Selby: In terms of “which aspect,” I have come across works of profound beauty in the South Asian languages I have studied, and I have always been intrigued by the conventions and aesthetic systems at work that call that beauty into being.  My interest in India in general has been life-long.  I was exposed to Indian culture as a child, and it has always held a fascination for me.  One of my mother’s bridge partners was married to a man who worked as an engineer for USAID, and he helped develop and design India’s national highway system in the early 1960s.  They lived in Delhi and Kerala for a number of years, and their love for India was infectious.  When I was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, I had the great good fortune of studying Indian literature and Sanskrit with Sheldon Pollock, and we read Daniel Ingalls’ magnificent translation of the Subhāṣitaratnakośa in class.  I was captured by Ingalls’ elegant translations, which opened up the world of Indian poetry to me.

Mittal Institute: You are also a Tamil scholar, researcher, and translator, with a deep knowledge of both old Tamil poetry and modern literature.  How did this focus develop? What are some translations you’re most proud of? 

Martha Selby: My focus on Tamil and Tamil literature developed during my graduate work at the University of Chicago. The “focus” in and of itself was a happy accident.  The requirements for the Ph.D. included two years of study of a “vernacular language,” and friends in the graduate cohort ahead of me steered me away from Hindi and into Tamil. It was such a lucky choice. I had brilliant professors at Chicago: Jim Lindholm, Norman Cutler, A. K. Ramanujan.



I am proud of all my translations, but my most recent book, Cat in the Agrahāram and Other Stories, presented me with the unique challenge of working with a living author, one of our best writers of Tamil short fiction, Dilip Kumar. It was both terrifying and thrilling to work with Dilip on bringing his fine stories into English. I learned so much about the craft of writing short fiction while working on his stories, and it really put me in touch with contemporary forms of the Tamil language.  Translating fiction presented me with new sets of challenges.  Up until I began this work, I had worked on poetry alone, and only in the oldest forms of the Tamil language.

Mittal Institute: Can you give our readers a preview of your upcoming event on old Tamil poetry, hosted by the Dept. of South Asian Studies?

Martha Selby: What I hope to bring out during my lecture is the beauty and value of Old Tamil poetry. I want my audience to really listen to it and experience it, but I also hope to demonstrate just how these old poems express the most difficult of human emotions as the voices in the poems grieve over absent lovers in romantic contexts and absent sons in the contexts of war.

Mittal Institute: In addition to your upcoming seminar, you have recently hosted a series of professional development workshops for students on how to best craft a CV, write a grant report, or apply to a fellowship. Why was it important for you to bring these skills to students?

Martha Selby: It is important for professors to prepare their students for their professional lives, and sometimes students need some simple guidance on how to put their best selves forward.  I ran such workshops for my students at Texas, and I thought it was important to keep up that practice here at Harvard. Our graduate students also set the topics themselves, and I was happy to oblige.

Mittal Institute: Now that you are in your second semester of your professorship, what are you currently focusing on, and is there anything exciting on the horizon for you?

Martha Selby: Right now, I am focusing on completing my translation of an old third-century anthology of poetry, Kuruntokai, for the Murty Classical Library of India.  It will be the first work from the Tamil language to appear in the series, and I hope to finish it by the end of this year.  The next project I have in mind will take me into the world of Dalit fiction in Tamil.  There are several authors whose works I want to explore more deeply, and I want to translate their fiction, but also to write a study on how fiction acts as a kind of “interface” with creativity and a writer’s “public face” as an activist and intellectual.