Hollywood is fond of images of heroic nutty professors, of inventors of flubber and of academics who possess peculiar insights into the unlikeliest of subjects. While Michael Heyman, an Associate Professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, is no nut, he does have a somewhat rare academic obsession. Heyman is an expert on nonsense literature. And, by nonsense literature, we mean the topsy-turvy inversions of Alice in Wonderland - the ombliferous rhymes of Edward Lear - and whimsical folk poems such as "Hey Diddle Diddle." While the study of nonsense literature has a long and distinguished history, most work on the subject has been relegated to works written in English. Heyman is about to change all that.
Heyman has made several extended excursions to India, and alongside Indian scholar Sumanyu Satpathy and author Anushka Ravishankar, Heyman traversed the country by rickshaw and railway, in search of authentic Indian nonsense literature. The fruit of those adventures is the new book, The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense. There was a time when literary scholars believed that nonsense was a peculiarly English obsession. And that is one of the great achievements of Heyman's study. As he writes, nonsense is clearly a "universal human urge." Among the offerings in the volume are skillful translations of Indian nonsense poems, such as Sukumar Ray's "Glibberish-Gibberish":
Come happy fool whimsical cool
The title of Heyman's volume, The Tenth Rasa, responds to Sukumar Ray's belief that nonsense encompasses a "Spirit of Whimsy." In India, the mere idea of a Spirit of Whimsy is heady stuff. Ancient Indian aesthetic theory dictates that there are nine spirits or emotions in art, and whimsy is not one of them. The idea that there is a spirit related to nonsense and absurdity forces the realization that the nine rasas need to be revised. As Heyman notes, "The creation of the rasa of whimsy revises 1700 years of fundamental theory, necessitating that nonsense be considered a serious art form." For Professor Heyman, Professor of Nonsense, nonsense already is a serious art form. His book, however, will likely go a long way toward convincing others of this same idea.
Copyright 2006© Kevin Shortsleeve
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