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Rare Relic

Friday, October 26, 2018

Dante’s divine comedy makes an unexpected appearance in ASM Durbar Hall

Language and literature enthusiasts who accepted Prof. Vispi Balaporia’s invitation to  attend a lecture at the  Asiatic Society of Mumbai by Delhi academic Tanya Roy,  were in for a delightful surprise. On display through Prof Roy’s  talk on the Italian language and the Internet was the oldest surviving manuscript of the Florentine poet, storyteller and bureaucrat  Dante Alighieri's Divina Comedia (Divine Comedy.)  In the 450-page narrative poem, Dante tours Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. There are those who claim there are two copies of  this three part epic and moving allegory of human redemption, but are unable to say where.

Prof Roy  described Dante as ”the father of the Italian language”. The Florentine volgare became standard Italian.  She teaches Italian at Delhi University and the topic was chosen by the  Italian Consulate in Mumbai  as Italy celebrated the Italian language all over the world last week. The lecture was held in the majestic Durbar Hall of the Asiatic which is also home to  one of the oldest literary societies in India – the ASM LitClub was established more than two centuries ago on November 2, 1804.  Prof  Sanjeevani Kher is the current  Chairperson of the LitClub, and Prof Balaporia, the Honorary Secretary of the ASM which acquired the rare manuscript in 1820, as a gift from  Lord Mountstuart Elphinstone, educationist and Governor of Bombay at the time. Dante began writing the Divine Comedy in 1308 and published in 1320, a year before his death. The Asiatic Society  rarely brings it out for display, but stores it, wrapped in silk, in a vault. As legend has it, Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini offered to buy it for a million pounds but the Society declined.

The Asiatic Society also owns  a treasure trove that includes a 19th century manuscript of the Koran, Captain James Cook’s Voyages to the South Pole and Around the World from 1777 among thousands of rare and  beautiful books, a thousand plus maps and  10,000 rare coins.

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