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Wax Sanskritic

Urban young are rediscovering the lure of the classical language

Wax Sanskritic
Tribhuvan Tiwari
Wax Sanskritic
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
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  • There's a big revival of interest in Sanskrit, especially among the urban young
  • The thousands enrolling for Sanskrit classes this year include young techies, MBAs, civil servants, students of history and philosophy, as well as those interested in ayurveda or yoga
  • They are attracted by Sanskrit's highly logical grammatical structure; the access it gives them to classics and texts on ayurveda, yoga; and the guidance on ethics, leadership and strategy in texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Arthashastra;
  • The fact that Sanskrit is a 'scoring subject' in CBSE, UPSC exams has also fuelled interest

***

"Bhagini, shighram, shighram gachchami," mutters someone, giving me a gentle nudge from behind. Translated, that means: move faster, sister. I've been told I'm slow before, but never in Sanskrit. The guy getting late for class, whose way I'm blocking, is tall, with an apologetic smile, a shaven head, a choti, and a forehead smeared with tilak. The rest of him is hip young Gen X Indian—cool T-shirt, stylish bracelet and frayed-edge jeans that end at his bare feet. Ashish Kuliyal, 18, is a BA in English from DAV College, Rishikesh, and is at Delhi's Samvadshala Residential Centre for Teaching Sanskrit to brush up his spoken Sanskrit. "I want to complete my BEd and teach Sanskrit," he explains, after his class. "And I would like to speak to my students in Sanskrit, since it is ridiculous to teach one language via another."

There are others like him. Bangalore-based Sanskrit enthusiast Kokila Narayan, 27, works for an IT company. Weekends find her in spaghetti tops and capris, enjoying a movie or a vodka at the pub. Hard to believe that she speaks Sanskrit. But she does. "I started learning shlokas with a group of friends. What had me hooked was the perfect grammar and the science behind the language," she says. Narayan is preparing for the civil service exam, for which Sanskrit is among the subjects she has chosen.

Then there is Bharath Lakshminarayan, 24, who works with a consultancy firm in Bangalore. Every week, he takes time out of his busy schedule to drive down to a friend's place in Malleshwaram, where a group reads out chapters from Shringeri Math textbooks, and discusses Sanskrit classics like Kalidasa's Shakuntala. "I started learning Sanskrit in school because it was a scoring subject. But now, I'm drawn to it by the fascinating literature it offers," he says.

As many as 30,000 people have enrolled for countrywide classes that are starting this July under the aegis of the Gita Shiksha Kendra, to help people know the Gita better, through Sanskrit. And 60 per cent of these are in the 18-28 age group. At the Delhi Samvadshala, students from 37 countries come down in winters to learn spoken Sanskrit. And in 2008, 2,000 Delhiites enrolled for spoken Sanskrit crash courses that were held across the city. Again, 60 per cent were in the 18 to 28 age group.

These statistics back up the claim of many Sanskrit institutions that young people are rediscovering Sanskrit. "Yes, we're going back to our roots," smiles Krishna Shastry, who, along with a group of like-minded people, started the Sanskrita Sambhashanam (Speak Sanskrit) movement in 1981. Just seven students joined the first course, held in Jayanagar, Bangalore. Obviously, a few stereotypes had to be broken. "Over the years, Sanskrit has been considered difficult, boring and irrelevant in a modern world. So we started with evolving a new, more interesting style of teaching," he says. This included teaching Sanskrit directly (without using another language) and creating an atmosphere where students were first taught words and sentences they could use in daily life.

The movement began gathering momentum slowly. Since 1981, 70 lakh-plus people have learnt to speak Sanskrit. Many of them are from metro cities like Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore. The current interest, according to Shastry, is fuelled by the worldwide fascination with yoga, Vedanta, ayurveda and chanting shlokas, together with the trend among management gurus to quote from the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, for guidance about ethics in corporate life, leadership qualities and team-building. It helps, too, that Sanskrit is a "scoring subject" in upsc exams. Modern-day students of Sanskrit include doctors, software professionals and MBA students and faculty, apart from students of history and philosophy. B. Mahadevan, professor and dean, IIM-Bangalore, and ayurveda practitioner Dr Robert Svobada from Texas are just two unlikely people who have learnt to speak Sanskrit.

Back at the Delhi Samvadshala, Kuliyal readily translates Gabbar Singh's "kitne aadmi the" into Sanskrit, with a booming "kati gana asa". Just as quickly, he switches to a meek "sardara, do janau staha" just to emphasise that one can have fun in Sanskrit too. On the net, there is a Sanskrit learning site, translating popular Shahrukh Khan film songs like "Tum paas aye, aur muskuraye" into Sanskrit: "Twam samipamagatam, ani mandsmitam". Though Sanskrit pandits may not necessarily approve of this frivolous use of what is called Devbhasha, the teachers with Samskritam Bharati are indulgent because it helps draw young people into their fold. Teachers like Pune-based Manjushri Rahalkar, 35, are encouraging youngsters not to judge Sanskrit by the classes they used to hate in school. S. Deopujari, who is in charge of Samskritam Bharati projects all over India, is simplifying grammar to make speaking easier for beginners. Homemaker and Sanskrit enthusiast Padmavati, an Andhra native living in Delhi, teaches 8-13-year-olds to speak Sanskrit via the medium of games and plays at Ganesh Mandir in Delhi's Sarojini Nagar.

In the 2001 census, a mere 48,400 people have listed Sanskrit as their mother tongue. But by the time the next census is completed, the numbers may well have doubled or trebled, to include hip young urban professionals who think in English, feed on KFC fried chicken and compare the revival of Sanskrit in India to that of Hebrew in Israel. Easy to understand why they are fascinated with this ancient language that promises to take them back to their roots and shastras. Amen to that. Or, maybe the word to use here would be Tathastu!

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