July 08, 2020
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A New Loss

Sheldon Pollock, the most eminent professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Columbia University, is consumed by one question these days: How does one revive interest and scholarship in pre-modern or classical texts in Indian languages? A few though

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A New Loss

Sheldon Pollock, the most eminent professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Columbia University, is consumed by one question these days: How does one revive interest and scholarship in pre-modern or classical texts in Indian languages?

The Indian literary past, Prof. Pollock rightly feels, contains a civilisational treasure and he worries as to what would happen if we are left with nobody to access and interpret it. His concern is that there are no young scholars interested in these texts and the great ones are either dead or in their 80s. A few months back, in a short piece on the Op-Ed pages of the Hindu, he wrote: 

"At the time of Independence, and for some two millennia before that, India was graced by the presence of scholars whose historical and philological expertise made them the peer of any in the world. They produced editions and literary and historical studies of texts in Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu - and in Apabhramsha, Assamese, Bangla, Brajbhasha, Gujarati, Marathi, Oriya, Persian, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Urdu - that we still use today. In fact, in many cases their works have not been replaced. This is not because they are irreplaceable - it is in the nature of scholarship that later knowledge should supersede earlier. They have not been replaced because there is no one to replace them... Two generations of Indian students have been lost to the study of classical Indian languages and literatures, in part due to powerful economic forces no doubt, but in part due to sheer neglect." 

This main question of Prof. Pollock, is, of course, tagged to and networked with, I presume, a series of larger questions like what does one do to save Humanities studies in India? How does one get existing institutions and university departments to treat this issue with some seriousness and urgency? How does one convince a sitting government, largely pressured by economic issues, that this is a crisis situation too? Why not float an Indian Institute of Humanities like the Indian Institute of Technology? How does one reclaim and distinguish the Humanities worldview from that of say, the Social Sciences or the Sciences or even Technology viewpoints? 

Prof. Pollock followed up his Hindu article with a public lecture in Bangalore. He then met with people from various backgrounds, interested in his chief question, at a round-table organised at the Indian Academy of Sciences. While in the newspaper article and at the public lecture Prof. Pollock had stated the problem unambiguously, at the round-table he simply wanted to know what possible reasons could one ascribe to such a deterioration in classical studies. He therefore spoke very little, but listened patiently. I was an invitee and here I'll present the notes and questions I shared at the table and will also mix them with some afterthought:

1. This expression of anxiety about the loss of something that constitutes the core of our common cultural heritage and identity and also something that impinges on our diversity is not happening for the first time. It has been stated earlier, perhaps not with such refined academic contextualisation, emphasis and urgency, but nevertheless it has been stated. Among the thinking populace, there has been a quiet awareness of how we have come to look at everything through the spectacles of technology and utility. There has also been an awareness of how economics and livelihood issues have often influenced our choices. We have, in sporadic bursts, mourned the limited roles our mother tongues have come to play vis-à-vis English and have also counted dying languages. We have occasionally discussed the diminishing interest in pure science. We have regretted with some regularity about the changing face of our cities, towns and villages and the loss of leisure. At a very popular level, we are anyway perennially nostalgic about old songs, old movies, old books and old world values. When such is the case, how do we look at this other question related to another loss - the loss of scholarship in pre-modern texts?

2. Instead of fighting to save scholarship in pre-modern texts of Indian languages, shouldn't we first concentrate on retaining the vibrancy of the modern versions/dialects of Indian languages? Aren't we fighting a losing battle against English every single day? Are we sure that our everyday Kannada, everyday Hindi or Gujarati or Tamil or Malayalam are not leading a clipped and compromised existence inside the four walls of our house, while English deals with the world and thrives in the market place? Forget pre-modern texts, with what passion do our children take to modern non-English texts and with what felicity do they read them? Should we prioritise our concerns or should we have a parallel approach? Please refer to the article nearly two decades ago written by Prof. K V Narayana on the anxieties faced by the Kannada language and also his recent book Kannada Ardhashatamana, where he traces the journey of the Kannada language in post-Independent India. This book has a resonance for all Indian languages, but unfortunately it is not available in English translation. 

3. When we get into a recovery project like this, how do we take care to distinguish it from a revivalist project? The past has become such a contentious subject with the rise of the BJP. Even a language like Sanskrit and the knowledge available through it has been cleverly appropriated by the Hindutva brigade. In the popular imagination, Sanskrit has erroneously come to symbolise upper caste interests. It is by itself a huge task to reclaim Sanskrit back into the secular domain. How do we release these pre-modern texts from the shackles of narrow caste/community interests and present them as our common heritage is an important question. In fact, just a few decades ago the 12th century vachanas in Kannada ceased to be the sacred text of one community and became common heritage of all Kannada speakers. And after A K Ramanujan translated them into English (Speaking of Siva), they even moved to the pan-Indian bhakti space.

4. Also, the 'backward castes', who have come to dominate the politicalscape in the recent decades, look at all acclaimed pre-modern texts with suspicion and as instruments of oppression. On the other hand, they view modernity, technology, English and democracy as great liberators. As a result of such a perception among the 'backwards', the slow death of the tradition of pre-modern scholarship does not weigh too heavily on the minds of popular governments. You see this reflected even in the National Knowledge Commission recommendations. There is a greater focus on harnessing science and technology. In fact, social science gets greater space than Humanities. 'Translation Mission', in a limited way, is the only thing that offers a glimmer of hope for Humanities in the commission's recommendations. The scope of 'traditional knowledge' does not definitely include pre-modern literary texts, it is, in fact, more oriented towards traditional medicine and other utilitarian stuff from the past. 

5. If we have come to realise that scholarship in pre-modern texts or classics are in a state of neglect, then we need to ask how the scholars themselves are responsible for this. Scholars working in these areas are most often found to have a dogmatic and conservative line of enquiry. There is obfuscation in the manner they present their findings and their concerns are trivial. For instance they often carry out hair-splitting arguments on either the exact name of the poet or the time of his work or his caste or his relationship with his patron. Naturally, this would not interest the younger generation that is exposed to a lot of exciting things in the other areas of knowledge. It is very important to perceive these texts as dynamic and not as static artefacts. The key question that we need to ask then is how do we make things contemporary and relevant? If History can be 'sexed up' as a discipline to serve the present, why not classical studies? Some people may ask why should we make everything contemporary? But if one shows indifference to the question of being contemporaneous, then it is as good as being indifferent to their death. If you are to build a public debate around it then you have to find a way of tagging them to the present. 

6. Even as we speak of established pre-modern classics and rue the death of scholarship in them, there is a quiet process happening in Karnataka and am sure also in other Indian languages where pre-modern folk epics sung by the 'lower castes' are being discovered and published for the first time. How does one make sense of this rather political process? So is it really fair to say that people and institutions really don't care about their rich past? It is only relevant to ask here as to which past and whose past are we referring to. How does one interpret this new awakening?

7. A final point. In the early and mid 20th century when many eminent minds in Kannada were engaged in scholarship of the pre-modern texts, their engagement was closely linked to the nationalist project. The project of discovering and institutionalising Kannada and Karnataka, which lay scattered in different and overlapping linguistic regions. So, my guess is that their reading of the classical texts and interpreting them was also about building a weighty tradition for the language or reclaiming it. So now, if there is a dip in interest in the classical texts, then we have to ask as to what has happened to the nationalist project. Has it slowed down? Has it gone astray? Or is it no longer a relevant idea? Could it not have been similar with most other Indian languages? India is, after all, a loosely knit federation of linguistically reorganised states and they are all nearly half-a-century old facing grave challenges to their identity.

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