Amid debates and controversies over Hindi as a national language often making headlines, an ancient Indian language has been finding its way back to people’s tongues.
Just picture this. Recently, movie lovers were in for a delight when Balbhushanani, a queer film in Sanskrit—said to be the first such film to be made in the language—was screened at the 13th edition of KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival. Balbhushanani means ‘child ornaments’ in Sanskrit.
Talking about the decision to make a film in the ancient language, Chinmay Sudhir Shende, director of Balbhushanani, says Sanskrit was once the most widely spoken language in India but now it is being overlooked.
“Society, especially the orthodox lot, is yet to accept the LGBTQIA community and the reason may be the lack of knowledge,” he says, adding this was one of the reasons to make the film in Sanskrit so that it could generate curiosity among the people. Shende is open to exploring more films and scripts in Sanskrit.
Some of Shende’s actors were familiar and well versed with the language but he had to rope in experts and the cast had to attend workshops to perfect the dialect and command over the language. “We have a lot to learn from Sanskrit and, since it is the mother of all languages, we need an urgent revival,” he adds.
Apparently, Sanskrit cinema, though limited, has a list of critically acclaimed titles in its kitty. Anurakthi (2017), made in Kerala on the Indian art Koodiyattom, was the first Sanskrit film to have a song and the first Sanskrit film to be shot in 3D. It was screened at the 48th International Film Festival of India, Goa that year.
At this year’s Habitat International Film Festival that was held in Delhi in May, Sanskrit film Taya was screened. The film that talks about a Namboodiri woman was also screened at the Bengaluru International Film Festival and Kolkata International Film Festival and was widely applauded.
With the rising number of impactful films in Sanskrit, a film fest dedicated to it has also come to life. For the first time, a Sanskrit film festival has started in Ujjain by the name of Rashtriya Sanskrit Chalachitra Utsav (Film Festival) to showcase and celebrate Sanskrit cinema.
As cinema reflects the society, a film in Sanskrit evidently signals the revival of Sanskrit not only in pop culture but in society at large.
When in July this year, Luis Garca Montero, director general of the Instituto Cervantes from Spain, visited Delhi, he launched a copy of Spanish epic Don Quixote in Sanskrit. The novel is a universal work that discusses idealism versus materialism, life and death. The book has been translated by Sanskrit scholars Nityanand Shastri and Jagaddhar Zadoo. The present book contains a modern Sanskrit translation of eight chapters from the first part of the book.
Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing his ‘Mann Ki Baat’, had hailed the language and said that it helps nurture knowledge and national unity. He had said that Sanskrit literature comprises the divine philosophy of humanity and knowledge which can captivate anyone’s attention.
Walking the talk
The PM had also appreciated the Sanskrit revival efforts in recent times, naming the Irish national Rutger Kortenhorst, a Sanskrit scholar who teaches Sanskrit in Ireland. He had also named professor Shriman Boris Zakharin, a Sanskrit teacher at Moscow State University in Russia, who has published many books and research papers while also mentioning the Sydney Sanskrit School in Australia, where the language is taught.
Additionally, the National Education Policy (NEP) position paper on health and wellbeing by an expert committee proposed to “preferably” teach all children Sanskrit as a third language and advocated the learning of Manusmriti and introducing ancient numerical systems like Bhuta-sankhya, hailing the Indian knowledge system.
Samskrita Bharati, a non-profit organisation with a pan-India presence working towards reviving Sanskrit, too, has been pressing to strengthen the Sanskrit culture in India. The organisation has requested the Gujarat state government to introduce Sanskrit from primary school (from Class III) as songs, shlokas, and small stories so that students can learn it early on.
In the home country of Sanskrit, not just central Sanskrit universities but Sanskrit courses have become a part of many premier institutes like Pandit Deendayal Energy University (PDEU) and the IITs.
India is also home to many Sanskrit colleges and universities like Kolkata’s The Sanskrit College and University, Lucknow’s Central Sanskrit University, Varanasi’s Sampurnanand Sanskrit University, Tirupati’s National Sanskrit University, Jaipur’s Jagadguru Ramanandacharya Rajasthan Sanskrit University, Bengaluru’s Karnataka Samskrit University and more.
These educational institutions also promise a career for the pursuant of the language. Anil Kumar Gourishetty, coordinator of the Sanskrit Club and associate professor in the department of Physics, IIT Roorkee, says one can easily secure a job in any of the educational institutes as several premier institutes hire Sanskrit faculty members for its courses.
In fact, Varanasi, known to be an ancient city, has a special place for Sanskrit. Recently, its Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport made announcements in Sanskrit, in an effort to embrace the rich Indian culture. An initiative of the Airports Authority of India (AAI) and Banaras Hindu University (BHU), the airport will continue announcements in Sanskrit, Hindi and English along with the announcements of all Covid-19 related protocols in Sanskrit and other languages.
The revival efforts are also noticeably being carried out globally. Google recently added eight Indian languages to ‘Google translate’, including Sanskrit, to increase the number of regional languages supported by its multilingual online service.
Celebrating the ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsava’, the Indian embassy in Dublin organised an ‘India-Ireland Friendship Lecture Series’ during which Google Inc’s Isaac R Caswell emphasised on the importance of Sanskrit in his lecture.
Not only this, Sampurnanand Sanskrit University (SSU) vice-chancellor, professor Hareram Tripathi, in June, said that he hoped that their students will spread the language globally through digital means.
More than words
In May this year, BJP national president JP Nadda had described Sanskrit as a ‘means of taking us from darkness to light’, during an event at the Central Sanskrit University (CSU) in Delhi.
He had said that Science, Mathematics and Philosophy have their roots in the language and that we need to preserve it because it is a way to achieve advancements in various dimensions of our society.
The fact that Sanskrit can be used to study other disciplines is clear from the fact that India’s most prestigious institution has begun efforts to revive the oldest language of India. The Sanskrit Club of IIT-Roorkee, which was launched in its campus in 2016, has been working on exploring Sanskrit based knowledge systems in different streams of Science and Technology. The student-led initiative approaches Sanskrit with a scientific temperament in order to bring back to the world all the literary, technological, philosophical and scientific genius that dwells within the texts of this language.
Professor Gourishetty shares that IIT-Kharagpur too has started its Sanskriti Club for the promotion of Sanskrit. The club does not offer formal academic courses but organises guest lectures and workshops on how to study Indic sources.
The professor underlines more benefits of studying Sanskrit than just the academic ones. He says that the knowledge of the ancient language helps in purifying one’s mother tongue and improves pronunciation of Hindi.
Learning Sanskrit can also help one in understanding our ancient texts better and preserving its knowledge. Premier institutes and universities are, in fact, at the forefront of the Sanskrit revival in India. The Sanskrit Club is not exclusive to the IITs, but Pandit Deendayal Energy University (PDEU) too has its own Sanskrit Club.
Professor Nigam Dave, director of School of Liberal Studies, PDEU, Gandhinagar tells us that the idea of the club came from students which is even more refreshing with about 70% of the student population on campus being from science and technology. “The vision was to discover roots and gain exposure to a language which is very scientific in syntax and at the same time has all rhetoric embellishments. We thought adding exposure to spoken and written Sanskrit would augment the abilities of students,” he adds.
At a time when English is the formal language and the Hindi debate surges, Dave says that the relevance of Sanskrit is even more as learning a language “brings culture, anthropology, philosophy, poetics and sociology into one basket”.
“Many researchers claim today that computing languages derive inspiration from Sanskrit. Mahabharat alone has discourses on sociology, Anushashan (Administration), Geeta (Philosophy) and Mythology. We had discourse sessions on storytelling from Mythologies and even on Vedic Maths,” he explains.
PDEU’s Sanskrit Club has a faculty mentor and a dedicated budget at the start of the year and the Core Committee members from students change every year. Workshops on spoken and written Sanskrit, Vedic Mathematics, Story Telling, Sanskrit Stanza rendering competitions, and Expert sessions are also held. What is interesting is the fact that through their social media handle, they also share memes in Sanskrit to appeal to the young users.
With revival efforts in full swing and a global acceptance of the ancient Indian language, there might be a day when the last Sanskrit village of India—Karnataka’s Mattur will not be the only place in the country where Sanskrit is spoken eloquently.