Hail to you, Muse of Poetry …

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Appreciation of fine poetry was never one of my virtues. With the exception of nursery rhymes and naughty limericks, I have always kept myself at arm’s length from the world of poetry. Quatrains and verses stirred nothing in me, rhyme and meter meant little, prosody a waste of my time.

When my friend Usha Rajagopalan prevailed upon me to purchase her book on the poetry of Subramania Bharati, I did so with some reluctance. The book remained safely unread on my shelf for a long time, until I finally took it up one idle winter’s evening.

And then something very strange happened. For the first time in many years, I read a book from cover to cover in one single sitting, without so much as rising from my chair for a break.

All I knew of Subramania Bharati was what I had learnt about him in school and what I had heard from my mother. That he was a renowned Tamil poet and a nationalist was not unknown to me, but other than that I knew little of him.

Thanks to Usha, I am now significantly enlightened – and quite furious with myself for not learning Tamil formally, when I had the opportunity.

Translating the work of a poet of Subramania Bharati’s stature is no mean feat, but then Usha Rajagopalan is no mean author herself. Most people have the very wrong idea that translation is a simple matter. Far from it. Almost anybody can transliterate. Few people can translate. And fewer still understand the fundamental difference between the two.

Usha demonstrates an insight that is not often seen among translators, as she accurately translates selected poems from the Mahakavi’s vast repertoire. In doing so, she gives the ignorant reader, i.e. myself, a look into the man’s mind and heart.

“The darkness of ignorance fades into the air, the radiant sun of knowledge rises steadily, casting its luminous golden rays everywhere…”.

My general impression of Subramania Bharati was that he was a fierce nationalist and that his poetry was largely anti-British in character.

“To take the name of Bharat, our country,
is to kill the fear of poverty and grievous enmity”.

“The mighty Himalayas belong to us!
The copious sweet Ganga is ours too”.

What I never knew that he was also a social reformist:

“The four castes are one.

If any of them were missing,

All occupation would be shattered,

And mankind would perish”.

And a feminist:

“Foster women’s wisdom and see,
The world shed its ignorance”.

And a passionate lover:

“I have fallen in love with you, Valli, with you!
Sweeter than life, you have no equal”.

And a philosopher:

“Show mercy to the enemy, kindly heart.
Show mercy to the enemy”.

One now realises that Subramania Bharati was a multi-faceted genius with a towering intellect and strength of character. What an enormous pity that he died so young, killed by serious injuries caused by a temple elephant.

Riveted to one’s chair, fascinated by what Usha Rajagopalan tells us about Subramania Bharati, one finally emerges with

“knowledge with clarity … and .. warm feelings that well up and flood the body”.

Of special mention is The Stream, this being the painting that makes the cover of Usha’s book, rendered by Achuthan Ramachandran, a Padma Bhushan awardee and one of India’s finest mural painters.

Usha tells me that her next book on the Mahakavi is in the offing. This time, I will not hesitate to read it!

Cheers … Srini.

The silent renaissance of Samskritam

dsc05400Who says Samskritam is a dead language? Far from it.

The usage of Samskrit declined dramatically after the British annexed India. Historically, we blame the British for the near-demise of Samskrit and that blame is well deserved. The Mughals, in their 600-year rule over India, did what they could to subdue Samskrit, but I believe the British did a far better job of it.

That the British were extremely efficient in destroying India’s economy, culture, educational system and language is historical fact. To quote Shashi Tharoor, “In Power, the British were, in a word, ruthless”.

But that is history. To quote Tharoor again, “History is neither for excuses, nor for revenge”.

It is time we stopped blaming our former rulers for the plight of Samskrit, time we moved on, time we accepted the responsibility of preserving our own culture and language.

Thus, I took it upon myself to learn Samskritam. Since I am quite fluent in both Hindi and Marathi, and can read Devanagari script easily, I found it reasonably simple to learn the basics of Samskrit. In the past six months, I have picked up sufficient Samskrit to be able to appreciate some of its nuances, and to be able to dispel the myths associated with it.

First of all, it’s not pronounced Saanskrit or Senskrit. It’s Samskritham or Samskrit, if you will. Pronounced as “Sum-skri-tham”.

The very word means “refined speech“. That indeed was the defining characteristic of those who used Samskrit through our country’s history – they were refined in their manner, refined in their culture, refined in their philosophy.

Myth 1: Samskritam is a very difficult language to learn.

Have you ever heard of an ‘easy’ language? Each language has its own syntax, rules and structure. Each language poses its own challenges to novices. Try learning Mandarin or Japanese. Then you’ll know.

For most Indians, Samskrit comes with a built-in advantage. If you know any Indian language, and it is likely that you know more than one, then you already know several Samskrit words and are already familiar with the basics of Samskrit grammar. Over the past thirty centuries, Samskrit has contributed directly to the evolution of almost every Indian language currently in use.

Try listening to the Samskrit news on Doordarshan and All India Radio. You’ll be surprised at how much of it you can understand, even if you have never formally learned Samskrit.

So don’t you worry about how difficult you think it will be to learn Sanskrit. You are already using Samskrit without knowing it. You do not need to know Devanagari script, although it is preferable that you do. Samskrit speakers use Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Bengali and just about any Indian script they are comfortable with. Remember, Samskrit has always been a phonetic language, with much more emphasis on correct pronunciation than on the script used.

And, it’s not as if you are expected to study Samskrit for decades and become a Vedic scholar, though you can if you wish to. For most of us, even a working knowledge of Samskrit is enough to enjoy the richness of the language, for which just a few months of study will suffice. Since you know one or more Indian languages, you already have a head start.

Myth 2: Samskrit is meant for certain castes only.

Bullshit.

Myth 3: Samskrit is a boring, ancient language and is only about old scriptures and mumbo-jumbo.

Once again, bullshit. That’s like saying that English is only about Shakespeare and the Canterbury Tales. There is no shortage of modern Samskrit literature, scientific publications, articles, fiction, non-fiction and poetry. No matter what your field of interest is, you will find a modern Samskrit publication in that field.

Myth 4: I’m not a Hindu. Samskrit is not my language.

So what if you’re not a Hindu? You’re still an Indian, aren’t you? Samskrit is not a “Hindu” language. It’s an Indian language. In fact, it is the Indian language, the progenitor of all other Indian languages. If you speak any Indian language, you are using Samskrit without knowing it, no matter what your religion is. So what’s the big deal about learning it formally?

I haven’t come across any Samskrit institution that turns away anyone who wishes to learn.

Myth 5: There is no practical use of learning Samskrit. What do I gain from it anyway?

Ah. The million-dollar question. What’s the point, what’s the use, what’s the benefit?

For starters, one does not learn a language solely in order to make money out of it. Not necessarily.

That said, even if you want to learn Samskrit merely for personal gain, you will not be disappointed. No matter what troubles you – business, finance, management, science, philosophy, work, personal life, health – you will find the answers you seek in the Samskrit works of India.

So don’t bother about the material benefits of learning Samskrit. They are already available to you.

Myth 6: There are very few institutions that teach proper Samskrit.

Now that is so not true. There are many institutions that can teach you Samskrit, on-line and otherwise. From a basic working knowledge of Samskrit to PhD programs, you will find top-quality institutions across India, and in some countries outside it.

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My Samskrit class, in session

My new friends in Samskrita Bharati have been teaching Samskrit to all sections of society since 1970. Check out their website here, and choose whatever course suits you. You will be taken aback at the absurdly low fees they charge. Samskrita Bharati regularly conducts 10-day courses in conversational Samskrit, utterly free of cost. That would be a good starting point for your journey into the world of Samskrit.

Across India, a silent renaissance is going on, in case you haven’t noticed. Thousands of Indians have committed themselves to the learning and propagation of Samskritam. And that includes Yours Truly.

I could not see any viable reason to not learn the language of the Gods – and several reasons why I should.

So stop making pathetic excuses and get off your backside, will you?

Pathatu Samskritham. Vadhatu Samskritham.

Cheers … Srini.