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The sorry state of Sanskrit

To sarva, with love


Whenever we encounter a news programme in Sanskrit, we find ourselves automatically switching the television or radio channel. This aversion to a language that is the mother language of so many regional Indian languages is hard to understand. Many of us have been to schools in urban India where Sanskrit was mandatory for at least three years in middle school. Despite the language being 'easily crackable' and despite scoring well in it, there seems to be little love or respect for this ancient tongue.

In classical dance, though, Sanskrit gets its due. Most of the texts on which classical dance training is based are in Sanskrit. Be it Bharata's Natya Shastra or Nandikesvara's Abhinaya Darpana, all dancers, irrespective of their particular dance style, are taught to be familiar with the hasta shlokas of their grammar and the various verses espousing different aspects of the grandeur of dance. For instance, we had to learn the verse angikam bhuvanam yasya, vachikam sarva vangmayam, aharyam chandra taradi, tam namo satvikam shivam!, which means, I bow to that Shiva whose body is the entire creation, whose speech resonates through all of space;and who is adorned by the moon and the stars. I bow to that eternal force.

Last year for World Environment Day, I engaged with Sanskrit in a unique way. I wrote out the central idea of my dance piece and had it rendered in Sanskrit by Prof R K Pandey. That varnam captured the environmental degradation of the Yamuna river. In ancient mythology, Yamuna was the sister of Yama (god of death). Whoever drank the waters of the Yamuna was assured of immortality. Yama would not come to take them away, since they were protected by his sister. My lament was that today the same river has itself become the river of death. Immortality? Perish the thought. The Sanskrit verse we created ever so beautifully captured the way in which the myth has been overturned.

Recently, to mark Sanskrit Day, the Delhi government's Sanskrit Akademi invited me to present a Bharatanatyam performance based solely on Sanskrit texts. It was a wonderful opportunity to revisit some of the dance pieces that I had created over the decades. Usually, most dancers include one or two Sanskrit compositions in their repertoire. But an entire evening? But what fun I had.
I planned the performance in two parts: the shloka/Sanskrit chant oeuvre and the secular sections. In the first, I chose the majestic Shiva Mahapanchakshara Shlokam chant by Adi Shankaracharya. Elaborating on the syllables of Na-Ma-Shi-Va-Ya, the verses dramatised iconographic images of Shiva-Maheshvara. For the first syllable for example, 'Na', the verse begins with Nagendra Haraya, which describes Shiva as wearing several garlands of snakes.

Years ago, Sanskrit scholar Dr Chandra Rajan had guided me in verses from Damodara Gupta's Kuttinimattam written in Kashmir in the 8th or 9th century AD. Kuttini literally means a prostitute, and the text - much like Vatsyayan's Kamasutra - is an overt celebration of love and amour in that bygone era. A lyrical canto from that work narrates the arrival of Kamadeva/Cupid on his parrotvahana (vehicle) accompanied by Rati, the goddess of spring. With infinite delicacy, the verse describes how Kamadeva kisses Rati's thousand-petalled face.

Jayadeva's exquisitely written Geeta Govind extols the love story of Radha and Krishna. In that text, I found a resonance to Damodara Gupta's verse, and went on to elaborate both the season of spring and the descriptions of Krishna cavorting with the gopis of Vrindavan on the banks of the Yamuna.

For the secular section, I selected Kalidasa, whose perfect Sanskrit kavya (poetry) makes him the absolute emperor of the language. To match the season, I selected verses from his Ritusamharam, a poem on the monsoon. Kalidasa's similies are unmatched. He compares the onset of the dark clouds arriving in the skies to a group of elephants rushing forward pell-mell and the monsoon itself as a bridegroom heralded by the drums of thunder and chandeliers of lightning. His enchanting description of the first raindrops turning into a roar and the dance of the peacocks, lends itself beautifully to both the raga-suffused music and abhinaya - expression of Bharatanatyam. In Amaru Shatakam (it literally means a hundred cantos penned by Amaru, who was said to be none other than Adi Sankara who had taken on another persona to experience shringara or love), I found an amazingly contemporary sentiment here. In his canto Gate prema bandhey, the poet describes the nayika (heroine) watching a former lover go by. She feels no passion for him, the way she did in the past, and wonders why her heart doesn't shatter into smithereens. She feels no bitterness, no blame and realises that she has simply moved on. What a wonderfully contemporary idea in an ancient text.

The late Paramacharya of Kanchipuram, Sri Chandrashekharendra Saraswathy, had penned wonderful lines in Sanskrit for the legendary Carnatic vocalist M S Subbulakshmi to sing at the United Nations General Assembly in 1966, on the eve of UN Day. Maitreem Bhajata (Let us celebrate fraternity and unity) spoke of universal values against war and hatred, and of respect for natural resources. The verse could easily become an anthem for our troubled times.

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