Samskrtam, the classical language of India, is a vital component of any understanding of India and the Indian subcontinent. Area studies in geography require at least a basic functional understanding of Samskrtam. This posting is one geographer’s response to the recently-held Samskrtam book fair in Bangalore.

I am a huge fan of James Burke’s program “Connections” – insightful, brilliantly narrated, with tight editing and captivating presentation. However, in these series, the East is incidental to a civilizational history that flowered in the West. A rather occicentric view of civilization is very discernible.

For centuries, we, in India, have craved the approval of the West. We still do. Example:  every American “pro-India” statement being given such prominence in our media.

Against this backdrop, the World Samskrit Book Fair, held in Bangalore 7-10 January 2011 created a first in many ways.

Entrance to the Samsmkrtm book fair

Entrance to the Samsmkrtm book fair

It took the latest in modern technology and married it quite well with the inherited wisdom of the Samskrtam (my preferred spelling) culture, and presented it to a huge and enthusiastic population. It was a significant step forward, but more needs to be achieved the next time around. Here are a few takes on this fair.

Crop production in ancient samskritam text

The range of books and other materials displayed the rich inheritance of India in the Samskrtam language. It is not only sacred literature but much secular literature as well. Anthropologists and cultural geographers tell us that language is the vehicle of culture. Samskrtam is a living vehicle of Indic cultures, in its original and derivative forms. As such, it is naïve to dismiss it as merely a scriptural language.

Ecology poster

Thus, topics ranged from the most sublime spiritual quests to ideas on the nature of questioning, education, environmental conservation, metallurgy, mathematics, astronomy (vide ISRO’s displays) and so on. Many scholars, among them the superbly eloquent Shataavadhaani Dr. Ra. Ganesh have said that we need to re-look at our heritage, our history to uncover what we had also known and contributed to the sum total of human knowledge, and reclaim our place. Far from being mere nationalistic dreaming, this exercise is one about historical and intellectual accuracy. The era of ‘received’ Indian history must end, and that can happen only with rigorous, honest, and meticulous recollection of an history from within (i.e., an ‘emic’ study). Many materials are being readied for online access by the National Mission for Manuscripts.

Rain forecast

Studying regions is an important component of geography education. When we study India’s cultural geography, even a basic understanding of Samskrtam goes a long way. This is not confined only to studying ‘Hindu scriptures.’ Samskrtam literature is full of material that students of geography can benefit from.

Agriculture -- Indication of groundwater

Back to the fair … People from different walks of life, ages, and places walked about speaking in fluent Samskrtam. At the book stalls, the default language of transaction was Samskrtam. The Samskrtam village,

The Samskrtam village

complete with a motorbike repair garage (sameekarana-aagaaraha) –realistic to the point of the men sitting there looking like the typical idlers at such places! That is, until they started joyously calling to passersby to come to their shop.

Tertiary sector -- service economy. Motorbike repair shop.

On display were some rather beat-up motorbikes whose parts and workings were explained to visitors in Samskrtam. A hand-written list of bike parts were on display and had evidently grown longer as people added to it by asking questions. Vega-niyantraka (brake), chakra (wheel), and vaayu-ghaata (puncture). Three old useless tyres were littered on the awning for good effect!

List of motorbike parts, in Samskrtam

Young children playfully shouting at each other … someone in queue coordinating a disparate group via a cell-phone… a woman vending vegetables telling her customers how everything is so expensive and she is unable to make any profit (where have you heard THAT one before?) … t-shirts vended (“All youngsters are wearing these!”) … all in Samskrtam. Basic point: it is a working and workable language.

Makara vyuuha -- the "fish formation" of an army

Many schools had brought their students. They milled about, asking questions, taking notes, conferring with each other and their teachers.

Chakra-vyuuha -- the "wheel" formation of an army

What jarred? The book stalls area was a fire hazard begging to happen. It was hot, muggy, and most uncomfortable. One elderly man went about shouting at people to keep moving quickly! It was in very poor taste and totally against the intent of a book fair. A book fair is all about NOT moving quickly through, and of lingering, looking, handling books, talking.Many safety and comfort considerations were absent (narrow corridors and entrance/exits are dangerous; inadequate safety signage, visible fire extinguishers, etc.)

No credit/debit card transactions possible anywhere. If set up, the sales would have exceeded the Rs. 4 crore reported. I didn’t purchase any books because it was too much hassle to get through the crowds to get money; besides, I had no idea how much money I might require. This was extremely disappointing because it did not encourage people to buy books.

Finally, a series of areas and activities need to be provided, especially for children, next time around. They are the most important ones who need to be given these powerful tools of awareness of the Samskrtam language’s inheritance.

It is thus, ultimately, that we equip our minds and especially those of our youth to appreciate all cultures’ contributions to the sum total of human knowledge. The recognition of this is vital in this interdependent world.

One example of this was visible at the Wikipedia counter where young student volunteers (from engineering, commerce, science, etc.) showed the Samskrtam Wikipedia (and other Indian language) pages and invited us to write articles on these pages (in Samskrtam). An English Wikipedia site on Samskrtam is available here.

Those of us who can, should write for the Samskrtam Wikipedia site (all instructions for authors are on the site).

The Samskrtam book fair showed that the language is alive, useful, usable, and totally fun! A future program, akin to Burke’s, on India’s contribution to world thought will benefit from festivals such as this.

— Chandra Shekhar Balachandran


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