Sanskrit’s first Jnanpith winner is a ‘poet by instinct’

His first poem had more meters than he had years to his age. All of 11, Satya Vrat Shastri had already mastered the idioms and idiosyncrasies of the language of the gods, penning a 15-stanza poem with rare syntactic propriety. So that, in his Shadritu Varnanam (a description of the six seasons), the poetic pomp of spring finds expression in the vasantatilaka meter, and autumn trees bereft of leaves are pictured in the viyogini meter.

The boy who tamed the formidable prosody of the Sanskrit language at a tender age went on to became the youngest recipient, at 37, of the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1968, and recently, the first Sanskrit scholar to be chosen for the Jnanpith Award, for the year 2006. At his home in Delhi's Defence Colony —where 60 national and international awards and various other accolades jostle for space — the central slot in the mantelpiece is empty. "I suspect my wife has cleared it in expectation of the Jnanpith Award," says Dr Shastri, who, at the age of 78, is visiting professor at six universities around the world.

Sanskrit is not only a medium of expression, it is a thread of high culture that runs in the Shastri family. The son of a grammarian, Dr Shastri often converses with his wife Usha —also a Sanskrit scholar who was awarded the Certificate of Honour by the President of India in 2002 — in the language of their shared scholarship. So when people ask him if Sanskrit has outlived its utility, he finds the question laughably impertinent.

"Not only do Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages derive from Sanskrit, but other languages of South East Asia, like Cambodian, Thai and Malay, are replete with Sanskrit words. In Indonesia, the zoo is known as udyana lokasatva, the aeroplane as aakashayana, and law as dhammashastra," says the well-travelled professor, who describes himself as "a poet by instinct and a grammarian and Indologist by training".

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