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".

Among the miscellany of awards in Dr Shastri's living room, a brass Ganesha stands out — for not being an award. It is the emblem of the Silpakorn University in Thailand, where he helped launch a course in Sanskrit inscriptions. Thailand, for him, turned out to be a land of many achievements, not the least of which was the distinction of having Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn as his student. It was in Thailand that he composed what he calls the "centrepiece of my creative writing", the 25-canto, 2,000-stanza Sriramakirtimahakavyam, the story of Rama as it is known in the country. The work that won him 11 national and international awards, Professor Shastri says, was born of divine inspiration. "The stanzas flowed naturally from my heart. I made no corrections or changes — my first draft was my final copy. The touchstone of poetry is when the poet himself is in awe of what he has written," he says.

The Ramayana has been a life-long obsession for Dr Shastri, whose The Ramayana—A Linguistic Study put him on the research map of the world when it was first published in the mid-1960s. A year later, when he went to Germany to teach at the University of Nuremberg, he met the eminent linguist Karl Hoffman, who told him, "I saw your work with Professor Paul Thimme (another well-known linguist). I stole it from him. And I have no intention of giving it back to him."

For all his interest in the story of Rama, Professor Shastri's outlook and his research have been multi-religious. His Mahakavya Sribodhisattvacaritam draws on the Buddhist Jatakas. He has studied the contribution of Islam and Christianity to the Sanskrit language. And it was his biography, in Sanskrit verse, of Guru Gobind Singh, that won him the Sahitya Akademi Award.

His other passion is Kalidasa. "I have lived his works all my life," says Professor Shastri, who can recite every one of Kalidasa's works from memory. He loved teaching the Abhigyana Shakuntalam at Belgium's Catholic University at Leuven, he says. "Ironically, for all the poetry I have been able to write, I rarely got the opportunity to teach Sanskrit poetry," he says, recounting how he enacted a scene where an angry Durvasa curses Shakuntala, who, lost in thoughts of Dushyant, doesn't pay the sage any attention. "A girl in the class was watching my movements closely. On inquiring, I found out that she was the topmost ballerina of Belgium," he remembers.

In his commitment to a most ancient tongue that swears by the arabesques of poetry and the semantics of tradition, innovation has been the professor's second name. He has pioneered two new genres in Sanskrit literature: the art of writing letters, and the diary format. And then there's his autobiography. "There are no known original autobiographies in Sanskrit, only translations," he says. Clearly, Professor Shastri has no intention of resting on his wealth of laurels. There is a lifetime of accomplishment to contemplate and craft into a well-rounded work that will live as long as the language.

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