Connecting to our Indic identity using language
The last time I enjoyed my dearest niece Aadhya’s sweet company in person was when I was summoned by her to watch her Christmas play at nursery. I proudly occupied the front seat to make sure I don’t miss even a tiny bit of the group’s performance, particularly hers.
For three-year-olds, these performances are a lot of work – for the teachers and for the children themselves. Long sentences must be memorised, words spoken in near perfect diction and then for them to perform together as a team. If you’ve watched nursery plays, there are the teachers prompting and guiding the children, encouraging them when there are missed acts or forgotten lines.
Language in a growing child, develops almost naturally. External stimuli lead them to learn words, form meanings and associations and long sentences are spoken, seemingly effortlessly. According to research, language is simply learnt. There is no evidence that they will learn their own ethnic language. Dr Bruce Perry, a language expert says: “We are born with the capacity to make 40 sounds and our genetics allows our brain to make associations between sounds and objects, actions, or ideas. The combination of these capabilities allows the creation of language.
“Sounds come to have meaning. The babbling sound “ma – ma – ma” of the infant becomes mama, and then mother. In the first years of life children listen, practice, and learn. The amusing sounds of a young toddler practicing language (in seemingly meaningless chatter) is really their modelling of the rhythm, tone, volume, and non-verbal expressions they see in us.”
From broken, half-formed words to confident big words, I’ve watched Aadhya’s and before that saw my daughter’s vocabulary develop as she grew up. Our mother tongue is Kashmiri, so Aadhya’s parents took it upon themselves to teach her the language. I benefited in the process as I am not a very confident Kashmiri speaker.
As a Kashmiri parent, I worried about not being able to pass on the native language speaking ability to my daughter barring a few words here and there. At four years old, Aadhya is able to communicate in Kashmiri, Hindi and English and knows a few prayers and shlokas in Sanskrit.
Learning the Sanskrit language is increasingly gaining popularity, particularly in the West. A number of Indian diasporic communities are signing up to Sanskrit classes, particularly as many courses are now being taught in the e-learning format. Sanskrit is an Indian classical language, which was the primary vehicle of intellectual and literary expression in India for thousands of years.
In fact if you are in London, you might have come across St. James Independent School, that made Sanskrit a compulsory subject for its junior division since it helped students grasp math, science and other languages better.
According to Warwick Jessup, Head of the Sanskrit department at the school, explains: “This is the most perfect and logical language in the world, the only one that is not named after the people who speak it. Indeed the word itself means ‘perfected language.”
As I watched many friends take a keen interest in learning Sanskrit, I discovered how Kashmiri was so deeply connected to Sanskrit language; much of literature and scriptures that form a reference point of Kashmir’s early history were written in Sanskrit.
I came across Dr Rishi Handa, who teaches Sanskrit at St. James Senior Boys’ school in London and also started doing Zoom classes for anyone interested in learning the language. I asked him why Sanskrit and who exactly needs it in the UK?
He said: “Many have a limited understanding that the only value school subjects have is in their overt contribution to gaining employment because of their factual content. The reality is that this is not how subjects work. Not only does one forget the content, most subjects have little relevance in that way.
“What is important is the cognitive skills that a subject develops and Sanskrit does this par excellence. It sharpens logic, reasoning, awareness, attention, and expression, to say the least. This is true for adults too; one of my adult students is a computer programmer who said to me that since studying Sanskrit, his approach to coding has become more lateral.”
Curious, I wanted to obviously know who exactly learnt Sanskrit with Dr Handa.
He revealed: “The St James Schools’ Sanskrit students are of all backgrounds – white, black, brown, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist etc. I’m often asked by surprised Hindus as to why Muslims take Sanskrit. This question is rooted in the misunderstanding that Sanskrit is a religious language, which is why many modern Hindus don’t give Sanskrit any value.
“It’s sad that this is so while there are non-Hindus who absolutely love Sanskrit; many of my school students hold it to be their favourite subject. The idea that it is a religious language is rooted in the Colonialist narrative of the binary pair that is the sacred and the profane, the religious and the secular. When such divisions didn’t exist in pre-modern Bharat, then how can one classify what is religious and what is secular?”
As a school that made Sanskrit compulsory, this might be seen as a rebel move. But Dr Handa explained: “At St James, we teach the three sister languages – Latin, Greek and Sanskrit – with Sanskrit being one of the reasons for the birth of St James school in 1975. Incidentally, I’m the first Indian/Hindu teacher of Sanskrit there as until 2013, Sanskrit was only taught by Westerners who are devoted to the language. An ethos of advaita (non-duality) and Sanskrit are two of the school’s key pillars.
“The students don’t have any prejudice towards Sanskrit that many Hindus do and see it as a classical language like they do Latin and Greek. Sanskrit gives the industrious students a challenge and they love the rigour and beauty of it.”
I feel that the United Kingdom suffers from a gross misrepresentation of everything Kashmir, as one notices propagandists fan their political agendas. Amidst all this noise, the cultural heritage of us, ethnic Kashmiris suffers.
Dr Shonaleeka Kaul, a cultural historian wrote in one of her articles:“Perhaps one of the most glaring misrepresentations of Kashmir is the theory that it was historically isolated from the rest of India and therefore developed a cultural insularity and uniqueness. It has also been assumed retrospectively that Kashmiri culture, including the tradition of history-writing, was influenced by West Asia and Central Asia.
“However, research shows that all cultural markers in early Kashmir from at least the 5th century BCE onwards for another two thousand years – material culture, textual representations, foreign accounts, inscriptions, coins, language, art, religion, philosophy – attest overwhelmingly to Kashmir’s Indic and Sanskritic identity and character.”
Indic and ethnic language becomes a most important connector for two generations to communicate. It is in this important context, I came across the work being done by Pragnya Kumar. She runs a project called Kachey Dhage, which translates to fragile threads.
Describing the project, Pragnya explains: “Communication gaps are like fragile threads which, if not paid attention to, may break and stop vital communication. These communication barriers may also lead to low self-esteem and even mental health issues in later lives.
“I designed a narrative art project to explore unsaid stories of young people from Southeast Asian cultural background addressing the need of communication between generations. Through this project I wanted to start a creative research to understand the intergenerational cultural communication barriers in young people, specifically from Southeast Asian descent.
“The prime focus of this online project was to introduce narrative art as tools to boost well-being of the participants. The project helped me understand the perspective of both generation and the communication gaps that needs to be expressed in order to gain respect between generations and cultures. It also helped me with my research into the effectiveness of using visual arts and storytelling as a tool to improve mental health and wellbeing.”
Lakshmi Kaul is the London-based UK Head & Representative at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and an active Indian diaspora campaigner. In this regular Talking Point column for ‘iGlobal’, she will focus on issues that deserve spotlighting within the Global Indian community, referencing her personal experiences.