Dr Rishi Handa has been running Zoom e-classes for anyone who would like to learn Sanskrit and Panjabi during the coronavirus lockdown.
With an academic background in the Maths, Philosophy and Ethics, Rishi has spent almost two decades teaching at various schools throughout Berkshire, England. He is now the Head of Sanskrit and Religious Studies at St. James Senior Boys School and his passion for music is channelled through his renowned band Flute That Groove?.
With 35 participants in his weekly classes, Rishi says he is astounded by how much interest has been drummed up among youngsters for such an indigenous language like Sanskrit: "The demand is there. The participants include a lady from Brazil and an Irish gentleman who speaks Gaelic and has studied Arabic. Within just seven sessions, we are already translating verses from the Bhagvad Gita, and that is almost unheard of in this space."
The diversity in Rishi's students has allowed for many fruitful conversations in classes: "In our last session, we briefly went through numbers in Hindi, Panjabi, Gujarati, Persian and Sanskrit just to see how close the Indo-Iranian numbers are to Irish Gaelic. The students felt a sense of wonderment by the similarities. Students of language are always fascinated by linguistic alikeness as they give us a glimpse into how civilisations were historically connected. Just look at how geographically far apart India and Ireland are yet there are so many connections!"
Dr Handa's passion for linguistics in unparalleled. Over the years, he has studied over 13 languages, including Russian, Dutch and Tamil. His favourite languages are Sanskrit and Persian because of the beauty and depth within them. An avid calligrapher, Rishi was quick to tell iGlobal that his favourite script is "definitely Urdu" because of its artistic style: "There are no fixed direction of letters in Urdu; it all depends on what letters comes before or after so each word takes a shape of their own."
His desire to teach started at university when A-Level Mathematics caught his interest: "I've always found my mind approaching classical languages like Sanskrit in the way it approaches maths, because logic and attention to detail are crucial." Rishi tried to learn non-European languages at age 16 by picking up two resources at a local bookshop, Teach Yourself Hindi? which he was successful with, and Teach Yourself Sanskrit? which instead proved to be a challenge as a self-teaching book.
He credits his comprehension of Sanskrit to his Masters tutor Anne Glazier who helped him understand the grammar and lay the foundations: "I get intellectually bored if not given an academic challenge so classical languages provide me with this. They also allow me to look into sacred texts and see how powerfully ideas can be expressed before they're tarnished in translation."
Since Cambridge Assessment International's exam board pulled the Sanskrit A-Level from the curriculum in 2019, he has taken on teaching Ancient Greek at St. James Boys School. The ethos underpinning the Surrey school is based on the philosophy of advaita ved?nta (non-duality).
When he first joined in 2013, friends and acquaintances told him that the school was made for him. Born out of the values of the Upanishads and the New Testament, the school has a mediation room and starts and finishes every lesson, assembly and meeting with a "pause" and an invocation of "Om? r? param tmane nama?" (Bow to the Supreme Self) by way of dedicating the learning to The Absolute. "It's lovely to be part of an institution and to work alongside people who understand these indigenous values. I wish I had known about the "pause" in previous schools that I worked in as it really allows the students and staff to still and centre themselves before moving onto the next activity; and the benefits speak for themselves."
Tattva Authorship Programme
Outside of teaching languages, Rishi is a Programme Director for the Tattva Authorship Programme, which seeks to develop thought leaders and writers of Indian heritage.
The 2020 programme began in April with 16 new participants, all keen to explore diverse topics from political theory to diaspora identity, education, sustainable urban development, food choices and classical music. "The programme has the potential to really change the narrative, to allow ideas to come from within the Indic discourse and not on Eurocentric terms."
Dr Handa's bi-weekly Sanskrit classes take place on Tuesdays and Fridays at 8pm, and Panjabi classes take place every Wednesday and Saturday at 8:30pm. Through repetitive learning techniques, Rishi has found that short, regular sessions are more effective than long once-a-week sessions as they are more digestible for students while maintaining momentum and commitment to learning.
*To join Dr Handa's e-classes, register your interest here