Carmela Mastrangelo, a Sanskrit scholar from Italy, talks about the future of classical languages

Carmela Mastrangelo speaks English with a pronounced Italian accent. Her lecture on Sanskrit, her ‘favourite language,’ its grammar, history and its pedagogy, was in a typically western accent. But what strikes you is her passion for the language, an unflagging perseverance to master the language and her untiring research efforts.

Always interested in languages, Carmela was introduced to Sanskrit during her post-graduation at the Sapienza University, Rome. “I did my MA in Indo-European Linguistics. I found that Latin and Greek, languages from Europe had close links to Sanskrit. They are like two faces of the same medal. Sanskrit is the Indian counterpart of Latin and Greek. This inspired me to probe deeper into the study of Sanskrit,” says Carmela, whose visits to Kerala have always thrown open research possibilities.

Sanskrit and boxing

Besides poring over ancient Sanskrit and Malayalam manuscripts at the Oriental Research Institute and Manuscripts Library, Thiruvananthapuram and the Manuscript Library at the Government Sanskrit College, Tripunithura, Carmela pursues her other passion – boxing. “Boxing is just a hobby. I’m a trained boxer and it is a great stress-buster. I have thought of researching into the Indian tradition of boxing. What we have in Europe is, like in the case of so many things including the study of Sanskrit, the English version. I want to look into the classical style of boxing, its progress and evolution through the colonies. I’ll begin work on this soon.”

Sanskrit studies in Italy began sometime during the middle of the 19th century. The English and the Missionaries brought manuscripts from India and wrote Sanskrit grammar here. It is an important subject for linguistic and historical research today at various centres like Rome, Naples, Milan, Venice and Turin. “We have universities teaching Sanskrit but not many students for the subject. And of them only few are able to earn a degree. This is because Sanskrit is not easy.”

Another reason for the fall in number of students for the subject is that Sanskrit is taught only from the university level. “A couple of years back there was a scheme to introduce Sanskrit at the school level. My professor, Raffaele Torella, was entrusted with the task. And I was deputed for this. But this has not taken off due to lack of funds. Unfortunately in Italy today we don’t have funds for research and new educational projects. But I hope we will be able to start afternoon class in Sanskrit soon because it is important in the comparative study of languages.”

Carmela’s noteworthy study was on the work of Father Paulinus Sancto Bartholomaeo on Sanskrit grammar in 18th century Kerala. This was the subject for her PhD thesis and it aimed to reconstruct the history of Sanskrit grammar studies in Kerala through the work of the Paulinus Padre, who settled in Malabar from 1776 to 1789 and was the author of the first Sanskrit grammar ever printed in Europe — Sidharubam seu grammatica Samscrdamica (Roma, 1790). This work, together with Paulinus’ Vyàcarana seu Locupletissima Samscrdamicae linguae institutio (Roma, 1804) helps cast light upon the sources utilised to teach Sanskrit grammar in the 17th and 18th centuries. Carmela focussed in particular on Paulinus’ Vyàcarana.

“The attempt is to find out the grammar used by the pundits of Kerala to explain the nominal and verbal forms of Siddharûpa. Paulinas Padre brought Sanskrit grammar to Europe, he studied in Italy but his work was hidden by the Englishmen. The manuscripts, some of them have been lost, while some remain in the National Library in Rome.”

Carmela also tried to link Paulinas’ work with that of Arnos Padre. “I tried to base Paulinas’ grammar, his relationship with Arnos Padre’s works, and the tradition of Kerala in the pedagogy of Sanskrit grammar. Interestingly, Arnos Padre’s paper manuscripts were recently discovered by Belgian scholars from the monastery of Monte Compatri, close to Rome. He wrote in Malayalam but these were in Sanskrit.”

Reading manipravalam

Most of Carmela’s work involved reading old paper and palm leaf manuscripts that were in misra bhasha or a mix of Sanskrit and Malayalam. And for this she strived to attain working knowledge of Malayalam. “I can read Malayalam a bit, manipravalam (old script) in fact. This was needed to decipher what was there in the many manuscripts. I also know a bit of Tamil,” she says with a smile.

Languages, especially ancient ones like Latin and Sanskrit, are no longer alive and vibrant, according to Carmela. “Sanskrit, in India for example, is no longer as popular as it was. It is still used in samvada (debates) but I think it is very scholarly and not the language of vyavahara (commerce). Same is the case with Latin. It is no longer a lively tradition. I was taught Sanskrit in Italian, Latin is hardly used in Italy. A few years hence even Italian will be substituted by English. It’s a pity because we don’t have a tradition of teaching and learning in English.”

What about the future of Sanskrit in Italy? “I cannot predict its future especially at a time when our own traditions are being lost, departments in universities being closed down. The so called reformation has done it. We have Sanskrit scholars, some of the best in Europe. I hope Sanskrit will still manage to survive.”