Step into the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit campus, a theatre hall (koothambalam), built according to traditional measurements, sits jarringly alongside the main building. Like this, the main campus offers you a slide show of a university born with too many contradictions.

The main campus of the university at Kalady completes two decades of confused existence. “It’s quite natural as the university itself was based on faulty concepts,” says former vice-chancellor of the university K.N. Panikkar. (read interview).

But twenty years is too long a period for any institution to get over teething troubles and become mature. It did not happen because the university has too many millstones around its neck. “The university was formed not as a single campus but with lots of regional centres – in almost every district. Ideally, the effort should have been to strengthen a couple of centres and then spread out slowly,” says K.S. Radhakrishnan, who succeeded Prof. Panikkar as the Vice-Chancellor, and presently the chairman of the Public Service Commission.

Faculty members at the Sanskrit varsity say the regional centres — with handful of students — are a major drain the university resources. One of the teachers at the main campus says, “The regional centre at Panmana has just one student for Nyaya programme in Sanskrit, but the university has in place four teachers for that lone student.”

In many centres there are only one or two permanent teachers and these centres run the programme with guest teachers. “There are around 200 permanent teachers and as many guest faculty members. This is in violation of the UGC norms which stipulate that the number of guest faculty members should not exceed 20 per cent of the permanent teachers,” says Sunil P. Elayidom, Associate Professor, Department of Malayalam.

G. Balamohan Thampi Commission constituted in 2010, in which Mr. Elayidom was a member, spanked the regional centres for eating into the resources of the university without yielding results. “The Commission gave three options to streamline the functioning of the university. One, restrict the activities to the main campus at Kalady. Two, maintain only two or three regional centres. Three, support all regional centres with enough funds and facilities, which is practically not possible,” he says. No action was taken on the report.

“If you calculated the amount that the university has to spend on one student at the regional centres, through salaries and establishment costs, it will come to more than what is spent on an IIT student.”

This disdain for the long-term planning and vision has always been the Sanskrit university’s bane. C. Gopan, Assistant Professor, Department of Theatre, says, “Prof. Panikkar, during his tenure, wanted the departments of painting, dance, theatre and music to come together and conceive an inter-disciplinary course. That was in 2001, but none of the departments responded as we could not comprehend what he was talking about. Today, Comparative Aesthetics is one of the most sought after programmes in the Jawarharlal Nehru University.”

All these practical hitches are accentuated by the flaws in the concept itself. “The Act drawn up to form the university did not take into account the contemporary developments in evolution of knowledge sciences. For example, Indology was a colonial concept which approached Indian knowledge system from a Western perspective,” says Mr. Elayidom.

For a university dedicated to studies related to Sanskrit, it failed to see beyond the conventional classifications in Sanskrit studies, namely Nyaya, Vedanta, Vykarana and Sahitya. They were formed as departments at the university, following the trend at colleges in sixties or seventies. “As a result of this, the knowledge dissemination through Sanskrit did not happen. It failed to realise that Sanskrit has an immense material culture and its manifestations could be seen in its application in other knowledge streams through texts like Kamasutra, or works on ayurveda, mathematics and Vaastu. These streams were all clubbed together under one programme titled Other Sanskrit Studies, for which there are no students at the university,” he says.

The university, thus, lost out in capitalising on its potential to popularise Sanskrit. “One of the declared goals of the university was to convert Sanskrit as the language of knowledge and employ it as a medium in teaching. Sanskrit could have been used as a functional tool in technical education, just as English is used now in technical and professional education. It was a shift from the traditionally attributed role of Sanskrit,” says former vice-chancellor K.S. Radhakrishnan.

But still, the university holds a chance of turnaround. “There is a general tendency to find only faults with the university, but it should not be forgotten that this is the only place that brought together so many Sanskrit teachers and researchers. This is a major achievement. Also, it was the SSUS that started many new disciplines like literary historiography and cultural studies, which other universities have taken up later on,” said Skaria Zacharia, scholar and former head of Department of Malayalam.

With new initiatives to give more importance to research and publication, the university can still make it into the big league, he believes. The departments of theatre, both contemporary and traditional, and fine arts are still much sought after among students, especially with faculty list featuring names like Margi Madhu.

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