In reel: The language of the Gods

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Can the attempt at reviving Sanskrit under the present government prove to be a blessing in disguise, enabling filmmakers to explore new avenues in Indian cinema?

As the Indian Panorama list for this year’ International Film Festival of India (IFFI) was announced, there was an intriguing choice that took my memory jogging back to my school days. The opening film was to be Priyamanasam, a movie on the life of 17th-century Malayalam poet Unnayi Variyar. Only that it wasn’t made in Malayalam but — wait for it — in Sanskrit.

This is only the third full-length feature film made in the language, called ‘the language of the gods’ by Sheldon Pollock, a present-day American intellectual and literary historian. And just like the two other movies made in the language — Adi Sankaracharya and Bhagwad Gita, both by G.V. Iyer — the subject is one concerning Gods and spirituality.


Sanskrit was a third language for the better part of my time in secondary school, and — to be really frank — was treated more as a high-scoring subject than a language to be consciously spoken on a day-to-day basis. But what keeps filmmakers away from dabbling in the language that is considered the mother of many other dialects and bhashas in the country? I wondered about why even the adaptations of novels and books originally written in Sanskrit — like Kalidas’s Abhijñānaśākuntalam — have not been in their original language?

As per the census of 2001, hardly 14,000 people in India speak Sanskrit. It is unlikely that even these people use the language in their day-to-day conversation. It is a tongue that lies on the verge of extinction. Has it become victim to its own elitism?

When I try to dig into my own rudimentary understanding of Sanskrit, I feel that it is not a language that lends itself easily to colloquial speech — it is very important for a language to be easy-flowing for it to be dramatised. Sanskrit, by its very name, is ‘refined’. Is it possible to reduce it to raw form and deploy it for colloquial usage? If it is done so, would it still remain ‘Sanskrit’?

Kaushalendra Pandey, a professor of Sanskrit at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), says Sanskrit is the language of naitikta, the language of the ethics and the morals. He feels there is an element of sanyam (restraint) that the characters have to maintain while performing in Sanskrit. I was curious: when restraint is the defining leitmotif, how can spontaneity of human emotions emerge. And would it be possible to convey all the nine rasaas (moods and emotions) in such a scenario?

Prof. Pandey’s answer is intriguing: he made a distinction between naatya (literally ‘to dance) and naataka (‘dramatic art’), and between rasas (complete emotion) and rasabhaas (rudimentary emotion).

Naatya is considered incomplete while naatak is the perfected version of different naatyas.” He adds, “A romance that is two-sided can be considered infused with s hringaara rasa. However, when an element of violence creeps in, like unrequited love which leads to undue obsession, it is mere rasabhaas.” His implication was that only when the viewer as well as the performer bring in a certain level of refinement, the situation becomes capable of being performed in Sanskrit. Here, he holds Shakuntala — a tale explored and adapted by many Indian filmmakers — and Kadambari as the touchstones by which we can measure whether a movie or a play can be called ‘perfect’.

His views reflect a clear dichotomy between right and wrong, between good and evil. Such dichotomies, he feels, are what Sanskrit best portrays. Sanskrit represents a certain level of perfection which needs discipline and positivity in thought and action, he feels. How does one reconcile this striving for perfection with the flawed selves that ordinary mortals find themselves trapped in?


As I watched the two Sanskrit movies by G.V. Iyer, I observed the inherent difficulties the characters felt in using the language to express emotions. The same characters — many of them ascetics — were completely at ease while chanting the shlokas. So, is it the case that Sanskrit is good while invoking the divine but not while conversing with the humans? Is Sanskrit meant only for Gods and not for the ordinary mortals?

When asked about the language and the difficulties he had while making the movie, Vinod Mankara, director of Priyamanasam, said that unlike the two G.V. Iyer movies, he had to ‘dilute’ the language considerably to make it suitable for a lay-viewer, failing which there was a possibility of the movie being consigned to oblivion. He wanted expressions to take precedence over the language itself — the use of Kathakali ensured that.

Mr. Mankara, having made a documentary on Variyar’s Nalacharitham, a Kathakali play based on the Nala-Damayanti episode of the Mahabharata, says Priyamanasam is just an extension of his documentary.

Mr. Mankara’s enthusiasm for the language is an exception. Sanskrit, having always been the language of the elite, has always struggled to find currency among the masses. Even in Adi Shankaracharya (1983), India’s first Sanskrit movie which was based on the life of the eighth-century Hindu philosopher credited with Vedanta, we can easily see that the director wanted to make a clear distinction between the scholars (those who belong to the monastery) and the common man (the man on the street). Hence, the ascetics and the mendicants are shown speaking in chaste Sanskrit while the man on the street speaks in the patois of the particular area. One interesting digression is when a Dalit, whom Sankara and his disciplines attempt to initially chase away, influences the saint and forces him to fall on his feet.

In Bhagwad Gita (1993) — a movie based on the episode in Mahabharata where sermons from Lord Krishna provide a certain moral authority and ethical sanction to a doubtful Arjuna to kill his own mentors, brethren and compatriots — there was no presence of the common man. It was the divine creator, explaining, from a high pedestal, his glory to the lesser mortals — in this case, the royals. It would have been interesting had Iyer chosen to include Eklavya. Would he have made him speak Sanskrit, as he made the Dalit do in the earlier movie, or would Eklavya have spoken ‘Prakrit’ — the language of the common man in the early centuries of the second millenium in North India — and yet shown his prowess to Drona and the Pandavas.

From the two films, I could easily feel that Sanskrit was never meant to be a language for daily communication. Noted film critic and scholar M.K. Raghavendra, among the most erudite voices on cinema in India, spoke along similar lines, in an e-mail response. He felt that “Sanskrit was a language synthesised to meet the artistic needs of an elite audience… one jealously protected by the Brahmins and one cannot understand how it can become widely appreciated.”

He added that Sanskrit is one language whose vocabulary is very limited; it has not been “expanded to include contemporary experience.” There are no Sanskrit equivalents for pizza, mobile phone or AK-47 — we would have to resort to English.

His opinion, that Sanskrit is a language meant for “high art", matches that of Prof. Pandey. Mr. Raghavendra also goes on to add that “it has no capacity for intimate communication. Lovers can therefore not speak Sanskrit to each other today.”

It is interesting to note that even when Sanskrit’s use was prevalent, it was only the cultured elite who spoke it. A cursory look at ancient Indian history proves this. The elite in those days comprised those from the upper castes and those associated with governance — the priests and the emperors — who sought to retain their hold over power by disseminating, in a selective form, both the language and the knowledge it encoded. And, after a point, when, due to invasion and cultural assimilation, these gentry lost their relevance, so did the language. Contrast this with Urdu and Persian, which, though languages of the court, also found currency among the common people. Could an active effort on the part of the kings to spread it among the common people have helped keep it alive? Perhaps it could have; Sanskrit could have acquired a richer vocabulary if it had vernacular currency.

As historian Romila Thapar says in her magnum opus, Early India, even in the days when Sanskrit was popular, the natural language, the language of the locals, remained ‘Prakrit’. The relationship between the two was one between the deshi, or local literature (Prakrit) and marga, the mainstream literature (Sanskrit). She says that “Sanskrit was essentially the language of brahmanical activity... As a prestige language, Sanskrit also appealed to sectarian movements with social ambitions.”

A dip into history to observe Sanskrit’s earliest usage also indicates that it was used to legitimise authority, by invoking the divine, and not for ordinary communication. Prof. Thapar cites the earliest evidence of Indo-Aryan — Sanskrit in its rudimentary form — being from the 14th century B.C. It was recorded as being used in northern Syria. This is in the form of a treaty, that between the Kingdoms of Hittite and the Mittani, that calls upon certain gods as witnesses — like Indara/Indra, Mitras(il)/Mitra, Nasatiyanna/Nasatya and Urunuvaas/Varuna. These were characters common to both the Rig-Veda and the Avesta, the holy book of the Zorastrians.

Indo-Aryan is said to have reached the subcontinent primarily through migration and taken the form of Sanskrit. As the Indo-Aryans prospered, they sought to retain control over authority by retaining control over the language and the technology associated with it. However, its use and spread remained limited.


Codified by grammarian Panini in 4th century B.C. in the form of Ashthadhyayi, Sanskrit received its greatest patronage during the period of the Guptas between the third and the fifth centuries A.D. It was during the Gupta period that masterpieces in Sanskrit — including those by Kalidasa like Abhijñānaśākuntalam and Meghdootam and those by Shudraka like Mrichchakatikam were written. It was also the period of Sushruta Samhita, a 6th-century study in to medicine and surgery, and Kamasutra, Vatsyayan’s treatise of human sexuality.

However, the characters speaking Sanskrit in these novels, plays and stories were all from the elite, those from the court, from the schools. The common man, those of the lower castes and many women, used ‘Prakrit’, a language derided by the Brahmans as the language of the mlechcha (the populace). The Marga-Deshi divide cited by Prof. Romila Thapar, is also reflected in Adi Shankaracharya. Though the disciples and the gurus in the monastery speak Sanskrit, the commoners speak the local languages. For instance, the person who announces the screening of Nachiketa, a play that influences Sankara, speaks in Malayalam. When Sankara travels to different corners of the country, the locals are shown speaking in their own respective tongues, like Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil. However, the kings are shown speaking in Sanskrit.

In the case of a motion picture, it is not the cerebral component that dominates a viewer’s attention; it is the visceral component. More so when he is watching a movie on the big screen. When films speak the language of humanity, a language of empathy, they create a cultural connect with a cross-section of the audiences. Is it possible for an almost extinct language like Sanskrit to do that?

Sanskrit, by its very nature, is a limited-approach language — the language of the scriptures, a language that is studied and appreciated rather than viewed and admired. It belongs to the chants and the hymns, but not to the dialogues. Its limited reach to the court elite resulted in it not evolving after the ancient era. A greater popularity of the much more relatable Arabic and Persian ensured its further downfall.

Unlike what the Hindu nationalists would have us believe, the loss of Sanskrit’s appeal was not because of the invasion from the northwest. The answer lay in the power equations prevalent in the early second millennium AD. A form of cultural exclusivity that ensured that Sanskrit's reach never exceeded the literary elite also led to its declining popularity, inaccessibility, and, consequently, downfall.

On the other hand, Hindi, a language with hardly any unique grammar or identity of its own, acquired a syncretic feel by virtue of borrowing from the other languages. Hence, it could be easier to adapt Sanskrit poetry and prose on screen in Hindi rather than in Sanskrit.

It would be interesting for filmmakers to explore if this language of the Gods and the elite can tone itself down to make itself accessible to the masses. Vinod Mankara, the director of Priyamanasam, claims he has diluted the rigidity in the language to make it more relatable. Speaking to The Hindu on his experience of filming the movie in Sanskrit, Mankara said none of the members of the cast were proficient in Sanskrit but what brought them together was the subject, that of Nalacharitham. Further, he gave credit to the people at Sanskrit Bharati, whose guidance he sought to make the language more palatable to the masses. "It was more of an on-the-job training we provided the cast and the crew on sets," he said.

Being an extension of the extensive documentary Mankara made on Variyar's work, he feels that this movie speaks more in the language of Kathakali than that of Sanskrit. In creating a melange of the two art forms and in focusing more on expression than the dialogues, he has tried to move away from the didactic approach of G.V. Iyer, which made dialogues in his two movies look laboured.

Mankara feels that there are many possibilities that the language offers for cinema and that directors need not limit their reach to mythologicals and historicals. Considering that some works of science were written during the period of the Guptas, he feels science fiction is a genre worth exploring. “There are many universities in Germany which teach science in German. So, I think that could be an interesting genre,” he says.

Mr. Raghavendra offers a slightly divergent view: “I think Sanskrit cinema can only be art cinema and pertain to experience relevant principally to times when Sanskrit held sway. The best possibilities are offered by film versions of Sanskrit plays… Perhaps something like what Bimal Roy [adapting Bengali literature into quality cinema] did can be done in the Sanskrit language.”

Only if Sanskrit can be part of our day-to-day conversation can it be considered good enough to be presented on screen. Will a revivalism of Sanskrit under the present government prove to be a mere attempt at ideological supremacy? Or, will it be a blessing in disguise, providing filmmakers new avenues to explore so that Sanskrit can be spread further and ways of expressing emotions in Sanskrit can be converted to a more believable, non-didactic, understandable device on screen? It needs to be seen if the language of the Gods can descend to become a part of the cinema halls of the common men, the masses, the proletariat, the mlechchas.

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