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Sanskrit rocks for Maryland group

July 26, 2006 20:15 IST

Katham Prachalati bhoH? ( Howzit going, dude?)

Tat Sheethalam (Cool)

That's how conversations go, when Arun Sankar meets a fellow Sanskrit-buff. You could be skeptical, you could even ask Parihaasam karothiva? (Kidding me?).

But no – that is exactly how Sankar and over a dozen other students speak, whenever possible. So just SaithyaM anubhavatu bhoH (chill out, dude!). And if you are appreciative of what they are doing, you might want to tell Shankar Tvam shilaa (You rock!).

In June, Sankar and fellow Sanskrit-lovers increased their activities on the University of Maryland, College Park campus by adding study groups in the DC area. And on July 11, they launched a dedicated website aimed at pushing the use of spoken Sanskrit. Next up, they plan to hold the August 15 (Independence Day) celebrations in Sanskrit.

Even the choice of July 11 to launch their website was not happenstance – Srilatha Kuntumalla, a volunteer with Speak Sanskrit, says it was the Guru Puja day, and Sanskrit lovers on campus wanted to give a surprise gurudakshina to their teacher and Samskrita-Bharati volunteer Rajesh Rachabattuni.

Sankar, who is pursuing a doctorate program in electrical engineering, got interested in spoken Sanskrit and the Samskrita-Bharati movement when he was studying at IIT in Chennai some 10 years ago.

"During my first year at IIT, I got involved with a group called Vivekananda Study Circle," he recalls, "and I bought my first copy of the Bhagavad Gita when I was 18. Ever since then, I have been a Gita enthusiast. In December 2000, there was a three-day International Gita Seminar in Thiruvananthapuram that I attended. One of the sessions was chaired by Sri Krishnashastry, the founder of Samskrita-Bharati. He speaks only in Sanskrit, and it was in Sanskrit that he began talking to the 1,500 people in the audience."

Shankar anticipated boredom, he thought he would fall asleep. "But then, I understood the first sentence he spoke! It was so simple. I understood the second too… and I sat and listened to the whole of it. I understood the most part of his speech. I was taken by surprise."

Samskrita-Bharati was started in 1981 by a group of volunteers to promote Sanskrit conversation. Though the organisation, which claims at least four million people speak Sanskrit (even if for a few hours a week) across the world, has been active in America and has held many Sanskrit camps, Sankar and his friends believe there is an urgent need to revitalise its efforts.

Last year, Samskrita-Bharati found an ally in the University of Maryland, College Park campus, thanks to the  graduate student organisation Develop Empower and Synergize India (DESI). Last spring, then DESI President Vijayakala Vydeeswaran and DC area SB volunteer Rajesh Rachabattuni organised a few Sanskrit classes.

 In the last five months, around 100 people have attended the workshops, many spending over 10 hours on weekends. The group has grown, and now boasts over 20 volunteers and 150 members; it also began to organise cultural programs including one called Sparsh, that was attended by over 250 people.

"There are lots of friends here who speak to each other in Sanskrit, write e-mails in Sanskrit," Sankar says.

He had begun losing touch with spoken Sanskrit when he came to the United States five years ago, but that changed once he got in touch with Samskrita-Bharati. Now, he and his friends are planning to conduct children-oriented Sanskrit programs, some of which will likely be unveiled next month.

Trying to revive, even make contemporary, a supposedly dead language could sound the stuff of tedium, but the acolytes are having fun. Volunteers of the UMD Samskritam group have a video they show around with glee, of the Hindi blockbuster Sholay rendered in Sanskrit; they have, too, a Sanskrit version of the hit Bollywood ditty Aati kya Kandala originally pictured on Aamir Khan and Rani Mukherjee.

It is in this that the efforts of the Maryland group differ from those of Samskrita-Bharati – the volunteers say they are looking to fill in the gaps by providing more online resources and adding a youth angle to the promotion of Sanskrit, through these fun projects.

"This effort is supplementary to the Samskrita-Bharati efforts. We don't intend to duplicate anything", said Avinash Varna, another volunteer.

The UMD group hopes to create Web pages for various regions across the country where Sanskrit groups are already active. "This is just the beginning, we have a long way to go," Varna says, adding that the motto the group has adopted clearly indicates its focus: Rachayema Samskrita Bhuvanam (We shall create a Sanskrit world).

Arthur J Pais in New York