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Language and love: The story of India’s oldest surviving Sanskrit newspaper

For over 40 years, Sudharma, a Sanskrit daily of Mysuru has battled funds crunch, lack of manpower, and sceptics to survive. But for how long?

india Updated: Nov 15, 2017 13:18 IST
Paramita Ghosh
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Jayalaxmi solves the crossword puzzle in the Sanskrit language daily Sudharma, in Mysuru, Karnataka. Jayalaxmi and her husband Sampath Kumar run Sudharma, India’s oldest surviving Sanskrit newspaper which was started by her father-in-law Varadaraja Iyenger in 1970. (Arijit Sen / HT Photo)

There are many trees in the wood, but once upon a time there was just one. Today it takes a lot of work to keep that old tree standing. And that work is, above all else, a labour of love, an attempt to live in a language that is ‘dead’.

“There are more than a hundred publications in Sanskrit in India today. Sudharma is India’s oldest surviving Sanskrit daily but it’s a drain on its owners’ resources – and it has had to beat many odds to survive over the years.” So says Nagaraja Rao, the soft-spoken, silver-haired 75-year-old Sanskrit scholar and chief editor of Sudharma.

Jayalakshmi, its proprietress, seated in a cubicle in front of a computer inside the printing press, looks up from the keyboard, on which she is keying in Rao’s editorial, to say: “Have you heard of a printing press inside a mud house? My father-in-law, KN Varadaraja Iyengar, started his paper in one; the newspaper vendors refused to sell it so he started sending the paper to its readers by post.” Various monks, university principals, ministers blessed Sudharma. But they wouldn’t buy it. “He sent the paper to them anyway. There are many Sanskrit papers now. We are here since 1970, we’re not going strong but we’re not about to die.”

Jayalakshmi with the workers of her press in Mysuru. The paper was started by her father-in-law Varadaraja Iyenger. (Arijit Sen/HT Photo)

Sudharma is published from a bylane in Mysuru, a prominent city of Karnataka that has known various rulers – the Wodeyars, Tipu Sultan and the British. It has more than 50 temples split almost equally in allegiance to the deities Shiva and Vishnu. The one ‘god’ that has been a consistent giver is, however, the Wodeyar dynasty, which built, among many of the city’s institutions, the Maharaja’s Samskrit College. This is India’s oldest Sanskrit college. When Iyengar took the step of launching his paper, he did so in one of its halls.

The College remembers this. Subscription number 820 to Sudharma for Rs 500 a year goes from this college, one of the few educational institutions in India, and even in Karnataka, to do so. One of the reasons for this is that in this age of high-blitz marketing and visibility, Sudharma has no marketing team let alone a marketing budget.

The manpower is minimal, the infrastructure skeletal. “If a worker falls ill, I take his place to fold the paper and stick the postage stamp on it. It’s a printing press started by a scholar, and a paper run by scholars too,” says Jayalakshmi.

The impulse that drove Iyengar to run a newspaper, say people who knew him, was the same that made him start his printing business: an ancient language had been neglected, and he would right that wrong. The paper, even now, is run on those sentiments. “Besides Sudharma, we also print bank forms, wedding cards, bill books. Whatever we earn from our printing press goes into the paper. I promised my father the paper will go on even after he goes. I’ve kept my word,” says Iyengar’s son Sampath Kumar.

The very first edition - 15.7.1970 - of India's oldest surviving Sanskrit newspaper. (Arijit Sen/HT Photo)

The Sanskrit drive also comes from revivalist instincts. Many Sanskritists in Mysuru are second- or third-generation descendants of Brahmin priests who presided over village temples, or were important figures in the village hierarchy because of their position as Brahmins and their facility with Sanskrit, or were teachers at the Wodeyar court. The “marginalisation of Sanskrit” is thus almost a family heirloom, a grievance passed through generations, through which they have tried to understand key moments of their state’s history.

Gangadhar Bhatt, one of the senior-most teachers of the Maharaja’s Samskrit College, who is an avid Sudharma reader, believes it was the “English-loving” Brahmins, such as litterateur UR Ananthamurthy, who “conspired to eliminate Sanskrit in education in the ’70s. Varadaraja Iyengar started Sudharma in response - to popularise the language. He also pushed for a Sanskrit bulletin on radio”, Bhatt adds.

But academic Chandan Gowda remembers the language controversy of the ’70s thus: “Students had the option of choosing Sanskrit as the first language in the eighth grade. [Sanskrit was offered as a language of study only from this grade onwards.] It is believed the Sanskrit teachers gave marks liberally to attract students and the number of students opting for the subject went up. The protests that followed resulted in the state government passing an order in 1979 that made the option of Sanskrit available only as the third language.”

Language wars

There are five crore Kannada speakers in the state. Scholar VD Hegde, who contributes to Sudharma’s news and writes an occasional column for the paper, says he would be “relieved to know there are even 1,000 Sanskrit speakers” in the state. He draws on the same history of ‘marginalisation’: “The problem is the lack of native speakers. Sanskrit needed encouragement. It is not spoken enough.”

“Even I don’t speak Sanskrit all day long,” quips Sudharma editor Nagaraja Rao. “With whom shall I speak in Sanskrit? I only speak it when I meet another scholar.” [According to Rao’s rough estimate, there are around 10,000 Sanskrit teachers in India]. Sanskrit has never really been a popular language; contrary to popular perception, not even in ancient India. Doyen of Hindi literature Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, who was also well-versed in Sanskrit, pointed out while writing on ancient Sanskrit theatre, that the dialogues of the elite and the royalty in such plays are in Sanskrit while those of their servants and peasants are in Prakrit.

Writer Dr Nagaraja Rao is chief editor of Sudharma. An acclaimed scholar, he has taught Sanskrit in Chicago and Tel Aviv. (Arijit Sen/HT Photo)

For a paper like Sudharma to be popular, it needs to have different voices and not seem like a paper through which Brahmins are talking to Brahmins. The subscriber list of the paper shows that is quite the case. Non-Brahmins and people of other faiths who subscribe to this paper are few. “We are neither for caste nor against it,” says Rao. Does that position then not strengthen the caste system? Sudharma has almost 4,000 subscribers, including nearly 1,500 from Mysuru. “If 10 drop off where will we be?” asks Hegde. “We are neither rightist nor leftist; we can’t afford to be either.”

A tussle for Sudharma’s soul seems all part of a day’s work among the people who produce it. But what Sudharma is, or can be, will, it appears, not steer too far away from the Right. A study of its news selection and editorials does suggest this orientation. It is against silencing of voices of dissent like scholar Kalburgi’s or journalist Gauri Lankesh’s, but it is not against capital punishment for “the nation’s traitors”. While mentioning Ayodhya in a column, it will not state the origin of the problem – the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 but has proposed it be turned into a place of tourism. Sudharma will note that Tipu was almost a new-age missile man who also donated to temples, but will tell its readers that he killed and converted many.

Ambiguity as editorial strategy is, however, not getting Sudharma any institutional help. No substantial government subsidy has come its way. It is a two-pager or a four-pager depending on individual largesse. “The running cost of the paper is Rs 1.5 lakh a month. The state government gives us Rs 1,680 a month in advertisements. Earlier, it would give us Rs 1,000 a month... Letters to the Prime Minister have yielded no response,” says Sampath Kumar.

Worker, Umesh, preparing the offset machine for printing the two-page daily newspaper at the press. (Arijit Sen/HT Photo)

The popular way

A paper with a niche audience, a paper that is ideologically indeterminate, a paper with no visibility and no Plan B to make it visible, why is it important that it be preserved? As an anthropological curiosity?

The answer is simple: because its primary ambition seems to be to make Sanskrit the language of everyday experiences. Baldevanand Sagar, one of All India Radio’s first readers of its Sanskrit news bulletin started in 1974, points out that Sanskrit is one of the 24 languages recognized by the Indian constitution. Sudharma is ideal, he says, “if you are beginning to learn the language and want to know how to talk in everyday terms. Smaarta-patram for Smartcard, prakshepaastram for missiles – where else will you learn such everyday Sanskrit but in such a newspaper?”

Rao, who has taught Sanskrit in Tel Aviv and Chicago, and has received awards for his work, says some scholars have asked him why he is wasting his time writing editorials for such a paper. Iyengar wrote the paper’s editorial on Day One. Rao has been writing it every day for over 40 years since Day Two. “Sanskrit cannot be used to talk of cricket or the rise in price of milk, scholars say,” he says with a smile. He thinks it should be the opposite. Begin with the price of milk. And as one picks up Sanskrit, go on to read the Ramayana in that language.

There are great works in Sanskrit like Aryabhata’s Arya-Siddhanta. Read that for science,” says Rao. “The Pushpakvimana was not an aeroplane. Read Ramayana for poetry not for science.” A paper like Sudharma can be relevant if it underscores these differences.

Sampath Kumar, the owner-editor of Sudharma. He continues his father’s practice of funding the paper from the returns of his printing business. (Arijit Sen/HT Photo)

Another good reason why it must live is the back page. Here puzzles, poems, stories are featured – the space where the ordinary Joe speaking in Sanskrit, wrests as it were, control of a language that has been the exclusive domain of the pundits. Prashasyamitra Shastri, a Bareilly poet, makes a regular appearance here. Sample one of his recent offerings:

“One day Devadutta’s wife said the following:

Before marriage you praised me much

But nowadays you say nothing at all

Why are you now so neutral, and have no response at all?

Hearing his wife, Devadutta stayed silent awhile, and then said the following:

“Woman, before marriage have you forgotten what I said?

I’m not interested in married girls at all.”

Not much is lost in translation. I swear.