Please tell us about yourself

Shagun Sinha, a master’s student, she is in the second-year final semester at the Special Centre for Sanskrit Computational Linguistics Studies in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). She earlier did her Bachelor’s in Sanskrit from Delhi Vishwavidyalaya.

While disputes about Sanskrit in modern India rage in a lofty sphere, how is the language altering life on the ground?

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Ms Sinha’s story will not change established positions in the war of ideas, but her young mind, trying to build a future in the old language, adds a different perspective.

After talking about the film PK in fluent Sanskrit for 10 amazing minutes, Ms Sinha explains in confident English how it feels to know Sanskrit. “It’s like being Harry Potter,” she says, referring to the young wizard whose adventures she grew up reading, alongside the novels of Enid Blyton. “I feel magical because I am able to speak a language that many look up to with awe.”

Dressed in blue jeans and a pink overcoat, Ms Sinha walks down a shrub-lined pathway on the JNU campus. Pointing to a hillock, she says: “Parthasarathy Rocks are over there. I love sitting there at sunset.”

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

Ms Sinha, who is staying at the university’s Godavari hostel, grew up in Noida, adjacent to the Capital. She is the eldest of two daughters, her father is a software professional, her mother manages the house. Her sister studies philosophy. Nobody in the family has anything to do with Sanskrit.

Ms Sinha doesn’t make a big deal about knowing Sanskrit; neither does she bemoan its supposed neglect. Her initiation into Sanskrit happened almost by accident. As a math-loving student of a Kendriya Vidyalaya school, she had dreamt of becoming a civil engineer — but she also studied “normal CBSE-type Sanskrit” from classes VI to VIII. “While English was compulsory, we had an option to choose either Hindi or Sanskrit,” she says. “I opted for Sanskrit because it helped me score better in exams. Gradually, I began to trust the grammar rules in Sanskrit. They are as logical as math formulas. I did not have to rattofy (learn by rote).”

Ms Sinha scored 98% in Sanskrit in her class X exams. She would have liked to continue with it, but the subject was not on offer. Instead, Ms Sinha, “like everybody else”, settled down to prepare for entrance exams to engineering colleges. She had to struggle with subjects like physics and chemistry and decided to take up Sanskrit. “During those three years in LSR, my engagement with Sanskrit classics ran parallel with the modern world on the college campus,” she says. “I took part in debates, organized festivals.” Recently, Ms Sinha was invited to her old college to judge a Hindi debate.

But Ms Sinha graduated in Sanskrit from south Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College (LSR). There she was introduced to classical works by Kalidasa, Bhasa and Panini, as well as portions of Indian philosophy from the Upanishads, Sankhya Yog and Purva Mimamsa.

“While reading Enid Blyton’s mysteries, I always tried to imagine England, a place I’ve never visited,” says Ms Sinha. “When I was reading our Sanskrit classics, then too I tried to imagine the place described in those works. Gradually, I was able to see India’s past.”

Ms Sinha remembers being moved by a passage in Kalidasa’s epic poem Raghuvansham, where Ram is accompanying wife Sita on Pushpak, the flying chariot. “Kalidasa writes of Sita looking down at the earth in wonder and I was struck by the poet’s description of the scenes below… they could be of a frequent flyer looking out from his plane window.”

Ms Sinha, who has never taken a flight, says, “I have reasons to believe that ancient India was very developed and we could have had airplanes, if not in the form they exist today.” She pauses, adds “Maybe they didn’t require seat belts”, and laughs.

The homepage of Ms Sinha’s English-language blog, Namam, describes it as “An amalgam of all the ‘khurafaat’, philosophy and the little sensibility of my mind”. In one post, she wrote, “Ever since my third-year undergraduate study at LSR, JNU has been the postgraduate dream destination. In February 2013, I visited the Convention Centre for training. The Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies lay opposite. Every day I would notice the signboard that pointed towards the Sanskrit centre. The very thought of the existence of the centre gave me goosebumps. ‘Will I be able to make it here?’, ‘How tough shall the entrance be?’, ‘I have to be here! A Sanskrit heaven it must be!’”

Ms Sinha got admission the same year, and joined a batch of 28.

Tell us about your experience at JNU

The Sanskrit centre is half a mile away from Ms Sinha’s hostel. It is a red brick building surrounded by an unkempt garden crisscrossed with hedge pathways. According to the JNU website, the centre was set up in 2001 to train “students and researchers through carefully evolved teaching and research programmes at MA and MPhil/PhD levels”. It began with 10 students and now has more than 200.

One afternoon, a lecture was under way in one classroom. The half-open door showed a dozen students. One of them was a middle-aged foreigner.

Ms Sinha’s syllabus includes a selection from Pali and Prakrit literature. One subject is computational linguistics, taught by Girish Nath Jha, a former software engineer from Illinois, US. Explaining its place in a Sanskrit institute, associate professor Jha says, “As the root of almost all Indian languages, Sanskrit helps minimize cost and effort while building technology for any of those languages. My subject deals with that.”

Currently, Mr Jha is also teaching a special course on science and technology in Sanskrit, in partnership with a visiting biochemist from the US.

“Many of my former students have found jobs in industries that need research on language technology projects,” he says.

Mr Jha says that each year the centre invites applications for 30 seats in the master’s programme and 18 in MPhil. As many as 400 graduates apply annually for the master’s programme; the number has increased steadily over the years.

Of course, the same master’s programme is also available in the University of Delhi, where the Sanskrit department was set up in the same year that the university was founded.

Being a sensitive literature student, Ms Sinha has been affected by scenes in Sanskrit dramas and poems. “There’s a part in (Kalidas’ drama) Abhijnanashakuntalam, where the heroine is leaving her home to go to her husband’s place. Before she walks away, Shakuntala’s father asks the trees, the flowers and the herbs — all the things that she cared for — to give her permission to go. This scene has stayed with me. The other afternoon, while waiting for a bus, I looked at the trees and suddenly felt as close to them as I imagined Shakuntala was with hers.”

What do you do now?

Iam a research fellow at UGC