‘The artificial language of a learned mediocrity’

Rabindranath Tagore has been a great source of inspiration to me. It all began close to fifteen years ago, with one night of reading the Gitanjali from beginning to end as if it were the Bhagavad Gita, and rejoicing in every line. But, to put it briefly, there it did not end.

I don’t always agree with him, but if there is one well-known Indian figure who understood India from the ground up, I think it’s him. What struck me most about him very early was that, though quite evidently a member of the Indian elite of his time, he never distanced himself from the realities of life around him.

Indians today have a lot to learn from the balanced approach he took to nearly everything he touched. He could simultaneously immerse himself in the philosophy of the Upanishads, yet rebel against the caste system. He could simultaneously make the Brahman of the Upanishads his Ideal on the one hand, and on the other criticize the casteism of the brahmanas. I used to adopt the same approach towards Hinduism even before I discovered Tagore. But once I did, his writings gave me the strength to speak and write openly about these two extremes myself.

I can safely say that it is Tagore who brought any clarity I can now claim to possess about politics and economics. In The Pyramid of Corruption, I adopt his definition of a nation as an organization of politics and commerce, though, I must warn you, I don’t agree with his way of dealing with nationalism.

Anyway, as I delved deeper and deeper into Tagore’s writings, I felt many of my own thoughts expressed in them – and it has often been a hair-raising experience in the literal sense. Such was the experience when I encountered the following passage by him. I read it after I had discovered the Kannada linguistics genius, D. N. Shankara Bhat, in fact, after I had spent nine years learning directly from him about my mother tongue Kannada, its relationship with Sanskrit, and the road ahead. Writes Tagore in a 1918 essay titled Vernaculars for the M.A. Degree:

[The] direct influence which the Calcutta University wields over our language [Bengali] is not strengthening and vitalizing, but pedantic and narrow. It tries to perpetuate the anachronism of preserving the Pundit-made Bengali swathed in grammar-wrappings borrowed from a dead language. It is every day becoming a more formidable obstacle in the way of our boys’ acquiring that mastery of their mother tongue which is of life and literature. The artificial language of a learned mediocrity, inert and formal, ponderous and didactic, devoid of the least breath of creative vitality, is forced upon our boys at the most receptive period of their life…

Just take a moment to sink it in. Here was a Bengali poet – Bengali being a descendant of the ‘dead language’, i.e., Sanskrit –  and perhaps one of the greatest authorities on the Upanishads in his time, criticizing the unnecessary Sanskritization of Bengali. Here was a brahmana calling Sanskrit a ‘dead language’ – something quite unpalatable to Hindutvavadis (no wonder they don’t even so much as mention his name). Here was an Aryan criticizing the unnecessary infiltration into Bengali of that great language of the Aryans – Sanskrit – and pointing out the problems due to the infiltration.

Today, there are people who think Kannada has descended from Sanskrit; others lament the fact that it hasn’t; and yet others fake an Aryanized tongue. The formal Kannada alphabet continues to carry several useless aksharas required only to write Sanskrit words as they’re written in Sanskrit, and there is hardly any capacity that Kannadigas have retained of coining new words without relying on Sanskrit. And what kind of Sanskrit words do they coin? Such as can neither be pronounced nor understood by the vast majority of Kannadigas. Even Kannada grammar, before it was taken up for serious revision by D. N. Shankara Bhat, was considered as a corruption of Sanskrit grammar, and we Kannadigas have been happy with that for ages.

The fact is, Kannada is a Dravidian language capable of standing on its own. How much more weakening and devitalizing it must be, how much more pedantic and narrow it must be, for Kannadigas to allow Sanskritists to define what ‘good Kannada’ is! How much more nonsensical it is to allow to perpetuate ‘the anachronism of preserving the Pundit-made’ Kannada ‘swathed in grammar-wrappings borrowed from a dead language’! How much more is over-Sanskritization a ‘formidable obstacle’ which is preventing Kannadigas from ‘acquiring that mastery of their mother tongue which is of life and literature’! How much more artificial Kannada is turning and losing its creative vitality, if Tagore had to complain all this about Bengali!