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You Are Classical, I Am Classical!

Only in India would you expect to see the central government decide which language is "classical" and which one is not. Sanskrit, Tamil, and now Kannada and Telugu have been decreed by the State as classical languages, while the government of Kerala has taken up the cause of Malayalam. But why not Marathi, Bangla, Assamese, Oriya or even Hindi? The irony is that even as there is a scramble to acquire classical status, whatever that may mean, all the Indian languages are becoming more and more irrelevant to the politics and economics of the country.

OF LIFE, LETTERS AND POLITICSEconomic & Political Weekly EPW november 29, 20089GPD(govind.desh@gmail.com) is a well-known commentator on literary and political affairs.You Are Classical, I Am Classical! GPD Only in India would you expect to see the central government decide which language is “classical” and which one is not. Sanskrit, Tamil, and now Kannada and Telugu have been decreed by the State as classical languages, while the government of Kerala has taken up the cause of Malayalam. But why not Marathi, Bangla, Assamese, Oriya or even Hindi? The irony is that even as there is a scramble to acquire classical status, whatever that may mean, all the Indian languages are becoming more and more irrelevant to the politics and economics of the country.It is not easy to comprehend the term “classical language”. We are certain that its technical meaning must be clear to those who know its usage. We however are not so sure. The earliest use of this term that we know of was to distin-guish Vedic Sanskrit from the language used in the post-Vedic literature. Thus Purush Sukta, for example, was Vedic but the works of Kalidasa, or Ashvaghosha were classical. In the days of orientalism we suddenly discovered that there was a class of languages that was a shade higher than the other presumably small-time languages. So languages like Sanskrit or Latin and Greek were classical languages and there was a group of languages that were vernaculars. By the same token the Indian languages were the quintessential vernaculars. So were the modern European languages except that colonialism provided them with a way out. With Indian languages being vernaculars, English seemed to acquire a classical status. It seemed to be both classical and vernacular at the same time, vernacular in Europe and classical in the colonies. In medieval India, Sanskrit seemed to have acquired a similar status.There were a number of Bhakti poets who rebelled against the position of dominance that Sanskrit had acquired or claimed. Referring to the status of Sanskrit as devavani (the language of the Gods), Eknath had angrily asked once if Marathi was thelanguage of thieves. In short, for us this rhetoric of the “classical” was essen-tially a rhetoric of dominance.Therewas also a mother languageimageattachedto Sanskrit and Tamil (for the so-called Dravid languages) from which all other languages were born. This image was immensely popular during the days of the freedom struggle. Sacred and BlasphemousThis understanding was further compli-cated by the notion of sacredness attached to these languages. The rhetoric of dominance was further confounded by the “sacred authority” that the term classical seemed to acquire. Arabic was sacredly classical because the sacred book of Islam was writ-ten in that language. The Bible in transla-tion was acceptable for the purposes of religious matters. This however is not trueof the Koran. Its translation does not have the same status as the Arabic origi-nal. The point is that there is sacredness invested in the notion of the classical. The Vedas likewise can only be read in Sanskrit and so on. The classical is the sacred. (The vernacular is nearly blasphemous, shall we say?)The sacred enjoys certain power in all societies but it is also quite formidable in our society. Kannada speakers were clearly unhappy that Tamil was given the classical status. So far it was the most ancient vernacular of India, now it became the youngest classical language. Kannada was the second oldest Indian vernacular. By the same token Telugu became the third classical language. There can be a legiti-mate question about which among these would be the second and which the third. But then some chronology may be in order after all. Kannada asked for the status earlier than the third one did. By the time we are through with the celebrations following the acquiring of the classical status by our two languages we discover that there is yet another contender for the crown of sacredness. Malayalam is the latest claimant. The Kerala govern-ment has decided to stake a claim on behalf of Malayalam. There will surely be a com-mittee or two and soon we can see the third youngest classical language. All this is not easy to comprehend. One cannot imagine a government in Europe taking upon itself to decide that Greek and Latin shall have classical status. If at all, a state may have accepted the historians’ or linguists’ view of the studies in classics and may have made out some grants for the teaching of the courses in classics. But the governments are never the decision- makers of such issues. In our country it is always different. Here everything has to be decided by the political authority, the “central government”. Who has decided upon the classical status of Sanskrit?
OF LIFE, LETTERS AND POLITICSnovember 29, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly10Nobody has thought of it so far but there could be a demand that Sanskrit be declassicised. Why, do you want to know? Well, because the ministry in Delhi has not confirmed the status! Thank God, the status of Tamil, Kannada, and Telugu has been properly recognised. Languages like Sanskrit or Greek and Latin for that mattershould lose their status (as far as India is concerned) if the Union Ministry of Culture does not confirm it post-haste. It might be a good idea for the Malayalam committee to suggest that. The various Dravida Kazaghams may also readily sup-port the demand and thus ride the wave of Dravid nationalism. Why Not Marathi?It is only proper that the issue of language should result in a tower of Babel. Some people should tell Raj Thackeray, indeed if they have not done so already, that Marathi should claim that status too. It is of course perfectly possible that Raj is still trying to understand what this notion of classical language means. He can also claim a certain sacred status. Marathi speakers are God’s own people. The north Indian migrants are the pagans. There was a time when being a Marathi speaker meant being a speaker of an Indian language. Now it would mean being the speaker of a classical language. The four languages of the south have been given that status. Why not Marathi? And why not Bangla or AssameseorOriya?Then why should Hindi be far behind? Already thatlanguagewhich was specified by the Constitution as an “administrative” language of the country slowly appropriated toitself the status of the only national languageof the country. All languages listedin the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution were national languages. But these languages were not given their due position.The tragedy of the Indian languages is that there are efforts, both national and international, to reduce these languages to the status of small-time languages. Their existence is at stake. They may get the clas-sical status, whatever that may mean. The Indian State will be happy to confer that status on them. Enjoy that status as you become more and more irrelevant to politics and economics of this country. The dropping of growth rate matters because it relates to people who speak English or at any rate do not speak much of the native lingo. Peasants’ suicides do not seem to matter presumably because they speak languages that our ruling elite do not quite understand.Soon there will be a clamour for the classical status in all parts of India. The governments concerned would be more than happy to concede the demand since we do not know what such a status would actually mean in the case of threatened languages as the Indian native tongues are. We prefer this expression advisedly. Because if you say Indian languages there is the usual liberal argument about how English is actually an Indian language. But there would be no two opinions that English is not a native tongue. So there will be a neat division. English would be the language that matters. The rest would be the languages that are classical. Before long we can all sing in unison: I am classical, you are classical!

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