Two generations of Indian students have been lost to the study of classical Indian languages and literatures, in part due to powerful economic forces no doubt, but in part due to sheer neglect. The situation is dire. Let me offer a few anecdotes. A great university in the United States with a long commitment to classical Indian studies sought for years to hire a professor of Telugu literature. Not one scholar could be found who commanded the tradition from Nannaya to the present; the one professor of Telugu literature in the U.S. who does have these skills will soon retire, and when he does, classical Telugu studies will retire with him. The same can be said of many other languages, such as Bangla, where the number of scholars who can actually read not just Tagore, but Vaishnav pads or the great seventeenth century biography of Caitanya, the Caitanyacaritamrta, are few and far between.
For several years I studied classical Kannada with T.V. Venkatachala Sastry of Mysore, a splendid representative of the kind of historically deep learning I have mentioned. During all my time in Karnataka I did not encounter a single young scholar who had command over the great texts of classical Kannada — Pampa, Ranna, Ponna — to say nothing of reading knowledgeably in the extraordinary inscriptional treasure house that is Karnataka.
Today, in neither of the two great universities in the capital city of India, is anyone conducting research on classical Hindi literature, the great works of Keshavdas and his successors. Imagine — and this is an exact parallel — if there were no one in Paris in 2008 producing scholarship on the works of Corneille, Racine, and Molière. Not coincidentally, a vast number of Brajbhasha texts lie mouldering in archives, unedited to this day.
The great edifice of Indian literary scholarship has nearly been torn down. Is it possible, at this late hour, to build it up again? India has shown itself capable of achieving pre-eminence in anything it sets its mind to. Consider the Indian Institutes of Management, of Science, and of Technology. Universities and companies and organisations around the world compete for the graduates of the IIMs, IISs, IITs. Why should India not commit itself to build the same kind of institute to serve the needs of its culture — not just dance and art and music, but its literary culture? Why should it not build an Indian Institute of the Humanities devoted not just to revivifying the study of the classical languages, but to producing world-class scholarship, as a demonstration of what is possible, a model for universities to follow, and a source of new scholars to staff those universities? It is not too late. The reward of success would be incalculable; the cost of failure would be catastrophic.
Take a look!
PS: Hat tip to Abi, but for whose sharing the link to the piece in his Google Reader, I would have missed the piece!