Bharat Gupt, an academician by qualification, is one of the finest cultural analysts in the country. His experience in documenting the vastness of the country’s cultural roots as a classicist, a theatre theorist through columns, books, lectures and workshops and now a YouTube channel makes him an important figure at a time when newer perspectives on ancient literature are emerging by the day.
Besides being the founding member of the International Forum for India’s Heritage, the 73-year-old has drawn parallels of Greek drama with Indian works. An active promoter of Sanskrit and the value it lends to the education system, he was in Hyderabad for a two-day workshop on ‘Arts, Aesthetics, and Morality in Classical and Modern Times – with reference to texts like Natya Shastra, Kama Shastra, Dharma Shastra and more.’
Even as a child, the Moradabad-born woke up to his father’s chants of the Goswami Tulsidas’ Ram Charit Manas, learnt about the classic texts in Sanskrit literature, developed a taste for Urdu poetry as well as Hindustani music, all before he turned 15. He knew to play the sitar and surbahar too. “I grew up in a family where these things were practised as an everyday activity. My dad had adored Tulsidas and I knew that Ramayan by heart by seven. My house was steeped in Indian tradition. I didn’t have to go through regular Anglophonic education and discover the vastness of Indian culture later. Hindustani music, a dose of Urdu poetry, epic Sanskrit texts were integral elements of childhood,” he reminisces.
Having actively read Tagore and Shakespeare (whose works he had finished reading before turning 16), had enriched him early in life. “I was impervious to any propaganda; later my stint at the University of Toronto, being guided by the likes of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, literary critic Northrop Frye was the icing on the cake,” the veteran shares.
While he had every chance to either be a theatre person or a musician, it was the academician in him that came to the fore. “The desire to analyse and place things in order had a longer strain in me. I am more given to analysis, classification and experiencing art to the fullest. I looked upon it as a darshan, trying to understand it intellectually and be a shastrakaar (who comments, interprets art, literature),” Gupt adds.
Patronage of Sanskrit
Discussing the challenges in keeping the legacy of Sanskrit alive in the mainstream space and the reasons behind the same, he informs, “This happened when Sanskrit was no longer the language of the ruling class, where it lost its status to reach out to everybody. People say Sanskrit has lost its hegemony. I would like to say, Sanskrit wasn’t about hegemony; the language wasn’t imposed on people. India as a nation never thinks that one language is superior to the other. Sanskrit writers were equally fond of Prakrit too. Most plays of Kalidas was less about Sanskrit and more about Prakrit.”
Despite the extensive literature being produced in Sanskrit today, he rues that it doesn’t pass through global literary honours. “Second-rate writing has been projected and honoured at a national level and has been pushed at the international level as the soul of modern India. The poetry, translation and short-story writing in Sanskrit has been as vast in the recent past mostly in the rural side of the country, despite practically zero patronage from the State,” Gupt adds.
Is marketing one’s work the issue? “Market isn’t what always drives the creative side of literature. It may sell for a short while. Say, The God of Small Things may have been translated in over 20 languages, but how much has it influenced other literature in the country? What’s valuable in literature is recognised over 100 years,” he states. It pains him to think that language in political terms is associated with a State, a particular politician, while its association with other languages of the country is ignored.
Even in several South Indian states where Hindi imposition is being opposed, Gupt feels that the people fail to look at the larger picture. “Hindi imposition is stringently opposed in Tamil Nadu, but are the same lot translating Tamil literature into other languages so that it reaches wider quarters? Are efforts being made to translate great works in other languages into Tamil? It’s the case with every other Indian language and region. That’s where the great devastation is taking place,” he informs. The academician rues that language wasn’t an identity of an Indian in the past, it was only one among the many attributes he had.
This is also an age where there has been significant opposition to history being rewritten to suit religious propaganda, but Gupt prefers to look at it from a different lens. “The accuracy of history needs to be re-examined from time to time and the masses are beginning to re-evaluate the lens through which it was documented in the past. This has become very uncomfortable for those academics, bureaucrats, the ones in the judiciary who had taken huge entitlements in the past for it and are not ready to reconsider the new age demands. It threatens their elevated status. The call for a revision of history isn’t mischief of any political party, it’s a new wave of thought one needs to accept.”
Staying in tune with modern-day demands of learning, many have benefited out of Bharat Gupt’s workshops on a vast range of texts including the Natyashastra, Manusmriti, Kamasutra and Dharmashastra to name a few. He finds it extremely rewarding to interact with the younger lot from time to time. “The task is first to introduce them to a subject at a preliminary level. I give them essential ideas, the total picture of the text. It’s also an attempt to free them away from delusions they have about history, that the texts have to conform to their belief system. But I’m happy that the young blood in the country is taking a genuine interest to learn, revise, question and rethink norms of our past. That is the hope for the future,” he signs off.