Opinion: How This Mysuru Family Has Kept A Sanskrit Newspaper Alive For Decades

I was walking down a narrow street in Mysuru's Agrahara locality when my phone's map misled me, announcing I had reached the office of Sudharma, the only daily newspaper in the world published in Sanskrit. It was a dead end, with houses stacked shoulder-to-shoulder all around. 

A bit lost, I asked a passerby for directions. "Sudharma? It's right there," he said, pointing further down the road. Reaching the address, I found that Sudharma looked nothing like a newspaper office. With its wooden-framed windows, a small door, and yellow wall, it resembled a small, middle-class house. Stepping inside, I saw a large printing machine tucked away beyond the main hall. It reminded me of a handloom machine. 

Jayalakshmi at Sudharmas office

Jayalakshmi at Sudharma's office
Photo Credit: Pankaj Mishra

Curator Of Culture

"Namaskara." A woman in her 60s, K.S. Jayalakshmi, greeted me warmly from behind her desk. Dressed in a typical South Indian green cotton silk saree, she was a picture of both tradition and resilience. Her expressive eyes, framed by glasses, revealed a deep sense of purpose. After the passing of her husband Sampath Kumar, she took the reins of Sudharma.

Founded by Pandit Varadaraja Iyengar in 1970, Sudharma was born out of his wish to keep Sanskrit, often dismissed as a 'dead', ancient language, alive and relevant. He saw it not as a relic but as a living, dynamic voice that could still speak to the modern world. "Interestingly, the initiative began with teaching Sanskrit to girls in 1963, signifying a progressive approach towards inclusive education in Sanskrit. The programme expanded to include boys, but it mainly aimed at encouraging Sanskrit learning among girls," Jayalakshmi said. 

Sudharmas office

Sudharma's office in Mysuru
Photo Credit: Pankaj Mishra

K. Sampath Kumar Iyengar, the editor of Sudharma, managed the newspaper for decades after his father, the founder, passed away in 1990. Sampath himself passed away at 64. He was known for his dedication and overseeing all aspects of the business, right from reporting to design, and was awarded the Padma Shri in 2020 alongside his wife. His work received recognition from the likes of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and actor Amitabh Bachchan. He also published the only Sanskrit calendar in the world. 

"My inspiration comes from the legacy left behind by my father-in-law and carried forward by my husband. In all of India, he was the one to start Sudharma. It was his strength and vision. I joined this mission and realised it's not just a duty but a part of who I am," says Jayalakshmi.  "They were not just preserving a newspaper but nurturing a cultural treasure." Despite initial scepticism about its viability, Pandit Iyengar's commitment to adapting Sanskrit for modern times led to the adoption of new words for contemporary concepts, making the language accessible and practical. 

Walking through the corridors of Sudharma's office in Mysuru, it hit me that this isn't just about a newspaper. It's a fight to keep a piece of our past alive. I was stepping into a story that began over half a century ago. Despite all odds, financial hurdles, and the onslaught of the digital age, Sudharma stands firm, a small paper with a big heart. "While I can't join the army or contribute in other conventional ways, running Sudharma and promoting Sanskrit is my way of contributing to the nation. It's not solely about making a profit; it's about giving back to our cultural heritage and playing a part in preserving it," says Jayalakshmi.

However, as I looked around at the stacks of paper, the smell of the ink, and the old printing machine, I couldn't help but wonder: what is the place of an ancient Indian language in the age of AI?

Sanskrit In The Age Of AI

So, how are you keeping Sanskrit alive? I asked.  

"Sudharma isn't about keeping Sanskrit alive!" Jayalakshmi stressed. She shared an anecdote about an 80-year-old linguist from Varanasi who knew over a hundred languages and was visiting Sudharma's office. A language survives as long as it is spoken or understood by even one person, the linguist mentioned. "Even those who may not consciously know Sanskrit are exposed to it through prayers and rituals. For instance, commonly recited prayers and verses are in Sanskrit, making the language a part of everyday life for many Indians."

This reframed my understanding of Sudharma's role - not as a preserver of a dying language but as a platform celebrating a language that is very much alive in the hearts and homes of India.

And what about making profits, ensuring that Sudharma survives and supports the livelihoods of those running it? 

Money vs Purpose

"The issue of profit versus cultural contribution is a matter of individual perspective. Of course, financial stability is important for everyone, and commercial aspects can't be ignored. But in India's context, we are responsible for contributing something meaningful to our country," Jayalakshmi says. 

The challenge is complex. Jayalakshmi's insights painted a picture of this struggle. In the past, an edition of Sudharma newspaper could take six days to reach readers in places like Kashmir, which was acceptable. But now, people want immediate news. "This demand for instant information is changing journalism. It's becoming harder to maintain readership because everyone has a mobile phone. It is one of the asuras (devils)," she said. 

Beyond The Newsprint: A Cultural Crusade

Over the past decade, several news reports have flagged the crises Sudharma is facing. Jayalakshmi acknowledges the challenges but stands by her belief that the newspaper isn't going to shut down. "We never considered shutting down Sudharma, even during tough times. Every day brought new challenges, but we never let negativity set in. There were rumours about Sudharma closing, but they were unfounded. We always aimed to keep the paper running and even expand it. Our message has always been clear in the media; we're committed to continuing and growing Sudharma."

But how does a tiny newspaper find the tenacity to keep at it?

"My motivation comes from understanding the importance of our work and its role in education. Parents usually want their children to become engineers, doctors, or IAS officers, and few aspire for their children to become Sanskrit scholars. But we see that even engineers are now learning Sanskrit and becoming scholars, even though the number may be small."

More Than A Newspaper

In today's media landscape, there's often a rush to find the most financially viable model, a relentless pursuit of profits overshadowing purpose. But Sudharma teaches us a different lesson. Here's a media model that doesn't rely solely on its balance sheets. Instead, it anchors itself firmly in its purpose, staying true to the heart of its mission."The journey of keeping Sanskrit alive is long, but just as radio has evolved over the centuries, so too will the approach to Sanskrit and its study."

Sudharma's approach to preserving Sanskrit goes beyond just publishing a newspaper. They're using every tool: printed calendars, books, community involvement, and offline events. It's not about survival at any cost. Instead, it's a thoughtful blend of traditional and modern methods, all aimed at keeping their mission alive. "We aim to provide information about our culture, geography, language, and more through these calendars. This year, we focused on the significance of mountains in our culture, drawing from various scriptures. These calendars promote our language and culture," Jayalakshmi Iyengar tells me, flipping pages of a newly printed calendar. 

By engaging people with printed calendars that tell more than just dates and books and delve into the richness of Sanskrit literature, they're making ancient wisdom accessible and relevant. The community plays a big role, too. Sudharma tries to foster a sense of belonging around the language through local events and gatherings. 

Language No Bar

Sudharma isn't alone in its quest. Sanskrit is making a comeback worldwide, from Germany's universities to the streets of Mysuru. "Sanskrit and yoga are intertwined, and as awareness grows, more people are drawn to learn about our culture and language," Jayalakshmi says. 

This connection between language and lifestyle is seen across the world. In Germany, for instance, Sanskrit's appeal has grown remarkably. While only four universities teach Sanskrit in the UK, Germany boasts 14. This interest isn't a recent trend. 

Growing up, I remember how my late father, a Sanskrit scholar who also spoke German, often marvelled at the deep connections between the two languages, both culturally and etymologically. 

This shared journey shows how people and institutions, separated by thousands of miles, can be connected by their love for a language. As I wrapped up my conversation with Jayalakshmi and prepared to leave, she handed me a few fruits - a banana, an apple, and an orange. Along with her "Namaskara" once again. 

Walking down the street with the fruits, I couldn't help but feel enveloped by the warmth of the culture around me. It was a subtle reminder of how this rich past touches and shapes us in many, often unnoticed ways.

(Pankaj Mishra has been a journalist for over two decades and is the co-founder of FactorDaily.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.