Vedic village’s tryst with IT
Govind Krishnan V 02 Jan 2010
A quarter century ago, AI magazine carried an article that evoked much curiosity among its readers — regular or casual. The 1985 spring issue of the California-based quarterly featured a write-up by an American called Rick Briggs on artificial intelligence (AI) and Sanskrit.
Briggs, who compared its grammar with that of the computer, came to a startling conclusion: Sanskrit, which ceased to be a living tongue millennia ago, had such a logical meaning-structure that it could be a rich mining field for AI.
The following year, Briggs and several academicians flew down to India to pick the brains of India’s Sanskrit pundits who had gathered at Bangalore for a conference inspired by his research.
Had their trip happened today, those experts would have taken Bangalore as nothing more than a stopover. From the Garden City, they would’ve taken a bus and travelled seven hours north to meet the residents of Mattur. In this village, Sanskrit isn’t dead. The language leads an existence — perhaps beleaguered, but tenacious — among its 2,000-odd people. Critically, Briggs and company would have also have witnessed the beginnings of this near-Vedic village’s
strange tryst with Hindustan’s nascent IT revolution: the village has produced around 150 software engineers!
It is a link Briggs would have found exciting. Mattur and its twin village Hosanahalli, a few kilometres north of Shimoga town, sandwich a thin strip of the Tungabhadra. Enter Mattur, and your senses are assailed by a host of sights that is eccentric in its fusion of the picturesque and the quixotic. While a set of Smartha Brahmins recite Vedic hymns by the riverside in the morning cold, a couple of young men with tufts zoom past on a black Pulsar — the unstitched folds of their white uparivasthras flapping in the breeze. When I enter the home of Gopal Avadhani, a retired engineer, a boy named Shantarama introduces himself in Sanskrit, “Mama naama Shantarama.”
Sanskrit dominates the life of Mattur, and not just because half the populace speak the language — with varying degrees of fluency. Right about the time Briggs and his crew were discovering the semantic potential of Sanskrit for computer applications, Mattur was rediscovering Sanskrit for itself.
The journey back to its Vedic roots started for the village in 1981 when Sanskrita Bharati, an organisation that promotes the classical language, conducted a Sanskrit workshop in Mattur. It was attended, among others, by the pontiff of the Pejawar Mutt in nearby Udupi.
Inspired by this village where Sanskrit survived as a spoken language, the seer reportedly exclaimed, “A place where individuals speak Sanskrit, where whole houses talk in Sanskrit! What next? A Sanskrit village!” It’s a call Mattur took to heart.
Sanskrit is reputedly a tough nut to crack, but is it that different from picking up any other language? In some rather important ways, it seems it is. When Shantarama leaves for school and says “Aham vidyalayam gachhami” (I am going to school), he will know that gachhami is very much like gamanam — which means movement. Both words come from the root class gam, from which a fluent Sanskrit speaker can dig up words for all kinds of movements and for things that move. Like gau for cows and khagah for birds. But khagah is not merely something
that moves. It is that which it moves in khagam (sky). From a few basic classes (root words), Sanskrit creates an endless chain of words — all linked to each other.
“The objects, events and actions are all labelled depending on the root,” says Srivatsa S, who is doing his research in linguistics at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.
Dhruv Kumar, who is scholar Gopal Avadhani’s nephew, is one of Mattur’s success stories. He heads a software development company in Bangalore. The IT professional is a stranger to linguistics concepts, but he is very familiar with the idea that one can link together a vast set of seemingly random things by boiling them down to basic classes that will split the objects between them. He would be doing it every day. In his office at Mahalakshmi Layout when Dhruv works on Java or C ++, he is using Object Oriented Programming (OOP), a
programming technique that thinks on lines similar to Panini’s Sanskrit grammar.
OOP allows the programmer to define classes and clump together objects belonging to the same class. Each object within the class can be a further class, and can give more objects, just like one word leads on to another in Sanskrit.
Dhruv, however, is not interested in whether Java shares semantic genes with Sanskrit. His obsession at the moment is Shridam — a rural BPO that set up operations in Mattur three months back. Shridam is Dhruv’s way of giving back to the village that raised him and which he
longs to go back to. The BPO, the brainchild of Mattur’s affluent techie migrants, employs 50 villagers at the moment. “It gives us from Rs 3,000 to 5,000 a month,” says Pattabhiraman, an employee. “We might get double that in Bangalore, but the cost of living there makes Shridam much more attractive. Besides we can stay at home.”
The beehive of air-conditioned cubicles that outsource business operations from foreign shores is something we only associate with a city. But Dhruv thinks this has not only limited our business imagination but held our villages back. “If I can service the USA sitting here in Bangalore, why can’t I do the same from Shimoga? From Mattur?” The words of a dreamer? Dhruv does not agree. After all, the line between dreaming and innovation is a thin one. “When I can get better support, better connectivity and better power in Shimoga, why can’t I deliver the same product to my customers at a lower cost?”
Sridham is only the tip of the iceberg for Dhruv and his various associates. For them setting up a rural BPO is merely the first step in stemming the flood of urban migration that is eroding the very fabric of villages like Muttur. They have much bigger plans for their village. The profits from the BPO shall go into a special fund with which they hope to launch much bigger technological projects in Mattur. And these projects will be not only be run but conceived and
conceptualised by the youth of Mattur. “We want to educate our young people and take up their ideas,” Dhruv explains. “Let them come up with their own projects and execute them. We will give them the support.”
What kind of projects does he have in mind? “Well, for example, wind and water energy from the Tunga can be harnessed to generate power indigenously. The channels of the Badhra flow into the Tunga and the water force can be a valuable resource for our village,” he says. Other plans of a similar kind are being chalked; the thrust is to make the Muttur a self-sufficient unit.
If Dhruv’s dreams come true, Mattur would be a bizarre candidate for that holy grail of liberal economists — the global village. It would be bizarre not merely because the denizens of this global village will speak Sanskrit and wear unstitched clothes while running software companies and techno-heavy development projects.
How to keep a language alive
If one man can be said to be responsible for Mattur’s Sanskrit revolution, it would be Srinidhi, a stocky, bullet-headed man with an enthusiasm that belies his forties. Srinidhi heads Sanskritha Bhavan, a Sanskrit-teaching institute that has taken upon itself a job that to many would seem quixotic, the task of taking the language out of textbooks and literature and bringing it back to life on the streets of Mattur. Among the many things the institute does, the primary one is the language support it gives to the local school. Sanskrit is the first language in the Sharada Vidyapeeth, a private school managed by the villagers that educates the village’s children at little more than Rs 80 a month. Sanskrita Bharati organises spoken Sanskrit courses every few months to make sure that nothing is learnt by rote and forgotten. These Sanskrita Shibirams (Sanskrit camps), where learners brush up on their speaking skills see all kinds — men, women,
Brahmins, Harijans, college students, middle-aged farmers. And the discussions, Srinidhi says, are very lively. The enthusiast, however, admits that the occasional old-timer who grumbles “Sanskrit? At my age?” is not uncommon.
The technological edge
Fifty to sixty software professionals from Mattur are placed in the different IT firms that have made Bangalore the Silicon valley of India. “People from my native place are working for companies such as Wipro, Infosys, HP, IBM and several others in Bangalore,” says
Shashank who is the chief technological officer of Samartha, a software development company in Bangalore floated by another Matturite. Samartha which offers IT services to IT giants in India and abroad, and have HP, IBM and Wipro among its clients. The organisation
employs 100 software engineers, of whom 25 are from Mattur. Another venture with a Mattur entrepreneur at its helm, combines software development functions with that of a training institute. The company provides training to graduates in languages like Java and PLSQL (Procedural Language/Structured Query Language). Mattur has not just spawned techies. It has made its mark in the scientific community also. “Two scientists from Mattur have won the Bhatnagar award for original research,” said Dhruv Kumar, the owner of Samartha.