Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Teiji Sakata

Teiji Sakata, Professor Emeritus of Hindi Language at Takushoku University, was at Jai Singh Ghera yesterday for the Rasa Lila performance. Shrivatsa Goswami introduced him as the leading figure for Indological studies in Japan, who has written or edited 50 volumes about North Indian language and culture. According to Shrivatsa Maharaj, Sakata has practically single-handedly introduced the culture of North India to Japanese society.

Small in stature, he was dressed in distinctly Japanese dress, a kind of navy blue tunic that folded over like a banian with knee length shorts. Unusual for India, but perfectly suited for the weather. After giving his warmly welcomed talk in perfect though heavily accented Hindi, Prof. Sakata sat humbly in the middle of the crowd, taking occasional notes and photos, but generally absorbed in the play.

I met with the professor after the performance. Like so many scholars, despite his age (73) he is vibrant, enthusiastic and interested in everything connected with his field of study. He was recently in Delhi to present a paper from his latest edited volume in the Japanese Studies on South Asia series, The Historical Development of the Bhakti Movement in India, Theory and Practice (Manohar, 2011).

Prof. Sakata began his studies of Braj Bhasha at Benares University and came to Vrindavan in 1979 for the first time. Interestingly enough, he was introduced to Shrivatsa Goswami by John Stratton Hawley, whose book on Vrindavan Rasa Lila performances we have been quoting over the past few days.

On his return to his teaching role in Japan, Prof. Sakata was able to attract many students to the study of Hindi and by 1986 had a number of Ph.D. candidates, three of whom he brought to Vrindavan to share in the experience of the Chaurasi Kos Parikrama. He told me that he deliberately forbade any interaction between his Japanese students during the day, telling them only to mix with the other yatris so that they would improve their Hindi language skills. Then at night they were allowed to speak to each other in their own tongue.

All of these students have gone on to be professors in their own right, including Takako Tanata of Kyoto University of Education, an ethnomusicologist who has recently published her work on the Samaj Gayan Tradition of the Haridasi sampradaya of Tatia Sthan.

Actually, since my camera had become useless due to the battery dying... again... I was hoping to borrow a few of his pictures. So I showed him Vrindavan Today and he was eager to help, but we couldn't hook up his camera to my computer. Another fail. But a feeling of warm friendship passed between us. I told him a bit of what I was doing, particularly how I was interested in comparing the different versions of the Radha and Krishna story. He is also currently researching and comparing folk stories as they are told in different dialects from Braj to Bhojpuri.

Again, in humility, he said that he always felt that those who were brought up in Buddhist families in Japan and came to Indological studies (and there are many working on Buddhism) had a better intuitive understanding of India than people like himself who were secular. He said that greater insight can be had by someone who is a genuine "participant observer" than one who is simply an outsider looking in.

It was getting late and Prof. Sakata had to leave early the next day, and I also have to bicycle across town, so I had to leave with my appetite to know the professor rather unsated. But as his friendship with Shrivatsa Maharaj is well marinated -- he comes to Vrindavan at least once a year, he said, and Shrivatsa often stops over in Japan when returning to India from the American west coast -- the chances of seeing him again are good.

One thing is certain, Shrivatsa Maharaj has made Jai Singh Ghera a kind of international hub that attracts scholars and students from around the world, giving them facilities to research the Braj culture and make its delights better known throughout the world.

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