Interview with Elena Jessup of St James, London

St James Independent Schools of London have been teaching Sanskrit to their pupils since 1975.  Elena Jessup, who is currently doing her MA in Sanskrit at SOAS and is a teacher at the school, talks to Venetia Ansell.

20th June 2008


St James is an unlikely location for Sanskrit lessons.  The schools – two junior and two senior ones – based in central London, have no Hindu, or indeed any other religious, affiliation.  The pupils are by no means predominantly, let alone solely, of Asian descent; plenty of white middle class English girls and boys, as well as children from Kazakhstan, Africa and Iran, are educated here.  So why Sanskrit? 


“The founder of the school, Leon MacLaren thought it would be interesting to introduce Sanskrit into a Western context, mainly because of its proximity to the source of Indo-European languages,” explains Elena.  The school does have a spiritual orientation too, following the school of Advaita philosophical thought, which goes well with Sanskrit – the language of the Upanishads and other Indian philosophical treatises.


But MacLaren’s lofty principles are perhaps of less importance to parents than the fact that their children seem both to enjoy and to benefit from the exposure to a language famous for its grammatical perfection and wealth of literature.  Paul Moss, the headmaster, cites improved motor skills through writing in Devanagari, better control over pronounciation thanks to the range of sounds Sanskrit has, and a general increased sharpness as evidence on the advantages of learning Sanskrit.


So are London parents happy to send their children to a school where Sanskrit is compulsory up until the age of 11? The biggest problem is, as Elena explains, that most parents don’t even know what Sanskrit is.  The school runs parent classes, both to introduce them to the concept of Sanskrit, and to actually teach them the language.  “It means they can help with the homework”, says Elena.  The school also stresses the linguistic and cultural links between Sanskrit and classical and modern European languages.


St James does use some Indian teaching methods, such as recitation of paradigms and verses, but it doesn’t favour the rote-learning of most Indian schools.  Despite the founder’s desire to begin with Paninian grammar, the traditional starting point, the Sanskrit department has over the years developed a very different approach.  A major constituent of this is the concept of introducing children to grammar via stories, for which a whole new set of textbooks had to be created.  The school’s publishing arm now print an entire collection for the junior course, where children begin with tales of Krishna from the Bhagavata Purana, graduate to Rama and then finally encounter the Mahabharata.  The textbooks use very simple Sanskrit to retell the stories for their young audience. 

And it seems to work – “my pupils really enjoy Sanskrit.”  The key, thinks Elena, is the systematic step by step approach, and “making them feel that they can do it.”


The senior course is trickier, and a series of textbooks are in progress.  Elena admits that the subject is less popular among teenagers, but a good 75% carry on once it becomes optional, and at least half do Sanskrit GCSE, with a handful making it to AS or A level.  “Mostly the girls, though”, because the boys worry more about their job prospects – the Sanskritist’s perennial worry.  Elena, though, is upbeat, “from my experience, employers are really keen on Sanskrit – really they’re just looking for a sharp mind and Sanskrit definitely helps with that”.


The school also uses Sanskrit literature – which its brochure ‘Why Sanskrit?’ touts as “one of the richest and most extensive literatures of all known languages” – outside the classroom.  Next week, the pupils will perform a play based on the Mahabharata written by the drama teacher.  Elena is also a great fan of the new Virgin Comics’ range of Sanskrit epic-inspired graphic novels and comics.  “I let my pupils read them as an after-exam treat – the boys absolutely love them”.  Move over, Superman…


5 Responses to “Interview with Elena Jessup of St James, London”

  1. 1 TLNarasimham December 17, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    It is indeed eye opening for indian politicians who are more inclined to appease muslims by promoting urdu rathar than sanskrit

  2. 2 V.Radhakrishnan October 19, 2009 at 8:12 am

    “..So what is in a language?”, one may ask.
    “A lot.” is the answer. Let us see, how Sanskrit, as a language, has been a vehicle for Indian thought and philosophy.
    The word ‘beggar’ in English, conveys the image of a person in tattered clothes, bothering people. In most of the languages of the world, it suggests an undesirable and unwelcome image.
    In Sanskrit the equivalent word is “Bikshu”, a word which means ‘a venerated person’.
    Similarly, the word for an old man in Sanskrit is ‘vridh’ which has only positive connotations with its meaning translating into ‘growth’.
    Yet another is the word for ‘victory’. Whereas in most languages it is the opposite of ‘defeat’ or ‘lose’, in Sanskrit, the antonym of the word victory- ‘jaya’, is ‘parajaya’, merely meaning ‘victory of the other’, sowing the seeds of advaitha thought- that plurality is just an illusion of the singular truth.

  3. 3 rk March 14, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    Sir, Good article

    This landmark judgement of India’s Supreme Court rejected the charge that the teaching of Sanskrit was “against secularism” and stressed the need to promote the language in the educational field

    2- Prof. Makarand Paranjape is a professor of English, Jawaharlal Nehru University, a prolific author, a well-known cultural exponent, and the editor of Evam: Forum on Indian Representations.

    This paper discusses in depth the role and the potential of Sanskrit in India’s cultural and national landscape. Reproduced with the author’s permission, it has been published in Sanskrit and Other Indian Languages, ed. Shashiprabha Kumar (New Delhi: D. K. Printworld, 2007), pp. 173-200.

    “Sanskrit is the thread on which the pearls of the necklace of Indian culture are strung; break the thread and all the pearls will be scattered, even lost forever.”{Dr. Lokesh Chandra}

  4. 4 shobha nair July 11, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    EXCELLENT ! undoubtly a very great step , hats off to this school and all the teachers . also the parents of this school children should be proud . lucky children . these students will have a easy start at universities if they go for sanskrit graduation at cambridge university . sanskrit is indeed the base of all languages.

  5. 5 NARAYANA BHAT February 19, 2013 at 10:37 pm

    What an excellent work for the universal unity.

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