கனடா 'Toronto' மாநிலத்தில் உலகத் தமிழ்க்கல்வி மாநாடு
The Evolution of Tamil Studies
by Rajan Philips
The fifth annual Tamil Studies Conference gets underway this week in Toronto, Canada. Organized under the auspices of the University of Toronto and the University of Windsor, the three day conference from May 13-15, 2010, is focused on the theme of Constructing Tamil Worlds: Circulation, Marginality and Plurality.
It is a theme manifestly inspired by the experiences of diaspora existence and an attempt to link them to broader academic questions of culture and identity under conditions of constant change over time and space. In turn, the conference experience is also an enlightened response to the crisis of identity and culture that hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils are going through in scores of countries around the world.
Turning to ‘Tamil Studies’ as an enlightened response is nothing new for Sri Lankan Tamil intelligentsia, given the peculiar existential conditions of Tamils even in their natal land. Culturally sharing the same language and religion with 60 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu, and politically conjoined with 20 million Sinhalese within Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan Tamils numbering less than 2 million have from time to time felt out-of-place in both places and at home in neither place. They now have their ‘placelessness’ writ large all over the world.
Despite their small numbers and limited resources, or because of them, the Tamils in Jaffna and Batticaloa have established their own unique traditions of contributions to the study of Tamil language and literature and to the practice of Hinduism. The tradition goes back to the cherished Sangam Period in Tamil literature two thousand years ago, around the beginning of the Common Era, when a Tamil poet, Poothan Thevanar of Eelam, contributed seven poems to Sangam Tamil literature.
This early beginning continued through centuries of poetic and commentating contributions, to the modern period when Sri Lankan Tamil literati initiated another unique stream of involvement in the context of the colonial encounter in South Asia. Tamil society, like others in South Asia, responded to this encounter, first involving Christian missionaries, then traders and finally the imperial-colonial conquest, in different ways. The Tamil literati of North-East Sri Lanka contributed to the bridge between the traditions of the old world and the upstart influences of global colonialism.
In a way, the Toronto Tamil Studies Conference represents a different stage in the evolution of that initial encounter, where imperial-colonialism has been reversed and replaced by globalization, and Canada, itself the creation of European colonizers, is the home to the largest number of Tamils of Sri Lankan origin living outside their natal land. It is also important not to lose sight of the fact that, a fact that looms large everywhere in Canada, just as it does elsewhere in the US, Europe and Australia, the experiences of diaspora existence are not unique to Sri Lankan Tamils. There are hundreds of other immigrant nationalities and groups who are going through similar experiences in these countries, although there is certain uniqueness in the way that each immigrant group responds to its own challenges. The uniqueness of the Toronto Tamil Studies Conference must be seen in that broader perspective. But there is no harm in celebrating that uniqueness, so let us dwell on it a little more.
The Sri Lankan Tamil contribution to bridging the new and the old worlds in the 19th century was spearheaded by Arumuga Navalar (1822-1889). A Jaffna Tamil, steeped in Tamil literature and Saiva ethos, he simultaneously stood for preserving orthodoxy in religion and culture (including the social boundaries of caste) and for imbibing the modernizing influences of learning English, broadening the education system, and expanding Tamil literacy through the print medium. He famously coined the phrase: “English for the body, Saivam for the soul.” His presence and influence reached well into the South Indian Tamil world as well.
Arumaga Navalar is also credited with helping in the translation of the Christian Bible in Jaffna, but he was more focused on adapting the Christian missionary methods to restore and revive the traditions of his forefathers among the Tamils of his generation. Even as Navalar was hugely and deservedly successful in his counter-missionary efforts, the Sri Lankan Tamils, like the Sinhalese and other traditional societies in South Asia, found positive ways of internalizing those among them who were converting to Christianity, as well as Islam. A complementary tradition of Christian contributions to Tamil literature and culture began to emerge in Sri Lanka almost at the same time as Navalar was succeeding in the assertion and revival of the Saiva tradition.
The roots of the complementary Christian tradition go back to the 16th century beginning of European colonialism, if not earlier. The legend has it that Christianity first arrived in India at the ports of Kerala, carried by no less a person than the most skeptical of Christ’s apostles, Thomas, but more evidently by Syrian merchants. The Syrian Christians are now well woven into Kerala’s social fabric, and San Thome in Chennai is believed to be the location of St. Thomas’s legendary martyrdom. From the 16th century onward, the contributions of European missionaries to Tamil studies and research are well established.
Over time, this interest went beyond the missionaries and encompassed several secular academics in Britain, the US and European countries. As the late Kailasapathy noted in 1980, “From G.U. Pope (19th century British Missionary) to Kamil Zvelebil (20th century Czech Tamil scholar), there is a galaxy of distinguished and respectable names that are inseparable from international Tamil studies.” Needless to say a whole new generation of Tamil studies scholars, from India, Sri Lanka and Western counties have joined the tradition, and Tamilophiles everywhere should be gratified that the tradition continues annually in the Toronto Tamil Studies Conference.
A contemporary of Navalar and who set in motion the Sri Lankan Tamil Christian contributions to Tamil studies and research was C.Y. Thamotharam Pillai (1832-1901). The first to graduate as Bachelor of Arts at the University of Madras, Pillai used his proficiency in English to enhance Tamil writing and Tamil studies research. The bellwether work of Navalar and Pillai was taken up by a host of others, both Hindus and Christians, in the nineteenth century and the twentieth century. Their names are honoured by the well known Tamil Nadu academic and writer, the late M. Varadarasan (Mu Va) in his History of Tamil Literature (1989, first published in 1972). The list includes Kanagasabhai, V. Kanagasabhai Pillai, T.K. Kanagasabhai Pillai, N. Kathiravel Pillai, Sivasambu and Kumarasamy – all of whom were recognized and celebrated as Pulavars. Mu Va concludes his list with the name of the great Swami Vipulanandar of Batticaloa.
A Ramakrishna Missionary, Vipulanandar was a great Tamil scholar, poet and orator. He wrote a treatise on Yazh, the musical instrument that is the source of Jaffna’s Tamil name – Yazhpanam, but Vipulanandar is dearly remembered for his three rhyming stanzas on the ‘three flowers dear to god’. More significantly, he was the first Professor of the Tamil Department in the University of Ceylon and established a tradition that has well served the cause of Tamil research and studies on the campuses of Colombo, Peradeniya and Jaffna. Vipulanandar’s successors, Kanapathy Pillai, Chelvanayagam, Vithiyananthan, Kailasapathy, Velupillai, Thananjayarajasingham, Sivathamby, Thillainathan and Shanmugadas – have all made their distinct contributions to the furtherance of Tamil studies and scholarship.
The more vigorous and lively transactions and debates in the field of literature, art and culture continued in the Sri Lankan Tamil world outside the academia. Sir Ananada Coomaraswamy introduced to the world the great Chola artwork of the dancing Siva. Sir Ponnamblam Arunachalam, the politically unsuccessful Thomas Jefferson of Sri Lankan Tamils, wrote a history of Tamil literature in the English language. In the field of linguistic research, two Catholic Priests, Rev. Gnana Pragasar and Rev. David made notable contributions. The doyen of the Tamil literati in twentieth century Sri Lanka was of course Pandithamany Kanapathypillai who wrote, taught and kept alive Jaffna’s critical commentating tradition like none other.
Internationalization of Tamil Studies
The genealogy of the Toronto Tamil Studies Conference could be traced to the formal internationalization of Tamil studies in the late 1960s and 1970s, in which a Sri Lankan Tamil Catholic Priest, Rev. Xavier S. Thani Nayagam (1913-1980) played a significant role. According to Kailasapathy, Thani Nayagam, Kamil Zvelebil, and V.I. Subrmoniam (the first Vice Chancellor of the Thanjavur Tamil University, and earlier Professor of Tamil at the University of Kerala, Trivandrum) were the triumvirate behind the founding (in 1964) and the functioning of the International Association of Tamil Research (IATR). The IATR was headed by Jean Filliozat of France, and attracted a host of Western Tamilologists and Indoligists along with South Indian and Sri Lankan Tamil academia.
At the academic level, as Kailasapathy has noted, Thani Nayagam’s singular contribution was to integrate the two hitherto compartmentalized areas of Tamil research – philology, that attracted the Westerners, and literature, that was dear to the Tamilians, and expand Tamil studies to include the disciplines of the social sciences. The IATR conferences in Kuala Lumpur (1966), Madras (1968), Paris (1970), Jaffna (1974) and Madurai (1981) reflected the integration and expansion of Tamil studies and research. The ongoing annual Toronto Tamil Studies conferences equally reflect the same integration and expansion and have gone further in keeping pace with the emerging focuses and frameworks of contemporary scholarship.
The IATR conferences carried more than an academic meaning for Tamils of Sri Lankan origin. This was understandable given the ‘Reasonable Use’ treatment meted out to their language by the Sri Lankan government. The first two conferences took place when the National Government (1965-1970) of Dudley Senanayake was in power and both the Federal Party and the Tamil Congress were part of the government. Official delegations from Sri Lanka lead by the late M. Tiruchelvam, Q.C., Senator and Minister of Local Government, led the delegations on both occasions. M. Bhaktavatsalam, the Congress Party Chief Minister of what was then the Madras State, led the South Indian delegation to Kuala Lumpur.
When the second IATR conference was held in Madras, in 1968, C.N. Annadurai was the Chief Minister with the DMK in power for the first time, and Madras State had undergone name change to – Tamil Nadu. The DMK government literally ‘went to town’ with the Second Conference at the popular level, while at the academic level the IATR organizers quietly adhered to the academic agenda of the conference. Two years later, in 1970, following the first Throne Speech of the United Front Government under Sirimavo Bandaranaike that was open to tumultuous public crowds across the Galle Face Green, Senator Tiruchelvam expressed the existential paradox of the Sri Lankan Tamils.
Participating in the Senate debate on the Throne Speech, Tiruchelvam compared the manifestations of public enthusiasm in Madras and in Colombo, and poignantly remarked that he felt out of place on both occasions. Some might cavil at his remark as Colombo Tamil elitism, but I think the remark captured the ‘placeless’ predicament of the Sri Lankan Tamils that I alluded to at the start of this article. True to form, four years later in 1974, the Sirimavo governments placed all manner of roadblocks to holding the fourth IATR conference in Jaffna. The conference went ahead regardless, but on the last day the rampant Sri Lankan police highhandedly turned a festive occasion into real tragedy. Nothing has been the same since that day for Sri Lanka and the Tamils.
It is not appropriate to end on a sad note this piece intended to congratulate the yearly success of the Toronto Tamil studies conference. The experience of diaspora existence is also illustrative of the famous Sangam line that celebrated the unity of localities and the kinship of people, and reminded us that good and evil are not the work of others. Truth be told, Tamils have had their share of tragedies partly of their own making and partly due to others and circumstances beyond their control. Their collective and formal follies apart, Sri Lankan Tamils have shown great resilience and endurance at the individual, functional level. In their genius, they have found ways of coping with their ‘placelessness’.
The Tamil Studies conference, as I said at the beginning, is an enlightened and laudable response to the ‘placeless’ situation of the Sri Lankan Tamils. But they are not alone in such predicaments and solutions cannot be expected within the evanescent framework of state formations in a globalizing world. “A man cannot become a child again unless he becomes childish,” wrote Marx referring to the precocious achievements of the ancient Greeks, and went on to say that humankind must strive to reproduce the charm of its cultural childhoods on a higher plane. The Tamils must celebrate the eternal charm of their literary and cultural childhood without becoming childish.
Thirukkural திருக்குறள் Holykural
Kural குறள் - 533
பொருட்பால் - பொச்சாவாமை
எப்பால் நூலோர்க்கும் துணிவு.
'To self-oblivious men no praise'; this rule Decisive wisdom sums of every school.
Thoughtlessness will never acquire fame; and this tenet is upheld by all treatises in the world.
Translation by Rev. Dr. G. U. Pope, Rev W. H. Drew,Rev. John Lazarus and Mr F. W. Ellis