U.V. Swaminatha Iyer's singular effort over five decades brought to light major literary works in Tamil and contributed to the enrichment of its literary heritage. A tribute, on his 150th birth anniversary.
TAMILS across the globe recently celebrated the government's decision to confer the `classical language' status on their mother tongue. This recognition, which puts the ancient language on a par with Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, is not only owing to its antiquity but also its rich literature. What has happened now, say Tamil scholars is only the "official reiteration" of the international academic community's recognition of Tamil literature as `classical', particularly the works such as Paththuppaattu (ten idylls) and Ettuththogai (Eight anthologies) of the Sangam era (from the first and second centuries of the Christian era), besides the better known Thirukkural and Tholkappiam.
Interestingly, the original texts of a significant number of the much-acclaimed literary works of the Sangam period came to public notice only towards the end of the 19th century, when they appeared in print with commentaries. Until then, works such as the Aymperum Kaappiangal (the five great epics) - Silappathikaram, Manimekalai, Kundalakesi, Jeevaka Chintamani and Valaiyapathi, were in the form of palm leaf manuscripts in the possession of scores of families living in various parts of Tamil Nadu. They did not have the skill to read them, and, therefore, did not realise their literary worth. Tamil scholars were aware of the existence of such texts as references in the available works. All that the people knew until then as Tamil literature comprised Bhakti literature, historical works and minor poems. Although very few literary works were available for studies, they did draw the attention of European scholars such as Bishop Robert Caldwell (1814-1891) and Constantine Joseph Beschi (known in Tamil as Veeramamunivar). However, during the same period, Sanskrit literary works attracted more Western attention because of their availability and easy access.
IT was under these circumstances that the need to hunt for the missing palm leaf manuscripts and bring to light the hidden treasure of Tamil literature was felt. Foremost among those who undertook this formidable task was Mahamahopadhyaya Dakshinathya Kalanidhi Uthamadhanapuram Venkatasubbaiyer Swaminatha Iyer (1855-1942), popularly known as "Tamizh thaththaa" (the grand old man of Tamil). A Tamil professor and literary scholar, Swaminatha Iyer's 150th birth anniversary was celebrated on February 19.
He took upon himself the arduous task of collecting the palm leaf manuscripts of great literary works that lay scattered not only in Tamil Nadu but even outside. As part of this mission he undertook long journeys, interesting and fruitful sometimes and unrewarding at others. Ultimately, he succeeded in gathering palm leaf manuscripts of many immortal Tamil works. With the objectivity and detachment of a scientist and the imagination of an artist and critic, he made comparative studies of various manuscripts. Starting with Jeevaka Chintamani in 1887, he printed and published Manimekalai (1898), Silappathikaram (1889), Paththuppaattu (1889) and Purananooru (1894), all appended with scholarly commentaries. Although he brought out about 100 works in all, including minor poems, many of the manuscripts that he gathered remain unpublished.
BORN in 1855 into a poor family at Uthamadhanapuram, near Kumbakonam in the old Thanjavur district, Swaminatha Iyer had his early education in Tamil under some teachers in his village. Although his father Venkatasubbaiyer, a musician, wanted his son to learn music, Swaminatha Iyer was inclined to concentrate on Tamil. When he was 17, he became a disciple of Mahavidwan Meenakshisundaram Pillai, a Tamil scholar, who was in the service of the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam in the old Thanjavur district. It was one of the wealthy Saiva mutts in Tamil Nadu, which patronised Tamil teachers and men of letters and propagated its religious philosophy through them. Swaminatha Iyer learnt Tamil under the guidance of Meenakshisundaram Pillai for five years. During this period, he earned the goodwill of the mutt head, himself a Tamil scholar.
After Meenakshisundaram Pillai's death, Swaminatha Iyer was retained in the mutt as a vidvan (scholar). In 1880, he joined the Government Arts College at Kumbakonam as a Tamil teacher, at the instance of the outgoing teacher Thiagaraja Chettiar, also a former student of Meenakshisundaram Pillai. In his autobiography, En Sarithiram, first serialised in the Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan, from January 1940 to May 1942 and later published as a book in 1950, he gives a graphic account of the rigid selection process he had to undergo before being appointed a Tamil teacher. "Thanks to his erudition in Tamil, skill to explain anything in an interesting manner, training in music and profound love for others, he could easily attract the students," said K.V. Jagannathan, one of his students, in his short biographical note published in En Sarithiram. He was loved and venerated by the students. This was no mean achievement, considering the fact that Swaminatha Iyer had little grounding in English at a time when the craze for English was at its peak, and Tamil teachers did not enjoy the same status as teachers of English and other subjects. After 23 years of service at the Kumbakonam college, he joined the Presidency College, Chennai, in 1903. Even after his retirement in 1919, he continued to teach Tamil. From 1924 to 1927, he was the principal of the Meenakshi Tamil College. He spent the rest of his life as a publisher, which immortalised his name. He died on April 28, 1942, after a brief period of illness, at Thirukkazhukundram, now in Kancheepuram district.
SWAMINATHA IYER's search for Tamil manuscripts began even as he joined the Kumbakonam college as a teacher. Many influential persons who took keen interest in Tamil studies were in touch with him. His meeting with Ramasami Mudaliar, District Munsiff of Salem, proved a turning point in his life. Swaminatha Iyer readily responded to the Munsiff's request to read the palm leaf in his possession and explain it to him. When he knew that the manuscripts were that of Jeevaka Chintamani, which he had been looking for, he was overjoyed. He transcripted the palm leaf manuscripts, a Buddhist work, into paper and edited it with utmost care. He printed and published the epic with notes and commentaries in 1887. It was an instant success. He mobilised funds from all available sources to continue the task of publishing the other invaluable literary works. Donations from Tamil lovers poured in. He also launched a `pre-publication sale' campaign with success.
Then began Swaminatha Iyer's long search for the original texts of ancient literary works. It was a search that lasted until his death. Many people voluntarily parted with the manuscripts in their possession. Swaminatha Iyer visited almost every hamlet and knocked at every door. He employed all the resources at his command to get at the works. As a result, a large number of literary works which were gathering dust as palm leaf manuscripts in lofts, store-rooms, boxes and cupboards saw the light of day. Of them, Silappathikaram, Purananooru and Manimekalai were received by Tamil lovers with a lot of enthusiasm. Purananooru, which mirrored the lives of Tamils during the Sangam period, prompted scholarly research on the subject. In a span of about five decades, Swaminatha Iyer published about 100 books, including minor poems, lyrics, puranas and bhakti (devotional) works.
Referring to the high quality of Swaminatha Iyer's publications, Jagannathan wrote in his biographical note: "What he published was not a mere transcription of the manuscripts in palm leaves. If publication is so simple as that, many others could have done it with success long ago. What Swaminatha Iyer did was to edit and publish these works with detailed footnotes, commentaries and indices, besides biographical notes on the authors. This was very useful and many readers desired to preserve these books for posterity. All this is evidence of not only the scholarship of the editor but also the hard work he had put in."
ANOTHER significant contribution made by Swaminatha Iyer is in the realm of Tamil music, wrote Dr. Arimalam S. Padmanabhan, a researcher and academic, in a paper on the Tamil scholar. Until Swaminatha Iyer came out with his publications of Silappaathikaram, Paththuppaattu and Ettuththogai, music was a grey area in Tamil research.
During the previous four centuries, Telugu and Sanskrit dominated the music scene in Tamil Nadu in the absence of any valuable information on Tamil music. Swaminatha Iyer's publications threw light on the glorious presence of Tamil music in the earlier centuries and paved the way for serious research on the subject.
Abraham Pandithar's Karunamirda Sagaram was the first major research work and it was followed by Vibulaanda Adigal's Yaazh Nool. Both these authors acknowledged the fact that it was Swaminatha Iyer's publications that inspired them to do further research.
"Silappathikaram is the best among the ancient Tamil literary works that provide vast information on Tamil music," observes Prof. V.P.K. Sundaram, another noted Tamil music researcher. "Without Swaminatha Iyer's publication there could have been no Karunamirda Sagaram," he observes. As the son of a famous musician of his time, Swaminatha Iyer learnt music from Gopalakrishna Bharathi, an outstanding musical exponent and the author of Nandan Sarithiram, an immortal work on a Dalit saint.
FOR his invaluable service to Tamil literature, Swaminatha Iyer was honoured with several awards and titles. The government honoured him in 1906 with the title "Mahamahopadhyaya" (Great Teacher). While the Bharatha Dharma Mandal awarded him the title of "Dravida Vidya Bhooshan", Sri Sankaracharya of Kamakoti Peetam honoured him with the title "Dakshinadya Kalanidhi". A doctorate was awarded to him by the University of Madras in 1932.
Tamil poet and nationalist Subramania Bharati, who inspired the freedom movement with his powerful songs, was a distinguished contemporary of Swaminatha Iyer. Paying glowing tributes to Swaminatha Iyer in one of his poems, Bharati called him "Kumbamuni" (the saint from Kumbakonam) and said: "So long as Tamil lives, poets will venerate you and pay obeisance to you. You will ever shine as an immortal."