Man of insights

Print edition : August 12, 2011

Karthigesu Sivathamby at the inauguration of the World Classical Tamil Conference in Coimbatore on June 23. - K. ANANTHAN

Karthigesu Sivathamby (1932-2011) was one of the great progressive thinkers and versatile scholars of our time.

IT was a baritone voice that people across the globe heard with reverence, for they recognised it and considered the man who owned it, Karthigesu Sivathamby, as the voice of reason on many of the pressing social and cultural issues of their time. On July 6, that voice fell silent; Sivathamby, one of the great progressive thinkers of our time and versatile scholar, social historian and critic, passed away in his Colombo residence at the age of 79. His insightful and pioneering works, especially on Tamil literature and culture, will continue to guide scholars and writers for generations to come

Sivathamby's interests were varied, but it is the scientific and sociological perspective in his analysis of Tamil culture from the Sangam age to the modern era of the mass media that continues to amaze scholars today. His analyses on the origin and growth of the Dravidian Movement, the Pure Tamil Movement, and the impact of cinema on politics in Tamil Nadu have also stood the test of time and won critical acclaim.

Sivathamby authored more than 50 books and monographs. His doctoral thesis on Drama in Ancient Tamil Society traces the genesis of Tamil theatre from the earliest period of Sangam literature to the 5th century A.D. Some of his books are Being a Tamil and Sri Lankan, The Tamil Film as a Medium of Political Communication, Literary History in Tamil A Historiographical Analysis, Tamil Nationalism and Social Conflicts, The Origin and Development of Tamil Short Story, Novel and Life, Understanding the Dravidian Movement and Confronting the Prospects for Peace in Sri Lanka.

Among his 200-odd research papers are the following: The Ritualistic Origin of Tamil Drama, Early South Indian Society and Economy: The Tinai Concept, Cankam Literature and Archaeology, The Development of Aristocracy in Ancient Tamil Nadu, Politicians as Players, Religion: Cultural Integration for Human Development in Sri Lanka: A Socialist Viewpoint, Tamil Novel Since the Fifties, The Sri Lankan Tamil Question: 1977-1983, Tamil Nationalism and Social Conflicts, American Influence on Sri Lanka's Social Life, Muslim Tamil Relations and the Sri Lanka Ethnic Crisis and Vaiyapuripillai as a Literary Historian of Tamil: An Analysis of his Ideology and Methodology as seen in his History of Tamil Language and Literature'. These works offer testimony to his industry, intellectual honesty, thoroughness and accuracy, scholars point out.

His work is valuable, both for what it achieves and for what it will help others to achieve. That was how George Thomson, Sivathamby's guide at the University of Birmingham, described Drama in Ancient Tamil Society.

Describing Sivathamby as an original thinker well-versed in ancient and modern literature and art, his contemporary and veteran Sri Lankan writer Se. Ganesalingan, said: His research works on Tamil literature and sociology will vouch for it. For him, art itself was universal, originating from rituals, and this was the bottom line of all his commitments towards art and literature. He always held Marxism and sociology as the basis for his approach to research. His rational thinking made him adopt this particular kind of approach. He also said that Sivathamby treated Greek tragedy purely as an aesthetic form of expression, pertaining to perception by the senses and appreciation or criticism of the beautiful or of art.

The veteran folklorist A. Sivasubramanian recalled Sivathamby's long association with the Communist Party of Sri Lanka and said he never concealed his adherence to Marxism. For him the ideology was not a stagnant pool but a flowing perennial river. He had never been dogmatic. This became possible for him because he keenly followed developments and constantly updated his knowledge by absorbing the positive aspects of new trends in the progressive world, Sivasubramanian opined.

He pointed out that though the scholar adopted a sociological approach from a Marxist perspective for his research, he carefully avoided jargon and cliches. Readers, he said, always appreciated Sivathamby's approach for being unbiased and straight.

Sivathamby engaged himself actively in promoting Koothu, the native traditional theatre, in Sri Lanka in a big way. He also associated himself keenly with the New Theatre Movement, besides evincing interest in radio drama.

According to S. Thothathri, a functionary of the Tamil Nadu Kalai Ilakkiya Perumanram (Tamil Nadu Art and Literary Federation), at one stage Sivathamby was drawn to postmodernism. However, he accepted it with reservations, he said.

V. Arasu, Professor and Head, Department of Tamil Literature, University of Madras, said South Indian literary history writing was Sivathamby's most significant contribution to Tamil society. When scholars from abroad and their counterparts in India failed to give due importance to South India, he took upon himself the task of recording, with the help of classical texts, many aspects of South Indian literary history. Breaking away from the traditional approach, he stressed the need to give the same level of importance to both classical and modern literature, Arasu said.

Scholars point out that Sivathamby never failed to appreciate creative writing. A case in point is his assessment of the works of Jayakanthan, a Jnanpith Award winner:

One of the greatest contributions of Jayakanthan is the change he brought about in the process of thinking in the Tamil literary world.

He [Jayakanthan] wrote about subjects not explored by others. His writings revolved around the lives of ordinary people, especially those who were on the margins of society. He identified the agon [a literary device in Greek tragedy indicating conflict] in the lives of the subaltern and popularised them.

Research on cinema

Sivathamby gave importance to the media, both print and visual, while teaching 20th century social history, Arasu said. At a time when Tamil scholars treated films as anathema, he took up extensive research on cinema. According to P. Anandakumar, professor, Gandhigram Rural University, Sivathamby was of the view that the cinema hall was the first performance centre where all Tamils sat under the same roof.

Referring to Sivathamby's book The Tamil Film as a Medium of Political Communication, Anandakumar said the scholar had pointed out that the motion picture was from the beginning an entertainment, produced for the masses despite the indifference or disapproval of the cultivated minority, while the tradition of music, drama and literature reached their first eminence as an exclusive possession of the educated aristocracy.

Rama Sundaram, former head of the Scientific Tamil Department, Thanjavur Tamil University, described Sivathamby's research on Tinai in early South Indian society as a pioneering work. ( Tinai represents the natural land divisions on the basis of which behaviour patterns are developed.) Though Tinai had been regarded only from a literary perspective for a long time, Sivathamby gave a Marxist interpretation to the socio-economic evolution of the fivefold division: Kurinji, Mullai, Marudam, Neithal and Paalai. He also stressed the fact that the T inais were a contemporary physical reality.

Sivathamby and his contemporary, K. Kailasapathy, who were a part of the progressive literary movement in Sri Lanka, had lively exchanges with their counterparts in India. Besides contributing to progressive literary magazines such as Shanthi, Saraswathi and Thamarai, they also visited Tamil Nadu to interact with literary personalities, including stalwarts such as P. Jeevanandam, T.M.C. Raghunathan and N. Vanamamalai, said Rama Sundaram.

One aspect that could not be ignored by the progressive world was that Sivathamby and Kailasapathy with their Marxist background were also professors in universities in Sri Lanka, and together they played a major role in evolving the curricula and syllabi for Tamil students, Arasu said. Impressed by Sivathamby's exemplary contributions to the institutions of higher learning in Sri Lanka and guidance of students in research, the University of Madras and certain other universities in Tamil Nadu invited him to be a visiting professor.

It would be no exaggeration to say that Sivathamby the social historian made sincere attempts to fathom the political and cultural history of Tamil Nadu to ascertain the factors that contributed to the origin, growth and metamorphosis of the Dravidian Movement right from the days of the Pure Tamil Movement up to the successive splits suffered by the Dravidar Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, even as the Marxists in the State were involved in a similar exercise.

On Dravidian Movement

Apart from his research papers, including the one titled Understanding the Dravidian Movement Problems and Perspectives, he had shared his views on the subject in in-depth interviews to magazines. In one of his interviews to Frontline (April 29, 1988), he traced the origin of the movement thus:

The Dravidian Movement arose out of the real, as well as the imagined, grievances of certain non-Brahmin sections of the population of the old, composite Madras Presidency against the Brahmins. In securing government posts under the British, the Brahmins had a competitive edge over these land-holding, trade-oriented castes.

But then with E.V. Ramaswami Naicker's entry in the 1930s, there was a turning point. The pro-British Justice Party got discredited, and the movement thereafter took on a particularly Tamil' flavour. EVR (Periyar) started an atheistic, rationalist movement, with Singaravelu Chettiar [who became the first communist from South India] supporting him at the start. After the Vaikom issue of temple entry for the untouchables, EVR left the Congress. His Self-Respect Movement ( Suya Mariyaadai Iyakkam) sought to unite all the non-Brahmins against the overwhelming traditional prestige of the Brahmins, and their pre-eminent position in the ritual hierarchy. And then there is the third stream the Tanittamil or Pure Tamil Movement of Maraimalai Adigal, which is really much older, dating from 1916.

By 1930 all these three streams the grievances of the Justice Party, EVR's Self-Respect Movement, and the Pure Tamil Movement had converged. Along with the Independence struggle grew this Dravidian Movement, and by 1949 it had become a socio-political reality.

In another interview to Frontline (November 8, 2002), Sivathamby dwelt at length on issues relating to the crisis faced by the Dravidian Movement. [T]he tragedy of Tamil Nadu is, as I look at it as a student of Tamil literature and as a Marxist, there has been a de-ideologisation of politics. As a Marxist, I would say that the basic problem was that the whole Dravidian ideology was not shaped in terms of economics, he opined. [T]he socio-political grievances for which the Dravidian Movement gave expression were not cemented with a basic economic perspective. Owing to its inability to forge a politico-economic outlook, the leadership took the path of populism [when the movement wielded political power].

As his country was undergoing a turbulent period, with ethnic Tamils demanding a fair deal, Sivathamby did not choose to give sermons from an ivory tower. His stature did not allow him to be a ringside watcher either. According to M.D. Rajkumar, fellow, Central Institute of Classical Tamil, the scholar, without even minding about his personal safety, undertook a lot of fieldwork to end the hostilities, rehabilitate the internally displaced people and enable his Tamil brethren to live with dignity and honour. He played a remarkable role in this regard in his capacity as chairman, Coordinating Committee of Citizens of North and East of Sri Lanka (1984-1986); member, National Committee for the Monitoring of the Cessation of Hostilities (1985-1986); chairman, the Refugee Rehabilitation Organisation (1986-1998); and patron of the Colombo Tamil Sangam from 1942.

Born in Karaveddi in Jaffna in 1932, Sivathamby studied B.A. (History, Economics and Tamil) and M.A. (Tamil) at the University of Ceylon and received his PhD (Drama in Ancient Tamil Society) from the University of Birmingham in 1970. Awards and honours knocked on his doors in recognition of his contributions to Tamil society and humanity as a whole.

He had served as a simultaneous interpreter in the House of Representatives of Parliament of Ceylon. He taught at Zahira College, and Vidyodaya University and Eastern University of Sri Lanka.

He was a visiting professor of Tamil at the University of Madras and the Institute of International Studies, Chennai. He was also a senior research fellow/visiting fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, Tamil University, Thanjavur, and the University of Cambridge.

Unfortunately the renowned Tamil scholar was given a raw deal in Tamil Nadu on a couple of occasions: he was denied permission to present a paper at the fifth World Tamil Conference held in Madurai in 1981 and he was not even allowed to participate in the eighth meet in Thanjavur in 1995, lamented a scholar.

However, at the World Classical Tamil Conference held in Coimbatore last year, as chairman of the academic committee, Sivathamby called for greater coordination among universities to streamline postdoctoral research in Tamil at a global level.

In an interview to Frontline (July 30, 2010) during the meet, he allayed all apprehensions about the future of Tamil. Unlike a tribal language, Tamil has a civilisation. When I say so, I mean Tamil's antiquity and continuity. The language has been able to face challenges in every major historical phase. In all these phases Tamil has changed and it is bound to change, but its identity remains, he asserted. Tamil has been a secular language: even religions that are competitive in their explanation of the world found it easy and approachable to express their ideas, he pointed out.

Stressing the need for efforts to eliminate the questions and situations that led to the so-called separatist rights in the post-civil war scenario in Sri Lanka, he also made an appeal to both communities, through that interview, for peaceful coexistence. The Sinhalese should accept that we are Tamils and Sri Lankans, and we should accept that they are Sinhalese and Sri Lankans. This does not mean the country belongs to any one of the communities. It is ours.

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