Recognising a classic

Published : Nov 05, 2004 00:00 IST

Tamil scholars welcome the recognition of Tamil as a classical language by the Central government but caution against losing sight of the need to modernise the language.

A MID-SEPTEMBER decision by the Union Cabinet to declare Tamil a `classical language' brought cheer to the millions of Tamil-speaking people across the world. For the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre, the unique honour bestowed on the 2,500-year-old language marked the fulfilment of a promise made in the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP), within six months of coming to power. The government's commitment on this, in fact, found mention in the President's address to Parliament in June.

For the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and other UPA constituents in Tamil Nadu this meant the redemption of their pledge to the electorate. And for DMK president M. Karunanidhi it is a personal success inasmuch as he had to employ all his political skills to get this long-time wish of the Tamil community realised. It is celebration time in the State, with political, social and cultural organisations vying with one another to thank him. The ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu had also been pressing the Centre to accept the demand and it has welcomed the decision.

Briefing the media after a meeting of the Union Cabinet on September 17, Information and Broadcasting Minister S. Jaipal Reddy said the government's decision was based on the recommendation of an Expert Committee of the Sahitya Akademi that a category of "classical languages" be created. Since Tamil fulfilled the set of criteria that the Committee had evolved, it won the honour of being the first to get into this prestigious category. Although Tamil and a few other languages such as Greek, Latin and Sanskrit enjoy the status of `classical language' in the academic world thanks to their antiquity and rich literary heritage, Tamil is the first living language to be given the official status of a classical language.

Jaipal Reddy said the government would consider Sanskrit or any other language for inclusion in the category depending on their "heritage and legacy". The Minister said a Committee of Linguistic Experts would consider any future demand for `classical language' status in accordance with the criteria evolved by the Expert Committee of the Sahitya Akademi. The Expert Committee was specially appointed by the government to consider Tamil's case for being given `classical language' status. The criteria, as reported by the media, are: the language should have early texts or recorded history of at least one thousand years; a body of ancient literature or texts, considered a valuable heritage by a generation of speakers; and a literary tradition that is original and not borrowed from another speech community.

Explaining what the honour means in terms of the development of Tamil language and literature and spread of Tamil studies, Jaipal Reddy said two major international awards would be given annually to scholars of eminence in the classical Indian languages. Besides, a centre of excellence for studies in classical languages would be set up and the University Grants Commission would be requested to establish a number of professional chairs for classical languages.

A section of Tamil writers and scholars, however, expresses the view that Tamil already enjoys the status of "classical language" in many universities and academic research organisations in several countries and that chairs for Tamil Studies have been instituted in their departments of Classical Languages. These institutions acknowledge ancient Tamil literature as "classical literature" and treat it on a par with classical literature of Greek, Latin and Sanskrit. The critics describe the entire episode as "nothing but a political gimmick" and are sceptical of the Tamil language making any remarkable gain from the status enhancement.

However, Karunanidhi considers state recognition and patronage as significant factors for the growth of languages. To substantiate this, he explained at a public function in Chennai, held on October 10 to felicitate him, how Sanskrit benefited from the patronage of Tamil rulers such as the Pallavas and the Cholas. Some of these rulers, he said, even leaned more on the side of Sanskrit than Tamil.

The DMK president dedicated his triumph on the issue and the encomiums showered on him to the scores of eminent Tamil scholars, among them Bishop Robert Caldwell (1814-1891, a British linguist who authored Comparative Grammar of Dravidian Languages) and Parithimaal Kalaingar, who contributed in a big way to establish the greatness of Tamil language and literature. He pledged to strive to make Tamil one of the official languages of the Union government.

Parithimaal Kalaingar (1870-1903) was a Professor of Tamil in Madras Christian College, in what is now Chennai, from 1895 to 1903. He was the first to stake Tamil's claim for the status of classical language, at the academic level. A scholar in both Tamil and Sanskrit, he was so devoted to Tamil that he changed his Sanskrit name, (V.G.) Sooryanarayana Shastri, into Tamil. Along with M.S. Poornalingam Pillai, a key figure in the Self-Respect Movement, Parithimaal Kalaingar intervened on behalf of Tamil during a crucial period in the educational history of Tamil Nadu.

The 19th century saw the emergence of several colleges in the country. In schools, English was the First Language and the regional language was taught as the Second Language. On the question of choosing a non-English language for study in colleges, there was a suggestion that Sanskrit be selected on the grounds that it was a classical language representing the composite Indian literary and cultural heritage. The colonial government had reservations on this since it considered Sanskrit a religious language and sought the views of the universities. Parithimaal Kalaingar opposed the move claiming that Tamil was better qualified than Sanskrit to serve the purpose and he approached the University of Madras to stake the claim for classical language status for Tamil. The government resolved the issue by allowing universities to have the regional language as the Second Language in colleges.

In 1918, the Saiva Siddhanta Samajam passed a resolution demanding that Madras University grant classical language status to Tamil. This was done at the initiative of Maraimalai Adigal (1876-1950), Professor of Tamil in Madras Christian College and a proponent of the Pure Tamil Movement, whose original name was Vedachalam. Two years later, the Thanjavur-based Karanthai Tamil Sangam petitioned the university to raise the status issue with the Provincial government. Not much was heard of the demand for a long time after that.

The 1970s again saw a champion of the cause in Manavai Mustafa, who was then Editor, UNESCO Courier (Tamil), but he did not have much organisational backing. Since 1975 he has been writing consistently in newspapers and magazines pressing the demand. Mustafa, who is now the Editor of Encyclopaedia Britannica-Tamil, told Frontline that he had the first opportunity to take the issue to a different plane when he addressed one of the sessions of the World Tamil Conference in Madurai in 1980. Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran, who was present, asked him to send a petition detailing how Tamil qualified to claim the status.

Mustafa said it took him two years to collect the necessary data, which included the features a language should have to qualify for classical status. For this, he looked for the features that were common in the existing classical languages, with the help of experts in those languages. He presented a petition to the Chief Minister in 1982, but no action was taken. Years later, he said, he learnt that the petition was rejected by a top government official on the grounds that if Tamil was given the status on a par with Latin, Greek and Sanskrit, which are no more spoken languages, Tamil would also be considered a `dead' language. Yet, Mustafa continued to champion the cause at all available fora.

Among the others who have pressed Tamil's case in recent years at public fora is Tamil scholar and academic, V.C. Kulandaisamy. In his view, "Tamil and Sanskrit are the two eyes through which one has to look at India's cultural heritage in its totality. The classical status for Tamil will further encourage Tamil studies in Indian and foreign universities and help the language on new lines in new domains."

THE movement to classify Tamil a classical language gained momentum about 10 years ago when major political parties took up the issue. A few months before the 1996 general elections, the DMK adopted a resolution at its Tiruchi conference demanding that Tamil be made one of the official languages of the Union government. The demand was also included in the DMK's manifesto for the Assembly elections held along with the general elections. The party won, defeating the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK.

In 1998, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) captured power at the Centre, its electoral ally, the AIADMK, pressed for classical language status for Tamil. Many academics felt that the BJP-led government, which declared 1999 as Sanskrit Year and caused a flow of funds to universities and Sanskrit organisations, was not keen to concede the demand of classical status to Tamil. The DMK as a power-sharing ally of the BJP in the 1999-2004 government pressed Tamil's case when it, as also other parties, organised hunger-strikes and demonstrations and thousands of people courted arrest.

When electoral alliances changed for the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the classical language plea surfaced again. The Tamil Nadu Assembly and the Syndicate of Madras University adopted resolutions pressing the demand. The DMK conference at Villupuram also passed a resolution to that effect. The demand figured in the manifestoes of almost all parties in the State. When the DMK-led alliance made a clean sweep and contributed in a big way to the formation of the UPA government at the Centre, it became easier to have the classical language proposal included in the NCMP. Karunanidhi, aided by Union Ministers and Members of Parliament from the State, gave a further push and a long-cherished dream of the Tamils became a reality.

Scholars, academics and writers have welcomed the honour done to Tamil and said this would inspire hundreds of researchers to take up Tamil studies and enrich the language and its literature. It would also help Tamil face the challenges posed by the recent developments in the field of science and technology and benefit from them.

Manavai Mustafa, who was associated with the efforts up to the last stage, said: "But for the political sagacity of Karunanidhi this could not have been achieved. Now, the Tamils should strive to spread Tamil studies across the world and develop the language to suit the modern, technological era."

Dr. R. Balachandran (Bala), a Tamil critic and Member of the Executive Committee of the Sahitya Akademi, said, "We, the Tamils, have to change a lot in attitude, dispensation and performance to be good enough to own the classical heritage." He said only if Tamils learnt other Indian languages also "we can take the greatness of Tamil and its literary heritage to other language groups".

Dr. N. Deiva Sundaram, Professor and Director for Linguistics, University of Madras, hoped that the new status would enable Tamil to increase its areas of function, improve its structure and modernise itself to suit the needs of the language technology in tune with computer and communication technologies. Facilitating machine translation, digitisation and other such efforts were urgently needed, he said. The classical status should not end up only in giving priority to research on classical literature. The urgent need to modernise the language should not be lost sight of, he cautioned.

Writer and scholar Indira Parthasarathy, who was Professor of Tamil in Warsaw University, Poland, also stressed this point. He said the inclusion of Tamil in the classical languages category should not mean that it had to lose the benefits it has been getting as one of the `modern Indian languages'. "I want my language to be categorised not only as a classical language but also as a modern one," he said and added, "To differentiate Tamil from all other languages we can declare Tamil covering a particular period, for instance, from the pre-Christian era to the bhakti period or epic period, that is around A.D 1000, as a `classical language' and Tamil after that period as a `modern Indian language'. He cited the example of the People's Republic of China, which has placed the Chinese language under two categories - `Classical Chinese' and `Vernacular Chinese'. The Classical Tamil, he said, should be declared a part of the common Indian culture and heritage. "This", he said, "is necessary to make all Indians feel that they are the inheritors of not only the Bhagvad Gita, but also the Thirukkural."

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