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Celebrating Tamil

Published : Jul 30, 2010 00:00 IST



Scholars at the historic first World Classical Tamil conference evolve strategies to enrich the language further.

in Coimbatore

THE atmosphere at the first World Classical Tamil Conference, held in Coimbatore from June 23 to 27, was surcharged with Tamil pride but was totally free of the jingoism that one would expect at a meeting of its kind. The event was organised six years after the Central government accorded classical language status to Tamil. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi had initiated it, and he strained every nerve throughout the five days to ensure that the mega event was not marred by controversies and negative propaganda. He walked the extra mile to see that it was not dubbed a ruling party affair, although he could not completely curb the praise and adulation showered on him by some overenthusiastic participants in the cultural events.

Tamil lovers from every nook and corner of the world converged on the industrial-cum-educational hub of Tamil Nadu and joined the flood of humanity.

Karunanidhi pointed out in the inaugural session that the conference, organised by the State government, was different from the previous eight World Tamil Conferences held since 1966 in that the latter were held under the auspices of the International Association for Tamil Research (IATR). The first world Tamil conference was convened in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia. The eighth was held in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu in 1995. He said that besides earmarking Rs.69 crore towards direct expenditure for holding the Tamil conference, Rs.243 crore was spent on infrastructure development in Coimbatore.

A day after the conference concluded, a jubilant Chief Minister announced that World Classical Tamil conferences would be held in the State once in five years. Evaluating the outcome of the meet, he said 913 papers on 55 topics had been presented at 239 sittings. Of them, 152 were presented by foreign delegates. A total of 2,605 delegates, including 840 foreigners from 50 countries, attended it.

Without getting drowned in the euphoria caused by the cultural programmes got up to ensure public participation on a large scale, the plenary, academic and technical sessions of the conference provided the much-needed opportunity to scholars, researchers and experts to evolve a strategy to further enrich Tamil and enable the language to equip itself to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

The ninth Tamil Internet Conference was also held alongside the main meet, and was attended by 500 delegates. Its technical sessions were devoted to discussing recent advances and challenges in Tamil computing and Tamil Internet in general, and 110 papers were presented at these.

The public response to three exhibitions at the venue the main exhibition showcasing around 700 artefacts, including relics from the Indus Valley civilisation; the Tamil Internet Exhibition and the book exhibition was tremendous. The duration of the main exhibition was extended by a week. According to official sources, around four lakh people had visited these exhibitions. The opening day of the conference was marked by an impressive pageant consisting of 40 floats depicting the antiquity and richness of the Tamil language and culture.

Interesting topics were discussed at the academic sessions, but it was the plenary sessions that gave the much-needed impetus, focus and direction to research activities. The plenary sessions were guided by the eminent Sri Lankan Tamil scholar K. Sivathambi, who was the chairman of the Academic Committee of the conference. Sivathambi stressed the need for publishing a monogram highlighting the antiquity and greatness of the Tamil language in all UNESCO-recognised languages. This would go a long way in helping the Tamil diaspora, particularly the children, he said.

Asko Parpola, the Finnish Tamil scholar and Professor Emeritus at the Institute of World Cultures, University of Helsinki, who presented a paper titled A Dravidian Solution to the Indus Script Problem at the first plenary session, said: I am confident that an opening to the secrets of the Indus script has been achieved: we know that the underlying language was Proto-Dravidian and we know how the script functions. The confirmed interpretations and their wider contexts provide a lot of clues for progress.

However, he also referred to certain serious difficulties in achieving this. One of them was the schematic shape of many signs, which makes it difficult to recognise their pictorial meaning with certainty and our defective knowledge of Proto-Dravidian vocabulary, compounds and phraseology. Expressing the hope that scholars who speak Tamil and other Dravidian languages as their mother tongue would actively participate in this exercise and develop it further, he said laymen, too, could make useful contributions in suggesting possible pictorial meanings for the Indus sign.

George L. Hart, Professor of Tamil language at the University of California, Berkeley, discussed in his paper the Uniqueness of Classical Tamil. He made it clear that the languages of South Asia, with one exception, derived their traditions from Sanskrit or Persian/Arabic. Their oldest literatures are based on the literatures of these languages and when they want to coin new words, it is to those languages that they turn. The only exception to this pattern is Tamil.

Referring to the ancient literary traditions of Sanskrit and Tamil languages, he said, The aim of a Sanskrit writer is not to connect his reader with ordinary life, but to lift him out of the morass of everyday existence into a world in which things are aesthetically refined, perfect and unreal. Quite in contrast to this, each longer Sangam poem reveals a complex web of real life. Each poem is like a journey through the real world.

The Russian Tamil scholar Alexander M. Dubyansky, who made a presentation on Tholkappiyam, the treatise on Tamil grammar, expressed the view that though Tholkappiyam is certainly based on Tamil poetic tradition and its author had in mind the more or less true description of the linguistic and poetic aspects of this tradition, he also had a super task of constructing an ideal model of a poetic universe, using all the layers of poetic compositions, including the language, as a foundation for his model, and possibly all aspects of poetry and poetics.

M. Anandakrishnan, the chairman of the organising committee of the Tamil Internet Conference, called for instituting an Internet Tamil Development Fund. He also suggested the setting up of centres of excellence in various universities in seven areas Tamil computational linguistics, search engines-automatic machine translation, Tamil in hand-held devices, methodology to teach computer technology in Tamil, character recognition, database dictionary and e-governance. He said Rs.10 crore could be set apart for each centre.

Parpola received the Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Award for the best contribution to Classical Tamil studies from President Pratibha Devisingh Patil. In his acceptance speech, he said, The Government of India has rightly recognised Tamil as a classical language, a status that it fully deserves in view of its antiquity and its rich literature that in quality and extent matches many other classical traditions of the world. Yet Tamil is not alone in possessing such a rich heritage in India, which is really a very exceptional country with so many languages having old and remarkable literatures, both written and oral. Sanskrit with its three thousand-year-old tradition has produced an unrivalled number of literary works.


Describing the conference as a historic event, Karunanidhi also launched a road map for taking Tamil research forward and sought adequate funds for this purpose on a par with that earmarked for Sanskrit. Without referring to the problems faced by the government in holding the meet, he announced the establishment of an international body of Tamil scholars World Tholkappiar Classical Tamil Sangam in Madurai to conduct the world conferences at regular intervals. A permanent exhibition on Dravidian language and culture is among the tasks of the proposed Sangam.

Karunanidhi urged the Central government to locate the proposed Indian National Institute of Epigraphy in Chennai, for out of around one lakh epigraphic representations identified in different parts of the country, 60,000 were in Tamil. The State government would set up genetic heritage gardens in the five landscapes identified in Sangam literature as Kurinchi, Mullai, Neithal, Palai and Marudam. The agricultural scientist Dr M.S. Swaminathan would organise the heritage gardens, the Chief Minister announced, adding that this would be our contribution to the International Year of Biodiversity being celebrated this year.

Necessary law will be enacted for giving preference in government jobs for those who study in Tamil, he announced. He insisted that Tamil should be made an official language at the Centre and it should be accepted as a language of use in the Madras High Court.

However, the conference was not entirely free of trouble. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the main opposition party, and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, its ally, boycotted it on the grounds that such international meets should be called by the IATR as per tradition and it was ridiculous to hold it when Sri Lankan Tamils were in distress.

However, several other political parties, including the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, the Dravidar Kazhagam and different factions of the Muslim League, participated in the conference.

The AIADMK and some of its allies urged President Pratibha Patil, ahead of the conference, to give her consent to their demand to make Tamil the language of the Madras High Court before attending the conference in Coimbatore.

Avoiding a direct reference to the opposition move, Karunanidhi profusely thanked the President for inaugurating and attending the meet, brushing aside all the impediments that were created.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 30, 2010.)



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