Date: December 1, 2007
Place: Trichy, Tamil Nadu
Life and literature of Tamils
As seen from the perspectives of Tamils living abroad and outside Tamil Nadu in India
I am highly grateful for all those who have thought of inviting me to give the keynote address to this assembly of Tamil scholars and all lovers of Tamil language and literature.
This is an exciting theme, happening at an exciting time. The historic situation of the world today, at the beginning of a new millennium, with globalisation and the rising terrorist violence and the rapid pace of life, a growing migration of people outside of their traditional homes and the consequent identity crisis have all created and given us, in particular, educators, creative writers, thinkers, poets and novelists a new challenge. The time is certainly here for us to think hard and come up with new ideas and new perspectives.
As I am new to this assembly of scholars and all those present here, I think it is only proper I give a very brief indication of what I think may be my credentials for the role assigned to me today.
Yes, I have some qualifications and credentials as I see it.
Apart from the fact that I went to some of the most universities, India’s most famous university, namely of Visva Bharati at Santiniketan founded by Rabindranath Tagore, I also had the privilege of going up to Oxford University in UK.I was lucky to study at these universities when there were giants of men who led these portals of learning. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru himself was the Chancellor of Visva-Bharati University when I was there for four years and I had the great good fortune to have come closer to him in my formative years. Of course, this impacted my personality and outlook.
At Oxford in the later Fifties and early Sixties there was an unprecedented intellectual ferment, in fact, a revolution in philosophy that almost changed the course of the modern twentieth century philosophy. Oxford was the hub of this philosophy. Bertrand Russell and his colleagues were very much alive then. At Oxford were all his successors, Prof.A.J.Ayer, Isaiah Berlin, John Plamenetz in philosophy and politics and Sir John Hicks and Sir Roy Harrod in philosophy, A.J.P.Taylor in history, Sir Maurice Bowra in classical and modern literature were all very much there and some of these great minds taught me. I am glad to say and it is worth mentioning, I think, that I was taught by those who won the Nobel Prizes (Sir Hicks for economics) and some of my friends also won the Nobel Prizes (Amartya Sen for economics), when I was there the youngest Indian to won a prestigious literature prize (the Hawthordon prize for poetry) was Dom Moraes, my close friend who won it at age 19! So, you can imagine the ferment in which my intellect was nurtured.
2. Study of Tamil literature at an early age.
I had chosen early in my education course to study Tamil and Tamil literature as a core subject. When I went to Pachayappa College in Chennai in the early Fifties, at age 16 or so, that college was the very centre of a high level Tamil scholarship.
I took up the “D” Group in Tamil what is surprising as I look back now is the fact and you must all be surprised to hear that of all subjects I scored first rank in Tamil grammar! The teachers who taught us those days were all great scholars, Natesa Naicker taught us Nannool, Subramanya Achary taught us Tandi Alankaram, A.M.Paramasivanandam taught us Yapparungalakarikai and Dr.M.Varadarajan taught us, I think, the Sangam classics, and others like Prof.Aa.Sa.Gnanasambandam, Anbu Ganapathy and Anbhzhagan were all our teachers.
Pachayappa’s was a very liberal education centre and we had all become early exposed to distinguished speakers who came to address us. Anna and V.K.Krishna Menon, besides a host of Tamil scholars like Appadurai,short story writers like Ti.Ja.Ra came to the college campus.
While in the college itself I learnt to write poetry and I became a budding poet . I got my writings published by such stalwarts like Tho.Mu.Si.Raghunathan, the colleague of Pudumaipithan,Vindan,A.K. Chettiar and others. In fact, I won the first prize for poetry conducted by Tho.Mu.Si, by his literary magazine,Sahanti,in 1954.
I became a writer and poet at an early age. But I was always interested in a wider world.
Thus, my early interest in Tamil language and literature, gave me a head start to go and do many other things in later years.
Now, my interest in the subject grew and this helped me to develop further contacts outside Tamil Nadu, in Bengal and other states, Kerala and Karnataka.
3. The scenario today.
In our time, that is, during the last generation, Tamil scholarship was, if I may put so, in the post-U.V.Saminatha Iyer stage what was priority was to study the Sangam classics. That is what we did in our college studies. We took up the study of the Tamil classics and appreciate their great contributions.
We also learnt to enjoy and develop a pride in what the Dravidian heritage had contributed.
It was also the time when the great research scholars, from the West(like the Czech scholar Kamil Xvelebil) and also from outside Tamil Nadu(like A.K.Ramanujan) and others were contributing to enrich our own understanding of the growth of Tamil language and literature.
Apart from the classical literature, modern Tamil literature also got some new impetus to reach great heights. Of course, the trigger was the rise of nationalism, the idea of freedom etc brought forth the immortal poetry of Subramanya Bharati and Bharatidasan. Short story writers, novelists and also the poets, starting from Mahakavi Bharati to Bharatidasan to as late as Kannadasan, we saw a remarkable growth curve, so to say. It was a Renaissance of sorts in the growth and development of great new literature in Tamil.
4.Tamils live in 90-odd countries
Now, let us pause and take a look at where we are today.
Tamil people have migrated from early times and Tamils are one of the earliest to migrate to South Africa, the West Indies and Fiji Islands, Malaysia and Singapore and other countries. And in more recent times the Tamil migrant population is a great new phenomenon. As such Tamils today are spread out and live in as many as 90-odd countries
Tamil language is now a sort of international language. It is also well spread in neighbouring states. Tamils are now a significant number in a city like Bangalore, it is said some two thirds in Bangalore speak Tamil. Among the countries in about 60 countries the Tamil population is considered a significant number. Tamils in the world constitute about seven and half crores. And more significantly, about 20 per cent of the total number of Tamils in the world lives outside the home territory of Tamil Nadu. Among the Indian languages only Tamil language is declared as the national language as well as the administrative language in two countries, namely, Sri Lanka and Singapore.
In some other countries like Malaysia, Mouritius, South Africa,Britain,Australia,Fiji Islands, and some other states, Tamil is officially a recognised language.
Of course, Tamil as the first Dravidian language is a language for higher research, as Sanskrit is, in some of the oldest universities of the world, in France, Germany, UK and USA and even in some other countries, I am not sure. I know for sure that at Oxford and Cambridge there are separate departments. At Oxford of my time there used to be an Indian Institute where one distinguished scholar, I think, Dr.Burrow, in Dravidian etymology used to know and often used to converse with him.
One of my theses regarding the development and evolution of Tamil thought is that the European Enlightenment somehow missed reaching the Tamil society, in spite of the many Christian missionaries who came in the 13th to the 17th centuries to spread their religions. They contributed to the development of Tamil, they printed the first books(1576),they translated the Bible and they created the Tamil prose writing and wrote the comparative grammar and also composed literature. And yet, the modern European enlightenment, the ideas of freedoms, rights of man and the dignity of man were never taught. The British and their English education in fact went on to produce clerks for their empire building in which Indians became willing partners. There is one book, called, “Ethnology and travel in Renaissance Europe: visitors to South India 1250-1625″by a scholar from the London School of Economics. This book is full of rare information and has sources from non-British Europeans and non-British sources, written by visitors from Italy, Venice, Portuguese, Spanish, French, German and Latin. These sources traced here in the new book ,are from Vatican libraries in Rome and elsewhere, in Lisbon, Madrid, Venice and Paris.
Ours is of course a tragic history. These European missionaries were out here to convert the Hindus, to Christianity and the Muslims, the Turkey and Central Asians adventurers were also out here, the first Muslim invasion of Madurai was as early as in 1310.
Luckily or unluckily, we, Indians were brought under the European colonial education system and also we were fed by the discoveries of Sir John Cunningham or William Jones, the Asiatic Society did great discoveries, we Indians came to know our own glorious past but ,alas, we were not exposed to the rise of knowledge, the Italian Renaissance or the later rise of science and reason, the European Enlightenment that gave the Western societies a head start in modern civilisation.
Anyway, it is time we get back to international currents of knowledge and seek our place in the sun, so to say. The Macaulay Ghost still haunts the educated Indians, we seek for a clerical life style and now another danger lurks, that is the Yankee land’s material gloss.
We have to evolve our own Indian personality. Our Tamil individuality must be seen in the larger context of the pan-Indian personality.
Of course we know that BBC and Unesco have given Tamil a pride of place in their scheme of things. I used to broadcast in the BBC Tamil services every week.
Tamils are legitimately proud about the fact that their classical Sangam classics scored over other classical sources as for their secular poetry and secular thoughts that were far reaching in their relevance even to our modern times.
If you read the translations of these classics, say of Purananuru, by A.K.Ramanujan and say Prof. George L.Hart of California university, Berkeley then we would realise that Tamil classical language and literature has that rare timeless quality about it.
Now, we all know the uniqueness of the Sangam classics, they are pre-Aryan and purely Dravidian and they exemplify life’s goals almost as secularly and as modern ways as we can imagine today.
6.My work to reform the universities in the state
The audience here might not know certain features and the development of the universities in the state. I have some personal involvements and also some views as I had worked at some levels.
First, my term at the Madras Legislative Council, during the years 1968 to 1974 coincided with some far-reaching changes in Tamil Nadu politics and social and cultural changes. In 1967,the Congress party lost power in the state and never recovered. When I entered the Legislative Council, I saw a sudden change in the very political environment. There was the DMK leader, the late C.N.Annadurai, Anna, as the Chief Minister and in fact he was so supreme and he looked like a demi-god. Yet, the Council had certain old features and faces, still intact. There were all the great names in the Council, Manikcavelu Naicker was the Chairman of the Council and Sir A.Lakshmanaswamy Mudaliar, Sir Raja Sir Muthiah Chettiar, G.R.Damodaran and a galaxy of educationists and senior Congress leaders were all there. I was perhaps the youngest member and as such I was a new face and not counted as one of the standard figures! Anna was curious about me ,as my election victory was unexpected as I won the election as an Independent and thus, I defeated Anna’s candidate and it was the first defeat to the official DMK candidate and as such I was sought after by everyone, as the DMK was in short of the majority in the Council. In fact, Anna sent an emissary to Coimbatore to meet me and persuade to go over to Chennai to meet him.
When I met Anna he was a demi-god for me as well for everyone feared even to approach him, let alone try to talk or converse with him.
As for the other members of the Council, as I mentioned that most of them were sebiors and with distinguished records of service. One of the first things I did in the Council was to speak on the university education and I moved a private member Bill to discuss the terms of the Vice-Chancellor of the Madras University. You must remember that Sir A.L.Mudaliar was no less a demi-god! He was presiding over the venerable university for something like 27 years, continuously, uninterrupted and no one thought of asking the question why one person alone should occupy that post for such a long time.
And you should also remember that all the Chief Ministers of the state, including such stalwarts like Rajaji, Kamaraj, Bhaktavatsalam and Annadurai and others didn’t give a thought to university education, let alone thoughts about education reforms and the truth to tell you is that everyone was simply scared of the stature and personal standing of Sir Mudaliar in the socio-cultural environment of the Tamil society and politics.
So, here I was in my early Thirties, not many in the Council knew about my educational background and thus when I moved the private member Bill no one thought it would prove to be a virtual bombshell which it was!
There was so much shouting and name callings in the Council when I rose to speak and this was unusual for a Council known for its polite decorum and much else and to cut the story short, when I finished my speech there was dead silence. Mudaliar was absent, absented himself but his band of admirers and blind admirers were in full strength. No one suspected that I was equally determined to have my way.
Just as soon as I ended my speech I saw two persons rushing towards me to congratulate me. One was Sir Raja Muthiah Chettiar and the other was G.R.Damodaran, who was to later become the VC of the university himself. Later I was also much sought after my Dr.Malcolm Adishshiah, of the Unesco fame and who was also to become the VC. So too the late Sundaravadivelu. They all knew about my interest in university education and there we leave the story of the Madras university reforms I had in mind.
7.Establishing the Tamil university.
The other university level reform I wanted to see in Tamil Nadu was and the subject is directly relevant today, here in this hall, is the reform of the Tamil language and literature studies. For a long time I had association with Tamil language and literature colleges ,I mean the various
Tamil Vidvan courses taught in the various Tamil “kalluris” distributed in the state.
So in the year 1972 I moved another private member Bill to establish a separate full-fledged Tamil university, named, as I said was after Thiruvalluvar. That day also saw some dramatic scenes in the Legislative Council. First, here I was, an Oxford-educated Tamil leader who was advocating a separate Tamil university. That was quite unpalatable, as you can imagine, to the government, whose members, from the Chief Minister down to his colleagues who were present in full strength! So, very soon, the Chief Minister left his seat and it was left to the late Nedunchezhian, the education minister to defend the government’s commitment to Tamil and he laboured hard, he was such a good person and always treated me with great regard and what was shocking for me at any rate for me was that two of the most distinguished ardent Tamil scholars, one a mutt head, another, a well-known Tamil language and the rights of the Tamils advocate, who were also my admirers and friends, who as the convention on such occasions would be ,are sup[posed to stand up and say a few words in support of a great cause like the one I was advocating. But the time came they were sullen and silent, as if they were simply scared to court the displeasure of the incumbent government!
8.Raja Muthiah Chettiar becomes my patron and friend
This time too, it was left to Dr.Raja Sir Muthiah Chettiar, the lonely warrior to come to my rescue. That was one reason, here I like to place on record, how the great man, the philanthropist and statesman, the Raja became my great friend and a role model for me. I always looked up to him as an inspiration and a model leader of men and one who never let his stature of age to come in the way of genuinely spotting talents in younger persons. I have so many pleasant recollections of the one whose family founded the great Annamalai university. So much for my involvement with the university reforms. You can’t reform the Tamil language ,in particular the Tamil research priorities and draw up a progressive research agenda, unless you can reorganise the Tamil language courses in a more international level perspective.
I don’t know whether I can take credit for the eventual coming of the Tamil university in Thanjavur. But I am sure that I can claim some credit and take pride by the fact that it was my original idea and in the form I elaborated the idea for a separate Tamil university that led to lot of thought processes and though it fell to MGR to establish it, the university, though in the form in which I wanted it, the university came along and now it is all set for further evolution. I am confident that in due course the university’s own perspective would expand and would fall in the lines in which I like to see it evolve. After all, great ideas can’t go away and as I see it the language and literature studies can only follow the international pattern of collaboration and assimilation of similar ideas elsewhere. The subject is close to my heart and may be in future we may pursue this matter in a more in-depth manner.
9.Comparative languages and literature.
Today, there is no society where there is just only one language spoken. We are all bilingual today. Tamil is our mother tongue, right. But English? It is our father tongue, right? Anyway, we have to learn to live with bilingualism in the modern world.
We have to reform the language, we have to, in this age of Internet and our language must become Internet-savvy and Net -compatible. There is no alternative except to erm with the new technologies.
A language is spoken or used not because it is our mother tongue. But also for various social and cultural reasons. When we have to be discreet or diplomatic, we resort to use of euphomism, we use other language words, mostly English, just to avoid embarrassing our guests or friends, right?
I had always been fascinated with the comparative language and literature courses ever since I came across such a course in the Jadavpur university in West Bengal and where also Santiniketan is a very good example of such a multi-lingual and multi-literature studies courses. Here it may not be out of place to mention to you I was also a student of the Chinese language and literature course, it was a three-year part-time diploma course taught in the historic Cheena Bhavan at Santiniketan. You may be interested to know that the Cheena Bhavan was founded by Prof.Tan Yun Shan, a colleague of the great leader Mao Tse Tung and Prof.Tan was an associate of Tagore and also Gandhi and as such Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru when he was the Chancellor Visva-Bharati university used to visit the Cheena Bhavan every year and I remember he used to tell us, students, as to what the Bhavan stood for. It had such a high reputation. I had translated short stories directly from Chinese and published the same in leading magazines, Manjari, then edited by Thi.Ja Ra.
10.Tamil language today. The Internet challenge and opportunity.
Today, Tamil language is neither taken seriously as an official language of administration nor is it sought after by parents as a medium of education. English language dominates at all levels. Some 1,500 million people today speak English today, a fourth of the world’s population. Some 700 million speak English as a foreign language.
Only in TN, may be in other states too, we find the supreme irony of sorts ,where the Tamil people don’t want to study in Tamil medium nor they see their government not able to make Tamil an administrative language. There are real problems. Problems that need a dispassitionate and an in-depth study and seek needed reforms.
Even the poor village parents want their children to go for English medium schools. English medium schools and the way the commercial-minded school founders “seel” and market their education package, teaching and eventual “passing” the exams is n undesirable development and that is of serious concern.
11.Internet revolution and need for reforms of the script and usage.
The Internet Revolution is on and the email usage might also impact how and how much Tamil would be used and not used and what the future of our “use” of Tamil as an Internet medium. There are also the many reforms, like script reforms to reforms to put the digitilisation of the language and literature.
Whether we want it in the way or not, the Net media is here and we have to learn to use the online use of Tamil as a powerful tool.
Now, as I was undergoing all these experiences, I was keen that Tamil language and literature must undergo the process of assimilation and even acculturation so that we transform Tamil as a truly international tongue. Just now, I read somewhere that the linguists have come out with research findings(published in the “Nature” science magazine) that English has the largest spoken words data base and those languages or words that are not often used might evolve and change wordage and meanings. The point is that a language is what is being used by the speakers. A language is what is being spoken by the speakers. A language is what is being made of, how it is used and for what purposes. The spoken language is much more important than the written language.
I am raising these questions or making these observations utterly unaware of what your reactions would be. But surely you must allow me the freedom to raise these questions.
12.Democracy is all about common man’s wisdom
Tamil is a widely spoken language in Tamil Nadu, though there are other languages spoken as well.
In my own small village ,I counted and I was surprised to count as many as five languages spoken. In Karnataka there are officially recognised five separate languages, including Kannada, Tulu, Konkani, Marathi and Tamil. There must be room for other languages to be used by the peoples concerned and we have to allow democratic rights of people. After all, democracy is the common man’s wisdom and in the whole world there are in about 166 countries democracy is considered the most preferable. After the monarchies, revoloutionaries and dictators, the world perhaps feels safe in a democratic environment for the countries concerned and for the safety of the world.
Democracy we have to welcome wholeheartedly. But that doesn’t mean we, the intellectual and cultural elite can leave certain matters to deteriorate in the name of democracy.
13.Culture and Anarchy
When culture loses it central core, it leads to anarchy in life, life styles and social and public morals.
You must have all read, or at least, must have heard of Mathew Arnold(1822-1988),the great nineteenth century poet who was a professor of poetry at Oxford. This again is an innovative post at the world’s oldest university, the post of a professor of poetry and we in India must institute such a post in our major university. You know Mathew Arnold’s life-long attachment to Oxford, he perhaps gave its eternal charm and enduring ideals,” the home of lost causes and impossible loyalties” calling it the dreaming spires which sent out and called in the whispers of the last enchantment of the Middle Ages etc. And this I am advocating for a long time, I mean, the need for universities(I hesitate to call ‘our universities’!) to define their ideas and ideals, their commitment to “sweetness and light” as Arnold defined as the sign of any high-minded culture.
Now, Arnold wrote one of his most influential books, it is in fact a collection of essays, called, “Culture and Anarchy” (in 1869)and he saw fall in standards in the wake of the industrialisation that was creating a mass culture, a greed culture in the middle classes and the high degree of immoral and insensitivity among the upper classes, the aristocracy. We don’t have such equivalent classes today here, but we can easily trace such classes in terms of our political classes, the criminalisation and brutalisation of politics, rise in corruption, corrupt elements holding on to power and privileges, while the educated classes looking on helplessly. Morals are in decline, values are in decline, family values, family morals and beliefs are not just in decline, they are mocked at, see some of our poets and poetesses and their languages and concerns. The havoc caused by commercial cinema and the TV serials on the families are to be debated and even researched across different disciplines, from Tamil to sociology to psychology and much else.
This was in response to his concerns over the rise of new classes in the wake of the industrial revolution.
In short, he got annoyed at the sight of fall in values and he attacked the new classes. He called the insensitive politicians, the “Barbarians”! The so-called prim and proper middle classes, the narrow and selfish classes the” Philistines”, the rest of the masses, simply as the “Populace”.
The point here is that we in Tamil society today are also undergoing a cultural transformation and all that is not “sweetness and lights” as Arnold termed the high culture and high ideals.
For I have been watching how Tamil language or for that matter any modern language is put to use. Now ,we are using English widely for artistic and literary uses, we write creative literature, poetry and novel in English and Indians are winning international prizes for their English literary skills. Some of my friends have been great literary heroes, like Dom Moraes, the poet, and R. Parthasarthy and the late Mulk Raj Anand was a long time friend and mentor of mine. If India had become free much earlier, who knows, I used to speculate Mulk Raj Anand might have won the Nobel Prize after Tagore.
14.How we speak and write the language?
The point is that a language has to be used, I mean, written as it is being spoken of by all strata of society, right?
If we don’t take the spoken language seriously, if we don’t take the speech pattern of our language, spoken by even the ordinary people, across the class distinctions, across the rural-urban divide then you might lose touch with much that is richer in mental processes, in the way our morals and philosophies, beliefs and faiths, artistic expressions and imaginations, that are all part of human persons, personalities who might come from divergent, class and social divisions.
I believe that there is more moral uprightness and moral integrity in the speeches of the rural folks, there is more directness in the way the average villagers express their anger and their moral disapprovals of their leaders and their other role models, than, say ,in the way the urban middle class speeches, speech patterns and the way the innate fears and insecurities drive the average urban, say a government servant or a teacher to resort to euphemism, rather than direct speech patterns.
The point is this: we have to learn to make distinctions. We have to make choices. We have to learn to articulate and say what is right and wrong. Unfortunately, we don’t do this. We tolerate too much of falsehood, too much of immorality, too much of what we know is simply not true. Right?
There is no sense of freedom in society today. There is too much fear. There is timidity in the average Tamil citizen. Am I right in assuming this reality?
I think I am right. Let us see why I say this. There is no serious writing magazine today in the language. Most of them are just tabloids, just sensationalism, too much filmy talk and writing. Cinema can’t be high culture. Film writing can’t be high literature. So too film songs wont make for serious poetry. But all this is happening in our literature, in our writing and yet we don’t seem to be agitated. There is a dumping down of our freedoms and much of our self-esteem. This is impacting on the positive forces, the positive environment for genuine search for high ideals and values
15.What are values?
Democracy often distorts values, genuine creative genius!
We all often say or heard others saying that values have fallen? Values are going down.
What do we mean by this?
Have we paused to reflect and ask what does this mean?
In my opinion, when we say values have fallen, we mean that we are mistaking what is bogus as good. Yes, education today is spreading fast. This is just an outward phenomenon. Our education hasn’t enriched our minds. Our education, I dare say, has on the contrary, has rendered our minds poverty-stricken. Yes, education must empower our minds. Instead, the sort of artificial degrees and diplomas, the sort of qualifications and the posts we seek and have succeeded in seeking the sort of posts we have got, are not earned on genuine merit. But by extraneous considerations, of caste, political interference and not by objective norms and criteria. That is why our universities and colleges don’t sparkle by their internal dynamism. Our universities and colleges function as islands, cut off from the outside world. Their rigid, routine existence makes them as totally ineffective to face the outside world realities. They, these universities and even autonomous colleges don’t know the world out their gates! Even the autonomy given and got by the colleges don’t seem to know what autonomy means and what responsibility it casts on the autonomous colleges. Autonomy means looking for new talents and new ideas. These would come only from outside. For this you have to look for all sorts of sources. Strict academic qualifications often don’t produce talents, don’t produce geniuses, or creative talents. Such genius, such creative talents won adhere to strict government rules and regulations. So, there is a great challenge and leadership qualities must come into play to spot and recognise new talents and new ideas.
We may be a democracy, all are equal before the law but the democratic rule won’t ensure great outburst of creative activities. For this you need intellectual elite, elite that can appreciate new talents. So too you need great minds, great intellects to usher in new insights, new visions. For this the society must be ready and conditioned to be open-minded, to be prepared to welcome ideas that might be inconvenient at times.
We may not be able to enrich and nurture talents but at least in a democracy where standards are not at their best, we ,educators and the civil society must ensure, there must be discerning patrons, patronage for arts and literature, is a basic requirement in any society, at all times, we have to be inquisitive, curious to know new ideas and new developments.
For this we need a developed culture, a more mature society. A society that doesn’t show curiosity for new ideas, can’t have new ideas as well.
So, democracy in politics is one thing but there ant be a democratic dumping down of creative talents. Modern democracy is also now distorting reality, there is too much publicity to the wrong priorities, film stars, cut-out politicians, even the press and the media, the electronic media is distorted, every politician wants to build his or her own false images to mislead the people. So, in such a cinema-crazy society, what chance genuine arts and literature could thrive. Very little chance is the skeptical reply.
However, we must know the current realities and the current distortion of values so that we, the elite and the educated classes, know for sure what to guard against when it comes to spotting genuine talents in arts and literature, in education innovations and new discoveries.
16.World class literature
Our great legacy can’t become a burden for not coming to terms with the modern world.
The point I want to raise before the learned audience is that we cant produce a world class literature unless we are also become acutely conscious about own great legacy when our Sangam time poets ,living in the then prevailing primitive economic and social conditions thought of life’s great existential dilemmas, their own world views, their weltanschauung in such a far-reaching manner and language. Do we dare to say or assert that our current world view is in any way superior to the Sangam age’s Katalun Maynta Ilamperuvaluthi.
” The world exists because men exits…
men without hate, without slackness in action,
they would give their lives for fame
but won’t accept fame with dishonour
were it gain them all the world
never exert their powerful energies
for themselves but only for others
It is because they exist that we do!”
I don’t think the world in the last 2000 years have made much progress, as we can say of other older civilizations too
17.Tamil literature today
Why Tamil literature doesn’t win more Gnanpeeth awards?
When Tamil literature will win the Nobel Prize?
The point is that when it comes to literature, I mean serious literature, there is much to discuss and debate.
To start with I like to make one observation.
T.S.Eliot, the great poet, in one of his literary criticism essays raises the question: what is a classic?
He says that in order to produce a classic the language must be in a condition to produce a classic. How that condition can be described? I recollect from memory the words or the words nearly used by the poet. You have to keep the language, speech patterns, the thought patterns uncorrupted! Has this observation any relevance today, today’s Tamil Nadu, today’s Tamil language or literature? I want the audience here to ponder over such a question and you can draw your own conclusions.
18.Class vs. mass culture
What you cant deny ,I believe, is the reality that today, may be in the wake of the democratic process, our language and literature is not classy but one of a lack of immediate suitable word, I would call it, a massification process. The commercial cinema, cinema and politics in the state is so intertwined, and so you have to be ready to take on all the consequences that flows from that peculiar Tamil society and politics. The point is that the situation in other states, is not like the one in Tamil Nadu. I know Kerala and Karnataka and also West Bengal so well. I have friends from these states. I know great writers, poets and novelists. I had so many close literary figures as my long-time friends in Malayalam literature. I had met and spoken with the greatest of the Malayalam’s father figures, from the Mahakavi Vallathol Narayana Menon, Thakhazhi Sivasahnkaran Pillai and others. I am in correspondence with the Oriya poets, Jayanata Mahapatra and Sitakant Mahapatra and also poets and writers in Karnataka ,the ones who had wont he Gnanpeeth awards and other recognitions.
What I find from other languages is that while these language literatures have won so many times, the highest national award, namely, the Gnanpeed award had gone several times to these language literatures, seven times to Kannada, I think five times to Malayalam, so many times to Bengali but for the Tamil literature only two and that two are not free from controversies.
The point here is that even a modern classic or a minor classic can be written in a language without it being won a major award. That is only right But when it comes to Tamil literature and winning awards, the Tamil people, I mean the writers and their patrons cut a picture of a sorry lot.
19.Scramble for awards
There are enough scandals only in Tamil Nadu when it comes to competing for awards and winning the awards.
The Shitya Akademy awards are routinely won Tamil poets and writers and that is simply because every year the body has to give one to the scheduled languages! Thus, we find from the beginning all undeserving titles, I don’t mean the names, were selected for the awards! In recent times, the scandals didn’t subside. Even non-creative writings are selected for the Sahitya Akademy awards that are supposed to encourage and recognise creative literature, right?
Paranoia, the present Tamil literature?
Why this paranoia, I often used to ask myself.
Yes, there is this incurable ill that haunts every creative Tamil mind, I would dare say.
Literature is a serious field, as far as I am concerned. High literature is all about sensitivity and a sensitive response to the environment.
I have been writing about the many aspects and meanings of literature, the reading of literature and poetry all through my life. You have just to have a look at my journal, I mean, the School Journal of Education. You can also see my latest collection of poems, an anthology that evoked, I am glad to note, serious comments from eminent writers and critics.
I like to ask often hard questions and I think that is the duty of any serious intellectual worth his salt.
It is my firm conviction that the time we live in shapes our personality and our path of action, right? So too, I am of the firm conviction that our lives and beliefs, our own personality and inner will and vision shapes and drives our path of action and also helps to change the times we live in. This observation needs to be elaborated and that is what I have been doing in all my endeavours in various fields and forums.
20.Compromise with evil
But today I find too much falsehood, too much vulgarity and too much willing surrender to political authority.
This is a sure sign of the fall of our value system, our surrender to, I would dare say, all that is evil.
You should remember history, the recent history when mankind paid too high a price for such surrenders to evil. The world paid a very high price, the last 50 years of the first half of the 20th century, and also the later half, saw the rise and fall of so many isms, so much evil and many precious lives lost. Eric Hobsbawm, the famous historian, notes that” the twentieth century was the most murderous in recorded history”. In fact, this is the very first sentence in his latest book, “Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism”, 2007. I am too hesitant to mention the names but sometimes we need to remember or remind ourselves the names like Hitler, Stalin and others just to be forewarned. India was a slave country for long and one of my theses is that this long history of slavery is one reason why Indians and their innate character is one of subordination to authority, be it any sphere, religion, politics, social hierarchy and even in intellectual beliefs. Our mental slavery disgusts me beyond words.
Here I like to sound a warming: even today the world is not free of the evils of men who see themselves as demi-gods. So, democracy, literature and arts are all forces to work for with a new jealousy and a new zeal. Literature is for people with strong moral personality. Literature can’t be created in lecture halls or academic cacoons. Literature can be created only when men and women rise up in defense of their own sense of morality and truth challenged and undermined. So, let us be aware of at least one thing. It is this; literature is a serious matter and must be taken seriously. Moral courage is a sign of literary pursuit.
I once convened a seminar at my own expense in Chennai to ask the question: What Tamil literature didn’t win the Gnanpeed awards? At that time, it was only once the language had won the award and for the next 30 years or so there was no award.
Then, once I got a letter from the great Oriya poet and culture administrator, Sitakant Mahapatra, who was also an IAS officer at the Central Culture Ministry and who was and continues to this day a trustee of the Gnanpeed Trust that selects the candidates for the award every year.
What he wrote was shocking news for me. He said in his letter, perhaps without knowing that I was interested in such matters he mentioned one name and said that this name used to be recommended for the Gnanpeed award every year continuously for nearly a decade!
I knew the local members who make this recommendations and as most of them used to be my friends I used to wonder why these otherwise admirable men and women used to do this sort of thing.
You can guess the atmosphere that prevails today. The tragedy is that thanks to the growth of commercial cinema and its close interaction with practical politics there is this trend today. Those who write for cinema also consider themselves as creative writers, poets as well.
Yes, today the film song writers, called lyricists are also called the great lyrical poets.
I like to cry aloud and ask:
Oh, what happened to you poets, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Byron! Where are thou? Do you know Tamil and Tamil Nadu? If so, why don’t you come here for a while and learn some lyrical poetry!
Yes, current Tamil language and literature is not what you consider as serious literature.
Why Kannada language which used to be joked at as a kitchen language is capable of winning seven Gnanpeed awards so far. There must be some reason for awarding so many times such a great award.
One reason I like to put forward before you is the fact that any great literature, poetry or prose, must have some universal appeal, some universal relevance.
21.The Nobel Prizes
When the Tamil literature will win a Nobel?
The Nobel Prizes are awarded, if you read their citations carefully, you will see that they care for truths, universal truths, they care for universal meanings and also they treat literature just on par with philosophy and other social concerns. Bertrand Russell was awarded the Nobel for his philosophical writings. Just now, I read that the 1957 Prize to the French writer Albert Camus,44,was awarded for, I quote from the citation, “The Nobel Prize was awarded to M.Albert Camus, the French novelist and philosopher”. The Swedish Academy stated it was” for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human consciousness in our times”. This is just enough to show how the outside world looks at literature and its task..
My point is that even if we take Kannada literature, you can see in the neighbouring Karnataka there is, in spite of the recent fanatical language chauvinism there, it is quite restricted to a minor segment. There is otherwise, the whole environment is imbued with a rare cosmopolitanism, a secular and open-minded and tolerant social and political environment. Only in Kannada literature and in Karnataka those writers who won the Gnanpeed awards, their mother tongues are not Kannada. Masti Venkatesa Iyengar’s mother tongue was Tamil, Benre’s mother tongue Konkani, Girish Karnad’s mother tongue ,Konkani! In no other state you can cite such breadth of cosmopolitanism! So, there is a consensus that only universal themes, only a tolerant and a broad social outlook can create that environment in which you can create great literature, poetry and imaginative writings.
22.Democracy and the new social classes
A new social class consciousness is evolving.
Education today is widespread and there is a faster democratic process and a great spread of the middle classes and their cultures. I am not one for taking this middle class culture very seriously, though middle classes give a certain stability and a certain pro-active social awareness and commitment to action. But we need to take into account and keep in mind the prevalence of the gross inequalities and inequities also. The upper social classes, the aristocracy and also the lower social strata you can’t wish them all away. Though I have my own current perceptions and views on what constitutes social classes today. For you will have to realise and come to terms with what social classes were and how they came along when the first consciousness about the social classes arose in the 17th and the18th centuries, when the European Enlightenment came along and when the French Revolution marked the great break in man’s understanding of the modern world and the freedoms and rights of citizens.
The 19th and the 20th centuries, we are all familiar with. Karl Marx and after the coming and dominance and eventual fall of Communism in 1989 ,we are in a different world and on a different social plateau.
In the post-Communist world, after the attack on the New York twin towers, the world suddenly a different place. What the future will hold for us is a big question.
23.US dominated world.
In this rather Yankee-dominated globalised world, the Indian society and politics, no less its languages and literature are caught up with the faster pace of life.
As for culture and arts and literature, there are these divides. Class vs the mass.
You can’t wish away the serious high-brow literature on the one hand and the mass culture on the other.
If you want to create a world class literature, and if you aspire and dream of a future, perhaps a distant future Nobel Prize for Tamil literature, my immediate reaction is: why not?
You can aspire, but the question further would be whether the potential Nobel would be for literature or for other intellectual endeavours?
A Tamil, he or she can win a Nobel, it can be for science or for peace. If you seriously debate whether it can be for literature, may be, but the Tamil literature might be written this time, may not be one from within Tamil Nadu itself. It may be by one who is a Tamil from abroad, say from Sri Lanka, Canada or Australia or most likely from the USA. For don’t forget that most of the dissident poets and writers from former Eastern Europe, who won the Nobels were from the USA ,their US domicile gave them the power of means to produce their works, to get them published and more than that to reach the attention of the Nobel Committees.
In recent years we find that even the peace Nobel goes to Americans, Jimmy Carter and now Al Gore got them for their sustained propaganda for of course noble causes.
In conclusion I want to say this much:
Let us all strive to usher in a new Renaissance in the lives of the Tamil people, let Tamil society become a more mature one, let tolerance, and open-mindedness, and a welcome spirit to accommodate the outside influences, in terms of international currents in literature and the arts mark a new paradigm shift ,so to say. A liberal and more tolerant society, less fanatical in talk and expression, less chauvinism and a new sense of freedom and the shedding of our inferiority complex are all needed to bring about a new literary and cultural renaissance.
So, with these few random thoughts I conclude and I thank the organisers, in particular, my friend Prof.Anthony Cruze for giving me the honour to deliver the keynote address to such distingus8iehd audience. Thank you, once again!