His birth centenary year celebrated recently in Chennai and Coimbatore.
The Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, has funded the centenary of this highly acclaimed Tamil writer in Coimbatore.
I thought the Akademi President, Sri Sunil Gangopadhyaya, the great writer and poet, novelist and editor in the Bengali language and letters must have been invited to preside over the event of such all India significance. Thooran was a pioneer and a trend setter in a range of Tamil writing. He was a short story writer, an original poet of high degree of lyricism and beauty, his chiseled words and phrases still linger on in many of his old readers, he was a composer of Tamil keerthanas and an educationist of much distinction and the very crown jewel of his life was the first-ever 10-volume Encyclopedia in Tamil and a further 10 volume of Children’s Encyclopedia.
I was his student in the school and in an unusual manner I was myself transformed thanks to his impact on my growth and personality. In my opinion, the Sahitya Akademi must bring out a collection of his writings and that would have been the appropriate tribute to this literary personality who was greatly influenced by Subramania Bharati whose writings he painstakingly collected from old newspapers and published later in separate volumes and thus paving the way for other researchers on Bharati.
P.Thooran (full name: M.P.Periasamy Thooran, 1908-1987) was my headmaster when I joined the Sri Ramakrishna Mission Vidyalaya. This was in 1946-47. Vidyalaya was a great Gandhian school then, that is during the Indian freedom struggle and afterwards. The foundation stone was laid by none other than Mahatma Gandhi. The founder was the late T.S.Avinashilingam Chettiar who had the distinction of being the Independent India’s first education minister in the then composite Madras Presidency. Chettiar was a disciple of Gandhi whom he met and also troured with him in the South. It was Chettiar who propagated the Congress ideals in Tamil Nadu and in particular in the Western region called Kongu Nadu.
Kongu Nadu was the home for the dominant caste, the Kongu Vellalars and it was Chettiar who was the political guru to great many great families in the region. In fact C.Subramaniam, among others is a disciple of Chettiar. By the time I joined the school that is in 1946-47, Chettiar was the tallest political figure I came to know and I had seen all the great men and women of India, who came visiting him, then a minister of enormous reputation. As a young boy, I had come closer to all the great men of the time, President Rajendra Prasad came visiting the school and there is a faded photograph where I am seen just behind the great man! So, the list goes on….
Thooran was a very different personality, he was a writer of repute even then, a poet and a music composer and as soon as we were admitted he called us, in the sixth standard and told us: “You must all learn Carnatic music, now!” That is how I joined the music class. Then, I joined the drawing class and soon learnt to write poetry. Thooran’s personality transformed us, all drawn from peasant background, Thooran himself from the same stock and yet soon I found myself transformed!
Under Thooran, the school reached its zenith, its golden age. As I look back, it looks like a dream. As for me, I count myself lucky. I was totally transformed, as a village boy into an unrecognisable evolution that astonished everyone. Thooran, I gratefully acknowledge, was the trigger for this transformation of me. In later years, as our contacts and even close friendship blossomed into many literary exchanges. Alas, before I could do much, to write on him, he passed away. In fact, myself and our common friend, the noted industrialist and patron,
Thooran didn’t stay long and for the first few years he was there and even in that short span, I came to read all his short stories, poems and Tamil compositions, set to music by a sangeetha vidvan whose face I can still recall.
Chettiar as minister launched the Tamil Encyclopedia project which was mooted by none other than Thooran in a Tamil literary conference in which first appeared C.N.Annadurai, the Dravidian orator and till then confined to his own narrow circle, kept at a distance by the high society. Anna, as he was popularly called was a critic of Chettiar and as such it was something of a change of heart on the part of Chettiar to invite Anna to the prestigious literary conference. Anna’s speech in that conference was a landmark speech.
We, students, were even then aware of Anna’s trenchant criticism, often bordering on ridicule, of Chettiar’s patronage of the great Tamil poet, Kamban who wrote the Ramayana in Tamil.
Thooran created Tamil history by bringing out the first edition of the Tamil encyclopedia. I used to meet Thooran often when I was studying at Pachayappa’s College, Madras(now Chennai).As I was interested in literature, Thooran would often take out his notebook from his drawer and read out his latest poems. At that point of time, I can claim I knew all of Thooran’s poems almost by heart. There were ardent disciples for him, one was the current senior poet in Tamil Sakthikanal, a kinsman and a neighbouring village man, Thooran’s native village was Manjakattu Valasu, near Erode Town.
Sakthikanal(real name :K.P.Palanisamy), is currently the only senior poet of some originality and merit, is perhaps the only one person who knows the entire ouvre of Thooran.
Then, I went to Santiniketan in West Bengal. Whenever I came home I used to stop in Chennai and invariably I used to pay a visit to Thooran, in his Chepauk university office or his home in Kasturba Gandhi Nagar in Adyar, Chennai.
I very soon transformed into a very different person, Santiniketan and later Oxford brought about vast new influences in my life, my outlook on life.
Yet my old links remained intact. Thooran’s brother in law and successor as headmaster, my own headmaster in Vidyalaya, K.Venkatachalam, was from a village near my own, though he or Thooran or even Chettiar had an inkling of the radical changes that came in my life. So, every time I met them, these are the three early influences as I was growing up, they used to be surprised at my transformation!
Now, I can look back and say: they were almost overtaken by the speed and change that came over my life and it looked them were out of their breath whenever I met them and conversed with them!
There is a lot of interesting anecdotes to say about each one of them. As for Thooran, in later years, even after his retirement, he used to keep in touch with me and I used to give him my own literary contacts, encounters in distant and far off lands! I don’t know what impact it made on him.
May be, he was over-awed by his own student’s radically changed lifestyle, so to say. In the case of Chettiar it was the same case. I once went to meet Chettiar, at the Home Science College premise and he asked me what I wanted from him. When I told “Ayya, as we called him, I have come to invite you to visit my village to inaugurate a high school I had built!” He was startled! So too when I was elected in a bitterly contested Madras Legislative Council election! Among the candidates I defeated were his own near relative and a close friend of C.Subramaniam!
The point is that I was upsetting so many established relationships then entrenched.
But as for Thooran,he was always supportive of my activities. He was by nature a reserved person and only those who went out of the way to cultivate him got the warmth and affection in abundance. I was one lucky person. I recall so many small anecdotes. I used to meet him in many places, outside Chennai, I met him in my own neighbouring village, Palathurai, near his wife’s village, Valukkaparai. Palathurai had one big family and Thooran was a friend and in those remote villages you don’t have many who would appreciate literature of music!
So, in the case of Thooran too he didn’t have much patronage for many of his very unique gifts, he taught his daughters to sing Carnatic compositions. Given the fact that it is only the Brahmins who took to classical music, Thooran had no way to popularise the classical music in his native region but to confine himself to the narrow Madras music circles.
One visit to see him specially myself and a friend travelled all the way to the Palani hills, the abode of Lord Muruga, his favourite diety on which he had composed so many beautiful songs.
Thooran’s most creative phase coincided with the idealistic years of the Independent India and as a great devotee of poet Subramania Bharati, one can notice in his writing style great dignity and restraint and perfection in whatever he created. He gave the Tamil writing, both prose and poetry, the idealism and the socially conservative values that make his literature a timeless creative force.
I pay my own tribute to his memory and his contribution to the renaissance of modern Tamil literature.