Wednesday, June 09, 2004

President of India Declares Tamil as Classical Language

The Classical Status of Tamil - The Hindu by S.S. Vasan, Rhodes Scholar, Trinity College, Cambridge, U.K.
Professor George L Hart's (Head, Department of Tamil Studies, University of California, Berkley, CA) Letter to the Government of India in 2000, exhorting a promulgation of Tamil as a Classical Language.

My Musings..

When I was doing my MS Program at the University of Florida (UF), I was called to assist many Korean and Japanese Students in Linguistics, who were trying to pronounce some of the Tamil words for their linguistic phonetic analysis. I was told that their Professor (who is not a Tamil anyways) lauded Tamil as a great, ancient, language with intricate phonetics that can be an apt choice for their research. After they heard me talk and read out loud in Tamil, they shared their interest in knowing more about Tamil by saying, "We really do not understand what you spoke. However, after listening for a while, we do now appreciate that Tamil is one of the most melliflous, euphonic languages phonetically. It is pretty intricate and complex as well and has really inculcated an interest in us to know and learn more about this great language. Unfortunately, we do not have a Tamil Department at UF, do we?" I said, "Unfortunately, not." Well, the situation may well change with the greatest announcement made at the floor of the Indian Parliament, recently. Will this be one of reality or just one of those cherished dreams of mine? Remember the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? "Dream no small dreams, for they have no power to move men." As a meliorist, I am going to redact my views on the subject to show how this dream may well metamorphize to an imminent reality in future.

Nothing in the recent years has made me so happy as this news that the new Congress(I) led United Progressive Alliance has made a decision to promulgate Tamil as a Classical Language, thereby paving the way for fostering further growth and eminence of this great, ancient language. The Gods certainly have a fine sense of humor because this major policy announcement was made at the floor of the Indian Parliament by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, himself being a Tamil.

I sincerely thank the former Tamilnadu Chief Minister and DMK leader, Dr. Kalaignar. M. Karunanidhi, who was chiefly instrumental in realizing his long-cherished dream of declaring Tamil as a classical language. It is ironic that the very same Congress(I) Government, which during the days of the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru tried to impose Hindi on the Tamils has atoned for its folly by taking Tamil to its right seat of eminence. The Congress(I) President Mrs. Sonia Gandhi and the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh rightly deserve our praise for removing the blot of such an imposition during the 1960s, which literally back-fired when it galvanized the Dravidian aspirations of the Tamils in the then Madras Presidency(now, State of Tamilnadu).

For many of my American friends, I wish to point out that some of the English words that you use in contemporary parlance, say, pariah ('pariah' means drummer -- a social outcast), mullagatawny ('Mallaga Thawny' means Pepper-Water), catamaran ('Kattu Maram' means 'tied logs'), etc. are directly originating from Tamil. Also, Tamil is still a language that is spoken by roughly 70 million people all over the world.

Some of the benefits that will arise out of the latest announcement of elevating Tamil as a Classical Language will be as follows:

  • More seats of research will be opened for Tamil in various Universities and Centers across India. Many other Universities around the globe will follow suit.

  • Sanskrit always dominated the Indian scene as a classical language, thereby relegating Tamil to an inferior position, even though Tamil was more ancient than Sanskrit and is richer in its grammatical and literary content. Now, Tamil will achieve its own pride of position in Indian literature, archeology, epigraphy, etc.

  • The University Grants Commission (UGC) may accept the Classical-Language status for Tamil. If that happens, many other World Universities will follow suit as well.

  • More Tamil works will get noticed by means of extensive translations and even in original forms in different parts of the world. During the era of the Soviet Union, many Tamil works were published in Moscow and distributed all around the globe, which stopped pretty much after its fall. Now, we can see more of Tamil works being published all around the globe, albeit not too soon, but for sure in future.

  • As an Engineering Student in India, I had then deposed before a high-level delgation in support of the then Tamilnadu Chief-Minister's aim of having Higher-Technical Education in Tamil. A renewed thrust is very much on the anvil for Scientific Tamil, especially when the Central Government will start funding for Tamil research along the lines of furthering Sanskrit research.

  • While there is a controversy if the prayers to the Hindu deities be restricted only to Sanskrit, elevation of Tamil to the Classical Language status should encourage those who support Tamil as a suitable language to God as well. In Tirumanthiram (Holy Chant) written by Saint Tirumular ( circa 4th century AD - 6th century AD), he sings thusly:

    என்னைநன் றாக இறைவன் படைத்தனன்
    தன்னைநன் றாகத் தமிழ்செய்யு மாறே

    (The Lord had created me pretty well,
    so that I can praise Him well in Tamil

    When that ancient Sithar(Saint) himself had implied that the good Lord preferred being lauded through Tamil, should the puritans be against it? Oh, thanks to the Second Vatican Council (1964) convened by Pope John XXIII, the Catholics made a significant stride in offering their Eucharistic Liturgy in vernacular languages as well, which until then was exclusively done in Latin only. Even today, many Traditional Catholics lament the loss of Latin in their worship, but still the Church and the Catholics have learnt to live with the times. Any time, a language is considered to be Divine, as Latin and Sanskrit is, they often end-up earning a notorious status -- dead language. I only hope that Tamil ushers in this new era with its elevated status as a classical language by finding more acceptance with the Carnatic Music Singers and Priests of the Hindu Temples.

  • Many foreign nations (Singapore has Tamil as an official-language) may declare Tamil as a Classical Language and if a handful of nations declare so, then United Nations can be approached to declare Tamil as an offical language with its cultural body -- UNESCO -- according Classical-Language status to Tamil, just similar to how it has done so, inter alia , for languages like Arabic, Sanskrit and Persian.

Irrespective of the sudden euphoria around this promulgation of Tamil as a classical language, a little too late by the Government of India, one should not fail to take cognizance of the immense respect it commands at the international arena, where its classical status was never disputed. In Encyclopedia Brittanica - Vol 21, William Benton, Chicago, 1972 pp 647, we find this: "Tamil language is one of the Principal Dravidian languages spoken in South India and perhaps the only example of an ancient classical language which has survived as a spoken language for more than 2500 years with its basic structure almost unchanged." And Professor George L. Hart of University of California at Berkley clearly gives the sockdolager on the subject when he wrote to the Government of India thusly: "Let me state unequivocally that, by any criteria one may choose, Tamil is one of the great classical literatures and traditions of the world. The status of Tamil as one of the great classical languages of the world is something that is patently obvious to anyone who knows the subject. To deny that Tamil is a classical language is to deny a vital and central part of the greatness and richness of Indian culture."

And, from the year I landed in the United States in 1997, I was always moved by the yeoman efforts of non-Tamils at the University of Pennsylvania's Tamil Learning Website. This is a wonderful case in point for the love and affection, Tamil commands from people who are beyond the borders of Tamilnadu and other Tamil speaking countries of Southeast Asia.

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