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Copyright © 2004
M. S. Thirumalai
DECLARING A LANGUAGE CLASSICAL
M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
WHY THIS DEMAND FOR THE CLASSICAL LANGUAGE STATUS?
For more than one-hundred and fifty years, Tamil scholars and those who are conscious of their Tamil heritage have been demanding that the classical character of their mother tongue be recognized. They claimed that Tamil has rich original literary and grammatical traditions, has its own script system, and an unbroken history. In addition, they claimed that their language has been continuously spoken at least for the last 2000 years in Tamilnadu, and that their language essentially kept intact its age-old character, even though it is an effective modern language.
The demand arose in the context of the British Indian Administration treating Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic as classical languages and making special provisions and support mechanism for the learning and developing of these languages. The demand arose also in the context of the strong Tamil tradition and tendency, even now easily discernible, to maintain its own distinct character through various linguistic, literary, religious, anthropological, sociological, cultural, and architectural means and contributions. Even though the trends of loan translation and borrowing in all fields are noticed throughout the history of Tamilnadu, Tamil literature, Tamil literature and all other activities, the insistence on its own distinct personality has been truly astounding.
ACCEPTING SOME LANGUAGES AS CLASSICAL LANGUAGES IN THE BRITISH RAJ
The decision of the British Indian Administration was motivated by several considerations: There were only very few effective kingdoms when they started acquiring territories through the enterprising East India Company. Tamilnadu was not one of them. The princely states within the Tamil-speaking territory were puny states, mostly ruled by chieftains, not necessarily constituting kingdoms in any proper sense. Actually, Tamils should be thankful to the Britishers for bringing the Tamil-speaking territories under a single umbrella. The Mughal power was something the British had to contend with. Since there had been established widespread conventions to look upon Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit as languages of great value in terms of religious loyalty, it was easy for them to treat these languages as classical. Moreover, an essential belief relating to the status of a classical language in Europe has been to look at them as the historical stages that may now be not in use. Classical Greek and Latin were "dead" languages, enriching the living ones with their vocabulary, texts, and literature, etc. Sanskrit really fitted this bill, whereas Persian and Arabic carried their day because of the Mughal patronage and Muslim loyalty. Politics and religion were important ingredients that strengthened their original European notion of what constituted a classical language.
TAMILS SEEK THEIR IDENTITY THROUGH AGITATIONAL POLITICS RELATING TO THEIR LANGUAGE
In recent years, the demand for declaring Tamil as a classical language received great support from several quarters. Tamils, it appears to me, really need some linguistic issue or the other to create unity among them as a single ethnic community. Divided by castes and religion, with so much economic disparities still existing between the regions of Tamilnadu, and with a lot of overseas Tamil population, for a long time their plan of achieving unity among them almost always revolved around the Tamil identity. This thought has been continuously enriched throughout their literary history. Since their history has never had a single king or leader who could be shown to have ruled the entire Tamilnadu as a single territory, it is but natural that in their sub-consciousness they always go after this unity theme through language identity. The Anti-Hindi agitation provided such a platform for my generation, but it does not seem to receive such pointed attention from the current generation of Tamils. The demand for the declaration of Tamil as a classical language, thus, is a milestone in the pursuit for identity.
MODERN APOLOGIA FOR TAMIL AS A CLASSICAL LANGUAGE
Again in recent years, George Hart, professor of Tamil Studies at the University of California, Berkeley re-iterated with sound arguments in support of the demand to declare or recognize Tamil as a classical language. He wrote in 2000:
First, Tamil is of considerable antiquity. It predates the literatures of other modern Indian languages by more than a thousand years. Its oldest work, the Tolkappiyam,, contains parts that, judging from the earliest Tamil inscriptions, date back to about 200 BCE. The greatest works of ancient Tamil, the Sangam anthologies and the Pattuppattu, date to the first two centuries of the current era. They are the first great secular body of poetry written in India, predating Kalidasa's works by two hundred years.
Second, Tamil constitutes the only literary tradition indigenous to India that is not derived from Sanskrit. Indeed, its literature arose before the influence of Sanskrit in the South became strong and so is qualitatively different from anything we have in Sanskrit or other Indian languages. It has its own poetic theory, its own grammatical tradition, its own esthetics, and, above all, a large body of literature that is quite unique. It shows a sort of Indian sensibility that is quite different from anything in Sanskrit or other Indian languages, and it contains its own extremely rich and vast intellectual tradition.
Third, the quality of classical Tamil literature is such that it is fit to stand beside the great literatures of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Chinese, Persian and Arabic. The subtlety and profundity of its works, their varied scope (Tamil is the only premodern Indian literature to treat the subaltern extensively), and their universality qualify Tamil to stand as one of the great classical traditions and literatures of the world. Everyone knows the Tirukkural, one of the world's greatest works on ethics; but this is merely one of a myriad of major and extremely varied works that comprise the Tamil classical tradition. There is not a facet of human existence that is not explored and illuminated by this great literature.
Finally, Tamil is one of the primary independent sources of modern Indian culture and tradition. I have written extensively on the influence of a Southern tradition on the Sanskrit poetic tradition. But equally important, the great sacred works of Tamil Hinduism, beginning with the Sangam Anthologies, have undergirded the development of modern Hinduism. Their ideas were taken into the Bhagavata Purana and other texts (in Telugu and Kannada as well as Sanskrit), whence they spread all over India. Tamil has its own works that are considered to be as sacred as the Vedas and that are recited alongside Vedic mantras in the great Vaisnava temples of South India (such as Tirupati). And just as Sanskrit is the source of the modern Indo-Aryan languages, classical Tamil is the source language of modern Tamil and Malayalam. As Sanskrit is the most conservative and least changed of the Indo-Aryan languages, Tamil is the most conservative of the Dravidian languages, the touchstone that linguists must consult to understand the nature and development of Dravidian.
In trying to discern why Tamil has not been recognized as a classical language, I can see only a political reason: there is a fear that if Tamil is selected as a classical language, other Indian languages may claim similar status. This is an unnecessary worry. I am well aware of the richness of the modern Indian languages -- I know that they are among the most fecund and productive languages on earth, each having begotten a modern (and often medieval) literature that can stand with any of the major literatures of the world. Yet none of them is a classical language. Like English and the other modern languages of Europe (with the exception of Greek), they rose on preexisting traditions rather late and developed in the second millennium. The fact that Greek is universally recognized as a classical language in Europe does not lead the French or the English to claim classical status for their languages.
To qualify as a classical tradition, a language must fit several criteria: it should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature. Unlike the other modern languages of India, Tamil meets each of these requirements. It is extremely old (as old as Latin and older than Arabic); it arose as an entirely independent tradition, with almost no influence from Sanskrit or other languages; and its ancient literature is indescribably vast and rich.
It seems strange to me that I should have to write an essay such as this claiming that Tamil is a classical literature -- it is akin to claiming that India is a great country or Hinduism is one of the world's great religions. 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.
THE DECISION OF THE GOVERNMENT OF INDIA - WIDENING BERTHS
The newspaper reports indicate that the government of India has established certain criteria with the help of Sahitya Akademy for declaring a language as classical language. The criteria, according to a Cabinet report, include that "a language should be of great antiquity and should have its early texts dating back at least 1,000 years. This language should also have a body of ancient literature and texts considered a valuable heritage; its literary tradition should be original and not borrowed from another speech or community, and its literature must be distinct from modern. However, there may also be a discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or of its offshoots like Latin versus Roman, Sanskrit-Pali versus Prakrits, and Modern Indo-Aryan." Thus, the newspapers claimed, a new category of classical languages was created by this decision. Information and Broadcasting Minister S. Jaipal Reddy told reporters after the Cabinet meeting that the Government would consider putting Sanskrit and other languages in this category depending on their heritage and legacy.
To a question as to what would be the benefits to the language declared classical, Reddy said that two major international awards would be given annually to scholars of eminence in classical Indian languages. 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 Professorial Chairs for Classical Languages for scholars of eminence, he added.
WHAT WILL BE THE NEXT ROUND?
It will be interesting to watch for the next round in the classical language arena! Will there be a similar demand from Telugu people, Kannada people, or the admirers of Prakrits, et al? The expansion of the list of Scheduled Languages of the Constitution was, indeed, a good move. Likewise the creation of new states has also met the aspirations of people in these states. The process will continue in all directions, no doubt. Now we have added one more category. Will the lovers of Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic be disheartened by this development? Will the mandarins in New Delhi really implement the declaration in the spirit with which it was demanded by the crores of Tamils? Will we all mature to celebrate all Indian languages as our own?
COMPULSIONS OF FEDERAL POLITY
Compulsions of federal polity have become more apparent with the failure of any one single party holding their complete sway in the Indian Parliament. We should also be aware that, while Federalism is important for the growth of Indian people and genuine Indian democracy, Federalism brings with it certain responsibilities that demand a spirit of accommodation and obedience to subject extreme interests to the interests of the nation.
CAN NOT TAMILS DO REALLY BETTER?
Tamilnadu and Tamils can do better than what they have achieved so far, if only all children in Tamilnadu are required to learn Tamil in whatever school they seek to enroll, whatever the schooling system their parents prefer for their children, or whatever the medium of instruction the parents prefer for their children. In Tamilnadu, it is largely possible for a child to pass through the entire schooling from the first grade to the twelfth grade without the child learning Tamil as part of the curriculum. Hundreds of thousands of Tamil parents actually prefer this to happen for their children! Their assumption is that their mother tongue can easily be learned by their children without having to spend time on it in school. If only this recognition of their mother tongue as a classical language would change their heart ...
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USE OF IDIOMATIC COMPOUNDS IN NEWSPAPERS | DECLARING A LANGUAGE CLASSICAL | DHVANI - A Brief Overview | FIXING THE LANGUAGE, FIXING THE NATION | "Party of Eunuchs, Elizabeth Taylor of Indian Politics, Tilak, Tarazu aur Talwar Inko Maro Jute Char," Etc. - NEGATIVITY IN POLITICAL ADVERTISING AND LANGUAGE USE | LANGUAGE POLICY IN THE FORMATIVE YEARS OF INDIAN NATIONAL CONGRESS 1885-1905 | HOME PAGE | CONTACT EDITOR
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