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Chalapathy brings out Thamotharampillai letters

[TamilNet, Sunday, 13 May 2012 11:21 No Comment]

Tamil historian Professor AR Venkatachalapathy, delivering keynote address at Tamil Studies Conference in Toronto on Saturday, brought out hitherto untapped objective evidences of around two scores of letters written by CW Thamotharampillai (1832–1901) to UV Swaminathaiyar (1855–1942), for a better understanding of the relationship between the two pioneer editors coming from Jaffna and Tamil Nadu in transferring Tamil classics from palm leaf manuscripts to print media. The letters dating between 1883 and 1899 show that despite being rivals in publication the two were in close contact and cooperative if not collaborative. The letters also show the generosity and magnanimity of Thamotharampillai, personally and in matters of publication, and as a senior scholar he encouraged Swaminathaiyar and saw in him the future of classical editorial scholarship, Chalapathy said.

Professor AR Venkatachalapathy“In the sphere of publication of ancient Tamil classics Arumuga Navalar laid the foundation; Damodaram Pillai raised the walls; Swaminatha Iyer thatched the roof and completed the house,” was the assessment of Thiru V. Kalayasundara Mudaliyar (Thiru Vi. Ka.), Chalapathy cited.

But contrary to the accommodative perception of Thiru Vi. Ka., the comparative assessment of the two titans, Thamotharampillai and Swaminathaiyar, from late colonial to contemporary Tamil world, has been rather contentious, and has been refracted through the prism of caste, religion and region, he pointed out, adding that Swaminathaiyar’s insinuations regarding Thamotharampillai in the autobiography he wrote much later in his life, provided the fuel.

The letters Chalapathy brought out comes from Swaminathaiyar’s voluminous filing of correspondences over sixty years. There were over three dozens of letters written by Thamotharampillai, and even though they only show one side of the correspondence, they help to dispel the insinuations of Swaminathaiyar and many other later day constructs, Chalapathy said.

* * *

The letters showed that Swaminathaiyar was the first to contact Thamotharampillai, when the latter also was thinking of finding ways to communicate with him. The Thiruvaavaduthu’rai Mutt was the binding factor.

At the time of the beginning of correspondence Thamotharampillai was completing the publication of I’raiyanaar Akappuru’l Urai and Tha’nikaip-puraa’nam.

In 1887 both Thamotharampillai and Swaminathaiyar were engaged in completing the editions of Kaliththokai and Cheevaka Chinthama’ni respectively.

Despite his age and accomplishments Thamotharampillai was generous, courteous and was seeking cooperation. He was prepared to acknowledge credit for any academic contribution coming from Swaminathaiyar.

They were exchanging palm leaf manuscripts, shared notes and Thamotharampillai helped Iyer in buying printing paper and in the sales of his books too.

Thamotharampillai encouraged Iyer in every publication, secured a Chilappathikaaram palm-leaf manuscript for him, arranged finances from Kumaraswamy Mudaliyar in Colombo to publish it and also encouraged that Iyer should publish Ma’nimeakalai too.

In the light of letters it stretches one’s credulity to believe that Thamotharampillai ever attempted to appropriate Swaminatha Iyer’s hard labours with respect to Cheevaka Chinthaama’ni, Chalapathy said.

Professor AR VenkatachalapathyOn Choo’laama’ni, Thamotharampillai wanted that to be published by him, since he had already received financial assistance from Rangoon to publish it and as the manuscript had been given to him for publication by the pontiff of Thivaavaduthu’rai Mutt. Thamotharampillai was prepared for an offer of accepting Iyer as editor while he remains publisher, but Iyer was not prepared for the collaboration.

In publishing Akanaanoo’ru Thamotharampillai asked Iyer before commencing work on it. Iyer wanted to reserve it for him. But both didn’t do it. Pillai started working on it towards his end years, but didn’t complete it.

There were disagreements and some bitterness in between, but correspondences continued until a few months to the demise of Thamotharampillai.

* * *

“Damodaram Pillai reveals a personality at ease with himself, displaying great confidence. Evidently he did not feel threatened by the rise of a younger scholar with undoubted gifts, motivation, tenacity and singlemindedness,” Chalapthy said, continuing, “Swaminatha Iyer was cut of a different fabric. As perceptively recorded by Vaiyapuri Pillai, he preferred to work by himself in cloistered secrecy, assisted by a team of his trusted students, who it is worth noting almost exclusively were Brahmins.”

“Damodaram Pillai lived at a time when the public sphere had not expanded. (That could explain why he does not still have a proper biography.) What gave Swaminatha Iyer a definite edge, if not a giant lead, was the penetration of print culture into Tamil society.

“While Damodaram Pillai functioned in the heyday of age of patronage when publishing was sustained by various forms of patronage, Swaminatha Iyer flowered at a time when the market had expanded.

“Despite the unmistakable non-Brahmin turn that the Tamil ‘renaissance’ took, Swmaninatha Iyer’s work was recognized and respected by the world of Tamil scholarship. By the late 1920s the Tamil periodical press was queuing up for Swaminatha Iyer’s essays.

“Swaminatha Iyer’s copious memoirs and encyclopaedic, if incomplete, autobiography would have been inconceivable in Damodaram Pillai’s times. Late in his life, Swaminatha Iyer used the opportunity of a long life resplendent with honour, and access to a widened public sphere created by print to make insinuations about a distinguished senior contemporary which, as we have seen, are unsustainable. Damodaram Pillai’s life was marked by tragedies, but he could have been spared this posthumous tragedy,” concluded Venkatachalapathy in his keynote address.

* * *

The tragedy in proper assessment, owing to ‘fault lines’ discussed by Chalapathy and owing to an absence of research culture in tapping original evidences or in revisiting original texts, affects recognizing not only Thamotharampillai but also Arumuga Navalar, commented an academic.

Further comments from the Eezham Tamil academic:

Unlike the classical works in Sanskrit and Pali, which were edited, published and translated by Europeans, the Tamil classical texts, especially its pre-Pallavan texts had to be brought to light only by the painstaking efforts of Tamils by themselves, and Eezham Tamils did the pioneering work.

Navalar started his work at a little earlier time, when he had to found a native printing press by himself to bring out the publications.

In 1849, as a 27-year-old young man, when he went with an application to the then British Government Agent (GA) in Jaffna for permission to bring in and operate a printing machine, the GA without opening his mouth just signaled him by his hand to leave. Heartbroken when he returned, on the same day itself he was elated to find the GA sending him a written permission for the printing press.

It was in that press in Jaffna he published his earlier works and Thirumurukaattuppadai, the first ever Changkam text to see the light of print was brought out there in 1851. But many do not give him the credit as the first editor of a Changkam text. Writing in Kaakkaich Chirakinilea in January 2012, Inquilab of Tamil Nadu attributes it to Charavanap Perumal Iyer.

The prince of Ramnad, recognizing the expertise of Navalar in bringing out error-free publications wanted him to edit and publish Thirukku’ral with Parimelazhakar commentary.

But Navalar was belonging to a different genre. He was never after positions, titles, recognitions and monetary rewards either from the British government or from the native princes or even from the pontiffs of the Mutts.

When the British GA who gave permission for him for the printing press once met him on the road and asked for way to a house, remembering his gesture earlier, Navalar also showed him the way by his hand without opening his mouth.

Once while passing through Ramnad he refused to see the Prince of Ramnad as he then had differences with him, and when intimidated that he would not leave Ramnad alive, he retorted that his death (Naavalan Ma’ravan kaiyaal i’rappathu) would be only after bringing the atrocities of the prince to the notice. The prince later appeased Navalar to meet him and deliver a lecture at the palace after agreeing to his conditions that he would not receive any rewards from him, would not stand up and would not remove his shawl and foot ware.

Despite all his respect to the pontiff of the Thivaavaduthu’rai Mutt, Navalar once returned the money and presents given to him by the pontiff, because he felt that the pontiff was not honouring the purpose of his visit to his school in Chithamparam.

Until his death Navalar could not get a plot of land to construct a temple at Thirukkeatheesvaram, because the then British GA in Jaffna was angry with him for leading a struggle against mismanagement of famine-epidemic relief.

The fault line Chalapathy brings out in the assessment of the publishing pioneers is not merely confined to caste, religion and region.

Political power; whether one is temperamentally in the establishment or anti-establishment camp and the future discourses of the camps also decide the fault lines.

The independence of the nation of Eezham Tamils may bring in yet another perspective in the assessment.

Chalapathy in his address used terms and phrases such as Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, Sri Lankan Tamil discourse, Sri Lankan Tamil scholarship etc., on many occasions, even though just once he used the terms Eelam Tamils and Ilankaiyar, to say that the consciousness had come after 1956.

The term Sri Lanka, introduced in the 1972 constitution that was rejected by Eezham Tamils has no historicity. It is an imposed identity. The personalities discussed by Chalapathy used the terms Eezham and Ilangkai and often they were using only the regional names such as Yaazhppaa’nam, Kozhumpu, Thirukoa’namalai etc., for identity. A publication of Navalar upheld Yaazhppaa’nam as a Theasam having its own Tamil heritage distinguished from Tamil Nadu.

Venkatachalapathy should note that a major fault line that exists today is that many Eezham Tamils feel deprived of self-respect when they are addressed as ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’, especially by Tamils from Tamil Nadu. Their question is whether the brethren too should deprive them of their nationhood.

* * *

The full text of Venkatachalapathy’s keynote address and the extracts from the letters in Tamil are not available for media publication. But, it will be a great contribution if he soon brings out the full text of the correspondences, urged the Eezham Tamil academic saying that the information is valuable in many other respects.

For instance, when Swaminathaiyar had published Cheevaka Chinthaama’ni in 1887, it had many errors that made Chunnaakam Kumaraswamip Pulavar to come out with a small publication on the errors of the edition. Jaffna had a scholarship in Chinthaama’ni at that time thanks to Viththuva Sironma’ni Ponnampala Pillai, nephew of Navalar. Swaminathaiyar had corrected all the errors pointed out by Kumaraswamip Pulavar in the second edition, but without acknowledging Pulavar, was the accusation of Pandithamani Kanapathippillai, a student of Pulavar. The letter correspondences brought out by Chalapathy show that Pulavar was still in good disposition to Swaminathaiyar as Thamotharampillai had cited him as one who would help him in selling his Chilappathikaaram copies in Jaffna in 1892.

A legal professional who was seeing the text of the letters brought out by Chalapathy was wondering: “The Tamil letters were interesting. The social customs of that time reflected in the letters are also interesting. I always registered that there was a particular diction with nuances exclusive for the parts we come from for writing letters in Tamil, as opposed to literary and popular forms. Where it came from? Letter writing in modern terms was not a cultural practice – though it doesn’t necessarily mean there was no form of individual long-distance communication and how it came about will be interesting to know. It is also an important facet in the evolution of formal modern Tamil with colonial influences supplemented by migration and the continuity of a linguistic tradition that already had a seafaring heritage,” he commented.

* * *

Professor AR Venkatachalapathy is currently attached to the Madras Institute of Development. He is also Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) Chair Professor of Indian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

The_Province_of_the_Book_98098_200 [Image courtesy: The Hindu]
[Image courtesy: The Hindu]

Venkatachalapathy earlier worked in the History Department of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University from 1995 to 2000 and that of University of Madras from 2000 to 2001. His main areas of research are social and cultural history of colonial Tamil Nadu.

He is known for bringing out a neatly compiled edition of the short stories of the Tamil literary genius Puthumaippiththan in 2000. In that year he also published his most noted work Andha Kaalathil Kaapi Illai in Tamil. Later he published an English Version – In Those Days There Was No Coffee, (Yoda Press, 2006).

His most recent publication is on the publication of books. “The Province of the Book: Scholars, Scribes, and Scribblers in Colonial Tamil Nadu,” has been brought out by Permanent Black in 2011.

“Chalapathy’s own research here, both in direction and depth, is itself pioneering: for the first time the whole history and drama (and its subtexts) of the Tamil printed book can be found in one dazzling single work that goes beyond antiquarian passion and bibliography to investigating the Tamil printed book as a cultural object, it’s influence and impact on Tamil authors, publishers, printers and readers,” said a review appeared in The Hindu (which Chalapathy once called “as the acknowledged seat of Brahmin-hood”).

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