Not often one comes across a non-Indian speaking an Indian regional language and that too a complex one like Tamil. But, Jean-Luc Chevillard from France, startles everyone with his linguistic excellence. He talks and writes in Tamil with ease and his depth of knowledge is captivating.
Even though a Ph.D holder in the language, it does takes enormous interest and dedication to love, learn and laud a foreign language. What is fascinating is his perfect pronunciation and ‘close to correct' accent in which he recites couplets from literary works like ‘tevaram' and ‘agananuru'.
This ‘firangi-tamil gyani' is a noted researcher with two decades standing and is currently working with École française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO), Pondicherry Chapter. Mr. Chevillard addressed a group of college students on ‘Tamil learning and culture - insights and experiences of a non-native classical Tamil scholar' at an event jointly organized by ‘Yadava College' and ‘INTACH Tamil Nadu Chapter' this week.
Originally a Mathematics graduate, he was inspired by ‘Kamil Zvelebil', a Czezh researcher famous for extensive works on Tamil and his love for the antique language blossomed. Since then his long literary journey has been exhilarating with twists and turns and still continues zestfully.
Awarded the ‘K. Anbazhagan prize' by Dravidian Linguistic Association of India in 1997 for his translation of ‘Cenavaraiyam', he is now currently preparing a critical edition and translation of the ‘Agananuru', as the.Editor of the bi-annual linguistics journal Histoire Épistemologie Langage.
“I just happened to visit India and landed in a place that spoke a beautiful language”, he recalled. The researcher haslost count of his visits to the country, as he frequents here for his research. During one such stay in South India, he met Professor Muthu Shanmugam Pillai and started learning spoken Tamil, visiting villages and recording the local tongues. He did not find it easy navigating between dialects and balancing the two different spoken and written form of Tamil.
On this stint, he assisted in translating and deciphering works of Zvelebil like ‘En sarithram' of U.V. Swamnatha Iyer, ‘Ezhuthuadhikaram' and ‘Soladhikaram' of ‘Tolkappiyam'. He also wrote a thesis on one of the commentaries of ‘Tolkappiyam'. The complexity of the language though difficult didn't deter him but highly interested him to learn more and he decided to specialize in the history of Tamil grammatical tradition. He was recruited by the EFEO where he studied with T.V. Gopal Iyer and researched on many other works belonging to various periods.
The hymns of ‘Tevaram' cast its magic on him and he went on to study all its literary aspects. His desire to know the entire book by heart led to an extensive research on the translation-cum-paraphrase of ‘Tevaram' by V.M. Subrahmanya Iyer. The work ran across 15 volumes of manuscripts done in a non-computerized era, with minimal typewrites, but he took on the challenge, worked, re-worked and came up with a ‘Digital Tevaram' in 2007.
Mr. Chevillard organized the work of V.M. Subramania Iyer and made it available on a CD-ROM. It contains all the verses and shows them in both the Metrical text and ‘Sandhi-split' forms. A map is provided to identify all the ‘padal petra sthalams' and recital spanning seven hours of the 24 ‘pans' is also recorded. With English translation of each verse and an extensive glossary, the CD explains everything about ‘Tevaram', its grammatical formula and literary style of composition.
While doing this, he realized the usage of ‘Yappu', a way of splitting and writing verses that enables rhythmic and coherent recital. According to him, this format is something indigenous to Tamil language as the culture was oral transmission of knowledge across generations.
“The way of education in early Tamil society was teacher recited and students listened” he pointed out the reason behind the two formats of writing, one easy to read and the other to recite.
Cenavaraiyam manuscripts and the ‘Velvikudi' copper plates were the other works he chose to explain the concept of no difference between short and long syllables. “Old Tamil was written without the ‘pulli' (dot) to denote the difference in syllable and left for the reader to understand. Probably, putting a dot would have damaged the palm leaf” he noted, indicating the difficulty in reading Old Tamil, only meant for scholars.
“To understand the history of your country, you have to know these scripts, if not one can't read the monuments. Many may even get lost or destroyed before you decipher it” he drove home the need to preserve ancient texts.
Later answering a Q ‘n' A session, Mr. Chevillard concluded: “Tamil is simply enchanting. I could live forever, I would learn a new language every 10 years”.