IAS officer R. Balakrishnan identifies Orissa and Chattisgarh as living laboratories of Sangam literature

An inquisitive mind attempts to see through things that can lead to startling revelations. It proved true in the case of R. Balakrishnan, an Indian Administrative Service officer, who has identified the relevance of ancient Sangam literature to the modern day Dravidian tribes of Orissa.

With an unflinching passion for Tamil literature, Mr. Balakrishnan has tried to read life into literature. “Our ancient literature exists only on paper. But I was stunned to see its real life portrayals in day to day life in the Dravidian tribal villages of Orissa and Chattisgarh. I was thrilled to see many literary references unfold before my eyes. Even as a student, I did not see Sangam literature and Silapathigaram as mere masterpieces of poetry. I try to relate things to real life thereby unconsciously applying anthropological and sociological methodologies,” he beams.

His aptitude to understand cultures stems from his strong sense of belonging. Born in Natham (near Madurai) and brought up in the Temple City, he pursued his school and college education in a place where art and culture has been part and parcel of life.

Even now, he never misses an opportunity to visit Madurai. “I never felt out of place on my first posting in Orissa. The reason was the frequent visits to my birth place and the emotional connect I share with it. It is like an umbilical cord. I get recharged each time I come and am able to carry out my assigned work with renewed vigour. Probably, this strong rootedness acts as equilibrium, provides an understanding of other peoples' cultures and teaches to respect and appreciate other's roots,” he says.

As Secretary (Culture), Orissa, he had the opportunity to serve in areas, where primitive Dravidian tribes had their habitation.

Being a student of Tamil literature, it was not tough for him to understand the universality of cultures. “When I visited ‘Kon' villages in Koraput I heard charges of elopement and upon enquiry found hamlets with exclusive dormitories for adolescent girls and boys supervised by an elderly lady. I could relate to those terms in literature -- ‘udanpokku' (elopement) and the ‘Pakarkudi' and ‘Iravukudi' (lovers meeting during day and night within the secured place). I could validate every village as seen in perspective of Tamil literature,” Mr. Balakrishnan narrates.

“This reaffirms Sangam literature is study of human lives with anthropological overtones. I saw songs of ‘Kurinji Thinai' as real (songs of the mountain region with clandestine love as theme) in those villages. More than linguistic similarity, I perceive Sangam literature caters to wider areas. With well formulated conventions, it depicts well developed and civilised society. It is history of people with no mention of any name. It is well analysed, categorised with grammatical reflection. To me, the author appears as an anthropologist. He wrote in poetry because it was the form of expression in those times.”

Braving heavy duty assignments, like dealing with cyclone-hit areas and conducting elections, he continued to nurture his passion. “It is a kind of parallel existence for me. I find myself relaxed when involved in these studies. I grabbed the opportunity to study tribes, especially the Khond and Dongria tribes. I used to travel during weekends. It benefited and helped me perform better as an administrator and gave anthropological insights into my job. After all, administrative service is dealing with people. Deeper understanding of human issues helps,” admits Mr. Balakrishnan, who was till recently Deputy Election Commissioner, Election Commission of India and is now on deputation as Chief Vigilance Officer, Chennai Petroleum Corporation Limited, Chennai.

His professional commitment has taken him to unusual locations and his penchant for research has grown in strength to widen his horizon. He feels he has become more holistic now.

His thirst for knowledge is unsatiable. His exuberance propelled him to research on toponomy and onomastics, where he has derived similarities and migration patterns in names of two different places.

He is also working on an atlas called ‘Tamil Indus' that compiles and groups names of places in the Indus-Harappan geographies that are strikingly identical to those attested in Sangam Tamil texts.

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