This year marks the centenary of Tamil scholar K.M. Venkatramaiah, whose love for the language was legendary.

It is easy to profess love for Tamil. It is just as easy to recommend the study of the language in college. So long as all this advocacy is aimed at other people’s children. But when it comes to their own children, many votaries of Tamil favour English education. Tamil scholar K.M. Venkatramaiah, however, belonged to a different league. He made sure that every one of his five sons majored in Tamil. A typical day in the Venkatramaiah household began not with breakfast but with the boys reciting Tamil verses. ‘No recitation, no food’- was the rule strictly enforced by Venkatramaiah’s wife Annapoorni. And to think Venkatramaiah’s mother tongue was Telugu!

Venkatramaiah was the son of an uneducated agriculturist, who was anxious that his son should be educated. He enrolled in B.A. Economics at Loyola College. A book lover, Venkatramaiah spent a lot on Tamil and English books. One of his book buying sprees led him to U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer’s house in Triplicane. U.Ve. Sa asked him why he wanted to buy ‘Silappadikkaram’ and ‘Purananooru.’ Venkatramaiah replied he loved Tamil literature. U.Ve. Sa then asked him why he didn’t major in Tamil. The lad took U.Ve. Sa’s words to heart. Upon completion of his B.A. in Economics, he enrolled for a Bachelor’s (B.O.L) in Tamil, and followed it up with an M.A. in Tamil. Thus began his life-long love affair with Tamil.

Hearing one of Venkatramaiah’s lectures, the then head of the Tirupanandal Mutt, Kasivasi Arulnandi Tambiran, offered him the post of principal at Tirupanandal College. Venkatramaiah taught Tamil there and served as principal for 28 years, during which time he helped the Mutt publish many books on Tamil literature. One such was his ‘Thirukkural Uraikkothu'.

When Venkatramaiah retired, his pension papers were held up on grounds of a minor technicality. Not willing to be bogged down by bureaucratic red tape, Venkatramaiah decided that it was time to move on. In fact, this wasn’t the only disappointment he had to face. However, Providence smiled on him, for every difficult phase was followed by an opportunity for further research in Tamil. Just when he was having trouble with his pension papers, there came an offer from the then Governor of Tamil Nadu, K.K. Shah, who asked him to do a comparative study of Tamil and Sanskrit grammar, a project that the scholar completed in two years. Unfortunately, the book never saw the light of day.

Venkatramaiah’s next stint was with the Annamalai University, where he was appointed to the Thirukkural Chair. During this period, he did a comparative study of Divya Prabandham and Thirukkural. He found so many sentiments of the Kural were echoed in the Prabandham. Sadly, this book of Venkatramaiah’s too remains unpublished.

Yet another work of his written during the years at the Annamalai University was a study of the Mudumozhi Mel Vaippu. Venkatramaiah studied the story of Saivite saints as seen in the Mudumozhi Mel Vaippu, and compared it with the Peria Puranam version, and with Kannada and Telugu versions of the stories. The fate of this book? Again unpublished.

Also unpublished is his book on the influence of the Thirukkural on Thiruthondar Purananam. When his stint at the Annamalai University drew to a close, Venkatramaiah was appointed Dean of Manuscriptology at the Tamil University, Thanjavur. During his stint there, he studied Modi manuscripts, and wrote books on the Maratha kings. As for his knowledge of Modi, it was entirely self-taught! He learnt Jain philosophy so that he could edit a book on a Jain commentary for the Thirukkural.

When the Vice Chancellor of the Tamil University, V.I. Subramaniam, established the Dravidian Linguistic Association in Thiruvananthapuram, Venkatramaiah joined the institute. While there, he collected material to publish a ‘Handbook of Tamil Nadu,’ which involved painstaking research. But he wasn’t alive when the book was published. On his way to mail a post-card to his son, he was knocked down by an auto-rickshaw. In hospital battling for life, he signalled to V.I. Subramaniam who was visiting, that the card should reach his son. When Subramaniam took the card from his clenched fist, Venkatramaiah breathed his last.The card was about the worship of Avvaiyar in Kerala!

Venkatramaiah’s centenary celebrations began in April this year and will conclude next year. While 20 books of his are available now, many are yet to be published. Will the Government step in to do something? Only time will tell.

Interesting interpretations

Prof. Pasupathi’s observations on Avvaiyar are thought-provoking. He says Avvaiyar’s lament upon Adhiyaman’s death shows that she was not the old woman we imagine her to be. She must have been young then. At the same time, he disagrees with the interpretation that she consumed liquor. His interpretation of Avvaiyar’s verse is that when unfermented palmyrah juice was available, Adhiyaman gave it to the bard, but he consumed the fermented extract. The words ‘siriya kal’ in Avvaiyar’s verse are a reference to palmyrah juice (padaneer), not fermented toddy.

Does Pasupathi regret not having had an English education? “Certainly not,” he says. “In fact, we (the sons of Venkatramaiah), consider ourselves blessed to have studied Tamil.” His brother Mahadevan is an editor with Dinamalar.

Resource crunch

It was U.Ve. Sa who inspired Venkatramaiah to take up the study of Tamil. Today Venkatramaiah’s son Pasupathi is Honorary Curator at the U.Ve.Sa.Library, Chennai. Unfortunately, the library has to self-support. Maintenance of many manuscripts which U.Ve. Sa collected is done by raising funds from the sale of publications of the library. Clearly this is not enough. One fears for the future of the manuscripts, which is a matter of pride of every Tamilian. Are the authorities listening?

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