That the first and the most authentic Malayalam dictionary to date, Sabdatharavali by Sreekanteswaram G. Padmanabha Pillai, turns 90 this year is a fact lost on Malayalis basking in the language’s hard-won classical status.
While such forgetfulness on the part of language Tsars is understandable, given the backward status of linguists and lexicographers in cultural hierarchy, a handful of ordinary language-lovers like poet Kureeppuzha Sreekumar are paying tributes to the enduring legacy of Sreekanteswaram, as the lexicographer is popularly known.
Ironic as it may seem, the milestone was made known by Kureeppuzha on his Facebook page with a lucid piece on the massive lexicon, which has enriched the vocabulary and creative language use of generations of Malayalam speakers.
Kureeppuzha recalls with gratitude the effort put in by Sreekanteswaram, who had already authored nearly 35 works including plays and attakkathas (Kathakali performance texts), to compile the lexicon, explaining with references meanings of nearly 1.5 lakh words and expressions. He began to work on the lexicon aged 32 years and self-published the first edition comprising 500 copies with a cover price of Rs. 22 at the age of 58. Along the way, hit by scepticism over its timely completion, he brought out a pocket dictionary to rousing reception. He made a significant statement that a lexicon always remains incomplete. While arranging words in alphabetical order is child’s play now, the fact that he put together a massive dictionary in an era shorn of automatic devices is simply amazing, Kureeppuzha writes.
Spurning a well-paying job as an attorney, Sreekanteswaram (1864-1946) dedicated his life to Malayalam lexicography. “While the meaning of the word ‘sukham’ (well-being) is enunciated in my dictionary, I have not experienced it till date,” he noted in jest, introducing the work.
Malayalam no doubt owes its grammar and earlier lexicons (Malayalam-English) to Christian missionaries but Sreekanteswaram’s was a pioneering mission by an unusually hardworking Malayali to the language’s development, says critic M.K. Sanoo. Besides being a dictionary, Sabdatharavali offers references to classical texts, archaic expressions and dialectical variations, he says, placing Sreekanteswaram on par with A.R. Rajaraja Varma for his contributions to the evolution of Malayalam in the modern era.
Poet Balachandran Chullikkad rues that the ignominy faced by Sreekanteswaram is largely thanks to his status as a non-academic scholar. “It is a matter of consternation that works by people outside the academia, however erudite and pithy they maybe, are seldom recognised.”
Vice-Chancellor of the newly-formed Malayalam University K. Jayakumar more or less agrees with the argument, but vows that the university would launch programmes to promote non-academic scholarship on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of “the most-standardised and most-accepted Malayalam lexicon”.
Sabdatharavali in A-4 size sells at least 5,000 copies annually, says publisher Ravi Deecee. It is a voluminous text spanning 2,056 pages in one part alone. Equally popular is an abridged version, which is easy to carry, he adds.