Although Tamil and a few other languages such as Greek, Latin and Sanskrit enjoy the status of classical language in the academic world thanks to their antiquity and rich literary heritage, Tamil is the first living language to be given the official status of a classical language.
Our sagacious leader, Arignar Anna [C.N. Annadurai], conducted the Second World Tamil Conference in Chennai in 1968, during his tenure as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, on a very grand scale with the participation of lakhs of Tamils from all over the country and abroad. The First World Tamil Conference, held in Kuala Lumpur in 1966, the Third in Paris (1970), the Fourth in Jaffna (1974), the Fifth at Madurai (1981), the Sixth again in Kuala Lumpur (1987), the Seventh in Mauritius (1989), and the Eighth in Thanjavur (1995) were, relatively speaking, on a moderate scale.
Following our success in getting the rightful status of Classical Language for Tamil declared and notified by the United Progressive Alliance government – a landmark achievement in the development of Tamil and in the restoration of its prestige and glory – succeeding in our efforts to establish the Central Institute of Classical Tamil in Chennai, and facilitating the award of the President's ‘Kuralpeeda Award' and ‘Tholkappiar Award' on nationally and internationally renowned Tamil scholars, we thought it fit to conduct the first World Classical Tamil Conference. We decided to hold it for five days from the 23rd to the 27th of June 2010 at Coimbatore in a grand manner.
Demand for classical status
For more than 150 years, Tamil scholars and those conscious of their Tamil heritage have been demanding that the classical character of Tamil be recognised. They claimed that Tamil has rich and hoary literary and grammatical traditions, its own script system, and an unbroken lengthy history. In addition, the language has continuously been a spoken language at least for more than 2,000 years in Tamil Nadu. It has essentially kept its age-old character intact, even though it is an effective modern language.
The demand for classical status arose in the context of the British Indian administration treating Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic as classical languages and making special provisions and support mechanisms for the learning and development of these languages. The demand arose also in the context of the strong Tamil tradition and tendency, even now easily discernible, to maintain its own distinct character through various linguistic, literary, religious, anthropological, sociological, cultural, and architectural means and contributions.
In recent years, George Hart, Professor of Tamil Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, reiterated with sound arguments the demand that Tamil should be declared or recognised as a classical language. He wrote in 2000: “First, Tamil is of considerable antiquity. Second, Tamil constitutes the only literary tradition indigenous to India that is not derived from Sanskrit. Third, the quality of classical Tamil literature is such that it is fit to stand beside the great literatures of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Chinese, Persian and Arabic.”
Dr. Robert Caldwell (1814-1891) established beyond the pale of controversy the reality of the Dravidian family of languages and the high antiquity of Tamil. According to him, it is the most highly cultivated of all Dravidian idioms; it can dispense with its Sanskrit altogether, if need be, and not only stand alone but also flourish without its aid.
Caldwell's study provided the base for the formation of the Pure Tamil Movement, founded by the great Tamil savant, Parithimaal Kalaignar (V.G. Suryanarayana Sastri), a Professor of Tamil at the Madras Christian College. He first gave the clarion call to recognise Tamil as a classical language. His view was further nurtured by the renowned scholars, Maraimalai Adigal (1876-1950) and Devaneya Paavanar, who opined that Tamil was the primary classical language of the world.
In 1918, the Saiva Siddhanta Samajam passed a resolution demanding that the University of Madras grant classical language status to Tamil. This was done at the initiative of Maraimalai Adigal, Professor of Tamil at the Madras Christian College, and a proponent of the Pure Tamil Movement, whose original name was Vedachalam. Two years later, the Thanjavur-based Karanthai Tamil Sangam petitioned the university to raise the status issue with the provincial government. After that, not much was heard of the demand for a long time.
The 1970s again saw a champion of the cause in Manavai Mustafa, then Editor of UNESCO Courier (Tamil). But he did not have much organisational backing. Since 1975 he has been writing consistently in newspapers and magazines pressing the demand. Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran asked him to send a petition detailing how Tamil qualified to claim the status.
Mustafa said it took him two years to collect the necessary data, which included the features a language should have to qualify for classical status. He presented a petition to the Chief Minister in 1982, but no action was taken. Years later, he said, he learnt that the petition was rejected by a top government official on the ground that if Tamil was given the status on a par with Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit, which are no more spoken languages, Tamil would also be considered a `dead' language.
Movement gains momentum
The movement to classify Tamil as a classical language gained momentum about ten years ago when major political parties took up the issue. A few months before the 1996 general elections, the DMK adopted a resolution at its Tiruchi conference demanding that Tamil be made one of the official languages of the Union government. The demand was also included in the DMK's manifesto for the Assembly elections held along with the general elections.
In 1998, when the BJP captured power at the Centre, many academics felt that the BJP-led government, which declared 1999 as Sanskrit Year and caused a flow of funds to universities and Sanskrit organisations, was not keen on giving classical status to Tamil. The DMK, as a constituent in the government, pressed Tamil's case. It organised hunger strikes and demonstrations and thousands of people courted arrest.
The DMK conference at Villupuram also adopted a resolution to that effect. Its election manifesto for the 2004 Lok Sabha elections stated: “The DMK will continue to insist on the declaration of Tamil as a Classical Language as it would enable the allocation of funds for Tamil research by the Central government and would also facilitate Tamil research in various universities in India and abroad.”
The DMK-led alliance swept the polls and the DMK became an important constituent of the UPA government formed at the Centre. We could get this demand included in the National Common Minimum Programme. In the very first joint session of Parliament in June 2004, the declaration of Tamil as a Classical Language by President APJ Abdul Kalam, a Tamil scholar himself, was not just symbolic. It was a victory for Indian democracy and the federal polity as well.
On September 17, 2004, Information and Broadcasting Minister S. Jaipal Reddy announced that the government's decision to accord classical language status was taken on the recommendation of an Expert Committee of the Sahitya Akademi that a category of “classical languages” be created. Since Tamil fulfilled the set of criteria the Committee had evolved, it won the honour of being the first to get into this prestigious category. Although Tamil and a few other languages such as Greek, Latin and Sanskrit enjoy the status of classical language in the academic world thanks to their antiquity and rich literary heritage, Tamil is the first living language to be given the official status of a classical language.
On October 12, 2004, the UPA government issued a notification declaring Tamil as a classical language. Thus Tamil won the distinction of being the first classical language declared by the independent Government of India.
I expressed my overwhelming feeling of joy at the DMK conference in Tiruchi on March 5, 2006, in the presence of Congress president Thirumathi Sonia Gandhi. I said the letter she wrote to me about the decision was not just a letter but an ageless copperplate. She had stated in her letter of November 8, 2005: “Dear Thiru Karunanidhiji, I have received your letter of 28th October. I am glad that all the formalities for declaring Tamil as a Classical Language have now been completed. This is an achievement for all the constituents of the UPA Government, but particular credit goes to you and your Party. With Regards, Yours sincerely, Sonia Gandhi.”
The century-old dream of Tamils turned true and the first part of the history of classical language came to an end. I wrote a series of epistles to my party brethren under the heading ‘Some pages in the history of Classical Language' in our party organ Murasoli, explaining the historical development of the demand for classical status for Tamil and the stalwarts and scholars who contributed to it.
Significance of conference logo
The image of Thiruvalluvar's statue in Kanyakumari, being lashed by waves caused by the tsunami and encircled by seven icons from the Indus Valley Civilisation, forms part of the logo of the World Classical Tamil Conference. The logo emphasises the ideal of humankind, that it should always be free of narrow walls of race, creed, and caste. The message is found in a palm leaf manuscript at the bottom of the statue. This concept (“pirapokkum ella uyirkkum” = All living humans are one in circumstances of birth) has been declared to be the motto of the meet. The Indus Valley Civilisation icons, found in the logo, symbolise the Dravidian civilisation, which is regarded as the most ancient civilisation of the world. The number of icons stresses the importance of ‘seven' in the lives of Tamils.
I wrote the theme song for the Conference, which has been set to tune by Oscar and Grammy Award winner A.R. Rahman. The DVD was made by leading film director Gautham Menon.
The World Classical Tamil Conference will be inaugurated by President Pratibha Patil in the forenoon of June 23, 2010. The Governor of Tamil Nadu, Thiru Surjit Singh Barnala, and scholars like Professor George Hart, Dr. V.C. Kulandaisamy, and Dr.K. Sivathamby will participate in the inaugural function, which I will preside over.
The “Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Award” will be presented to the world renowned Indologist, Dr. Asko Parpola of Finland, for his magnum opus, Deciphering the Indus Script (1994), proposing Dravidian as the language of the Indus Script, close to old Tamil. This Award has been instituted by the Central Institute of Classical Tamil making use of the endowment created by me from my personal contribution of Rs.1 crore.
The Conference will feature comprehensive academic sessions in which research papers in Tamil language, literature, culture, and so on will be presented by scholars and researchers. As many as 1,020 delegates from 49 countries have registered for participation at the conference. They will present their papers on various subjects under 55 titles.
General sessions for the public
The general sessions will have various literary programmes to benefit and attract the public. The public will get an opportunity to listen to presentations on classical Tamil in the form of various programmes like literary speeches, poetry sessions, and scholarly debates by renowned personalities. We expect thousands of people to attend these sessions. Further, dance operas, music performances, and so on will be organised in the evenings to showcase Tamil culture to the delegates and the general public.
Exhibition on Classical Tamil
A grand exhibition is being organised for the World Classical Tamil Conference. There will be exhibits depicting Tamil arts, culture, language, literature, and the history of Tamil. The exhibition will present objects of pottery, figurines, bricks, and seals, bathtubs etc., which were excavated from the Indus Valley apart from Chola bronzes, stone inscriptions, and statues from various ages.
A massive pageantry procession will be organised on June 23, the day of inauguration. It will cover 9 km. from VOC grounds in the heart of the city of Coimbatore to CODISSIA grounds, the venue of the Conference. The procession will have 40 floats displaying paintings and models of sculptures depicting the glory of Tamil culture. The floats will portray rare and resplendent scenes from the ancient Sangam classics and reflect the richness of the Tamil people and their culture. What is more, 40 cultural troupes consisting of 2,000 artistes will participate in the procession.
Tamil Internet Conference
Another unique aspect will be the Tamil Internet Conference 2010, which the Government of Tamil Nadu decided to hold alongside the first World Classical Tamil Conference. The objectives of the former are to showcase the development of Tamil Internet up to the present time and to identify the steps needed to increase the use of the Tamil language on the Internet; to establish a wide network between Tamil literary scholars and Tamil Internet developers; and to motivate the younger generation to use Tamil on the Internet.
We expect about 350 special invitees, speakers, delegates, and experts from 15 countries to participate in the Tamil Internet Conference. A “Tamil Computing Internet Exhibition” is being organised as an interactive module to expose and explain the latest developments and technology in Tamil Internet to common folk.
Much thought and consultation has gone into formulating the programmes of this specialised Conference. I am confident it will take Tamil to the 21st Century, based on its requirements and having in mind the rapid developments in science and technology, information technology, linguistics, anthropology, epigraphy, and other fields of knowledge.