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Updated: August 27, 2011 12:35 IST

World Classical Tamil Conference – a perspective

    Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi
    Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu
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He wrote the theme song for which A.R. Rahman composed the music. Photo: A. Rajesh
The Hindu
He wrote the theme song for which A.R. Rahman composed the music. Photo: A. Rajesh

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.

Theme song

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.

Academic sessions

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.

Pageantry procession

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.

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This conference provided a great opportunity to Tamilians who are residing outside, like me, to learn about the history and antiquity of the Tamil. Also, a great composition my A R Rahman, and my heart swells with pride every time I play that song.

from:  Aditya Vasudevan
Posted on: Jun 30, 2010 at 13:16 IST

it is good for us the students to know about the world tamil conference

from:  remya.menon
Posted on: Jun 29, 2010 at 19:08 IST

Congratulations for the great tamil conference but there is much work to be done, The boards and advertisements in Tamil Nadu must be In Tamil script with words in Tamil, not in English. Media in Tamil Nadu, please use correct and perfect Tamil when u use Tamil even in Tamil newspaper. Use correct English when u use English. More work to be done so Tamil can be used in science and Technology. Simply the Tamil script by going back to the earlier script which is simple.

from:  thanabaal
Posted on: Jun 26, 2010 at 23:04 IST

"Thamizhan Endru Sollada, Thalai Nimirndhu Nillada". We should feel proud of ourselves being Tamilians who have excelled in every field and put us in the horizon of fame.

from:  Saranya
Posted on: Jun 26, 2010 at 10:00 IST

To me this sounds little extravagant. A celebration without a reason or cause. This government or the previous governments for that matter did little to modernise Tamil and take it to the digital age.
Many people who know only Tamil have only very limited access to knowledge available in the world now. None of this will addressed by this self-congratulatory conference.

from:  Sridhar
Posted on: Jun 23, 2010 at 22:26 IST

Century awaited recoganisation; I feel it is my personal responsibility as a Tamilan to thank everyone to score this status and the demonstration of this message of richness in Tamil language, to the world humanity.
We love you Dr.Kalainger Iyya Avergale, you are already like our "Tamil", your name and achievements will last as forever, as long as "Tamil" lives in this Universe.
Thank you

from:  Loganathamoorthy V Malaysia
Posted on: Jun 23, 2010 at 19:08 IST

Although not a Tamilian, I love that language for its simplicity and sweetness. All the best to the conference and its organizers.

from:  KVSKumar
Posted on: Jun 23, 2010 at 12:34 IST

GREAT efforts and happy to see great things happening around in CBE...still there's one thought keeps buzzing in corner of mind...
and growing stronger as the gr8 day's about to dawn... that the person , even the name of one great personality & Tamil scholar, our beloved former president Dr.APJ Abdul Kalam, is totally missing in this entire extravaganza....
sorry If I had missed out any news relating to the great man.

from:  JM
Posted on: Jun 22, 2010 at 23:39 IST

It is only because of You - Dr. M.Kalaignar and your tireless efforts Sir, this is happening. We are all proud to be called as Dravidians.
Its a great privilage to all Coimbatoreans' to witness WORLD CLASSICAL TAMIL CONFERENCE 2010 to be held in Coimbatore. We thank from our heart.

Perumai Kolvom thamizhan endru !!
Perumidham Kolvom thamizh en uyir endru!!!

with great love for Thamizh and our Nation

Poongodi Prabhakaran

from:  Poongodi B
Posted on: Jun 21, 2010 at 13:39 IST

We are proud to be tamilians from U.A.E.(Alain).Looking forward eagerly to the tamil conference. Hats off to Dr.Kalaingar. Olahum yangum vetri kodi natatum . Thai moziyah vanakam

from:  Bency Peter
Posted on: Jun 20, 2010 at 23:58 IST

Honorable Sir,

from:  VASANTH
Posted on: Jun 19, 2010 at 08:01 IST

We salute the Great leader for his efforts to get Tamil language its Classical recognition.Dr Kalaingar you have done a great and unique job.The future generations will remember this service.I have only one suggestion. Sanskrit is another great language and some of the policies followed by Tamil Nadu government are discouraging the people from learning this language.The world scholars have appreciated that language and how that language has helped to develop Greek and Latin in the early days.Request Dr Kalaignar to correct the policy of the state government if necessary.This will be in line with the spirit of his Theme song.

from:  Narayanan Krishnan
Posted on: Jun 18, 2010 at 03:19 IST

Great idea. Wanted to know the year and venue of past World Tamil meets.
First was in 1966 at Kuala Lampur, third in Paris...
If anyone can help me, academic interest.

from:  kamal kankani
Posted on: Jun 14, 2010 at 15:38 IST

Honorable Sir,

from:  umesh
Posted on: Jun 11, 2010 at 11:00 IST

proud to be a tamilan....we tamilan's of Malaysia are proud our mother language have been honoured around the world...."VAALGE TAMIL"

from:  Tamil Chelvan Meenakshi Sundram
Posted on: Jun 10, 2010 at 15:24 IST

Valga Tamil Valarga Tamil

from:  s.mohamed mujeeb
Posted on: Jun 8, 2010 at 22:41 IST

A very nice and comprehensive article by CM of Tamil Nadu, Dr.Kalaignar Karunanidhi. Thanks for this article. I wish other Tamil scholars will write such articles about the Tamil language.

from:  Pacha Nambi
Posted on: Jun 4, 2010 at 23:58 IST

Proud to be a tamil and the richness of our tamil language

from:  Philippe
Posted on: Jun 4, 2010 at 00:35 IST

We really need to salute Dr.Kalaignar Karunanidhi,for his spirit and not surrendering to the cheap comments from many quarters of the Tamil society.A LIVING LEGEND.

from:  Chidambaram
Posted on: Jun 3, 2010 at 23:27 IST

The very rich heritage and linguistic supremacy of any language never failed to withstand the radical changes coming in the way of its progress. Adaptability and the deep roots that are capable of retaining its originality are making the very existence of Tamil as 'young'; The kind of perseverance and contribution by our beloved forefathers and unrelenting leaders like Dr.M Karunanidhi to give Tamil the identity as Classical language is making every Tamil be proud of it.Let's extend our wishes and support to the efforts to celebrate Tamil for becoming a Classical Language, though cannot contribute anything to Tamil,at this auspicious moment of First World Classical Tamil Conferrence.

from:  Paul Robinson
Posted on: Jun 3, 2010 at 23:01 IST

The contribution made by the Dravidian Movement started by C.N. Annadurai in bringing out the renaissance of Tamil Language and Culture in the new world, is not formal but very significant in the history of Tamil civilization.

from:  Justice Karunakaran, Seychelles
Posted on: Jun 3, 2010 at 22:41 IST

Well written for the occassion.All should attend the conference to make it a grand success.It is rather a Festival of Tamils. Well Done Dr.Kalaignar.

from:  Dharmapuri K.Bala Sundram
Posted on: Jun 3, 2010 at 20:39 IST

I feel a glow within that at long last the Tamil culture has come into its own and will regenerate the Indian culture as a whole on the unifying principle of equality by simply being born a human (pirapokkum) -- a powerful antidote to the inequality bile of the Vedic mind that had sickened the Indian culture so long.

from:  L. Sundaramani Simon
Posted on: Jun 3, 2010 at 20:32 IST

As an Indian I am very much proud to say that Tamil has been in existence for thousands of years. Tamil has given great epics. Great literature like Thirukural says it all. Even after 100s of years, it is still relevant. It only shows how visionary our forefathers were.

from:  Soundirarajan Kalyanaraman
Posted on: Jun 3, 2010 at 16:47 IST

The Indian Council for Cultural Relations, under the auspices of the ministry of external affairs, endeavours to promote understanding between India and other societies and cultures. As part of their remit, they should be empowered to bring the rich heritage of the Tamil such as Thirukkural, Agananooru to the rest of humanity.

from:  mohansingh
Posted on: Jun 3, 2010 at 14:51 IST

We are always proud to call ourselves as Tamilians and this conference will enhance our presence at the international level. Dr MK we salute your effort and commitment

from:  bala
Posted on: Jun 3, 2010 at 07:07 IST
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