French fascinates him
For 30 years, Sriram has not only taught at the Alliance Francaise, but also actively promoted multi-level cultural exchange between India and France. This year, his contributions to the French language have brought him the title of "Chevalier of theOrder of Academic Excellence".
"LEARN FRENCH." The board became a tantalising offer to the boy who passed it by on his daily bus ride to college. He began to dream of reading his favourite writers - Stendhal, Balzac, Hugo, Voltaire, Sartre and Camus, in the original rather than in translation.
That is how French came into the life of V. Sriram, first as a student, then as a translator and literary critic. He was to become a member of the managing committee of the Alliance Francaise, Chennai, from 1971, and serve many terms as its vice-president and president. This year, his contributions to the French language have brought him the title of "Chevalier of the Order of Academic Excellence" from the Government of France. The award ceremony will be held in February 2003.
Right from the initial French classes, Sriram noted how European war literature revealed a greater concern for man and society than those in Indian languages. Genocides and massacres transformed literature. Writing became a pulsating inquiry into the meaning of life. (Today, the front room in his Saligramam home is a disappointment to local book borrowers. The shelves are packed with French titles).
"You may think that nothing can be more alien to someone with a traditional Madras background than Existentialist philosophy. But when a French teacher talks about Sartre, the perspective shifts from academic analysis to the emotional plane of living experience," he explains. Besides, reading a writer in the original language opened other dimensions. "Existentialism doesn't give solutions but helps you understand life, to come to grips with your responsibility. Now Camus is close to Mayavada, to advaita... " What follows is a passionate lecture. Breaking off midway through the flow the man says rather guiltily, " know I can be very irritating when I take off on Camus. I am a Camus-dasan."
After that it is no surprise to learn that his "Anniyan" (Tamil translation of Camus' cult novel "The Outsider"), has had three reprints. He has enjoyed rendering other contemporary classics such as Antoine de Saint-Expury's "The Little Prince", Sartre's "No Exit", and "Paroles," the poems of Jacques Prevert. Sriram has also Englished more than 500 articles from Le Monde for The Hindu, besides contributing articles on French literature and cinema to Tamil literary magazines like Pragnai, Kalachuvadu and Kachatathapara. His monograms include those on Francois Truffaut, Robert Bresson and Louis Malle.
"The Times of India reports about the Cannes Film Festival in the 1960s got me hooked to a cinema so different from the Indian and the Hollywoodian. 16mm screenings at the Alliance Francaise showed how the French New Wave revolutionised the art. I also identified myself with the film society movement in Madras and started introducing French films, filmmakers and their background before screenings. We got astonishing reactions in remoter towns like Tiruppur and Mohanur."
It is one thing to impress locals, but I remind Sriram of the famous line from "My Fair Lady" (The French don't care what you do actually, so long as you pronounce it properly). How did he manage to pick up that right accent in Chennai? "From French teachers, visiting Frenchmen, and constant exposure to the spoken language in French cinema, " he explains, adding, "The French are proud of their heritage. Say you have translated their writers, you win them over. Say it in the right accent, and you walk into their hearts."
For over 30 years Sriram has not only taught at the Alliance Francaise, but actively promoted multi-level cultural exchange between India and France. His interest in Carnatic music has enabled him to assist in programmes for the French radio on "The Music Festival in Madras" and "Sangeetam." Likewise, he has participated in French television documentaries on Indian cinema, besides acting as assistant director for the short film "Yati" which won the Critics' Prize at the Montreal Film Festival (1994). Wife and son have been active supporters of his French madness.
It is natural for Sriram to wish to translate Tamil works into French. So far, he has been able to do little, "Finding French publishers is not easy." But this retired insurance man hopes for more progress in 2002, when plans are afoot for concentrated projection of Indian literature in France.
Ask Monsieur Venkataraman Sriram what he has gained through such an ardent pursuit of a foreign language and he will flash back with wonder intact in eye and voice. "For me French has opened up a wholly different world of logic and sensitivity."
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