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Healing with languages

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In a classical world: David Shulman. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan
In a classical world: David Shulman. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

SHALINI UMACHANDRAN

Scholar and peace activist David Shulman spends more time in the 16th century than he does in the 21st.

"I'M an old-fashioned 19th century philologist who stepped into the 21st century by mistake," says David Shulman. "That means I'm interested in languages — and what they tell of culture, history and people," explains the professor of Indian, Iranian and Armenian Studies and Comparative Religion in Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

Modern and medieval

But his love for and knowledge of the classical world isn't confined to research in dark libraries, poring over crumbling texts. He brings together the modern and the medieval with his belief that language can contribute to "healing a lot of the disconnect and alienation that people feel today." Prof. Shulman, who is in India on a six-month sabbatical, living in Rajahmundry, "a town of poets and scholars", in Andhra Pradesh and studying classical Telugu texts, believes that today's monolingual societies are a step backwards. A hundred years ago, the area that is now Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh was multi-lingual; it was normative to know more than one language and be well versed in the literature of the different languages. Tamil, he says, is not as distinctive as it thinks it is. The South Indian languages are part of a larger integrated pre-modern South Indian culture. "Now people are largely monolingual or speak one Indian language and English. There was a lot of dialogue between languages and scholars in the 15th and 16th centuries. That has been lost now, with each language believing itself to be a unique entity." Prof. Shulman's just back from Tenkasi, "an untouched Tamil town", where he's been doing research on the 16th century text, Naitatam, and it's author-poet Ativiraramapantiyan. This text, which was once the centre of Tamil teaching, has been largely forgotten, he says. "Interesting things happened in Tenkasi in the 16th century. There was a kind of Renaissance in the language and literature of the time, a huge cultural shift. South India is one of the world's richest cultural areas in sculpture, music, literature, sciences — we must not lose touch with that." He says the classical model of education, where scholars and students drew from other languages, ideas and forms of expression, should be revived. "The present day narrowing of the cultural horizon by focussing on one language as a disparate entity is a great loss," says the professor who teaches Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Indian religion, culture and history in Israel. Prof. Shulman has collaborated with A.K. Ramanujam and other scholars like Velcheru Narayana Rao and Sanjay Subrahmanyam to write more than 20 books on subjects ranging from temple myths and poems to the cross-cultural history and context of dreams.

Cultural continuity

In certain crucial areas, he says, there is a deep sense of cultural continuity in Andhra Pradesh as compared to Tamil Nadu. "There is a powerful connectivity in Andhra Pradesh — in everyday life, art, the themes people write about, rituals — even though people may not realise it. For example, hundreds come every evening to listen to a series of public lectures on 16th century classical Telugu poetry in Rajahmundry. Could you get an audience like that in Madras for a set of lectures on, say, the Tiruvarur ulaa or the Tiruttanikaippuranam? The continuity remains in Carnatic music, but in Tamil literature the break is severe. "Very interesting things are happening in today's Tamil literature but much of the awareness of the past is eroded. People are aware of early Sangam poetry, but there has been an erosion in interest in medieval literature."By focussing only on certain parts of the literary tradition, we are narrowing our sensibilities and limiting the boldness of our imagination. In Dalit literature for instance, he explains, there has been a huge wave of writing in recent times, but much of Dalit life was well documented from the 12th century onwards, like in Cekkilar's Periya Puranam. "You cannot see Dalit writing as a wholly new phenomenon. The difference is that modern Dalit writing is more fiercely realistic in a way that classical Dalit literature was not. There is great creative potential but the impulses cannot be entirely fulfilled without going into the past and laterally into other languages." Shulman did a B.A. in Islamic Studies and read Persian and Arabic — and by a series of accidents drifted eastwards to India. He first came to Madras (he doesn't say Chennai) in 1972, "and it was love at first sight. The beauty of the language, the music, the food, even the climate captivated me. I still see Madras as a kind of heaven. It is so intellectually and aesthetically stimulating. If I have to belong anywhere in the world, it is here in Mylapore." The genial professor is revelling in the beauty of small-town South India and the world of ragas and padams, folk epics and prabandhams, but when he's back home in a few months, he'll be going straight into the battlefield of the Israel-Palestine conflict. He's an active participant in the peace movement inside Israel, which protects Palestinians from Israeli settlers and the army. Though fiercely critical of Israel's actions and attitude and feels he has to "take responsibility for what my side does and help protect innocent civilians", he says the Palestinian leadership is as much to blame for the conflict.

Gandhian non-violence

Some Palestinian villages along the Jerusalem corridor have organised themselves along Gandhian lines into non-violent groups and take out marches every week after Friday prayers. "These are the last places in the world where you can see the Gandhian style of satyagraha in practice. And the army just does not know how to deal with peaceful protests. In places like Bil'in, 80-year-old grandmothers and children march towards the soldiers protesting against the separation barrier." "On good days — and there are good days — I believe there will be peace. It will take sustained and patient work by the activists and people on both sides, and considerable international pressure, for peace to become reality." But for the next few months, he's focussing on his "many interesting projects", one of which is a study of the development of imagination in Tamil and Telugu literature. He's also working with photographer V.K. Rajamani to document the ceiling paintings in the Devasiriya mandapam of Tiruvarur's Thyagarajaswamy temple. "The ceiling paintings of this mandapam are one of the forgotten masterpieces of medieval art of South India. There has been water damage, smoke damage... they are in a state that is completely unacceptable." And he's keeping a Rajahmundry diary, which he hopes to publish — a meditation on daily life, "an account of what it is like to live in Andhra Pradesh in 2006 by someone who spends 40 per cent of his time in a classical, medieval world."


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