C. Gouridasan Nair

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: With the Central government deciding to accord ‘classical language’ status to Kannada and Telugu, Malayalam has been left behind as the only South Indian language without the prestigious tag and all that goes with it for the promotion of classical languages.

Major writers in the language have questioned both the wisdom of the government taking upon itself the job of according special status to any particular language and also what they describe as the discrimination towards Malayalam which, they feel, has as much claim to ‘classical language’ status as other major languages in South India.

Coming down heavily on the Centre’s decision, noted poet O.N.V. Kurup said the decision to grant ‘classical language’ status to some languages and leaving out equally eligible others was nothing short of discrimination. Jnanpith-winning writer M.T. Vasudevan Nair said, “Although Malayalam may not be as old as the other South Indian languages, it also has a classical tradition and a strong claim to classical language status.”

Former Kendra Sahitya Akademi secretary K. Satchidanandan felt that it was wrong to place languages in an “unhealthy hierarchy.”

Noted historian K.N. Panikkar said any recognition given to a language should be linked to its history and proposals for its growth and development rather than arbitrarily chosen criteria such as a thousand years’ antiquity. “What are the implications of this recognition? Is it meant for the development of the language and what is the rationale for the 1,000-year criterion? The State has not done anything during the last 50 years for the enrichment of the languages. These parameters must be taken into account. Otherwise it will become a competition between different languages,” Prof. Panikkar said.

Lofty objective

In response to the questions in this regard, Prof. Kurup pointed out that the motto of the Sahitya Akademi that ‘Indian Literature is one written in many languages’ is a clear pointer to the lofty objective of seeing all Indian languages on par. Although some people argue that Malayalam is the daughter of Tamil given their striking similarities, many scholars are of the opinion that the present-day Tamil and Malayalam are daughters of the same Proto-Dravidian Language, Tamil the elder daughter and Malayalam the younger daughter.

“Kerala, as a result of its vast exposure to the languages and civilisations of the West and Arabia, imbibed many foreign words into its diction (both spoken and written) and thus gradually evolved into its present form. Tamil had a puritanical attitude in this regard. Malayalam is a highly developed form of ancient Tamil. So, the antiquity claimed by Tamil is to be shared by Malayalam also. Is it a fault that we have developed our language,” Prof. Kurup asked.

He pointed out that Kannada also evolved out of the Proto-Dravidian Language imbibing much from Sanskrit to form its diction and that it acquired a stable form only in 11 A.D. That being the case, Malayalam should get all the support and encouragement that Kannada and Telugu would get on being accorded ‘classical language’ status. Playing politics with language as in various other issues would affect the country’s integrity, he warned.

Prof. Kurup also underscored the fact that major classical art forms such as Koothu, Koodiyattom, Kathakali and Mohiniyattom had Kerala as their abode and were linked to the various stages of development of the Malayalam language. Koodiyattom has been recognised by UNESCO as one of the valuable art forms in the world. All this pointed to the eligibility of Malayalam as a classical language, he said.

Inherent dangers

Responding to The Hindu’s question in this regard by e-mail from Delhi and phone, Prof. Satchidanandan said he had clearly pointed out the dangers inherent in the formal government recognition to any language considered classical when holding office as the chief executive of the Sahitya Akademi.

“I said, with the language politics obtaining in India, the question was sure to be politicised and the declaration of any language as classical by the government would open a Pandora’s box leading to claims and counter-claims to classical status. But we were coerced to form a committee that recommended granting (of) classical status to any language that is proved 1,500 to 2,000 years old and has a considerable body of ancient literature recognised by scholars as maintaining a high standard and capable of being an example of excellence for generations.

“But at some point the decision was diluted and it was declared that 1,000-1,500 years of existence is enough for a language to be declared classical, of course with the accompanying provisions. Naturally there were more claimants to the status and it gave the State governments a chance to manipulate their people’s natural love of their language and to bargain with and even to threaten the government of India and thus win popular support within the states.

“Now that Kannada and Telugu also have been declared classical – subject to the court decision in the ongoing case – many more claimants are sure to come up with all kinds of evidences from manuscripts to stone edicts. Malayalam –being now the only other major South Indian language denied classical status – will be the first to raise the claim. Its early history, when it was emerging from some common language that appears to have given birth to both Tamil and Malayalam, is still a subject of research and debate and it is possible that some evidences are found to support this claim though modern Malayalam seems to be more recent. Languages like Marathi and Gujarati will follow and even Hindi may claim classical status pointing to some of its early forms, even if it is a retrospective claim. It is going to be a complicated question as there are hardly any clear records about the exact period of the origin of our languages.

“Our democracy cannot afford another division as we are already fighting the various existing divides like caste and class. Let us not create ‘savarna’ and ‘avarna’ groups of languages too to compound the problem. All our languages are under threat from the process of globalisation and the monolingual culture it seems to propagate and the patterns of modern education where the mother tongues are the first victims. Let us do something to empower all our regional languages that are the unique repositories of the civilisational responses of generations of our people and the rich archives of our cultural memory in its beautiful diversity,” Prof. Satchidanandan said.