History & Culture

Abode of legacy

Bust of Dr. U. V. Swaminatha Iyer in fron of the library at Besant Nagar. Photo: M. Karunakaran  

Dr. U.V.S. Library, which has a priceless collection of 2,200 palm-leaf bundles of Tolkappiyam, the ancient work on Tamil grammar, Sangam literature, the five great Tamil epics, minor epics, 33,000 books and a rare collection of letters written by Tamil scholars to Dr. U.V. Swaminatha Iyer, turns 70 today.

For those with a passion for Tamil literature, the library, situated in quiet surroundings on Arundale Beach Road, Besant Nagar, Chennai, is a treasure-house. For the 2,200 palm-leaf manuscripts, most of them retrieved from oblivion by Dr. U.V.S., form the texts of Tamil Sangam works such as Kurunthogai, Paditrupathu, Paripadal and the the five great Tamil epics. And each bundle may contain 10 to 1,000 palm-leaves.

The library has 850 volumes of paper manuscripts, that is, the text of the palm-leaf manuscripts carefully transcribed on paper. Micro-films have been made of these palm-leaf manuscripts.

Of the 33,000 books on Tamil literature and grammar, 60 per cent were collected by Dr. U.V.S., and 1,363 were published between 1812 and 1899. The letters that he received and are available in the library include those from Tamil scholars such as G.U. Pope, Julion Winson, Pandithurai Devar, Manonmaniam Sundaram Pillai, V.K. Suryanarayana Sastri, S. Vaiyapuri Pillai, Maraimalai Adigal, J.M. Hensman (who was Principal, Government Arts College, Kumbakonam), C.V. Damodaram Pillai and V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, who was also a freedom-fighter.

The library has 33 volumes of Dr. U.V.S.’s diaries, the first of which he wrote in 1893. The palm-leaf manuscripts are the discoveries of a life-time of toil of U.V. Swaminatha Iyer, who was born at Uthamadanapuram, near Thanjavur, on February 19, 1855. He was a student of the great Tamil scholar, Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai. Dr. U.V.S. traversed the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu, retrieved the palm-leaf manuscripts from individual owners, wealthy landlords and Saiva mutts, meticulously transcribed and published them.

If he had not done it, they would have been lost forever. The publications include the complete original texts as they were found, his commentaries, footnotes, glossary and index.

Title conferred

The then Viceroy and Governor General of India, the Earl of Minto, conferred on him the title of Mahamahopadhyaya on January 1, 1906, when he was a Tamil pundit in Presidency College, Madras (now Chennai). The University of Madras conferred on him the Degree of Doctor of Literature on August 3, 1932. He died on April 28, 1942.

Dr. P. Suyambu, honorary curator of the library, said, “When Dr. UVS published the texts of the palm-leaf manuscripts that he discovered, he never wrote his own views. He published them as the originals were. They are truly perfect editions. Nothing can equal them. When he wrote commentaries on these ancient Tamil texts also, he never wrote anything new which was not there in the original text. He even borrowed money on interest to publish them.”

Dr. G. Uthiradam, Tamil pundit in the library, said, “The diaries make us realise how Dr. UVS struggled to retrieve the palm-leaf manuscripts which contained ancient Tamil literary works. They show his extraordinary love for Tamil literature.”

S. Subbulakshmi, librarian, is proud of the display of Dr. UVS’ memorabilia such as his pen, angavastram, turban, his rosary of rudraksha beads and so on. But the library is in doldrums. “Its financial condition is in a bad shape,” said Suyambu. The employees draw their salary only because the library publishes and sells the books that Dr. UVS had originally published. “But we are unable to publish them because we do not have the money to do so. We depend on donations from Tamil lovers,” Suyambu said.

The library staff do not enjoy the benefits of provident fund, gratuity or medical reimbursement. “There is no permanent curator,” said Subbulakshmi. The library receives a grant from the Tamil Nadu Government’s School Education Department through the Directorate of Public Libraries. The situation can be saved to some extent if the State Government gives the grant at the beginning of the financial year instead of at the end of the year.

After the death of Dr. UVS in 1942, his son Kalyanasundaram Iyer suggested to Rukmini Devi Arundale that some institution could take care of his father’s collection of palm-leaf manuscripts, books and diaries. She offered a building on the premises of the Theosophical Society at Adyar, Chennai, and the library was set up on July 5, 1943. It functioned from there for the next 20 years. Then with the help of funds from the Union Culture Department, the Tamil Nadu Government and the Saiva mutts, a new building was raised close to the Kalakshetra campus. The library re-located to this building on April 22, 1967.

G. Viswanthan, Chancellor, VIT University, Vellore, is now the chairman of the library executive committee. T. Satyamurthy, committee member, said that several events would be held this year to create an awareness among the youth on the glory of the Tamil language. They would include a quiz programme for school children on Dr. UVS and Sangam literature, and a workshop on the preservation of palm-leaf manuscripts. Besides, several texts edited by Dr. UVS that could not be published earlier, would be published this year.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 6:21:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/abode-of-legacy/article4880651.ece

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