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His world of words

Tamil scholar Sathiyaseelan. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj  

It is scholar and orator So. Sathiyaseelan’s 82nd birthday when we meet him at his residence in Tiruchi; this year, visitors were streaming in to compliment him not just on his birthday, but also for being chosen as the ‘Sollin Selvar’ awardee for his services to the Tamil language.

Named after the epithet used to describe prominent lawyer and Tamil orator R. P. Sethu Pillai, (1896-1961), the State recognition, announced on April 13 as part of the Chithirai Thirunal awards, carries a cash prize of Rs. 1 lakh and 1 sovereign of gold. “I have known Mr. Pillai very closely,” says Dr. Sathiyaseelan who received the Kalaimamani award in 2011, “I was inspired to become an orator by listening to his speeches and it is indeed an honour to be given an award in his name.”

The love that Dr. Sathiyaseelan has for the Tamil language seems to throb in every word that he speaks about it. It is a passion that has seen him hold the floor in over 10,000 public meetings, and participate in around a thousand radio and television programmes, besides writing 14 books and making 18 recordings on a variety of topics related to Tamil civilization and culture.

Which makes it a bit surprising when Mr. Sathiyaseelan admits that he actually wanted to be an English teacher. “I joined Moorthy’s Tutorials in Madras [to learn English]. But after some time, I was able to feel the importance of the mother tongue. Without efficiency in the mother tongue, we cannot teach, preach or express ourselves in culture,” he says.

Gift of the gab

Born on April 14, 1933 in Perambalur to J. N. Somasundaram, a freedom fighter and Meenambal, Dr. Sathiyaseelan is the eldest of five children, and with his multiple degrees, the first college graduate in his family. He has also worked as a school teacher and college lecturer, and was in his last post, the principal of Urumu Dhanalakshmi College, Tiruchi. As a Syndicate member of the Bharathidasan University, Dr. Sathyaseelan helped to introduce Tamil as a language paper for the first year students of all undergraduate courses offered by the affiliated colleges.

His interest in public speaking was kindled by his early exposure to the speeches of orators and social activists like Devaneya Pavanar, Swami Chidbhavananda and Natesa Mudaliar. “But I didn’t speak a word on stage until the age of 23,” he reveals.

“I made a very emotional speech in Tamil about how youth should serve their country above themselves during a management-student interaction at the Swami Vivekananda Training College started by Swami Chidbavananda in Tiruparaithurai,” he recalls. “It convinced me that I could be an effective public speaker.”

Already a drama artiste (“I spent the night before my SSLC exams acting in the play Siraichalai, written by C. N. Annadurai,” he says), he was encouraged by Professor Radhakrishnan to take up public speaking while studying in National College. “I started off by giving talks on Gandhism and also used to memorise and speak on Kamban’s works,” he says.

Dr. Sathiyaseelan is also a master of the Tamil debating tradition of pattimandram, where abstract topics are discussed by two teams of speakers in the presence of a moderator.

“Orators are supposed to bring a change in civilisation through public speaking,” says Dr. Sathiyaseelan as he explains the importance of the literary tradition in Tamil. “We had completely forgotten our roots because we were following the British rulers. I don’t hate English, but at the same time, I cannot agree that it is superior or better than my own mother tongue,” he adds.

He rues the glamorising of English over Indian vernacular languages, and warns of the long-term loss to Tamil in particular. “The Unesco has announced that Tamil will be one of the languages to die in the next 100 years,” he says. “If you take any media report, Tamil words are getting replaced with English synonyms. Even in our popular journals, you can see English words being written in Tamil. I challenge these writers and reporters to introduce Tamil words as easily into English.”

A rich language

He suggests Tamilians should be more aware of their linguistic heritage. “English as it was written 600 years ago, cannot be read now without translation to modern usage. We cannot read the works of William Shakespeare in his own words without annotations. But 2,500 years ago, we had sayings like Yaadum Oore Yaavarum Kelir, Theethum Nandrum Pirar Tharavaara (To us all towns are one, all men our kin/Life’s good comes not from others’ gifts, nor ill … Kaniyan Pugundranar, Purananuru), which can still be understood without translation.

“People like Thiruvalluvar have given us ample examples of what makes a human being different from an animal, in a manner that is still relevant today,” he explains.

The sophistication of the Tamil grammar also deserves greater appreciation, he adds. “Tamil is the only language to have a grammar for writing literature,” says Dr. Sathiyaseelan. “Also, we have Tholkappiar’s guide on rules of translation and transliteration that should enable us to integrate words from other languages into the Tamil vocabulary.”

Calling for more responsible writing, Dr. Sathiyaseelan says, “No author has the right to injure the culture and sensibilities of anyone in the name of freedom of expression. I can use my umbrella as I like, but what is the limit? It should not touch the other’s nose.”

The Tamil diaspora, especially in Sri Lanka, is keeping the language alive outside the country, he feels. “These are the people making Tamil popular all over the world, and we Tamilians should thank them for it,” he says.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 7:20:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/his-world-of-words/article7113761.ece

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