From merchant to Tirukkural scholar

Vadivelu Chettiar lost interest in family vocation to become a Tamil scholar

Updated - October 18, 2015 07:58 am IST

Published - October 18, 2015 12:00 am IST - CHENNAI:

Vadivelu Chettiar. (Right) Tiruvalluvar

Vadivelu Chettiar. (Right) Tiruvalluvar

What goes into the making of a literary scholar? In the case of K. Vadivelu Chettiar, a merchant running a grocery store in Chintadripet here in the late 19th century, it was selling cigars to a regular customer.

Tamil scholar Ramanuja Naicker kindled a deep interest in the world of Tamil letters in Vadivelu Chettiar, as he launched into a daily exposition of literary works at the store.

In the hour that Naicker took to finish smoking his cigar, he used to explain several stanzas of Tamil poetry, something that Vadivelu Chettiar found absorbing.

It was no surprise when Chettiar lost interest in his family vocation and started learning Tamil from scholars in the city under the pretext of going to procure provisions from Kothawal Chavadi. Chettiar (1863-1936) not only became a Tamil teacher in the Hindu Theological Society High School, but emerged as one of the great scholars of his time. He published the Tirukkural, along with the notes of mediaeval commentator Parimelazhagar, accompanied with his own commentary in 1904.

The book came for praise from his contemporaries including U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer, Maraimalai Adigal, Vaiyapuri Pillai. Ra. Raghava Iyengar, Thiru.Vi.Ka and Mu. Varadarajan. Their views on the book have been included in a fresh two-volume edition that has come out now.

The book with English renderings by T.P. Meenakshisundaram, another great scholar and a student of Chettiyar, was republished in 1919. Now, over a century after it was first seen in print, the book is published in the two volumes running into 2,500 pages. “Chettiar had deep knowledge in various fields and his usage of words connected with various trades leaves one awe-struck. He was also well-versed in Sanskrit literature and quoted appropriately from the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and Manusmriti,” said Sivalayam J. Mohan, who has brought out the volumes.

He said even though there was an attempt to publish the book in three volumes by the Madurai Kamaraj University when T.P. Meenakshisundaram was it Vice-Chancellor, the project did not succeed completely. Believing that a good understanding of Ahama, Siddantha and Vedanta were vital to unravel the riches of the Tirukkural, Parimelazhagar, a Vaishnavite Brahmin from Kancheepuram, had done justice through his knowledge in the subjects.

“As Parimelazhagar’s terse, but rich commentary was beyond the comprehension of everyone, Vadivelu Chettiar, who also wrote notes for Sivagnana Bodham, published it with his own commentary,” said Mr. Mohan. He regretted that in the last 100 years, Parimelazhagar’s commentary has not been relied upon by many because of his community and for political reasons.

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