Tryst with Tamil

IT IS not unusual to see someone watching the Sun News channel in Chennai, but what is uncommon though, is a foreigner (Director of Russian Cultural Centre, to be specific) watching and understanding every word of the Tamil news.

`Vanakkam ukarungal' - Alexei V. Solodov greets with utmost ease.

A historian, journalist and now, the Director of Russian Cultural Centre, he speaks about his great passion for Tamil and the Indian history, especially that of South India.

"We were the first batch of Russians to learn this language at our University and initially there were no textbooks or any reference material available," says Mr. Solodov.

He was one of the very few determined to pursue learning Tamil. "May be it was the depth of the language and its history that attracted me. But I found it very difficult in the beginning. Even today, I can understand the Tamil spoken on TV and in films, but sometimes cannot follow the Tamil spoken by shopkeepers and vendors. May be that is the colloquial slang," he smiles.

Mr. Solodov graduated in 1970 from the Institute of Oriental Languages, Moscow State University, specialising in History of India. The lack of proper material about the language did not deter him and his batchmates. "We even got the first Russian-to-Tamil dictionary compiled by our professor, especially for us."

Today there are quite a few Russians learning Tamil and they often visit Tamil Nadu to attend seminars and lectures, says Mr Solodov.

"The awareness about Tamil language globally is amazing. Tamil computers, World Tamil conferences and the Tamil associations in many countries prove this."

One wonders if there is anything common between Russians and Tamilians that has helped Mr. Solodov and many like him to relate so well with Tamil. "I guess the tradition and the values, but there is absolutely nothing common between both the languages." An extensive traveller and with a vast journalistic experience especially in India and Sri Lanka, he feels that the lifestyle in South India is comparatively stable than in the North, simply because people here are down to earth, which is sometimes mistaken for a conservative attitude. "Of course, there is a tremendous difference between the Madras I saw in the early 1970s, when I first came to India as a journalist and the Chennai I am living in today. But the people's attitude remains pretty much the same."

What about the language? "With rapid modernisation and the official language being English, people might be more conversant in English than in their own mother tongue. Yet, Tamil might never become a dead language. Today, even the best selling books are translated to Tamil."

He recalls that in those days much about India was learnt from its movies and traditional dance forms. "Today although the media's reach has increased and there is more about India on the television, it is the cuisine that stands out. There is so much variety that you can never forget the taste," quips Mr. Solodov. Talking of Tamil films, he feels most of them are closer to life than the Bollywood productions.

As for the education sector, he says that Russia is yet to become an education destination for many students as "language is the barrier". "English is not the medium of instruction in many universities in Russia. But the standard of education is much higher".

Mr. Solodov plans to organise exchange programmes between Russia and India, particularly Tamil Nadu. With his deep love for Tamil, he apparently feels at home in Chennai than in any other city and is enjoying his stay here. "And I hope to make my tenure a truly memorable one."


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