“Tamil is one of the world’s major languages, and the only South Asian language to have evolved continuously from a very ancient past while remaining a living contemporary language spoken by tens of millions of people. Its literary tradition is among the nest in human civilisation, encompassing marvellous love poetry, epic, philosophical texts, reflexive sciences of grammar, logic, and poetics, historiography, and an enormous religious literature,” said reputed indologist David Shulman.
The antiquity of the language whose richness still awes scholars is just one of the many reasons that have encouraged Tamils in the US to pitch for a permanent chair (professorship) for the language at the Harvard University. “Besides livelihood, the purpose of education is also to create an intelligent and civilised society, teach cultural values and develop scholars,” says S T Sambandam, one of the initiators of the campaign, explaining the significance of such a chair to Tamils.
With institution of the chair estimated to cost around 6 million USD (`40 crore), the fundraising committee so far has just crossed the halfway mark, collecting close to 3 million USD. “Being one of the classical languages, Tamil draws the interest of foreigners. The interest for the study of Sangam and other literary works has also grown in recent times. The demand for the study of Tamil would also facilitate translation of Tamil books into other world languages,” says Soma Illangovan, who has been living in the US for the past 40 years.
With around 10,000 schools students currently studying Tamil as a second language in the US, Vijay Janakiraman, co-initiator of the Harvard Tamil chair campaign says the chair will encourage more students to take up Tamil, leading to a cascading effect on Tamil communities living across the world.
While raising funds for the chair is no joke, what keeps fund raising committee members going is the success story of the Tamil chair at the University of California in Berkeley. The chair was instituted in 1996 after Tamil communities in North America successfully raised 425,000 USD. Some of the major activities of the chair has been starting Tamil font encoding schemes and partly funding digitalisation of ancient literary works including those from the Sangam era. The chair also invites Tamil scholars from different parts of the world for lectures.
While Sambandam and Jayasankar have jointly contributed 1 million for the chair, major contributions have come from Tamils in Toronto and Canada and from NRIs in other communities. Tamil cinema personalities like Suriya, R Madhavan, Mysskin and GV Prakash Kumar too have done their bit.
Committee members, however, rue that no support has come from the Tamil Nadu government yet, although former chief minister J Jayalalitha had promised to contribute 50% of the required funds for the proposed chair. They feel help should come without much delay. Lest the Harvard Tamil chair committee fails to raise the required funds before June 2018, the Harvard University would cancel the proposal for the chair. The million dollar question is would the Tamil Nadu government pitch-in in time to fulfill Jayalalitha’s commitment and the dreams of the Tamil diaspora.