It is important that February 19 is remembered for on this day in 1855 was born a man who did so much for Tamil as a language. But he never got his due. Not even a university named after the person, whose crusade was to restore lost literary treasure.
Most speakers of Tamil will know U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer as ‘Thamizh Thatha.’ Some may have heard of his untiring efforts to bring the Sangam period literature back into circulation and accessible to the larger population and thereby contribute substantially to Tamil being accorded the status of a classical language. But very few would have read his brilliant autobiography, ‘En Charitram.’ The 762 pages of simple and easy to understand Tamil are divided into several chapters and sub-chapters. All of them reveal leadership lessons to which young children should have access. Ways to incorporate sections of his book into education, making it more accessible to those who may not feel comfortable reading Tamil will be the finest way to remember this great scholar.
Among many reasons, the book deserves to be clubbed with the finest autobiographies ever written, for three reasons:
The initial chapters and to some extent the later chapters, are vivid, with factual descriptions of daily life in the 1830s–1870s in Thanjavur district. While political history of this time is well recorded, the daily lives are not – simple details of wedding ceremonies (the groom paid for the expenses and a bride price), schooling (4 a.m.-5 p.m. with each student having to supply his own sand everyday) give a fascinating insight into the lives of ordinary folks. His family was deeply entrenched in music and we have information of stalwarts such as Ghanam Krishna Iyer, Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan as well as patrons of those days (often with house address details) in Ariyalur and other areas. His pilgrimage to attend the 1878 consecration of Madurai Meenakshi temple speaks of the Vaigai with water and flanked by coconut groves, hardly imaginable today!
From an inspirational point, his life is yet another example of how persistence, perseverance and ethical living are the surest way to lasting success though money will come slowly.
The indigent circumstances of the family did not prevent them from holding on to values. In a moving passage he speaks of how a friend of his father taunted him for choosing Tamil over English. He then decided to learn from Meenakshisundaram Pillai (whose portly but radiating appearance is fondly described). He went about the task in a systematic manner of reading his texts and cultivating the friendships of those who knew him and could get him a meeting. His description of his guru’s death and his own move to Kumbakonam from Tiruvavaduturai are deeply moving even after 137 years when read by someone several generations later.
Finally is his ability to look at everything with hope and positivity. There are times when he faces difficulty, but things do get better and he does his own bit. Particularly illustrative is the patience he had in comparing different versions of ‘Sivaka Chintamani’ and bringing it to press despite many obstacles.
As his 160th anniversary approaches, perhaps we will see an audio book, and parts of the text in school texts and an account of the descendants of the many people he mentions, including Ariyalur Sadagopa Iyengar, Senganam Vridhachala Reddiar, Judge Muthusamy Iyer and his colleagues in the Kumbakonam college – Gopal Rao, ‘Ladu’ Sesha Iyer, R.V. Srinivasa Iyer, B. Hanumanth Rao and of course his guru, Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Thyagaraja Chettiar, who got him to Kumbakonam and Salem Ramasamy Mudaliar who inspired him to look at Sangam literature.
(The writer may be contacted at pradeepandanusha @gmail.com)
This article has been corrected on February 17, 2013 for typo error