Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Native Dog Breeds of Tamil Nadu

"The hounds of Tamil Nadu (Rajapalayam, Chippiparai and Kanni) have been brought back from the dead. Can the Kombai, another breed from the State, be rescued from the jaws of extinction too?"

For full article click

Monday, June 28, 2010

Dying Art of Letter Writing

Do anybody writes letters nowadays ? E-mails and SMSs have almost sounded the death knell for the art of letter writing. As for myself, I do not remember writing a letter in the last 10+ years or more.

I came across this wonderful article in The Hindu yesterday (June 27th 2010) on this dying tradition. Read on :

Do people still write letters, that is, by their hand? This question will seem absurd for a generation intoxicated by gadgets that eliminate face-to-face-interaction and insist on using fingers to type on keys or press mobile phone buttons rather hold pens to write on paper. Technological innovations bombard us every day at a breathtaking speed that we seldom reflect on how our social lives have changed, how social phenomena which held sway for centuries have been rendered redundant if not totally irrelevant.

Solemn obituaries have been written for the old fashioned typewriter, the pager and the telegram. Let us pause and spare a moment for the vanishing handwritten letter.

For centuries, personal letters were the dominant mode of communication among people. The postman was one of the most awaited daily visitors in the household. Emotions varied from disappointment when the postman said no letter to excitement and euphoria when he handed out an inland letter card, a post card or an envelope. The inland was the most preferred mode for personal communication as its contents could be protected from prying eyes.

The card was mostly used for conveying pithy messages not requiring confidentiality. Some chose envelopes as it could enclose several pages.

The younger generation might ask what is so great about the handwritten letter? Is it not a waste of time to sit down and write on paper which will anyway take a few days to reach the recipient when the message could be conveyed within seconds by e- mail? The advent of cheap mobile telephony has driven another nail on the personal letter's coffin.

The greeting card also reduced the need to sit down and write down loving messages to our dear ones. The once mighty pen is nowadays used mostly to put signatures.

A printed letter lacks the personal feeling and emotional affinity a written letter conveys. While reading a written letter one can visualise the scene of the writer sitting down and putting down his feelings on paper. There is an instant rapport in the written communication which the printed message or a telephonic talk could never replicate. The familiar handwriting of a dear one evokes such happiness and delight that has to be experienced to be believed. People used to preserve letters for years as these humble pieces of paper afforded companionship in absentia.

Writing a letter requires us to slow down, think and put down our thoughts on paper with careful reflection. It adds a new perspective to our thought process. An e-mail or a telephonic talk is impersonal and ephemeral. A written letter is a permanent record of communication. The greatest and noble thoughts that the world has seen have been penned by their authors on paper rather than on print. The letters of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru contained some of their loftiest thoughts. The world would have lost much if great men had used tele- conversations or e- mail to pour our their wisdom.

People used to polish their handwriting skills by writing more and more letters. Writing also helped to improve the vocabulary, whether it was vernacular or English.

The younger generation is sadly missing one of the most creative and emotionally and intellectually stimulating of human activities — writing letters. E-mails and texting reflect the inability to pause, think and create thoughts which carry the authenticity of intense feeling. The electronic letters have played havoc with grammar and structure. It is doubtful whether smart kids can write an error-free page with clarity. This is not to generalise the weakness. But the sad truth is known to those who are in finishing schools which teach soft skills to the ‘educated' unemployed. Instances of bloomers and absurd letters abound. A techie wrote a letter requesting leave for attending his mother's funeral stating that he was ‘responsible' for his mother's death!

The intent is not to trivialise technology. Ironically, this piece has been typed on a computer and sent by e-mail. But the point is that we must occasionally use the pen and paper medium at least for personal communication. My advice to the young people who work at distant places is to try writing a letter to your parents for a change. Hearing your voice over the mobile is comforting and reassuring. But a telephonic conversation is forgotten soon. But reading your handwriting on paper opens a floodgate of nostalgia and emotional satisfaction which no other medium of communication can replicate. The pen is mighty even in this electronic age. Let us wield it occasionally to create islands of tranquillity and happiness in the vast ocean of sick hurry and digital surfeit.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Patriach of Tamil

I am reproducing an article which appeared in The Frontline in 2005 on Tamizh patriarch U. V. Swaminatha Iyer. His contribution to Tamizh language is unparalleled.

TAMILS across the globe recently celebrated the government's decision to confer the `classical language' status on their mother tongue. This recognition, which puts the ancient language on a par with Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, is not only owing to its antiquity but also its rich literature. What has happened now, say Tamil scholars is only the "official reiteration" of the international academic community's recognition of Tamil literature as `classical', particularly the works such as Paththuppaattu (ten idylls) and Ettuththogai (Eight anthologies) of the Sangam era (from the first and second centuries of the Christian era), besides the better known Thirukkural and Tholkappiam.

Interestingly, the original texts of a significant number of the much-acclaimed literary works of the Sangam period came to public notice only towards the end of the 19th century, when they appeared in print with commentaries. Until then, works such as the Aymperum Kaappiangal (the five great epics) - Silappathikaram, Manimekalai, Kundalakesi, Jeevaka Chintamani and Valaiyapathi, were in the form of palm leaf manuscripts in the possession of scores of families living in various parts of Tamil Nadu. They did not have the skill to read them, and, therefore, did not realise their literary worth. Tamil scholars were aware of the existence of such texts as references in the available works. All that the people knew until then as Tamil literature comprised Bhakti literature, historical works and minor poems. Although very few literary works were available for studies, they did draw the attention of European scholars such as Bishop Robert Caldwell (1814-1891) and Constantine Joseph Beschi (known in Tamil as Veeramamunivar). However, during the same period, Sanskrit literary works attracted more Western attention because of their availability and easy access.

IT was under these circumstances that the need to hunt for the missing palm leaf manuscripts and bring to light the hidden treasure of Tamil literature was felt. Foremost among those who undertook this formidable task was Mahamahopadhyaya Dakshinathya Kalanidhi Uthamadhanapuram Venkatasubbaiyer Swaminatha Iyer (1855-1942), popularly known as "Tamizh thaththaa" (the grand old man of Tamil). A Tamil professor and literary scholar, Swaminatha Iyer's 150th birth anniversary was celebrated on February 19.

He took upon himself the arduous task of collecting the palm leaf manuscripts of great literary works that lay scattered not only in Tamil Nadu but even outside. As part of this mission he undertook long journeys, interesting and fruitful sometimes and unrewarding at others. Ultimately, he succeeded in gathering palm leaf manuscripts of many immortal Tamil works. With the objectivity and detachment of a scientist and the imagination of an artist and critic, he made comparative studies of various manuscripts. Starting with Jeevaka Chintamani in 1887, he printed and published Manimekalai (1898), Silappathikaram (1889), Paththuppaattu (1889) and Purananooru (1894), all appended with scholarly commentaries. Although he brought out about 100 works in all, including minor poems, many of the manuscripts that he gathered remain unpublished.

BORN in 1855 into a poor family at Uthamadhanapuram, near Kumbakonam in the old Thanjavur district, Swaminatha Iyer had his early education in Tamil under some teachers in his village. Although his father Venkatasubbaiyer, a musician, wanted his son to learn music, Swaminatha Iyer was inclined to concentrate on Tamil. When he was 17, he became a disciple of Mahavidwan Meenakshisundaram Pillai, a Tamil scholar, who was in the service of the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam in the old Thanjavur district. It was one of the wealthy Saiva mutts in Tamil Nadu, which patronised Tamil teachers and men of letters and propagated its religious philosophy through them. Swaminatha Iyer learnt Tamil under the guidance of Meenakshisundaram Pillai for five years. During this period, he earned the goodwill of the mutt head, himself a Tamil scholar.

After Meenakshisundaram Pillai's death, Swaminatha Iyer was retained in the mutt as a vidvan (scholar). In 1880, he joined the Government Arts College at Kumbakonam as a Tamil teacher, at the instance of the outgoing teacher Thiagaraja Chettiar, also a former student of Meenakshisundaram Pillai. In his autobiography, En Sarithiram, first serialised in the Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan, from January 1940 to May 1942 and later published as a book in 1950, he gives a graphic account of the rigid selection process he had to undergo before being appointed a Tamil teacher. "Thanks to his erudition in Tamil, skill to explain anything in an interesting manner, training in music and profound love for others, he could easily attract the students," said K.V. Jagannathan, one of his students, in his short biographical note published in En Sarithiram. He was loved and venerated by the students. This was no mean achievement, considering the fact that Swaminatha Iyer had little grounding in English at a time when the craze for English was at its peak, and Tamil teachers did not enjoy the same status as teachers of English and other subjects. After 23 years of service at the Kumbakonam college, he joined the Presidency College, Chennai, in 1903. Even after his retirement in 1919, he continued to teach Tamil. From 1924 to 1927, he was the principal of the Meenakshi Tamil College. He spent the rest of his life as a publisher, which immortalised his name. He died on April 28, 1942, after a brief period of illness, at Thirukkazhukundram, now in Kancheepuram district.

SWAMINATHA IYER's search for Tamil manuscripts began even as he joined the Kumbakonam college as a teacher. Many influential persons who took keen interest in Tamil studies were in touch with him. His meeting with Ramasami Mudaliar, District Munsiff of Salem, proved a turning point in his life. Swaminatha Iyer readily responded to the Munsiff's request to read the palm leaf in his possession and explain it to him. When he knew that the manuscripts were that of Jeevaka Chintamani, which he had been looking for, he was overjoyed. He transcripted the palm leaf manuscripts, a Buddhist work, into paper and edited it with utmost care. He printed and published the epic with notes and commentaries in 1887. It was an instant success. He mobilised funds from all available sources to continue the task of publishing the other invaluable literary works. Donations from Tamil lovers poured in. He also launched a `pre-publication sale' campaign with success.

Then began Swaminatha Iyer's long search for the original texts of ancient literary works. It was a search that lasted until his death. Many people voluntarily parted with the manuscripts in their possession. Swaminatha Iyer visited almost every hamlet and knocked at every door. He employed all the resources at his command to get at the works. As a result, a large number of literary works which were gathering dust as palm leaf manuscripts in lofts, store-rooms, boxes and cupboards saw the light of day. Of them, Silappathikaram, Purananooru and Manimekalai were received by Tamil lovers with a lot of enthusiasm. Purananooru, which mirrored the lives of Tamils during the Sangam period, prompted scholarly research on the subject. In a span of about five decades, Swaminatha Iyer published about 100 books, including minor poems, lyrics, puranas and bhakti (devotional) works.

Referring to the high quality of Swaminatha Iyer's publications, Jagannathan wrote in his biographical note: "What he published was not a mere transcription of the manuscripts in palm leaves. If publication is so simple as that, many others could have done it with success long ago. What Swaminatha Iyer did was to edit and publish these works with detailed footnotes, commentaries and indices, besides biographical notes on the authors. This was very useful and many readers desired to preserve these books for posterity. All this is evidence of not only the scholarship of the editor but also the hard work he had put in."

ANOTHER significant contribution made by Swaminatha Iyer is in the realm of Tamil music, wrote Dr. Arimalam S. Padmanabhan, a researcher and academic, in a paper on the Tamil scholar. Until Swaminatha Iyer came out with his publications of Silappaathikaram, Paththuppaattu and Ettuththogai, music was a grey area in Tamil research.

During the previous four centuries, Telugu and Sanskrit dominated the music scene in Tamil Nadu in the absence of any valuable information on Tamil music. Swaminatha Iyer's publications threw light on the glorious presence of Tamil music in the earlier centuries and paved the way for serious research on the subject.

Abraham Pandithar's Karunamirda Sagaram was the first major research work and it was followed by Vibulaanda Adigal's Yaazh Nool. Both these authors acknowledged the fact that it was Swaminatha Iyer's publications that inspired them to do further research.

"Silappathikaram is the best among the ancient Tamil literary works that provide vast information on Tamil music," observes Prof. V.P.K. Sundaram, another noted Tamil music researcher. "Without Swaminatha Iyer's publication there could have been no Karunamirda Sagaram," he observes. As the son of a famous musician of his time, Swaminatha Iyer learnt music from Gopalakrishna Bharathi, an outstanding musical exponent and the author of Nandan Sarithiram, an immortal work on a Dalit saint.

FOR his invaluable service to Tamil literature, Swaminatha Iyer was honoured with several awards and titles. The government honoured him in 1906 with the title "Mahamahopadhyaya" (Great Teacher). While the Bharatha Dharma Mandal awarded him the title of "Dravida Vidya Bhooshan", Sri Sankaracharya of Kamakoti Peetam honoured him with the title "Dakshinadya Kalanidhi". A doctorate was awarded to him by the University of Madras in 1932.

Tamil poet and nationalist Subramania Bharati, who inspired the freedom movement with his powerful songs, was a distinguished contemporary of Swaminatha Iyer. Paying glowing tributes to Swaminatha Iyer in one of his poems, Bharati called him "Kumbamuni" (the saint from Kumbakonam) and said: "So long as Tamil lives, poets will venerate you and pay obeisance to you. You will ever shine as an immortal."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Poem by A K Ramanujan

As World Classical Tamil Conference is underway in Coimbatore, let me share a wonderful sangam poetry in Tamizh translated by A K Ramanujan.

A River

In Madurai,
city of temples and poets,
who sang of cities and temples,
every summer
a river dries to a trickle
in the sand,
baring the sand ribs,
straw and women's hair
clogging the watergates
at the rusty bars
under the bridges with patches
of repair all over them
the wet stones glistening like sleepy
crocodiles, the dry ones
shaven water-buffaloes lounging in the sun
The poets only sang of the floods.

He was there for a day
when they had the floods.
People everywhere talked
of the inches rising,
of the precise number of cobbled steps
run over by the water, rising
on the bathing places,
and the way it carried off three village houses,
one pregnant woman
and a couple of cows
named Gopi and Brinda as usual.

The new poets still quoted
the old poets, but no one spoke
in verse
of the pregnant woman
drowned, with perhaps twins in her,
kicking at blank walls
even before birth.

He said:
the river has water enough
to be poetic
about only once a year
and then
it carries away
in the first half-hour
three village houses,
a couple of cows
named Gopi and Brinda
and one pregnant woman
expecting identical twins
with no moles on their bodies,
with different coloured diapers
to tell them apart.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Reproducing the recent article on Jarawas which I came across in The Hindu

Forget all those wildlife safaris promising glimpses of lions and tigers. Some tour operators in the Andamans are offering more “exotic” fare.

“Early morning proceed to Baratang Island, it is situated in the northern part of south Andaman. It takes 3 hours journey,” says the website of the Andaman Island Adventure travel company. “In between, you would cross the reserve forest area and if it's your lucky day you may see the old inhabitants of Andamans known as Jarawas.”

Listed as attraction

Spotting the Jarawas is listed right alongside other attractions, including limestone caves and a mud-spewing volcano. The entire package costs just Rs. 6,500 a couple.

Andaman Island Adventure is not the only travel agent in the region which is promoting this kind of human safari for its customers. At least three other companies — Moon Travels, Rhino Jungle Adventures and off-beat Andaman Vacations — all advertise the Jarawas as an attraction in their travel packages.


Off-beat Andaman Vacations, however, does warn that while tourists may see the Jarawas, they are not permitted to interact or take photos of them.

Four other companies have recently removed such promotional material from their websites, after protests by the international NGO Survival.

“The Jarawa people lived successfully on their island without contact with outsiders for probably about 55,000 years, until 1998. Today, a road runs right through their forest home, and they risk decimation by disease,” says Survival director Stephen Corry. “They call themselves the Ang, which means ‘human being', yet they are being ogled at like animals in a game reserve.”

Apart from the insult to human dignity, this kind of tourism puts the community at risk, as the Jarawas are unlikely to have much immunity to common illnesses.

As recently as last month, the government of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands issued warnings that such tourism is illegal.

“It has been brought to the notice of the A&N administration that some of the tour operators are promoting tours to the A&N Islands with the inclusion of sightings of, or encounters with, the Jarawa tribe,” said a press release issued in early May. It clarified that the tribal areas of the islands come under the A&N Island (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulations 1956, and reiterated that the Jarawas are not to be promoted as a ‘tourist attraction' under any circumstances, or even be mentioned in promotional material.

And a paradox

However, such “tourism” is only possible because a controversial highway now runs through the reserve where the 350-odd Jarawas live on. Paradoxically, the same government which issued the warning also insists on keeping the highway, despite a 2002 Supreme Court ruling which ordered that the Andaman Trunk Road be closed.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


I would like to share this quote I came across recently. It is by Raina Maria Milke.

"I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not complete this last one but I will try". -Rainer Maria Rilke, poet and novelist.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Soccer Mania - Jabulani's Spell

World cup soccer kicks off tomorrow. Billions of us will be glued to the telly. Let us hope exciting fare is in store.