The South Asian Times

22 March 2019 10:54 AM

A promise well kept -- All set for Harvard Tamil Chair

By Suchitra Srinivas

Tamil community the world over has a reason to rejoice, all for the cause of their language.  The prestigious Tamil Chair at Harvard University is now a reality.

It took three years to raise the required $ 6 million deposit from the community. Over 7,000 donors, big and small, from all parts of the world have heard the voices of Dr Vijay Janakiraman, a cardiologist from Pittsburg, and his friend Dr Sundaresan Sambandam, an oncologist from Rhode Island, both of whom dreamt of creating a world class research facility for the Sangam literature at Harvard.

It was not an easy task for the two in their late sixties. Since the time each wrote the first check for $500K, both had taken endless campaign tours, carrying with them their dreams to create a prestigious Chair for Tamil at Harvard. The warm welcome extended everywhere has brought the Tamil community together to rejoice today.

“Next month a formal MoU will be made and the final terms of the Chair will be designed by the expert committee,” said Dr Janakiraman.

What does this culminate into? A permanent professor for Tamil in the department of South Asian language studies to be instituted at Harvard university. The well-read scholar appointed independently by the university will spearhead healthy research initiatives and organize engaging academic discussions on Sangam literature. “Visiting scholars from across the world get opportunities to present their papers. A scholar from Delhi or Tanjore, Singapore, Malaysia or Germany can enter the Harvard gates with their findings in Tamil literature and be heard the world over. “There are expectedly increased opportunities for postgraduate Tamil language studies and research in the US,” said Dr Janakiraman.

Till date much of the research on Sangam literature has been around ‘Tholkappiayam’, the bible of Tamil literature. The exploration has been around love, life and family ethics. There is immense wealth of corporate, economic, scientific and astronomical or astrological knowledge that needs to be explored and researched with proof, feel the community.

When a university of Harvard stature is able to fund studies at a global place, there is a huge scope for extending the study of the language and culture. “Funding for excavation and archeological studies will hopefully be entertained using the research space at Harvard”, said G Balachandran, a former IAS officer and an advisor to Tamil Chair Inc. who was instrumental in securing the $ 1.5 million fund contribution from the government of Tamil Nadu.

Balachandran was attending the FeTNA conference as a speaker in 2015 in New Jersey when he heard about the efforts of creating a Tamil Chair at Harvard, instantly felt elated about the thought and got involved as an advisor.

Setting aside the fears of the criticism, Balachandran said with the digitization of manuscripts the same research material can be made available in many places.  Tamil Nadu universities have already been engaged in digitization of manuscripts and the fear raised by critics that research institutions taking ownership of original manuscripts does not arise at all, he asserted.

“Chair is all about enhancing research on existing materials. There will be a movement of research scholars to various Tamil Nadu universities and they usually stay for the said research period. The documents will remain where it belongs unless it is being openly sold to Harvard. There are strict protocols in place at any research institution, and all research findings can be challenged by scholars if found skewed,” said  Naushard Cader, President - The Harvard University Alumni Financial Markets Forum.

Cader added: “As a student of Harvard, I studied Ancient Greek, studying Aristotle and Plato but we had no opportunity to study Sanga Ilakkiyam. I am interested in Ethics, could not get involved in exploring Tamil language, Harvard library has many manuscripts belonging to Sanga Ilakkiyam of 5th and 6th century. As a student I was eager to read but there was hardly any intellectual help available. We need a permanent professorship and department to change the situation.”

With the presence of language Chair for other languages like Hebrew, Sanskrit or Chinese, there has always been vibrant exchange of research material that unearths the richness of culture and history relevant to the period. Regular workshops, talks, symposium and paper presentations are organized at these universities where learned scholars from all over the world are invited to share their work.

 Domino effect influencing other universities to engage in such research and creating intellectual wealth in these universities is prime need to adapt to the global village and Harvard Tamil Chair is a good start, feel many philanthropists who funded the project. Non-Tamil and non-Indians have contributed to the fund, said Cedar adding that around 300 of the Harvard alumni are Tamil speaking.

The university has always had a superior precedence with absolute checks and balances, the process of appointing professors has always been competitive.

Sunil Amrit, a scholar from London, will be taking over as Head of the department of South Asian studies at Harvard under whom Tamil language falls. “We are lucky that he is Tamil too. We have no reason to fear that something could be going wrong to jeopardize the interest of the research,” said Dr. Janakiraman

For Dr Janakiraman, Tamil Chair is only the tip of the iceberg. He is currently sponsoring a postgraduate student to Tanjore University this summer for Tamil studies. “Going forward every year I will be recruiting more of these students. They come back trained to teach the language to many in the US,” said he.  

The situation in the USA is not the same as some 20 years back. Today we have 300,000 Tamil speaking people in the country. Many Tamil schools have come up and for all of them to take up Tamil studies and research, efforts like establishing Tamil presence in great universities like Harvard is a must.

The next most important task for Dr Janakiraman is to connect the Tamil Nadu universities with great research institutions across the US to keep them abreast of research methodologies in a global space. Department of language studies unlike corporate institutions does not receive the required recognition and help to keep them economically competitive. It is here that Dr Janakiraman wants to bridge the gap. He is already visiting many universities in Tamil Nadu and giving them the necessary connections to fill the gaps.

Thanks to the good intentions, Tamil Chair is now a reality. The purpose for which it is created is genuine language research for the global reach. It is up to everyone down the chain to make use of the opportunity and watch the Chair perform well, true to the spirit for which it was created.

Update: 04 April, 2018