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Enlightening Sangam Lecture

Ranjani Saigal

The Harvard Tamil Chair initiative spearheaded by Janakiraman and Sambandam has picked up great steam with the goal of raising six million for the endowment getting closer.  As Harvard is working towards the endowment, they have created a Sangam Lecture series to bring awareness about Tamil literature. 

David Schulman presented the  lecture which was held on Nov 9 at the Belfer Center in Harvard. The topic of the evening was Kamban and the use of the poetic tools Aham and Puram in his poetry. 

Professor Schulman is the author of the famous book Tamil, a biography that describes the Tamil language an literature. 

How did he come to learn Tamil? “ At my university, my Persian teacher in Jeruselum came to me one day and suggested I think about studying something about India, that perhaps the university might send me abroad to study and that I might have a job when I came back since there wasn’t anyone in the university who knew anything about India. We had a very strong concentration in Islamic studies and also the beginnings of a strong Chinese/Japanese/Far Eastern department but nothing about India. Honestly, I didn’t know where India was. All I knew was that it was somewhere beyond Iran. I knew nothing about it and I thought this was an absurd idea and so I said no.

But then two things happened: one, I met the woman who became my wife at that very moment. She intuitively felt that this notion that I would make a life in the army was completely crazy and she kind of liked the idea of going to India. I had a friend called Danny Sperber. He had walked all the way from Istanbul to India. Not once but thrice. During the summer vacation, he would take a boat to Istanbul for 60 dollars or something like that and then he would walk to India. It would take some weeks or months; he learned all the languages on the way; he loved India. When I told him about this offer [to study in India], he thought I was making a big mistake by saying no.

So he began to bring me books about India, which he would leave on the doorstep of my house. I’d come home late at night usually, and there would be some new book about India. I began to read these books. So then, of course, it became interesting to me. In the end, that’s how it happened.

Then there was the question of what to study in India and where to study. I had never heard the word Tamil. I thought I would perhaps work on Indo-Persian literature, and that was the natural thing to do because I knew Persian and there were translations of Mahabharata and Ramayana from Sanskrit to Persian.

I thought I would do that, but then they sent me to talk to somebody. I don’t know if anybody in Chennai remembers this name today, but in the late 1960s, the 1970s really, he was quite a well-known person here. His name was Chaim Rabbin. He was a linguist, a Semitic linguist; he knew maybe 20 languages, and he had studied a little Tamil.  

So I went to talk to him. He said: “Well, of course, you have to study Tamil. There is no question about it.” I didn’t know what it was, so I went to the library to look it up. There was really only one book at the National Library and that was A.K. Ramanujan’s The Interior Landscape, his translation of Sangam love poetry. That was enough really to convince me" says Shulman.

His detailed understanding of Kamban made the lecture extremely enlightening. He took verses from the  Chitrakuda Patalam and gave deep insights into the verses. ‘This Patalam is interesting for here Rama is the one doing the talking. In most other places, Rama talks very little. We also see him emotional. He feels sad seeing his brother and wife upset. His inner self is indeed upset and thus he describes everything outside, nature itself in a dark way” said Shulman. 

He held the audience spellbound with his insights. 

The Harvard Tamil Chair initiative hopes to have a professor of Tamil at Harvard soon. To learn more about this initiative please go to their website at http://harvardtamilchair.org/.

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