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Harvard Tamil Chair Anniversary

Ranjani Saigal

The Harvard University Tamil chair held its first anniversary gathering on Saturday, October 14, at the  Christ Church in Cambridge, MA. The funding for this  chair was raised through crowd funding by tamilchair.org, a non-profit organization that has raised funds for several Tamil Chairs at Universities in the US and in Canada.

The Tamil Chair was an initiative conceived by Dr. Janakiraman and Dr. Sambandam to bring the rich Tamil language to American Universities. In addition to providing an opportunity for students at these Universities to learn the Tamil language, the chair hopes to foster research initiatives in the Tamil languages which include translating and bringing forth hitherto unknown works like the Kurun Thogai, poetry from the Sangam Era. It also includes opportunities for Tamil scholars from around the world to be able to interact and expand the volume of work in Tamil literature. 

Dr Martha A. Selby Is the first Tamil Chair at Harvard. She is a leading exponent of Tamil Literature. She did her Ph.D in Tamil Literature from University of Chicago. She is the author of Grow Long, Blessed Night: Love Poems from Classical India (Oxford University Press, 2000) and The Circle of Six Seasons: A Selection from Old Tamil, Prakrit, and Sanskrit Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2003). She is currently completing a book titled “Sanskrit Gynecologies: The Semiotics of Gender and Femininity in Sanskrit Medical Texts.” She is currently working to translate Kuru Thogai, an ancient Cankam literature

Jonathan Ripley is the director of undergraduate studies at Harvard and a Perceptor in Tamil. Jonathan Ripley has been teaching Tamil at Harvard University since 2012. He first began studying Tamil after graduating from Oberlin College in 1997 when he received a fellowship to teach English at American College in Madurai. He later joined the University of Chicago to study Tamil at the postgraduate level with Prof. Norman Cutler. Jonathan has been an active participant in the Harvard Tamil Chair, Inc. fundraising efforts, and has led teacher trainings in American Tamil community schools. In addition to his work in academia, Jonathan has worked in the non-profit sector in India in the fields of public health and human rights. He frequently travels back to Tamil Nadu to support his work at Harvard and connect with the many friends he has made over the years.

Piramal Patil, the chair of the South Asian department highlighted the value of having a Tamil Chair at Harvard. The Tamil Chair initiative acknowledged the key role that Dr. Patil played in establishing the chair. “Dr. Patil was very instrumental is helping us navigate the process” said Dr. Janakiraman.  The organization honored all the people who were instrumental in getting the Tamil Chair initiative going including the Tamil Makkal Mandram and New England Tamil Sangam. Efforts of several New Englanders including Bamiela Venkat, Odi Odiappan, Raj Kumaravel and others were recognized. A leading Tamil writer and former IAS officer Sivakami was also a speaker at the event. 

Jonathan Ripley and Dr. Selby talked about the value that the Harvard Tamil Chair initiative in helping bring Tamil to Harvard students. 

Much work is needed in creating more awareness about Tamil in the South Asian community and the Tamil Chair initiative looks forward to working on that in the future. 


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