Published: 16th November 2017
Kamal Haasan just jumped on the Harvard Tamil Chair bandwagon. Here's everything you need to know about the Chair and the men behind it
In a worldwide campaign, Tamilians are going all out to get the Tamil language and establish a Chair at one of the world’s top universities, Harvard. Will they raise enough money in time?
Actor Kamal Hassan is the latest person to contribute to the Harvard Tamil Chair initiative. The actor donated Rs 20 lakh rupees on Thursday, two weeks after Tamil Nadu government donated 10 crores towards the cause. Tamil actors Vishal and G V Prakash have also contributed and have voiced their support in the media as well.
But what is all this hullabaloo about and why do we need a Harvard Tamil Chair? An endowed chair is a University under a specific department in an institution of higher education to teach and research, with the financial support of donors and it lasts indefinitely. Harvard University has accepted a proposal to set up a “Sangam Tamil Chair” in the Department of South Asian Studies with the focus being on Tamil Sangam Literature and all Tamil literature influenced by it.
The idea to set up a Chair first came to Dr Vijay Janakiraman, who joined hands with Dr Sundaresan T Sambandam, another Tamil doctor who shared his vision. Their proposal has been accepted by Harvard and efforts are being put into raising the funds needed. For Janakiraman it all began in the summer of 2014, when he met Vaidehi Herbert, a well-known Tamil translator based in the US. "We have an annual meeting for all the Tamil Sangams of North America called FETNA. This is where I met Vaidehi. I learnt here that she had translated all the 18 works of Sangam literature and was the only one to do so. So, I started to discuss with her and others about the need to encourage more ventures such as these," says Janakiraman.
For the love of Tamil: Actor Vishal with Dr Vijay Janakiraman in Chennai
It was during this discussion that Janakiraman and Sambandam found that there was no Tamil department at Harvard. "Vaidehi suggested that I explore the opportunity to set up a Tamil department at Harvard because I was so excited about her work and was enthusiastic about doing more. There are hundreds of Tamilians in America and thousands in Canada, so I figured it would be an endeavour that would garner a lot of support," adds Janakiraman.
But why so much love for Tamil? Both the doctors were born and raised in Tamil Nadu and feel an intimate connection with the language. "I grew up in Thanjavur and my grandfather was a well-known Tamil scholar. We had others in my family too who were great scholars, so, literature and passion for the language run in my blood. I've been a doctor since 1971, so now, all these years later, I feel that I have the opportunity to do something great for Tamil culture," explains the doctor.
"Vaidehi suggested that I explore the opportunity to set up a Tamil department at Harvard because I was so excited about her work and was enthusiastic about doing more. There are hundreds of Tamilians in America and thousands in Canada, so I figured it would be an endeavour that would garner a lot of support," said Vijay Janakiraman.
The duo has now also established a full-fledged NGO, Tamil Chair Inc, that is committed to raising funds for the Chair. "Tamil is one of the few classical languages to still be spoken so widely and there is so much history that is attached to the language, yet Chinese is the only Asian language the Western world identifies as a classical language. No one talks about the importance of Tamil," says Praveena Varadharajan, one of the members of the team.
"Tolkāppiyam is a book solely devoted to Tamil grammar and is one of the earliest Tamil works dating back to 3 BCE. Not many other languages can boast of something similar. There is so much about the Tamil language that remains unknown. There is also evidence of the Tamil civilisation being one of the first few, but we don't have anyone to study the language and to write about it," she explains, adding, "For the world, ancient philosophy is either Greek or Latin. But there is so much philosophy in Tamil that no one has written about. Not just philosophy, there is so much work done in science too. There is published work on what a foetus looks like at 6 weeks from an era that was devoid of medical equipment. For every scientific word, there is a Tamil equivalent."
Only the best: The two doctors felt that Harvard would be a good place to set up a chair because of how welcoming it has been of Tamil translations and literature
The team says that they chose to set up the Chair at Harvard because it's one of the best universities in the world. Solely through their website, the target amount they are crowdfunding is six million, of which the team now has 2.85 million. "The doctors themselves contributed one and a half million each. Besides that, the TN government's contribution and those made by people from around the world have brought the total to 2.85 million," says Vetriselvan T Ayyanar, who is the global coordinator and who has been the bridge connecting the world with the Harvard Chair initiative.
As the word spreads exponentially, the team is worried about fake accounts and fake volunteers collecting money. "We would like to inform people that we have no account in India or elsewhere. We are not encouraging anyone to collect money. There is only one way to contribute and that is through our site," adds Vetriselvan. So far, there have been contributions from people across 40 countries and the team is continuing to hold fundraisers as well. "Actually, 10 crore is not much. We can easily collect it, but we also want to encourage the common people to contribute. Even if it's just one dollar, we want people to participate and be part of this initiative so that they can feel proud of the fact that they have contributed to enriching this language," he concludes.