Did Tamil reformist shun his Sanskrit name or just pick a nom de plume?

On the 150th anniversary of Parthimar Kalaignar, the first to demand classical status for the language, scholars question if he truly changed his name to Tamil as is popularly believed

VG Suryanarayana Sastri was the first person who campaigned for Tamil to be recognised as a classical language. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Tamils are known to be fanatics when it comes to their love for the language. Tamil scholars over the decades have not just been striving hard to retain the beauty and elegance of the language, but also its purity. They have also been enriching it by adding newer words to its vocabulary.

VG Suryanarayana Sastri was the first person who campaigned for Tamil to be recognised as a classical language. It is believed, that as an expression of his passion for the language, he changed his own name overnight, from Suryanarayana to Parthimar Kalaignar.

On his 150th birth anniversary this year, some Tamil scholars have claimed that the new name of the professor was just a pen name and not an assertion of his identity as it was widely believed so far. This has led to a storm in the Tamil literary fraternity.

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Thanithamil

Tamil scholars over the years have been trying to improve the language by experimenting with “Thanithamil” or pure Tamil. Both in written and spoken form, the scholars have been introducing newer words and expressions while consciously avoiding the influence of other languages, especially English.

Tamil Nadu has been fighting hard since the 1930s any attempt to impose other languages, especially those from northern parts of India to the Tamil lexicon. Post-Independence this took the form of anti-Hindi agitation. Subsequently, the central government introduced a three-language formula, but Tamil Nadu struck to two — Tamil and English.

The mission of Tamils to preserve their language and identity has led to a series of historical measures, most prominent among them being the culture of renaming a place or a person in pure Tamil.

The first Tamil professor

Sastri, for one, changed his name to ‘Parithimar Kalaignar’ by replacing ‘Surya’ (sun) with ‘Parithi and ‘Narayana’ with ‘Mar’ (another name for Lord Vishnu). In pure Tamil, Vishnu is also referred to as Thirumaal. ‘Sastri’, meaning someone who has obtained punditry in many subjects, was replaced by ‘Kalaignar.’

Born in 1870 at Vilacheri village in Madurai district, Sastri learnt Sanskrit from his father Govindha Sivan and Tamil from Sabapathi Mudaliar. His deep interest in Tamil literature and grammar took him to Madras Christian College, where in 1892, he graduated in the language and stood first in the university.

In 1893, the then Principal of the college Dr. William Miller, offered him professorship in the department of Philosophy. The salary levels drawn by the teachers of philosophy those days were higher in comparison to salaries drawn by teachers in other departments. Sastri, however, wished to work in the department of Tamil, because he loved the language. He also became the first graduate who opted to serve as a Tamil professor. Three years later, he became the head of the department.

CW Thamotharam Pillai, a Sri Lanka based publisher, who compiled ancient writings in Tamil literature in the form of a book, bestowed the title ‘Dravida Sastri’ on the young professor.

During Sastri’s tenure as HOD, Vedachalam, a scholar applied for the post of Tamil pandit. Later, he renamed himself as Maraimalai Adigal. He was considered a frontrunner of the ‘Thanithamil’ movement along with Sastri.

Pitch for classical language status

In 1901, Sastri with the support of Prince Pandi Thurai Thevar, Madurai Tamil Sangam, established an academy for Tamil language. This was also referred to as the ‘Fourth Tamil Sangam’.

The academy used to publish a monthly magazine, ‘Senthamizh’. In its first issue, Kalaignar wrote a research article titled ‘Uyar Thani Semmozhi’, which demanded that Tamil be given the status of classical language. That was the first article in Tamil literature that described Tamil as a classical language.

Sastri had introduced Tamil in the curriculum of undergraduate courses. The tradition continues till today. In 1902, the University of Madras, the only university in the state then, decided to do away with Tamil as a subject in college education. Sastri along with MS Purnalingam Pillai, a professor of English in MCC, opposed the decision and insisted that Tamil be taught as a subject at the college level.

Change of name or just a moniker?

Purnalingam Pillai ran a Tamil monthly magazine called ‘Gnanabodhini’. Sastri used to write a column in the magazine. This was the first time, Sastri tried writing a sonnet (a 14-line poem) in Tamil. From 1897 onwards, he regularly published poems in the magazine.

“Sastri harboured a doubt whether people genuinely accepted his poems. This is because those days, he was a well-known Tamil scholar and his worry was that whether his reputation overrode his creativity. To check this out, he started writing under the pseudonym ‘Parithimaar Kalaignar’,” says J Sudarvizhi, assistant professor of Tamil at MCC, and a researcher on Sastri. She did the research project as part of Golden Jubilee celebrations commemorating establishment of Tamil department in the college.

The poems were collected and published by Sastri as ‘Thanipaasura Thogai’ in 1901 in his original name. “Between 1897 and 1901, Sastri would have gauged the real opinion of his readers, and therefore, instead of publishing the poetry collection under his pseudonym Parithimaar Kalaignar, he retained his original name,” says Sudarvizhi.

While publishing the poems, Sastri also serialised a fiction titled ‘Mathivannan’ in the same magazine and that bore his original name.

“If Sastri changed his name influenced by the ‘Thanithamil’ movement, he wouldn’t have used different bylines for different writings,” Sudarvizhi surmises. Beside, all his books would have carried a common byline Parithimaar Kalaignar. On the contrary, the professor had used his original name in all his research writings, his communication with his contemporaries like U Ve Swaminatha Iyer. The same name figures in all official records.

“A commemorative stamp issued by the government refers to him as VG Suryanarayana Sastri, whereas, in the case of a stamp released for Vedachalam, he has been referred to as ‘Maraimalai Adigal,” says Sudarvizhi.

This new line of research has made scholars and academicians rethink about the famed tale about Sastri’s love for the language. It was shocking to many that, though he was the first person who sought classical status to Tamil, his affection for the language had limitations. He changed his name not due to his love for the language, but just adopted a pen name to check out perceptions about his own writings.

“Using a pure Tamil pseudonym just to get a work published is very different from changing one’s name into pure Tamil for the rest of one’s life,” she added.

“In his writings too, Sastri had nowhere advocated use of pure Tamil. Instead, he had said that mixing English and Tamil words were inevitable and it is unwise to prevent this. But this one episode should not determine Sastri’s love for Tamil or lessen his contributions to the cause of Tamil. One need not project him as someone who firmly believed in ‘Thanithamil’ ideology,” says Sudarvizhi.

Sastri died at a young age of 33 due to tuberculosis in 1903.

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