The making of Tamil Encyclopaedia, a 100-year-old dream

The making of Tamil Encyclopaedia, a 100-year-old dream

Originally published as Tamil Kalaikkalanjiyathin Kathai, the book traces the history and making of Tamil encyclopaedia, a first-of-its-kind initiative in any Indian language

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In the time before Wikipedia, most children in the 1990s just about knew of encyclopaedias. But only a handful of them had a chance to use them. In order to remember the term, most kids in Tamil Nadu would pronounce the word as ‘en saikkilai pidiya’ (literally, hold my cycle). The students who didn’t have any idea about encyclopaedia had to go all the way to school libraries to find out the meaning of the word either in Deluxe or Lifco dictionaries.

Until Vikatan, a Tamil publishing house, came out with the Tamil translation of Encyclopaedia Britannica in three volumes in 2007, a large section of the Tamil population was unaware of how an encyclopaedia looked or what usage it provided. Or even the Tamil word for encyclopaedia, kalaikkalanjiyam. Unfortunately, even before people started to grasp the idea of an encyclopaedia in its entirety, the encyclopaedia itself got replaced by Wikipedia.

The Brief History of a Very Big Book: The Making of the Tamil Encyclopaedia by renowned historian AR Venkatachalapathy brings back the joy of using encyclopaedia. Originally published as Tamil Kalaikkalanjiyathin Kathai, the book traces the history and making of Tamil encyclopaedia, a first-of-its-kind initiative in any Indian language since the 1950s. While the Tamil book was published by Kalachuvadu in 2019, the updated English version of the book has been brought out by Permanent Black recently.

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The beginnings

The origin of the making of Tamil Encyclopaedia can well be traced to the year 1890. The initial works were carried over by A Singaravelu Mudaliar (1855-1931). A Tamil teacher by profession, he brought out Abithaana Chinthamani, not an encyclopaedia in true sense, but a kind of primer. Most of the information found in that book was about Tamil literature and Hindu puranas.

Though he completed the book, he didn’t have enough money to publish it. It was with the help of philanthropists like P Pandithuraisamy Thevar that the book got published in 1910. 

After that, there were many scholars such as S Radhakrishnaiyar (1916), PV Manicka Nayakar and Suddhananda Bharathi (1920), who dreamed of bringing an encyclopaedia. But their dreams were never turned into reality for various reasons. Chalapathy, who is currently the professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies, says that to have an encyclopaedia in Tamil was a “100-year-old dream for Tamilians”.

In the 1930s, TV Sambasivam Pillai brought out a book titled A Tamil-English Dictionary of  Medicine, Chemistry,  Botany and Allied Sciences. Though it was a dictionary, featuring 80,000 words across 4,000 pages and published in five volumes, we can still equate it to an encyclopaedia.

Generosity of Chettiars

It was in 1947 that considerable measures were taken by litterateur MP Periyasaamy Thooran under the aegis of TS Avinashilingam Chettiar (founder of Avinashilingam University, Coimbatore) to bring out a full-fledged encyclopaedia. Their initial plan was to translate selected portions from Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Chettiar published a report about this work and he asked for funds to set the ball rolling. Attracted by this initiative, philanthropists like Alagappa Chettiar, Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar, Karumuttu Thiyagaraja Chettiar, writer Kalki, publisher of Ananda Vikatan SS Vasan, film producer AV Meyyappa Chettiar and  Avinashilingam Chettiar himself donated generously to this cause.

Going through the above-mentioned names, it appears that the Tamil publishing industry in its nascent years was dominated by the Chettiars.

The estimated budget for the encyclopaedia was ₹8 lakh. But the funds received were just ₹1 lakh. Lacking funds in the years that followed, Chettiar, who was then a provincial minister for education, asked the Centre for financial assistance. But the government itself was in deficit and so it turned down the proposal. Moreover, then Madras province was not divided into language-based states. Chettiar thought that asking funds from the government for the development of Tamil language alone would be a partiality. 

Hence, he brought together some Telugu celebrities and asked them to create Telugu Basha Samiti and through that they could bring out Telugu Encyclopaedia. The author says that it is doubtful whether such a plan was accomplished.

A Dravidian neglect

With the initial money in their hand, the Chettiar-Thooran duo started setting up a team for the making of the encyclopaedia. The office was set up in the Clock Tower building of Madras University. The team’s first challenge was to create new terminologies in Tamil for the concepts hitherto unknown to the Tamil society. They stared at a dilemma: whether to create a new Tamil word based on the English word or to go by the existing root words in Tamil. They eventually created Tamil words based on their English counterparts only in essential places.

Against all odds, the first volume of Tamil Encyclopaedia was published in 1953. With the help of 1,200 contributors and the hard work of 20 years, it was a mammoth undertaking: 15,000 headings across 7,500 pages. The team was able to publish 10 volumes between 1953 and 1968. This was an achievement in the Tamil publishing industry. It turned out to be a valuable contribution to Tamil culture and language. Following this, 10 volumes of Children Encyclopaedia were also published between 1968 and 1976 and it was also headed by Thooran.

It is a pity to underline the fact that most of the Dravidian ideologues of that time undermined the work saying since the team was full of Brahmins and lacked Tamil scholars, the work could not be considered as Tamil Encyclopaedia, but just an encyclopaedia.

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Chalapathy, an authority on Tamil book printing culture, brought out such a nuanced work with his usual prudence. The seed of this work was sowed when he read the book, The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the ‘Encyclopedie’, 1775-1800 by Robert Darnton, he wrote in the preface of the Tamil book. Inspired by that book, he also wrote an essay titled ‘Kalaikalanjiyam: The Making of the Tamil Encyclopaedia, `1947-1968’.

While the Tamil book was an extension of the earlier essay, the English book, which is going to hit the book stores soon, has been updated.

“In the English book, I have included two new chapters. I have discussed how such initiatives were taken in other languages, particularly in Bengali, Kannada and Oriya. I have also expanded the sketches of Thooran and other contributors more elaborately,” he told The Federal.

M Krishnan, one of the pioneers in natural writing, contributed to this encyclopaedia. Later, his contributions were compiled and brought out as a book titled Mazhaikkaalamum Kuyilosaiyum by Kalachuvadu. Taking forward his legacy, some natural writers in Tamil Nadu are in the process of bringing out an encyclopaedia in Tamil exclusively for the environment. It is yet to see the light of day.

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