Thirukkurral is an amazing piece of work in Tamil literature, written by poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar, (one also uses Kurral and Valluvar, with the prefix Thiru adding a touch of holiness to them). He is thought to have lived some two thousand years ago. The work consists of 1330 couplets, arranged in 130 chapters spanning three major themes of virtue, wealth and love. The literary beauty of Thirukkurral is in the packing density of information. An often quoted analogy, by those who do not have competence in calculating the necessary pressure and volume, is to make you imagine drilling a hole in a mustard seed and pumping all the water in the oceans into it. But in terms of information content, I bet if a DNA molecule were to study Thirukkurral , it would hang its head in shame. A second important thing about Thirukkurral is that it is not a holy book that acts as an interface between man and stone. Its verses observe far more than they prescribe. Promises of reward for good behaviour and threats of punishment for trespass are generally kept to a minimum. Yet the demarcation of boundaries between good and bad along each of the three axes of the poet’s interest are communicated with exceptional skill.
That being the case, when the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) organised a day of celebration for Thiruvalluvar, my drinking partner in Bridgetown — the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow by the name Sivapuranam Thevaram — insisted that we travel down to the capital and attend the event. Browsing to register for the event, we discovered that SOAS has had a statue of Thiruvalluar at its entrance for some 20 years. The humble man with amazing thought and command of language would also now think of himself as photogenic, for by now he would have featured in the graduation photographs of hundreds of SOAS students. My own first reaction, I confess, was to take a selfie with him within a few minutes of arriving at the School.
“Would they actually know his work, or of him, machan (buddy),” Thevaram asked me in the train to London, “or would the students just pose for photographs and walk past?”
This question was followed by a few minutes of deadly silence between us contemplating how many of the 1300 couplets we ourselves knew! I pulled out my copy of Thirukkurral from my rucksack and started counting. There were 58 I had come across before and could tell the meaning of in some detail. Of these, I could only recall 26 by heart if prompted with the first word.
“I know 27!” claimed my friend, beating me by one.
We joined the SOAS event with a sense of embarrassment. Of what is hailed as the finest literary work in our language, a language we hold dear in our hearts as one of the oldest among those now living, one in whose name we as a community sent thousands of kids to kill themselves, the two of us knew just about 2%. Shameful. Even if we had learnt one couplet a year, we should have covered over twice that.
The SOAS celebrations consisted of garlanding the poet’s statue, some talks, dance and music, and a panel discussion. Despite the weather forecast, the afternoon was pleasant. In the talks, we were told funding cuts to universities and the recent imposition of fees (£ 9,000 for students in the UK) meant SOAS no longer teaches Tamil. Gone are the days of direct government funding so some disciplines could sustain the luxury of professors outnumbering students, the Faculty Dean said. Some languages like Arabic and Chinese are better resourced due to the economic muscle they wield and the fear they inject. It would appear that Rajendra Chozan’s memory, so eloquently captured in Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan, isn’t enough to help Tamils punch at the same level. SOAS was looking to generate endowments and other sources of funding to kick start activity in several minority languages including Tamil, and had ambitions of establishing a chair in Tamil studies. Another speaker said there were efforts to raise the statue and seat him on a pedestal a few feet higher.
The dance performance was sweet. Seeing dance mentioned in the programme, my friend and I were preparing for the usual – the young boy-god Krishna stealing butter from the fridge! But this was creative and adventurous, a special choreography of five couplets in Thirukkurral. Though it took us both some effort to relate the kurrals being depicted to the abinayam (dance gestures) in places, we enjoyed the dance very much. A short recital of some kurrals by children showed the challenges of accurately articulating the phonetic and syllable-stress patterns of Tamil by those whose first language is from the Indo-European family. But the kids did a far better job than Tamil announcements herd in flights of Sri Lankan Airline.