'Those were the days' U Ve Swaminatha Iyer: Scholar who re-ignited the Tamil renaissance

In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes
'Those were the days'  U Ve Swaminatha Iyer: Scholar who re-ignited the Tamil renaissance
U Ve Swaminatha Iyer

Chennai: Reminding the citizens of the day when an aggrieved woman could take to task the mighty Pandian monarch, a statue of Kannagi, the icon of gender equity and jurisprudence in Tamil culture, proudly stands on the Marina sidewalk, pointing to the new capital of the Tamils.

And as if observing Kannagi – standing unobtrusively across the road within the Presidency College campus is the statue of an elderly man – a Tamil scholar, without whose intervention Kannagi would have been entirely forgotten.

That the oldest college of the presidency chose to honour its Tamil professor with a statue (instead of a host of other alumni including Nobel laureates and the Presidents of the country) shows the indefatigable pride for the language that Tamilians possess. Their sense of supremacy in turn comes from their ancient literature and the period in which it was created — the Sangam era, when poets were considered to be on par with the kings.

Arguably, one man can be credited with rightfully delivering to the Tamils, their extensive historical literature – Uttamadhanapuram Venkatasubbaiyer Swaminatha Iyer (February 19, 1855 – April 28, 1942), also known as U Ve Sa.

Tamil was definitely a richer language following Iyer’s intervention. But unlike others, he wasn’t known just as a writer. Though he probably gave Tamil literature its first structured biography and autobiography, Iyer will be remembered as a seeker and searcher. Iyer’s half-a-century long pursuit brought to light some of the foremost ancient Tamil literary works.

At the turn of the century, Tamil literature consisted of Bhakti literature, some historical works and poems. Having gone through six centuries of rulers (and citizens) who spoke other languages including Telugu, Urdu and Marathi, the natives of these lands were losing touch with their ancient literature. Most of the Tamil texts had surprisingly survived. But a rich literary repository of 2,000 years was unfortunately etched on palm leaves and replicated every half century or so. Palm leaf manuscripts were possessed by scores of families living in various parts of Tamil Nadu. However most were not adequately literate to comprehend the words written a thousand years before. So, they did not realise their literary worth. Under such circumstances, a need to rediscover missing palm leaf manuscripts and bring to light the hidden treasures of Tamil literature was acutely felt.

Born at Uthamadhanapuram, near Kumbakonam, in the old Thanjavur district, Iyer, the son of a poor musician, had his early education in Tamil under teachers in his village. There was pressure for him to learn English and seek clerkship with some lawyer or firm. But he loved Tamil too much to succumb to the offers of a career with better pecuniary benefits.

When he was 17, Iyer became a disciple of Mahavidwan Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, a reputed Tamil scholar, who served at the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam, the wealthiest of saiva monasteries in the country. The Adheenam patronised Tamil teachers and after Pillai’s death, Iyer was retained in the mutt as a vidvan. Iyer had settled down into a life of comparative financial stability when at the instance of the Adheenam, he visited Salem Ramasami Mudaliar who had recently been transferred as Munsif of Kumbakonam. When Mudaliar, an enthusiastic patron of Tamil literature, asked him what Tamil classics he had read, Iyer proudly listed out a long inventory of all known epics he had mastered. Mudaliar was not impressed and asked Iyer if he was aware of the story of Kannagi as portrayed in the epic Silapathikaram written by Ilango Adigal, a Jain monk and a Chera prince.

Mudaliar found it astounding that Iyer had not even heard of the work. (This was circa 1885, and it would be years before the first silent movie on Kovalan-Kannagi would be released in 1927. By 1967 Kannagi had her own statue amidst a host of Tamil savants).

This meeting lit an inextinguishable fire within Iyer’s heart. Ahead of the 20th Century, when printed books made a landfall, Iyer took it upon himself to tread the roads of the Tamil speaking regions scanning through lofts and unlocked almirahs of the State to look for palm leaves with the ancient Tamil texts. This was a search that lasted until his death. In his autobiography, En Sarithiram he writes about how he was only partly successful and the termites beat him in the race almost half the time . Yet Iyer managed to create a huge assemblage of ancient texts in the printed form. Iyer collated over 3,000 paper and palm leaf manuscripts and they culminated in over 90 books on them that were written by him and published.

Iyer recovered the epics, puranas and the temple texts — the foundations of ancient Tamil literature. Among those that were recovered were Pattuppattu (All ten in an anthology of ten poems), Ettuthogai (4 out of 8) and parts of the five great epics namely Silapathikaram, Manimekalai, Jivaka Chintamani, Valayapathi and Kuntalakeci (3 out of 5) — works that Tamils hold close to their heart.

Iyer did not publish merely a recreation of the manuscripts in palm leaves on paper. He edited and published these works with detailed annotations, cross references and indices, besides biographical observations on the authors. When peculiar jargon cropped up in texts, as in Jivaka Chintamani, written by a Jain ascetic, Iyer would visit the Jains of the area to inquire if the words were still part of common parlance.

He also contacted Tamil patrons and mobilised funds to publish the other invaluable literary works making them available in the public domain. As people appreciated what he did for reviving history and literature, donations from Tamil lovers came at frequent intervals. The readership also increased and Iyer’s pre-publication book promotion gave him enough resources to purchase paper and pay the printer.

After serving for 23 years at the Kumbakonam Arts College, he joined the Presidency College, Chennai, in 1903 to teach Tamil. During World War II, many families from Chennai migrated to nearby villages. Iyer too moved to Thirukkazhukundram in 1942, but in 10 hired bullock carts, transported the palm-leaf manuscripts and other books to his new residence as he did not want to lose them all over again to Japanese bombs. The last days of his life were spent here. One year after his demise, in 1943, the UVS Library was established in Thiruvanmiyur. As many as 939 palm-leaf manuscripts collected by him found a home here.

A dedicated diarist, he made entries every day for years. The first of these diaries was written in 1893. Aspects of local history in wartime Madras could be gleaned from them. Iyer was recognised during his lifetime and Mahakavi Bharati sang a verse in praise of him assuring his legacy lived on. Bharati equated him to the sage Agastya when he called him Kumbha Muni. Guruji Rabindranath Tagore also visited him once during a trip to Madras. The British government bestowed on him the title of Mahamahopadhyaya. Today, the plaque below Iyer’s statue outside Presidency College carries Bharathi’s verse, praising the Tamil scholar. And Tamilians would honour the man who got their literature back with a fond epithet

— Thamizh Thatha or Grandfather of Tamil.

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