The 'classical' conundrum


Conferment of 'Classical' language status on Malayalam, and that too on the basis of its literature which is 500-600 years old, has taken the wind out...

Conferment of 'Classical' language status on Malayalam, and that too on the basis of its literature which is 500-600 years old, has taken the wind out of the sails of those who predicate such exalted status on the antiquity of a language's literature and edicts.

Now, one has to wonder why the Telugus and the Kannadigas strained themselves so much to prove that indeed they had more than 1,500 years of literary history. From a global standpoint, to determine the 'classical' status, the highly productive period in that language is taken as the main criterion, but not antiquity. It is a different matter that some Tamil scholars and the Tamil Nadu government had erroneously put forth antiquity as the predominant determining factor and the Union government, guided by the Sahitya Akademi, more or less endorsed it.

The language-centric parties of Tamil Nadu (regardless of the one in power) pressurised the UPA-1 government to accord 'Classical' status to Tamil in October 2004. In fact, there was talk of the supremacy of this south Indian language during the days of Prof. VG Suryanarayana Sastry, who served as a professor of Tamil during 1897 at the Madras Christian College, and the matter has been brought up time and again by language enthusiasts in Tamil Nadu across political and cultural spectra of society.

The Central government formed an Expert Committee on November 1, 2004, drawing representatives from all the South Indian languages and government agencies concerned to look into similar demands, if any, from other language States in the region. It was here that the subterfuge of Tamil members of the panel came into play. They managed to extend the required period of antiquity for classical status conferment to 1500-2000 years henceforth; whereas they themselves won for Tamil the 'classical' status with only the originally stipulated criterion of 1,000 years.

The Centre notified on November 25, 2005 its decision to amend Para 2 of the Notification of October 12, 2004 so as to make it read as "high antiquity of its early texts/record history over a period of 1500-2000 years". This triggered frenzied activity in Andhra Pradesh among scholars who began to look back to provide somehow satisfying criteria from the hoary past to fulfill the 1500-2000 years condition for Telugu to achieve the 'Classical' status. Meanwhile, consolidation of the newly accorded classical status progressed in Tamil Nadu. Its votaries worked on plans to further develop Tamil with the Rs 100-crore grant that came with the status from the Central Government.

The Mysore-based Centre of Excellence for Classical Tamil (CECT) was moved to Chennai in 2008 and rechristened as the Central Institute of Classical Tamil (CICT) under the chairmanship of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

Protagonists of Telugu and Kannada kept on representing their cases to the committee. Finally, after four years of consideration, the Centre accorded 'Classical' language status to Telugu and Kannada also, convinced of the antiquity of texts and a body of ancient literature, and on the basis of the recommendations of the expert committee. It declared Kannada and Telugu also as classical languages on October 31, 2008. Subsequently, the matter was placed before the Union Cabinet for ex post facto approval. The Cabinet, at its meeting on May 8, 2009, approved the proposal.

The University Grants Commission subsequently set up a committee to look into modalities for establishment of centres of classical languages. The committee suggested that, instead of professional chairs, centres of classical languages be established in select Central universities. However, the members who represented Tamil Nadu on the committee constituted in 2004 opposed the conferment during meetings in June-July, 2008.

Realising that they cannot stop the process at the expert committee level, Tamil political and academic lobbies saw to it that a PIL was filed in the Madras High Court, ahead of the release of the relevant government order. The petition questioned the competency of the expert committee to recommend such status. Apart from creating bad blood, it resulted in a legal tangle for Telugu, Kannada, and now Malayalam, which, despite being accorded the 'classical' status, can access benefits and grants totaling Rs 100 crore each, subject to the outcome of the petition.

Banking upon the Central government to come out with a spirited defense, the Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka governments represented the matter before the Supreme Court on February 2, 2010, submitting that neither the scope of the case nor the result would affect in any way the Tamil people and their culture. The apex court ruled that the matter be resolved at the Madras High Court.

For Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam, this 'classical' conundrum exemplifies the famous adage: "Though God has granted the wish, the priest continues to block the benefits". Internationally, UNESCO, while ruling out specific parameters for determining a 'classical' language, stated, in its reply to Tamil scholar Dr VC Kulandai Swami, that classical status of a language is based not on its antiquity, but on the 'more creative period of the said language'.

Perhaps, our mistaken understanding of 'Classical' as predicated on antiquity has complicated the issue. For Telugus especially, it is a long way to go. A Central Institute of Classical Telugu has to become a reality to start with. We have miles to go, but we are sleeping in daylight while, right under our nose, our cultural identities are being questioned. The Central Institute for Classical Tamil is functioning at Chennai and the Kannadigas have the Central Institute for Classical Kannada at Gulbarga. Of course, the fund machine is grinding -- slowly, but surely. For the 12th Plan, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has granted Rs 54 lakh respectively for both CICK and CICT.

Only the Telugus are not in a position to establish or move the Central Institute for Classical Telugu to their State due to lack adequate collective cultural, academic, and political determination to make things happen.

For Telugus especially, it is a long way to go. A Central Institute of Classical Telugu has to become a reality to start with
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