The classicism of Tamil literature and the masterpieces that make it classical bring to mind great palaces, poets endowed with immense talent, and an immeasurable appreciation of what the quills sang. To think all these are preserved in one 68-year old library, with inadequate funds, in Thiruvanmiyur can be a bit of a letdown.
However, the U. V. Swaminatha Iyer Research Library is one of its kinds in South Asia, both in terms of its history, its contents and its potential.
Dr. Swaminatha Iyer lived in a time that possessed an incomplete awareness, let alone knowledge, of Tamil literature. Once, after a chance encounter with an associate, he received a frail document to decipher, a document he quickly realized with a shock was the Jeevaka Chintamani, one of the five great epics, the Aymperum Kaappiangal.
His discovery prompted him to search for other lost epics of Tamil literature. Soon, he was going from door to door in hundreds of towns and villages in and around Tamil Nadu, begging for the Tamil people to give up any old manuscripts they might have had to be preserved. The alternative then, unamusingly, was for their use in cooking fires.
Kalyanasundaram Iyer, his son, offered the entire treasure trove after the passing of his father Rukmini Devi in 1942.
On the advice of her husband, Dr. George Arundale, she accepted the gift and initially stored the collection in the Theosophical Society's library. With grants from the central and state governments, a building was constructed in Thiruvanmiyur to house the collection in 1967.
Formally established in 1943, one year after the death of Dr. Iyer, the research library bears fitting tribute to a man of great intellect and even greater perseverance. This was demonstrated when he collected all five of the epics, the others being Silappathikaram, Thirukkural, Kundalakesi and Valayapathi, apart from over 21,000 books and 3,100 palm leaf manuscripts.
In accordance with the facilities at the library’s disposal, the books are categorized into three: transcribed and published, transcribed and unpublished, and non-transcribed. The latter already number on the greater side of 400. With dwindling interest in the services of this remarkable facility, their preservation is beginning to pose a tremendous problem – both to the administration as well as to the language itself.
V. Jagannathan, an independent Tamil scholar, has used the library and admires it fervently – both for what it is and what it could be. Many a time making use of the transcribed works to aid in his translations of the Silappathikaram and the Thirukkural, he says, “These are works that cannot be found anywhere in the world. They are preserved in their original forms here. It is really depressing to see them so uncared for.”
He explains that the transcription and lamination processes were begun later than they should have, in 2006. Even now, Dr. Jagannathan observes, the influx of funds remains a concern. Enough has been provided by the government and the Kalakshetra foundation for micro-filming and fumigation of the texts. “However, with the internet, the library has the fantastic opportunity to make these texts quickly available for free and in a form accessible to many youngsters.”
What does the future look like, then? The title of Mahopadhyaya was conferred on Dr. Iyer in 1906, meaning “the greatest of the great teachers”, and how have we honoured his lessons?
M. V. Pasupathy, honorary curator of the library, has emphasized the need for virtual libraries, abetted by awareness programs on history and heritage that draw in more people to sustain its preservation. The hope, evidently, lies with the hundreds of scholars and their use of the library every year. It is from the appreciation of their efforts that we can embark once more upon a journey that will revive the splendour of Tamil classical literature as well as our beloved Tamil thatha.
- Mukundh Vasudevan