Article by Kumar Kumarappan, Summer 2001
Tamil Chair at University of California, Berkeley (UCB): An Update.
A language is more than just a means of communication. It is a repository of a community’s collective history and heritage. It also provides an identity and a focus that binds together a community for social togetherness, that makes individual accomplishments that much more easier. Well aware of this, Tamils of North America, made a commitment to themselves to perpetuate the learning of Tamil in the Americas. Towards that primary goal, the UCB Tamil Chair was conceived in 1991, and a formal committee was formed in 1992 to provide focus to the fund raising efforts and to manage the logistics with UCB.
The Tamil community needed $400K to establish this Tamil Chair. From a Mathematical perspective, it looked easy. To get $1000 each from 400 families who are reasonably affluent did not look like a daunting task. The realities proved otherwise. The Indian psyche may have been conditioned to give generously to Religious institutions, but the appeal of an endowment for a prestigious learning center proved too narrow.
It took almost three years to collect the necessary funds. The rewarding part was that it was truly a grass root effort with no involvement from any special interest groups or partisan governments. Two of the biggest donors were Mrs. & Mr. Thukkaram and Dr. & Mr. Jamunah and Aru Arasu. There were five other donors who had given more than $10,000 each. The rest was from about 470 other donors whose contributions ranged from $5 to $9,999. The Grand total collected by mid-1995 was close to $425K. It took almost a year for the “Board of Regents” at UCB to formally approve the Tamil Chair and Dr.George Hart was appointed “Chair” by mid-1996, and “Tamil Chair” was formally inaugurated to the excitement of the Tamil community by November 1996. The first of it’s kind, a “Tamil Chair” in an American University, had been established.
The first year saw a Tamil conference at UCB, with many who are involved with Tamil teaching in western world, being present. Besides Dr.George Hart, who is now familiar to most of the Tamil Community in North America, Dr. Thomas Malten (Germany), Professor Schiffman and Professor Vasu Ranganathan (Pennsylvania) and Dr.Norman Cutler (Chicago) were some of the educators who were present. This was one of the earliest conferences that recognized the need for standardization of Tamil Fonts, and sowed the seeds for further discussions of Tamil Font encoding schemes.
The Tamil Chair also participated in funding partly the digitization project of Tamil Sangam and other Tamil literary works, spear headed by Dr.Thomas Malten. The next year, 1998, saw the visit of Professor Ilakkuvanar Maraimalai from Chennai to UCB. Professor Maraimalai, besides contributing to the Tamil academic programs of UCB, also helped awaken the Tamil literary awareness of the Tamil Community in the San Francisco Bay Area with his BI-weekly fireside chats on Tamil literature. The following years saw author Dilip Kumar, and then Professor Muthu Chidambaram from Tamil Nadu taking up assignments at UCB under the Tamil Chair program.
All this while, Tamil courses were being offered at UCB and a program that was marginal had been made much more central after the establishment of the Tamil chair. There is anywhere upto 30 students a year who take up Tamil language courses, with many of them being second generation Tamil Americans.
The Tamil language program is going well and currently has 12 first year students, 6 second year students and 6 third year students. Besides this, an emphasize has been placed for majority of money generated by Tamil Chair to go to supporting Tamil graduate PhD students. It will allow students to study Tamil who otherwise might not be able to. The ‘Chair’ Dr.George Hart says, “It is my opinion that the best use for the money is as seed money — that is, if we can produce a Tamil student who gets a tenured job at a major university teaching Tamil, then we get a fantastic return on our investment, since that student then generates more students, and Tamil becomes better and better established. This, in fact, is happening. . At the moment, I have four graduate students. Last year I had five”.
Dr.George Hart mentions that the most advanced students, Layne Little and Archana Venkatesan, have produced wonderful translations and papers that are of publishable quality. So in addition to some financial help for the Tamil students, the Tamil Chair money enables Tamil students to teach courses designed by them and to attend conferences and present papers.
The Tamil community should now look at other learning institutions to promote programs similar to or better than the one at UCB. This needs local champions in the respective metropolitan areas where the learning institutions are located. Academicians to man these programs are being readied by the UCB Tamil Chair program. Dr.George Hart, who believes the foundation has been set up, had this to say, “I think we can all be proud of what has been accomplished. A significant and important step has been made toward making more in academia aware of Tamil and its rich heritage and in producing students who can advance the cause of Tamil in the future.”