Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Professor K. Sivathamby (1932-2011)

A personal appraisal

by Sachi Sri Kantha, August 7, 2011

I agree that Sivathamby’s interests were varied, but his “scientific and sociological perspective in his analysis of Tamil culture” is rather superficial. In Tamil, there is an idiom that states ‘Nuni pul meithal’ [superficial grazing like a goat]. Sivathamby’s contributions belong to this category. His publications are counted as, “authored more than 50 books and monographs”. But, originality was not his forte. Ideas or thoughts that he culled from English works, he translated and presented them in Tamil, sometimes without proper credit to the original contributor. In my view, none of Sivathamby’s 50-odd books and monographs can match the work of Swami Vipulananda’s (1892-1947) magnum opus ‘Yal Nool’.

K. Sivathamby in mid 1960s
K. Sivathamby in mid 1960s

As far as I know, Prof. Kartigesu Sivathamby (1932-2011) is not known for any fiction writing performance. But, if one has to believe the eulogies that have appeared since his death on July 6th, his career achievements have been strangely fictionalized by his admiring eulogists. To one of my friends in Canada, who informed me about Prof. Sivathamby’s death by email, I responded that I have no intention of writing a memoriam to him, as I have not been an admirer of his political sycophancy. However, I cannot let the admiring eulogists of Sivathamby escape by omitting certain truths in the career of Prof. Sivathamby.

The List

First I provide a list of 91 names that I copied by hand from the reference book section at the University of Peradeniya’s Main library, more than 30 years ago. (As an aside, I should mention that there were no photocopying facilities installed there. I was then an assistant lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine, and the only photocopier was installed at the Dean’s Office. To copy some needed material, I had to pay one rupee per page, to the office laborer.) I copied this list with somewhat of foresight, that one day I have to use it. And I provide it here, to bolster my personal appraisal on Professor Sivathamby’s career. Here is that list in alphabetical order of names (and the countries where they resided then).

Names of scholars who participated and presented their research studies in the 4th International Tamil Research Conference, held in Jaffna, in January 1974

Ambikaipakan, S: Sri Lanka

Aroul, G: India

Arulnandhy, Mankaladevi (Miss): Sri Lanka

Ashok Kumar, Rajappan: Sri Lanka

Balasubramanian, M.P: India

Balasundaram, E: Sri Lanka

Balasundarampillai, P: Sri Lanka

Balasubrahmanyam, V.R: India

Bastiampillai, B.E: Sri Lanka

Beck, Brenda (Miss): Canada

Chellappan, Kasiviswanathan: India

De Sa, J.H.Renato: India

Dewaraja Lorna Srimathie (Mrs): Sri Lanka

Diehl, Carl Gustav: Sweden

Eraipugalvaali, Elias Catherine Soosaipillai: Sri Lanka

Eliezer, Ranee (Mrs): Australia

Fernando, W.S.Marcus: Sri Lanka

Ganesalingam, V.K. Dr: Sri Lanka

Ganesan, Era: India

Govindapillai, Vairamuttu: Sri Lanka

Janert, Klaus Ludwig: West Germany

Kalaparameswaran, S: Sri Lanka

Kanagaratnam, Thambu: Sri Lanka

Kanagendran, Maniccavasagar Kanagasabapathy [Eelaventhan]: Sri Lanka

Karashima, Noboru: Japan

Karunakaran, K: UK

Keller, Carl A: Switzerland

Kieler, Bruce W: USA

Leshnik, Laurence Saadia: West Germany

McAlpine, David Wayne: USA

Maheswaran, S.K: Sri Lanka

Mahalingam K.[Saalini Ilanthiraian]: India

Mahalingam, V.R.[Saalai Ilanthiraian]: India

Major Istvan: Hungary

Marr, John Ralston: UK

Mathiaparanam, K.E: Sri Lanka

Mohamed, C.Nainar: India

Murugesa Mudaliyar: India

Muttucumaraswamy, Vythilingam: UK

Muththukkumaru Vijayalaxumy (Miss): Sri Lanka

Nadarasan, Navaliyur S: Sri Lanka

Nagalingam, Chellaiah: Sri Lanka

Nanayakkara, D.D: Sri Lanka

Natarajan, Deva: India

Navasothy, Kanapathipillai: Sri Lanka

Owen, Hugh Francis: Australia

Panneerselvam, R: India

Pathmanathan, Sivasubramaniyam: Sri Lanka

Perera, D.N. Punyasiri: Sri Lanka

Perumal, V: India

Poologasingham, P: Sri Lanka

Rajamanickam, Rev.S: India

Ramanujan, A.K: USA

Ramasamy, K: Sri Lanka

Rasu, Pulavar S: India

Ratnam, Pundit Kartigesu Ponnambalam: Sri Lanka

Rutnam, James Thevathasan: Sri Lanka

Samaraweera, Vijayakumara: Sri Lanka

Sambunathan, V: Sri Lanka

Sandrasegaram, Somasundram: Sri Lanka

Sanmugadas, Arunasalam: Sri Lanka

Satkunam, Mailvaganam: Sri Lanka

Schiffman, Harold F: USA

Selvachandran, Kumarasamy: Sri Lanka

Selvanayagam, Somasundaram: Sri Lanka

Seth, Ravinder Kumar: India

Seyon, Kartigesu Nagalingapillai: SriLanka

Shanmugampillai, M: India

Shanmugam, Kodumudi: India

Sinnathamby, John Rasasingham: Sri Lanka

Sittampalam, K: Sri Lanka

Sivanesaselvan, A: Sri Lanka

Sivapathasundaranar, N: Sri Lanka

Sivaprakasam, V.K: Sri Lanka

Sivasamy, Vinayakamoorthy: Sri Lanka

Somasundaran, Aru: India

Subramaniam, Nagaraja Iyer: Sri Lanka

Subbu Reddiar, N: India

Sundareswaran,T.S [Ezhil Erai]: Sri Lanka

Suseendirarajah, Swaminathan: Sri Lanka

Thanjayarajasingham, Sabaratnasingham: Sri Lanka

Tillainathan, Sinnathamby: Sri Lanka

Thillainayagam, Velauthar Kopalapillai: UK

Thommanupillai, Soosaipillai: Sri Lanka

Uwise, Mohamed Mahmood: Sri Lanka

Vasuki,M (Mrs): India

Veerakathy, Pundit Kantar: Sri Lanka

Velupillai, Alvapillai Dr: Sri Lanka

Venthanar Kalaiyarasi (Miss): Sri Lanka

Wicki, Joseph Anton Dr: Italy

Yngve, A.Fryholm: Sweden

Among these 91 names, the names of K.Sivathamby and that of his friend K. Kailasapathy are noticeably missing. Why I pose this query? These were the names of scholars who participated and presented their research studies in the 4th International Tamil Research Conference, held in Jaffna, in January 1974. The then Sirimavo Bandaranaike led Cabinet (in which the Communist Party was also represented) was strongly opposed to holding this Tamil research conference in Jaffna. To show their alliance to Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s racist regime, Kailasapathy and Sivathamby boycotted this Tamil Conference! For Sivathamby, his love of Tamil took a lower ranking below that of his self promotion skills with those who held power. Those who registered and ¬†participated at this Conference were subjected to numerous harassments. Some among these (E.Balasundaram, Ranee Eliezer, Eelaventhan, Saalai Ilanthirayan, S. Pathmanathan, P. Poologasingham, James T. Rutnam and A. Sanmugadas) were personally known to me.

Despite many odds facing them, one could notice a few Sinhalese scholars and a notable Muslim scholar from Sri Lanka in the list as well. Mrs. Lorna Srimathi Dewaraja, D.D. Nanayakkara, Punyasiri Perera, Vijayakumara Samarajeewa and M.M. Uwise did take part in this conference. For them, their interest in presenting their research studies in Jaffna, despite all the negative pressures inflicted, was a stimulus to Sinhala-Tamil or Muslim-Tamil harmony.

Eulogists’ Bluff

An eulogist Bhagavadas Sriskanthadas, contributing to the Nation website [Sinhala-owned by Rivira Media Corporation, Colombo,] wrote on July 24th the following: “In 2010, one year prior to his death, he [Sivathamby] was invited by the organizers of the first World Classical Tamil Conference to be held in Coimbatore, South India, to chair the Academic Committee. He brushed aside the pressure exerted on him by a small number of LTTE sympathisers from abroad to boycott the conference‚Ķ”

OK, it was Sivathamby’s fervent wish and prerogative to share the stage with other scholars in old age. In January 1974, when the Fourth International Conference on Tamil Studies was held in Jaffna, why could a young Sivathamby not brush aside the pressure exerted by the then Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Cabinet on him. In short, the answer is Sivathamby was a numero uno straddler. William Safire defines this word as one who exhibits deliberate ambivalence or two-faced-ness. [Safire’s Political Dictionary, 1980, 3rd ed., pp. 15-16]. The LTTE leadership recognized this habit of Sivathamby, and kept his services at a distance. In the mid 1980s, while pretending that he was interested in the welfare of harassed Tamil citizens, Sivathamby also postured himself to his Colombo admirers, as a ‘friend’ of the then powerful minister and racist Gamini Dissanaike.

S. Dorairaj, who contributed an eulogy to the Frontline magazine [belonging to the House of Hindu publishers, July 30-Aug.12, 2011] had inserted the following bluff, as an opinion of an unidentified “scholar”. It was this: ‘Unfortunately the renowned Tamil scholar [Sivathamby] was given a raw deal in Tamil Nadu on a couple of occasions: he was denied permission to present a paper at the Fifth World Tamil Conference held in Madurai in 1981, and he was not even allowed to participate in the Eighth meet in Thanjavur in 1995’. As per what happened to Sri Lanka’s Tamil scholars in 1995, when Jayalalitha was the Chief Minister, I cannot comment. But, what happened at the Fifth World Tamil Conference held in Madurai in 1981, I can comment, as I was one of the Sri Lankan Tamil delegates who participated and presented a research paper.

Sivathamby’s contribution to that Conference was simply not peer-approved. Thus, his submission was dropped. For the 1981 Tamil conference, there were two levels of screening of submissions. Preliminary screening was held at the Sri Lankan level. Then, the final screening was held at the Academic Committee, Madurai Conference level. I don’t know whether the quality of his submission in 1981 was sub-par or not innovative, or was not in tune with the requirements of the conference’s objectives. I also don’t know whether his submission was rejected at the Sri Lankan level (preliminary screening) or at the Madurai Academic Committee level (final screening). Such, peer rejection is part and parcel of a scholar’s life. Interpreting such peer rejection as “he was denied permission to present a paper” with an innuendo is a self promoter’s weapon in the armory bag, and not that of the scholar Sivathamby is being promoted to be.

Dorairaj’s eulogy notes further that “Sivathamby’s interests were varied, but it is the scientific and sociological perspective in his analysis of Tamil culture from the Sangam age to the modern era of the mass media that continues to amaze scholars today.” I agree that Sivathamby’s interests were varied, but his “scientific and sociological perspective in his analysis of Tamil culture” is rather superficial. In Tamil, there is an idiom that states ‘Nuni pul meithal’ [superficial grazing like a goat]. Sivathamby’s contributions belong to this category. His publications are counted as, “authored more than 50 books and monographs”. But, originality was not his forte. Ideas or thoughts that he culled from English works, he translated and presented them in Tamil, sometimes without proper credit to the original contributor. In my view, none of Sivathamby’s 50-odd books and monographs can match the work of Swami Vipulananda’s (1892-1947) magnum opus ‘Yal Nool’. Sure enough, Sivathamby had built up fan club in the Tamil Nadu, mainly because he was one of the Tamil academics who received his Ph.D. from a Western university and was well read in English. He also had a knack of writing books or booklets in Tamil, on themes that are of perennial interest to university students in Tamil Nadu (such as DMK and cinema) who are not so literate in English.

Sivathamby has to be credited with promoting that obnoxious Tamil word Murpooku (Progressive), in alignment with the Marxist-Communist thinking. Those who didn’t contribute to the thinking of Murpooku camp, were sneered at and relegated to the Pirpooku (Regressive) camp. Included in this category were the traditional Tamil scholars such as Pundit K. P. Ratnam and even Fr. X. S. Thaninayagam. When the word ‘progressive’ lost its steam in the 1970s and 1980s in the international arena due to economic stagnation and duplicity of political decisions made by the then USSR, Sivathamby and his camp followers conveniently switched their garb into ‘human rights’ activism.

Coda

In my view, among the Sri Lankan Tamil professors who contributed the most to Tamil studies in terms of (1) originality and depth of research, (2) institution building and (3) awakening of Tamil conscience, Sivathamby does not rank within the top five. My choices in the decreasing order will be: Swami Vipulananda (1892-1947), Fr. X.S. Thaninayagam (1913-1980), S. Vithiananthan (1924-1989), K. Kanapathipillai (1903-1968) and K. Kailasapathy (1933-1982).

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