Congested Tamil Sangam Road in the heart of Madurai holds everything that makes a town: hotels and restaurants, shops dealing in steel scrap and auto spare parts, furnishing and electronic showrooms, even a Sunday flea market, besides vendors, pedestrians and vehicles in all shapes, sizes and speeds. On a busy weekday, it is tough to imagine that this was once a serene hub of intellectuals and littérateurs.
The name of the once famous road is almost forgotten as people refer to and connect the place with either the weekend bazaar or Thilagar thidal, which it once used to be — a huge ground where political meetings and rallies were held decades ago. The ground that got the name Thilagar after Bal Gangadhar Tilak addressed a meeting here, is lost to a jungle of concrete.
Hidden in this chaos is the 120-year-old building of the fourth Tamil Sangam (the first three were believed to have submerged in the sea much before the 1900s). It was initially established with a learning centre, printing press and a library. Today, it holds Senthamil College standing like a silently crumbling edifice.
Started as Senthamil Kalasalai, the Tamil Sangam offered pravesam, bala pandidham, pandhidam, vidhwan and pulavar — the successive courses required to become a Tamil pundit. In 1957, it got rechristened as Senthamil and Oriental Arts college. In course of time, it introduced UG, PG, M.Phil and PhD courses in Tamil affiliated to the Madurai Kamaraj University.
A rich legacy
A Anand Joseph who graduated from Senthamil College in 1988 recalls a degree from here was sacrosanct. The opportunity to learn chaste language were few and only those seriously interested in Tamil literature and culture joined here.
“There used to be silence all around as we attended classes. There were only nine of us in my batch in the prestigious institution patronised by the Sethupathis of Ramanathapuram,” says the proud alumnus, continuing, “Nobody can challenge the quality and notable work done at Madurai Tamil Sangam during the first quarter of the 20th Century to promote Tamil learning, research and literature.”
The Pandian Library inside the Tamil Sangam currently has 52,500 books in Tamil. Of these 7,000 are rare books not found anywhere else. Besides 1400 research papers, there are 200 palm leaf manuscripts that include some of the oldest Thirukural and Silapadikaram.The Tamil Sangam’s journal Senthamizh was edited by R Raghava Iyengar, the court pandit of the Sethupatis of Ramanathapuram. The influential writings were the key to the Tamil renaissance in early 20th Century.
During the golden jubilee celebrations in 1956, a special commemorative edition of the magazine was released. The scholarly articles gave a glimpse into the region’s cultural and social past. Only a few copies of the issue are available in the Pandiyan library now.
Septuagenarian resident of Madurai K Kalavathy remembers her mother N Soundaravalli, a Tamil Pundit who studied in the institution in the early 1940s. “The stalwarts of those times supported women’s education and learning Tamil was a matter of pride and prestige and a status symbol back then,” she says.
While only few got the opportunity to enter the hallowed halls of the Tamil Sangam after clearing a strict exam, their seats get filled easily now, says college principal, K Venuka. There are 600 students on the campus but students seriously interested in Tamil as a subject are not even in double digits. Given the demand for Tamil teachers in schools and colleges, speakers for media houses and TV channels, people learn just enough to acquire basic knowledge for jobs, believes Anand.
Venuka says the institute is able to hold on to its relevance due to globalisation. “Many foreign institutes are keen in setting up Tamil departments as part of their government outreach programs. There is a Tamil Chair in the Yunnan Minzo University where native Chinese students master the language for cultural exchanges and likewise in the US and the UK too,” says Venuka.
Students can use the institution’s resources for deep learning but the available research papers remain under-utilised. “We merely support them to prepare for various competitive exams like the union and state public service commissions,” she adds. Venuka feels the dimished academic glory needs to be stored sooner than later by attracting the right talent and desire to learn Tamil. She plans to showcase benefits of learning Tamil as a relevant course in changing times during anniversary celebrations of the institute in September.
One thing, however, Venuka has been able to achieve to her satisfaction recently is the name of the bus stop near college. “The bus conductors now call out Tamil Sangam stop and not as Bell Hotel stop!”
With the greats
The Tamil Sangam was conceived as a nationalist project by Vallal Pandithurai Thevar who announced its formation at the Madras sessions of the Congress in 1901 and remained the life and soul of the Madurai Tamil Sangam till he lived. He was its first president and served from 1901 to 1911.
Several scholars including U V Swaminatha Iyer, V G Suryanarayana Sastri (Parithimal Kalaignar), Seithur brothers Subramaniya and Kandaswami Kavirayar, and Arasan Shanmuganar of Sholavandan actively worked in the progress of the Tamil Sangam.
Famous alumni include Na. Mu Venkatasamy Nattar, Sennapulavar Karmegha Konar, Devaneya Pavanar and novelist Na. Parthasarathy among others.
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