Sunday, June 10, 2012

Teaching literature Tamil Nadu style.

I met Sahitya Akademi (thats's how they spell Academy) winner Naanjil Naadan recently. One of the guests asked Naanjil as to why he loves Kamba-Ramayanam. Naanjil gave an answer for 10 minutes highlighting the richness of Kamba-Ramayanam. Naanjil theorized that Kamban probably used 90,000 unique words (not  repeated) whereas Valluvar had used 4500. He put this in the context of R.P.Sethupillai's Tamil dictionary which lists 1.2 lakh words for Tamil. The 20-30 minutes that Naanjil expounded on a few questions related to Kamba-Ramayanam was sheer exposition that comes only from passionate study of an epic. The really surprising fact is Naanjil Naadan is NOT a Tamil literature student. He is a statistician by training. While working in Mumbai he studied Tamil literature on his own and enjoyed the tutorship of another person on Kamba-Ramayanam for 3 years.

On my way back home I was mulling over that and a thought struck me. Almost none of the contemporary Tamil writers have come from within academia and what is even more striking is none had even studied Tamil literature as a course. Jeyakanthan (Jnanpeeth awardee), Sujatha, Jeyamohan, Nanjil, Akilan (Jnanpeeth awardee), Manushyaputhiran etc have either revolutionized Tamil fiction or left their imprints and none owe it to any formal education. This is in contrast with what one sees with English literature in the west.

Whether it is the Romantic poets or contemporary modern prose they, mostly, majored in literature studies and many in fact functioned within the academia. Is this distinction trivial? I think not and here is why.

Contemporary university education is completely incapable of turning out a Jeyakanthan or Naanjil. What is worse none of them are invited by universities to be a part of academia or give a series of lectures. Nobel laureate Mario Vargo Llosa regularly lectures in American universities imagine what a gift that is for a student. Saul Bellow was a teacher too. William Faulkner was invited by University of Virginia in Richmond to be the 'writer in residence' for more than a year. Faulkner had Q&A sessions with students which was taped and transcribed. I got a book detailing those sessions by luck in a used book store. U.Va has now uploaded those lectures. The students asked questions pretty forthright without inhibition of addressing a Nobel laureate. I wondered if Naanjil or Jeyakanthan could be enticed to deliver 10 lectures at any college to Tamil literature students.

I googled the curriculum of B.A and M.A Tamil literature courses. Bharathiar University has listed for detailed Kannadhasan's "Yesu Kaaviyam" (about Christ) along side Devaaram and Kunangudi Masthan Sahib poems on Allah. The section titled "Literature of the middle ages" has no respect for either chronology or quality. If an American University listed songs from "Jesus Christ Superstar" in religious literature they would be laughed at. Kannadasan is a poetaster not a poet. Yes he wrote wonderful lyrics for movies but that does not make him a literary person. Including him along side authors of Devaram is like listing the Beatles songs along side Keats. I can understand why they did this. They needed to represent 'literature' from each religion and this is what they for Tamil Christian literature. This is worse than including Thembavani, another mediocre work. Only in Tamil Nadu would Kannadasan and Vairamuthu be respected as 'literary' persona. Many have angered me by referring to Kannadasan's booklets on Hinduism as if they are distilled philosophy. What can we expect from a state that had as Chief Minister who would say "do not recommend Brahmin writers for Sahitya Akademi award". Surely S.Radhakrishnan's masterful 2 volume 'Indian Philosophy' would be brushed aside as 'Brahminical'. Also the general populace, thanks to an onslaught of mediocrity or sheer sloth masquerading as 'excellence' for 5 decades, has no ability to differentiate between sumptuous food and excreta decorated with sugar.

Bharathiar University syllabus listing for English literature is a crime against students for the sheer number of spelling mistakes. Bacon's essay 'Of Truth' becomes "Bacon of Truth". Sure. Can I please have it roasted with a side of sausage patty?If one overlooks the spelling mistakes (to be fair there is another link without mistakes) the content is pathetic and the reference books cited are never by any world authority. The syllabi reads like the summer reading list for a high school student in USA. Heck many of the poems listed were read by me in my matric school syllabus (thanks to Samacheer thats gone too). Core Paper II has for selections, "Old man and the sea", "Vicar of Wakefield",'Pride and Prejudice". What can one say of that pathetic list. For studying Social History of England we have a nondescript author from Udumalpet. The poetry selection has 'On his blindness' (Milton), 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' (Keats), 'Ulysess' (Tennyson). I had read both Keats and Milton's poems in my 10th grade textbook. God knows what they mean by 'non-detailed'. That section has "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "Stopping by the woods" (Robert Frost). If this is what passes for 'course load' is it any wonder that our English teachers are so pathetic.

The section on drama makes me cry. We got 'Pygmalion' from Shaw. No not "Caesar and Cleopatra" or "Man and Superman". Pygmalion, my foot. Shakespeare's selection is even worse. We get "As You Like It" and "Othello" for 'detailed' and for 'non-detailed we get 'Tempest' and 'Mid Summer Night's Dream'. No mention of 'Hamlet','King Lear','Julius Caeasar'.For the section on Indian writing in Engilsh we have Aurobindo. Really. I mean really?

Politicization of curriculum, lowering of standards, chauvinistic biases, absolute corruption in appointing Vice Chancellors all tougher form a deadly cocktail that has paralyzed Tamil Nadu's academia.

Mostly it is students with poor scores who get relegated to arts colleges and even there it is the worst scorers who get pushed (yes, pushed) into literature. For them this is what we serve as curriculum. A vibrant intellectual curriculum that produces Nobel laureates in literature and recruits awardees as teachers is a great asset to fostering a vibrant social fabric. A recent government of India testing showed that only 17% of Tamil Nadu's engineering graduates are capable of being employed. If they had tested Tamil Nadu literature students the result would have been scary. Like I say whether it is literature or engineering those who achieve do so 'despite' the colleges and teachers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Any simple thing in India can be blogged. You should try to appreciate about few good things in India or provide suggestions and volunteer for the improvement on other areas of your interest. Cursing thro' blogs and comparing India with US is simply childish. Be matured first!!!