Indian languages and the classical status

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Nov 27 03:23:55 UTC 2008

*Date:26/11/2008* *URL:*
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Opinion <> - Leader Page

*Indian languages and the classical status *

M.A. Baby

   *Denying Malayalam such a stature will amount to gross injustice. *

  In India, the word "classical" with reference to language was first used
by the orientalist scholars to distinguish worldly Sanskrit from its holy
form used in Vedic lore. They had in mind its use in the West as something
concerning art, literature and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome.
Thus, literary Sanskrit in its ornate form was designated a classical
language. The term eventually came to be used to denote the older literary
form of any language.

In this sense, classical languages are those which are ancient, of an
independent nature and not a derivative of any other tradition. Five
languages in the world — Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, Greek and Latin —
therefore were listed under this classification.
Serious political issue

 It was during the freedom struggle that language became a serious political
issue in India. Hindi became a symbol of nationalist feelings and leaders
encouraged its use along with that of the spinning wheel and swadeshi dress.
There were many debates in the Constituent Assembly on the status of
languages in free India. When Sanskrit lost the position of official
language by a casting vote, the fathers of the Constitution conferred on it
a special status in Article 351 as Sanskrit was the primary source language
for many languages including Hindi.

In the second half of the 20th century, academics started claiming that the
old Tamil poems of the Sangam anthologies need to be considered as classical
in the sense that they shared several major components of literatures
commonly accepted as being classical. The old Tamil is the prototype of the
Dravidian family of languages.

Experts whom the Government of India consulted and the Central Sahitya
Akademi were not in favour of awarding the status to any other language.
They stipulated the criteria: to qualify as a classical tradition "a
language should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition mostly on
its own, not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have a large
and extremely rich body of ancient literature."

The Government of India conceded the argument put forward by these scholars,
and in 2004 declared that languages which met certain requirements could be
recognised as classical languages. Tamil was the first to gain the status,
followed by Sanskrit in 2005. These two languages are undoubtedly parental
sources for many languages belonging to the Indo-European family and the
Dravidian family of linguistic groups.
New category

 In 2006, the Union Minister for Tourism and Culture announced in the Rajya
Sabha the creation of a new category of languages as classical languages
based on four norms: (i) high antiquity of its early texts/recorded history
over a period of 1500-2000 years; (ii) a body of ancient literature/texts,
which is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers; (iii)
the literary tradition should be original and not borrowed from another
speech community; (iv) the classical language and literature being distinct
from the modern, there may also be discontinuity between the classical
language and its later forms or offshoots.

A committee of linguistic experts followed it up, and based on its
recommendation classical status was conferred on Telugu and Kannada in 2008.

Thus, the definition of classical languages has undergone several changes
over the years and the latest criterion too is susceptible to changes.
Strikingly, the current criterion discriminates against Malayalam, which as
a member of the Dravidian family of languages is equal on every count to its
sister languages of Telugu and Kannada.

The land area between Tirupati and Kanyakumari was known in ancient days as
Tamilakam, or Dakshina patha in Sanskrit. It inherited a common tradition
and culture. Tamil was the earliest derivative from the Proto-Dravidian
language, followed by Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. All these came under
the influence of Sanskrit, the least affected one being Tamil. The other
three are equal in all respects and share common traits.

 The story of *Silappadikaram* takes place largely in the cities of Madurai,
Kaveripumpattanam and Kodungalloor. The Chera king Senguttuvan, during his
journey, stayed at Kodungalloor and witnessed the dance performance of a
local Chakyar. Sangam literature is the common heritage of all of South
India. The antiquity of a culture or language lies in and is understood by
such common traits. Relying solely on certain inscriptions to prove the
antiquity of a tradition is unscientific and discriminatory.

Kerala has a hoary tradition of art and culture dating back to centuries.
Kerala has preserved for posterity the commentary of Natyasastra and the
plays of Bhasa. To crown it all, the earliest mode of acting in the form of
Koodiyattom, which is now recognised as the intangible heritage of humanity,
survives only in Kerala. Kerala also preserves in its purity Vedic chanting,
recognised by UNESCO as another intangible heritage of humanity.

Unlike many other parts of the country, Kerala had the good fortune to open
trade relations with the West from a very early period. The tolerance of the
people of Kerala, which has become proverbial, enabled it to develop cordial
relations with all its foreign visitors. Thus, since ancient times plenty of
words from Roman, Greek, Arabic, Portuguese, French and English have
enriched its tongue. Translations from Sanskrit breathed fresh life into
Malayalam in its formative period. The first translations of Kautilya's *
Arthasastra* in a regional language were in Malayalam. This is the land of
Sankaracharya, who was the first to conquer the rest of India through his
intellectual and spiritual discourses. Kalidasa was evidently fond of
Kerala. Reghu is described as passing through the land during the course of
his expeditions.

Kerala has forever been a fertile land for all faiths to settle down and
grow. Different religions such as Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Christianity,
Judaism and Islam have harmoniously co-existed in this southwestern tip of
peninsular India. Kerala is ahead in many respects: the first Jnanpith award
came to Kerala; the first Swarna Kamal for cinema among the South Indian
languages was awarded to a Malayalam film. Kerala commands 100 per cent
literacy among the Indian States.

All these factors need to be considered while judging the merits of a
language and its culture. The eligibility norms now prescribed to determine
the classical status of a language are grossly inadequate and arbitrary.
Need for equal treatment

 Viewed from any perspective, Malayalam deserves equal treatment with its
sister languages of the family. As was done in the case of Telugu and
Kannada, the Government of India should appoint a committee of experts to
examine and evaluate the claim of Malayalam to be recognised as a classical
language. The terms of reference should include the revision of eligibility
conditions wherever required.

There is a valid argument that the very idea of dividing languages of a
country as classical and non-classical is unscientific and uncalled for. One
would be tempted to agree with this view. However, once some languages are
categorised as classical, then not assigning classical status to Malayalam
is unjustifiable.

The people of the most literate State in India should not feel that their
contributions are not duly recognised. The privileges and material
advantages that will come with the award of the status of classical language
will further enrich Malayalam. Denying the language such a stature will
amount to gross injustice.

   *(The author is Minister for Education and Culture, Government of
Kerala.) *

(c) Copyright 2000 - 2008 The Hindu


Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at

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