In Toronto, a thriving centre for Tamil culture and learning
Language has shaped identity since the first guttural sounds began to distinguish one tribe from another. As cultures evolved, a shared language became an instant hint at larger commonalities, including a shared history, literature, community, way of life, ideas and ideals.
In the modern world, with colonialism, the rise of English and the drawing of national boundaries, some languages have faded into near-extinction. It’s not by accident but by design that Tamil remains among the world’s oldest-surviving languages.
In India and around the world, there are concerted efforts to keep it vibrant and relevant. In one such effort, the Tamil diaspora in Canada, along with the University of Toronto Scarborough, has launched a Tamil Chair to help in the advancement of Tamil studies and research. The idea is to represent Tamil language and culture as universally relevant, accessible and vital.
Tamil literature, after all, predates almost all other bodies of work, going back 2,000 years. There is an associated body of knowledge, a history and sociology that go back to ancient times. But the language, community and history get little academic attention outside Asia. While there are Tamil Chairs in Germany and the US, this is the first in Canada.
A Chair is usually created by an endowment fund established by donations from private sources. A distinguished scholar or faculty member is appointed as Chair, and can access funds to aid teaching, research and service activities. This scholar also presents a roadmap for curriculums and activities.
“The Chair will engage in and facilitate research on Tamil culture,” says Wisdom J Tettey, principal of the University of Toronto Scarborough. It aims to produce a new generation of Tamil Studies scholars. “The Chair will also support the existing curriculum by teaching courses which may involve multiple departments. New courses may be developed as a result of a Chair coming on board.”
Efforts to establish the Chair began in June 2018, when two non-profits, the Canadian Tamil Congress and the US-based Tamil Chair Inc, along with the University of Toronto Scarborough, announced plans for a historic fundraising campaign for this purpose.
The Harvard Tamil Chair initiative had recently reached its $6 million target, says Sivan Ilangko, a chartered accountant and head of the Toronto Tamil Chair Committee, president of the Canadian Tamil Congress and director of Tamil Chair Inc. “At the time, the then executive director of the University of Toronto reached out and that resulted in meeting that was over three hours long. At this meeting we discussed the requirement of $3 million to create an endowed Chair in Tamil Studies.”
That target was met in less than three years, with donations pouring in from over 3,800 donors around the world, including anonymous well-wishers, alumni, businesses, governments and community organisations. “We also hosted several cultural programmes to raise funds,” says Ilangko. “During the pandemic, we started doing virtual events and raised more than half the required amount. We got donations from India, Sri Lanka, France, the UK, US, Australia, Middle-East, Malaysia.” The target was met in April 2021.
Tamil is spoken by over 80 million people worldwide, 69 million of those in India. Over the last few years, there have been deliberate efforts from individuals and governments for the greater recognition of Tamil globally. The Government of Tamil Nadu, for instance, has taken steps to support Tamil studies in foreign universities and was among the donors for the Tamil Chair in Canada, and stepped in to help when the Tamil Chair at the University of Cologne in Germany was facing closure due to a paucity of funds.
Canada is home to more than 300,000 Tamils, “hence it is expected there will be continuous engagement by the Canadian Tamil community to further enhance the programmes and projects undertaken by the University,” says Ilangko.
Now that the funds have been raised, the university will embark on a rigorous recruitment process that “will involve a global search for a scholar who has an outstanding reputation and who can undertake research and connect with the community in ways that ensure co-learning and reciprocal interaction,” says Tettey. It is expected that the Tamil Chair will include interdisciplinary studies, cultural studies, study of the classics, sociology, political science, anthropology, geography, linguistics, literature and fine arts.
This opportunity is of great historical significance, adds Tettey. “It allows the University, located in an area which is also home to numerous Tamils, to recruit faculty members from among the best scholars in the world, and helps cement Toronto’s place as a global site for Tamil Studies.”