На портале The Hindu опубликовано интервью с дравидологом Дэвидом Шульманом
I cannot compartmentalise my life, says David Shulman
In conversation with one of the world’s foremost experts in languages, philology, literature and cultural history
"I’m David,” he said on that train journey many years ago, when a friend and I shared with him an inadequate dinner of sandwiches and chocolate. We were on our way to Prakriti Foundation’s Festival of Sacred Music in Thiruvaiyaru, and nothing about our unassuming fellow traveller reading classical Telugu, cramped into the top berth, suggested his prodigious distinction.
Later, under a starlit night in a dilapidated mandapam, as he read from his translation of Annamayya’s poetry — God on the Hill, written with Velcheru Narayana Rao — his audience was enraptured in equal parts by his genius and humility.
David Shulman is one of the world’s foremost authorities on languages, philology, literature and cultural history of South India. Emeritus Professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, holder of a clutch of notable awards including the 2016 Israel Prize, and polyglot author of more acclaimed books and academic papers than can be described here, he provokes a sense of almost embarrassing inadequacy.
After his first visit to South India in 1972, Shulman came to live in Chennai in 1975 for field work, as part of his doctoral studies in Tamil and Sanskrit at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London (SOAS). It was at SOAS that he met his guru, the renowned Tamilist John Ralston Marr. “He taught me Tamil, of course, but he also gave me something else. One could feel a deep emotional attachment for academic things just by his example. I had never felt that before,” Shulman recalled.
An enormous gift
“My wife and I loved Madras from our very first moment here. Marr showed me that this love for a people — their language, food, music, climate and everything else that’s interconnected — is the primary bond. It was an enormous gift.”
Shulman considers the “truly extraordinary” Narayana Rao’s classical sensibility and unconventional mind “one of god’s gifts” to him. “To say that he has been an influence is ridiculous. He has been a revelation.” Their partnership has yielded infinite benefits to Indology, including interpretative research and about a dozen books, including A Poem at the Right Moment, a translation of catu/ tanippadal verses from Telugu, Tamil, and Sanskrit, and a cultural biography of the great Telugu poet in Srinatha: The Poet Who Made Gods and Kings.
The diversity of Shulman’s multi-disciplinary engagements is breathtaking. He is a published poet in Hebrew, his current leisure reading includes ancient Greek and Latin, and he professes a particular love for Persian verse.
For the last 10 years, Shulman and his students have returned to Kerala annually to watch and document Koodiyattam performances. Apart from contributing the Ayodhya Kandam of the Kamba Ramayanam’s bilingual translation for the Murthy Classical Library, Shulman said his top priority at the moment is “to write a book on the structure, dynamic, meaning and ramifications of a long Koodiyattam performance.”
Shulman was in Chennai to deliver the fourth Whabiz Merchant Memorial Lecture at Kalakshetra Foundation, and I had a chance to chat with him before the event.
As dusk fell, marigolds were strung and chairs arranged. Old acquaintances came to see him, and new fans arrived with copies of his latest Tamil: A Biography.
I asked about historian A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s criticism of his assertion that a pure, autonomous Tamil never existed. Shulman, who counts the academic among his friends, responded: “The notion that there was a pure Tamil that had no Sanksrit in it is a complete fantasy. There are Prakrit and Sanskrit words in the earliest Tamil Brahmi inscriptions we have. The Tolkappiyam is permeated by Sanskrit — the phonological analysis of the yezhuthhu (alphabet) is taken from Sanskrit grammarians. The Tamil Brahmi script has some features peculiar to it, but it’s deeply interwoven with the Sanskrit system.”
A language and its genius
He then added, “I want, and hasten to say, that everything in life is singular and unique. Tamil is also unique. But it’s not unique because it has nothing to do with Sanskrit. It is unique because Tamil has all of this in it and it has its own genius. Tamil grammarians such as Sivananamunivar in the 18th century themselves say that it has iyarkai, iyalpu, a particular nature. It is the task of Tamil grammarians to unravel and review that logic or nature, and this nature does not depend on separating it from Sanskrit.”
A key member of the joint Israeli-Palestinian Ta’ayush grassroots movement for non-violence — Shulman’s Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine is an account of his years of work with Palestinian villages in the West Bank — the 68-year-old scholar expresses fears for the future.
“Ta’ayush’s work is concerned with protecting the Palestinian civilian population. We have had some success but, in general, it seems to me that we are at the beginning of what seems to be a dark age. Populist and hyper-nationalist regimes are coming into power in many places, even in America, which was once unthinkable. I have nine grandchildren and I worry for them. Are they to inherit a world of fanatical intolerance, meanness of the heart and ecological disasters, or a world of rich human values, of people who can be true to their better and, I think, real selves?”
I asked if his work as an Indologist overlaps with that as an activist. “There’s a lot of overlap,” he smiled. “I cannot compartmentalise my life.”
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