Tamil sangams in Europe rally to save Tamil chair at German University

Tamil sangams in Europe rally to save Tamil chair at German University
Tamil, a classical literary language, is one among the oldest living languages in the world. Tamil continues to be passionately pursued by scholars, and the department of Indology and Tamil Studies in Cologne University, Germany is considered to be one of the leading places in the world outside of India to study the language. What’s more interesting is that the department, founded in 1963 by Professor Dr Klaus-Ludwig Janert, boasts one of the biggest collections of Tamil books outside of the state of Tamil Nadu in India - over 40,000. However, the department faces the risk of shutting down with the University deciding against the renewal of the professorship in Indology and Tamil studies after the retirement of Professor Dr. Ulrike Niklas in March 2022. The decision has rallied Tamil sangams (unions) across the European Union to join together to ensure the Tamil chair continues in the university. The Europe Tamilargal Sangam, formed this February, is a federation of Tamil Diaspora in Europe, joined together to save Tamil Chair at Cologne University. Speaking to TNM, Sridhar who is the secretary of the Tamil Sangam, Frankfurt Region, says, “We are planning on launching crowdfunding campaigns in addition to reaching out to the University. We are also looking for support from the Indian government in this regard.” To continue Tamil studies department lectureship position at Cologne University, a total of €137,500 is required by March 2021. Having already written letters to North-Rhein Westphalia (NRW) Government where Cologne University is located, and the University authorities, Europe Tamilargal Sangam also plans on reaching out to Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) in addition to hosting fundraiser events for this purpose. In their press release, the Europe Tamilargal write that the funds will be utilised towards four main activities. The development of material for teaching “Tamil as a Foreign Language (TaFL)” according to European framework, for teaching of Tamil at the University, for Conducting field research and annual Summer Schools (language and culture) in Pondicherry (India) and for Maintenance of the library with over 40,000 Tamil books at the University. In Germany, Tamil Chairs were instituted in 1965 in University of Heidelberg and University of Cologne. The setting up of the departments succeeded the World Tamil Conferences that were held in the 1960s in Paris and Chennai. After Professor Dr. Klaus-Ludwig’s retirement from Cologne University, Professor Dr. Monika Thiel-Horstmann succeeded and strengthened the teaching of the language by adding lectureship. In 1990 came Professor Dr. Dieter Kapp whose focus was on tribal languages, culture and modern Tamil literature. At present (since 2006) the department is headed by Professor Dr. Ulrike Niklas whose focus is on classical Tamil, manuscript cataloguing, Tamil teaching methodology and colloquial Tamil in addition to documentation of traditional arts, crafts and games such as Jallikattu. In 2012, the University merged the Institute for Indology and the Malayological Institute and founded the Institute for South Asia and Southeast Asian Studies. Professor Dr Ulrike is notable for having translated many classical Tamil literature to German. This includes the Pathinen Kizhkannakku Noolgal, Tholkappiyam and Yapparunkala Kaarigai. She has received the prestigious Grammar Award most recently the GU Pope Award from the Government of Tamil Nadu. In 2010, she was invited to the Semmozhi Conference held in Coimbatore by the then Chief Minister K Karunanidhi and was instrumental in introducing Dravidian movement and Periyar’s teachings at the University’s curriculum. She was also instrumental in forming the annual summer school for students from Puducherry. In his open letter to all Tamil Associations in Germany, Sven Wortmann, a Research Associate at the Institute for South Asian and Southeast Asian Studies, writes that in 2005, the Institute already faced a threat of shutting down. “A fate which had already befallen several other Indological (and other small) institutes throughout Europe (among others the institute in Utrecht, Holland, where Kamil Zvelebil had taught Tamil). A worldwide protest of people interested in Tamil made the authorities in Cologne University reconsider their decision,” he notes. Notably, in 2019 too the department was facing closure, when the last lectureship position in the department was up for termination. But this was extended with support from Tamil Chair Inc, which provided €137,500. “Hope for a change of mind of the University’s leadership has finally died with the financial crisis of Cologne University and its rigorous economic measures since 2018. Hence, one of the very few international university institutes exclusively dedicated to Tamil studies will be lost, together with the huge and unique Tamil library,” he adds. In an email interview with The News Minute, Sven writes about how important the department is for Tamil studies in Europe. “The Tamil Department of Cologne University has been among the first and leading departments in Europe with a chair especially dedicated for Tamil Studies in their full extent, linguistically covering classical, modern standard, and colloquial Tamil. Culturally, it covers not only elitist culture but also rural and tribal culture. Another unique feature of the department is the perspective on the spread of Tamil culture to Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia and Cambodia. Special mention deserves the library, which is the largest Tamil library in Europe and one of the largest Tamil libraries outside India,” he writes. Sven notes that for sustaining the Tamil department at Cologne University, permanent funding is the most efficient strategy. “A Tamil lecturer post requires an annual funding of about € 100,000 (US$ 120,000). The post will sustain Tamil teaching and research, as well as the maintenance of the library and secure it against periodical short-sighted cost-cutting measures. Moreover, this funding can make the leadership of Cologne University aware of the international interest in its Tamil department. As a result, it hopefully inspires the leadership to invest itself again in that department in order to expand it to its past grandeur,” he adds. Members from the Tamilargal Sangam too hope that with the intervention of the Indian government, a permanent solution can be arrived at. Those wishing to contribute can do so here. 

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