UTSC 2020 grad and Tamil folklorist Tharscika Ramaneekaran knows that the 5,000 year-old manuscripts written in Tamil hold a wealth of vital knowledge: ancient medicines and how to prepare them, for instance, or how to construct dams that continue to stand 2,000 years later.
“Tamil is the eighteenth most frequently spoken language in the world,” says 2004 UTSC grad and chief convener of the U of T Tamil Alumni Network, Kumaran Nadesan. “The language is incredibly old, with a continuous literary tradition of more than 2,000 years. You can read a text written in the late second century B.C. and still understand it.”
Uncovering that ancient knowledge through scholarship is important — not just for the Tamil community, but for the world.
But Ramaneekaran, who was the 2018-19 cultural director for the UTSC Tamil Students’ Association, says that having a Tamil Studies Chair at UTSC represents much more than an academic opportunity to study a remarkable past.
“The biggest crisis [Tamils] have right now is our identity,” says Ramaneekaran. She argues that the Tamil Studies Chair will enable the community to renew that identity, through preserving the language and ensuring its survival for generations to come.
Nadesan agrees. The Tamil language is inseparable from the culture and community of the Tamil people. “No matter which nationality you are, the Tamil language is that unifying point of pride and source of identity,” he says.
For others, establishing a Tamil Chair would create a space for healing, too.
Fourth year student Kanitha Uthayakumar came to Canada with her family from Sri Lanka when she was 11.
“As children, I didn't know the severity of the war, as I did not live directly in the war zones,” says Uthayakumar, who studies political science and health studies. It was only after arriving in Canada that Uthayakumar developed a better understanding of the situation in Sri Lanka, and was able to make sense of some of the memories of conflict that shaped her early life.
“It is also political,” argues Nadesan. “Many Tamils who now call Canada home left Sri Lanka where they were first discriminated against on the basis of their language,” he explains.
That intergenerational trauma is one of the reasons that some in the U of T Scarborough Tamil community proudly embrace and celebrate their heritage. For them, the Tamil Chair is a means of reconnecting with a lost homeland.
“Tamil students [at UTSC] want to learn their history," says Uthayakumar. She is one of those students. Having already taken two Tamil language classes offered at UTSC, Uthayakumar would love to take more.
That passion for her rich cultural heritage also led Uthayakumar and her sibling to get involved in the UTSC Tamil community. She followed in her older brother’s footsteps as VP Equity in the Tamil Students’ Association.
And although she graduated this spring, Ramaneekaran has likewise returned to her roots through the classroom. She’s pursuing a Bachelor of arts degree in Tamil language from Annamalai University, Tamil Nadu, whose sole international location is Toronto — where resides one of the largest Tamil community outside of India.
A new generation
The Tamil Chair campaign began through the vision and leadership of the Canadian Tamil Congress in 2018, when the CTC and Tamil Chair Inc. committed to raising $3 million to establish the first endowed Chair in Tamil Studies in Canada at UTSC. The Chair will enable the preservation and memorialization of Tamil culture and language through scholarship; it will simultaneously establish a focal point for Tamil scholars all over the world to collaborate. Opportunities for scholars to pursue higher Tamil studies will also be created.
As the UTSC and Tamil community reach an important milestone in its campaign for a Tamil language chair this month, Ramaneekaran is hopeful that the Tamil Chair will soon find a warm and welcoming home at her alma mater.
“The Tamil Chair will be a crown for Tamil youth, or anyone interested in learning,” adds Ramaneekaran, who has recently been hired full time hired full time by the UTSC library to work on its digital Tamil collection. “It will be a measure of how we are functioning as a community, what stories we have to tell.”
For Nadesan, UTSC’s partnership with the Tamil community to establish a Tamil Chair is also an investment in the next generation: “I’m glad there will be a Tamil Chair, so that my daughter can have the opportunity some day in the future to seek out U of T to delve deeper into her roots.”
Visit the TorontoTamil Campaign’s fundraising website at: TorontoTamilChair.ca
Photo: Alumna Tharscika Ramaneekaran (third from left) performs with three others at a 2019 UTSC Tamil Heritage Month event (Regan Tigno, DARO)