Issue No. 50
ஆகஸ்ட் 16 - செப்டம்பர் 17, 2008
Straight from the Heart - Iravatham Mahadevan
This is a unique moment in the life of a legendary scholar, Iravatham Mahadevan, as he completes 50 years in the field of Indological research. His first article appeared in 1958, when he was a passionate young man of 28 years, in 'The Hindu', titled 'Coin collecting in Coimbatore district'. His passion for new things and quest for truth has only grown since then. As I walk into the house of this seventy-eight years 'young' man, I see this quote on his desk that best describes him:
மெய்வருத்தம் பாரார் பசி நோக்கார்கண் துஞ்சார்
எவ்வெவர் தீமையும் மேற்கொளார் - செவ்வி
அருமையும் பாரார் அவமதிப்பும் கொளார்
கருமமே கண்ணாயி னார்
* * * * * * * *
Any attempt to glorify this man would remain futile as he has been there all the time and seen them all ?C more than any one would hope to. His two magnificent books - one on the Indus Script and the other on Early Tamil Epigraphy, would stand to speak his deeds forever. Here is a look back at his life and times ?C not as an attempt to list the peaks he has scaled, but as a historical record ?C that could continue to inspire several generations of the future.
Let us start this interview by listening to you on your family background.
I belong to a smartha Tamil brahmin family of Thanjavur district. We come from a famous village called Varahur, which is associated with Narayana Theertha. I trace back my roots to Venkata Rayar, who was Narayana Theertha's contemporary in the mid-eighteenth century. He was probably a minor functionary in the Maratha court at Thanjavur. I surmise this because of the title 'Rayar' suffixed to his name and also because the tax-free lands held by our family were known as 'achandar' (from aachandraarkam: 'till the sun and the moon'). I therefore belong to the 'Rayar Koottam' of Varahur.
But the name 'Iravatham' keeps recurring in every second or third generation of our family tree. Anai (Iravatham) Bhagavathar of Varahur, who was the Court Vidvan of the Maratha ruler at Thanjavur, in about the end of the 18th century AD is one of my direct ancestors. I guess we were originally from the village called Nemam, a little upstream of the Kaveri River. The presiding deity of the temple at Nemam is called Iravatheeswarar. From the repeated occurrence of the name Iravatham in our family, it appears that my ancestors were originally from Nemam.
On firmer grounds, in the 18th century, we were at Varahur. The twin villages of Varahur and Kandamangalam had been gifted to Brahmins in the 17th century by Govinda Dikshitar, the illustrious minister of the Nayak kings of Thanjavur. When the single-street agrahaaram of Varahur became too small to hold the increase in population, some families migrated to Kandamangalam. That is where the last seven generations of our family have lived. The first person in our family to have undergone modern school education and taken up a job was Vaidyanatha Iyer, my father's father. He was a Railway employee and was killed in a train accident when my father was still at school.
My father, Iravatham, did his schooling at Tirukattupalli High School and went on to study medicine in the Stanley Medical School at Madras. After completing his LMP degree, he practiced in Burma for almost a decade. During that time, I was conceived in Burma on the banks of the river Airavati. When my father came back to India, he decided to settle down at Tiruchirapalli, which is the nearest town to our native village with good schools.
Tell us about your younger days.
My recollection of my younger days starts only from Tiruchirapalli. I spent all my summer holidays, which were at least two to three months long, at my paternal grand-uncle's house at Kandamangalam. Our neighbour in the village was my father's maternal uncle, Thyagaraja Iyer. His son, Mahadevan, whom I revere as my guru, was a great Sanskrit scholar. During the summer vacation, he used to teach us young boys. It was from him that I learnt Bhaja Govindam, Ramodantam, the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Vishnu Sahasranamam and many more slokas. In our group of half-a-dozen boys, I became his favorite as I could quickly grasp and flawlessly reproduce whatever he taught. He even taught me how to compose slokas in Sanskrit. By the time I was twelve, I could write simple Anushtup verses in Sanskrit. I am still interested in Sanskrit studies, though in my later years I have devoted much more time to Tamil, especially the Sangam Works. I think that my love for languages, especially Tamil and Sanskrit, is at the root of my later work on Tamil Epigraphy and on the Indus script.
But how did you end up joining a degree in chemistry?
My father wanted me to become a doctor. However, my marks in the Intermediate examinations were not good enough to get me a seat in the Medical College. In those days, one could study for the B.Sc. degree and then go on do a degree in medicine (M.B.B.S). So I joined the Vivekananda College at Madras in 1947 to pursue a degree in Chemistry, though my interest lay in the study of languages.
Chemistry and Law are totally unrelated subjects. Why did you shift from chemistry to law?
As I expected, I did not do too well in the B.Sc. examinations. In those days, if one did not get admission into any other college, one can just walk into the Law College! So, I joined the Law College at Madras. There I was fortunate enough to come under the influence of Venkata Subramania Aiyar, who taught us Hindu Law and Constitutional Law. His reinterpretation of the Hindu Dharmasastras helped me to realize the importance of tolerance and respect for all religions in our pluralistic society. His teaching greatly influenced my outlook as a civil servant in later life.
Did you join law with the intention of joining the Civil Service?
No. I joined the Law College with the intention of practicing law. Having won several prizes in elocution during my school and college days, I was confident of my oratorical skills, and in those days the profession of law wasn't crowded. I had completed my degree in law and did an apprenticeship for a year under a senior advocate at the District Court in Tiruchirapalli. From what I observed at the Bar, I realized that it would take me many years to establish myself as a lawyer. I wanted to become financially independent as early as possible. It was then that I decided to try my luck with the Civil Service Examinations held in 1953.
How old were you when you appeared for the Civil Service exam?
I was 23 years old. I secured a high rank, standing first in the list of candidates from TamilNadu selected for the Indian Administrative Service in 1954. The first few rank-holders of that year were called up for a personal interview with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to fill up the four vacancies in the Foreign Service. I was selected and was undergoing my training in Delhi. But within three months, I had a change of mind. I wrote to the Home Ministry expressing my wish to shift to the Indian Administrative Service, as I wanted to participate more directly in the development of the country. The ministry refused to consider my request, which made me take an extraordinary step. I appealed directly to Prime Minister Nehru and, following his intervention, I was transferred to the Indian Administrative Service and allotted to the TamilNadu cadre.
Tell us about your initial days as an I.A.S officer.
I started my career as Assistant Collector under training in Coimbatore District and was then posted as the Sub-Collector at Pollachi. Those were my happiest days. I got married when I was at Coimbatore. I toured the villages extensively and became involved in rural development activities like construction of wells and roads, housing colonies for Harijans etc. It was at this time too that my latent interest in languages led me to study ancient temple inscriptions and collect coins. This early phase came to an end in 1958 with my promotion and transfer to New Delhi as Assistant Financial Adviser, Ministry of Commerce and Industry.
Were you able to continue your research while at New Delhi?
Yes. When I was in the Commerce Ministry, I had a high-sounding designation, good salary and about half-an-hour of work a day! I had to find some way to utilize my spare time. Next to my office was the President's Palace. The front portion of the Palace housed the National Museum at that time. C.Sivaramamurti, one of our great epigraphists, was then working as the curator there. I spent as much time as possible with him and learned the elements of Indian Epigraphy from him. I consider Sivaramamurti as my guru in Indian epigraphy.
When I came back to Chennai in 1961, I met K.A.Nilakanta Sastri, the distinguished historian, and requested him to suggest a topic for my research. In response he said, ?DThere are several caves in TamilNadu with inscriptions in the Brahmi script. K.V.Subramaniya Aiyer says they are in Tamil. It is an unsolved problem. Can you give it a shot??? And that started me on my life-long study of the cave inscriptions of TamilNadu.
How did you solve the problem posed by Nilakanta Sastri?
At that time, I was in Chennai as the Deputy Secretary in the Industries Department and I couldn't visit the caves personally. Nilakanta Sastri arranged for ink impressions of the inscriptions from the Government Epigraphist then at Ooty. I spent six months studying them, without making any progress. But then came another turn in my life, in the form of my appointment as the Director of Handlooms and Textiles. This position, which I held for five years (1962-66), allowed me to officially visit any village in TamilNadu. I used the opportunity and planned my official work in such a manner that I would finish my work on Fridays and Saturdays and then spend the Sundays in the nearest caves to copy the inscriptions.
I first came to limelight in 1965, when I published the Chera inscriptions of the Sangam Age at Pugalur. The publication took the entire scholarly world by surprise, as at that time no inscriptions of the Sangam Age were known. My decipherment of these inscriptions and also of the early Pandya inscriptions of the Sangam Age at Mangulam attracted international attention and brought me an invitation to present a paper on them at the First International Conference of Tamil Studies held at Kualalumpur in 1966.
A few months later, R.Nagaswamy, who had just taken over as the Director of the TamilNadu State Department of Archaeology, arranged a seminar on inscriptions at Madras. I presented my paper in the presence of stalwarts like Nilakanta Sastri, K.K.Pillai, Rajamanickanar and others. My paper, 'Corpus of the Tamil-Brahmi Inscriptions', published in the proceedings of the conference, was well received by scholars and I was encouraged to continue the work.
One can imagine what a tremendous break-through that was. But, how did you crack this problem?
It was K.V.Subrahmanya Aiyer who first discovered that the cave inscriptions of TamilNadu are in Tamil though written in a variant of the Brahmi script. He was able to identify the special characters for the sounds in Tamil. I consider K.V.Subramaniya Aiyer as my guru, although I've met him only once, when he was well past ninety. I developed his model further by describing the connection between the Tamil-Brahmi and the Bhattiprolu scripts and the stages by which Tamil-Brahmi eventually turned into the Vatteluttu script. I have summarized the entire work in my recent book 'Early Tamil Epigraphy' (2003).
Your other major interest is the Indus Script. How did you get initiated into this field?
My first brush with Indus script was in 1943 when I was still at school. I used to participate in the elocution competitions regularly. That year, we were told to speak on any new topic. I approached my Geography teacher for guidance and he told me about a new book on the 'Indus Valley Civilisation', written by M.Rajamanickam. I took notes from the book and won that year's elocution prize. I never realized then that I would spend half my life on the Indus Script.
In 1966, I was again transferred to Delhi, which brought to an end the first phase of my research on the Brahmi script. Cut-off from my fieldwork in TamilNadu, I started to look out for another project to work on. One day, I went to the Central Secretariat Library and ended up grabbing a copy of Hunter's book on the Indus script. Hunter, an Englishman in the Indian Educational Service, published the first concordance of the Indus script as part of his doctoral thesis at the Oxford University. It is from Hunter's excellent hand-drawn concordance that I learned the elements of the Indus script.
How did you proceed with your Indus research?
My contacts in the National Museum and the Archaeological Survey of India gave me access to the original Indus seals and inscriptions. In 1970, the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Trust, presided over by Indira Gandhi, offered me a Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship for two years to work on the decipherment of the Indus script.
When I took a break from my official work and accepted the Nehru Fellowship, I had to return to Madras. Shuttling frequently between Madras and Delhi, I compiled a photographic card index of the Indus inscriptions for further research.
That must have been taxing. Did you find any support for your research?
N.Mahalingam, a well-known industrialist and philanthropist, suggested to me to use a computer to analyse the Indus script. I had never seen a computer before. In fact, even calculators were rare those days. He then took me to V.C.Kulandaiswamy, then the Director of Technical Education, TamilNadu, who allowed me to work on the computer, (an IBM-1620), at the Fundamental Engineering Research Establishment, Guindy. Even a basic model of today's mobile phone is much more powerful than the computers of those days! There were no monitor screens. We had to feed in the data through punched cards and get the output also as punched cards and interpret the results. It was very slow and tedious work.
Without fonts for the Indus script and monitor interface how did you complete your concordance?
I had all the data on the card index. I learned to code the background data as well as the inscriptions using only numbers. The numerical version was then processed on the computer to produce the first tentative draft of a concordance. I presented a paper on the results at a conference at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Bombay. R.Narasimhan, the head of the computer department at TIFR, who had listened to my talk, invited me to work at the TIFR and offered me free computer time. The TIFR had then the best computer facilities in India. Mythily Rangarao, an expert in computer programming was assigned the task of helping me to prepare an improved concordance. I began shuttling between Madras and Bombay, racing against time; but the fellowship period came to an end in 1972 and I was transferred again to Delhi in 1974, before I could complete my work.
I understand that you prepared the concordance with great difficulty. But printing it as a book must have been a more difficult problem. Isn??t it?
You are right! No fonts were available for printing in the Indus script. When the work was ready for publication, the formidable problem of finding out a suitable method of printing the voluminous concordance had to be tackled. At first we tried printing with the help of an X-Y drum plotter, but the results were not satisfactory. My work came to virtual standstill till 1975. In the meanwhile, TIFR had acquired more powerful computers and was able to develop a software package for computer-aided photo typesetting, which could use hand-drawn pictorial signs as fonts for printing. All the time I was shuttling between Delhi and Bombay, snatching whatever leave I could take from my official work. Finally, however, I applied for 6 months of study leave on half-pay in 1976 and moved into TIFR till the printing of the book was completed. The Archaeological Survey of India published my book the 'The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables' in 1977. The work is now recognized as a standard source for research on the Indus script.
Apart from being a historical researcher, you have also served as an editor for a popular daily. How did that happen?
I got fed up with government service and decided to opt for voluntary retirement available to IAS officers reaching the age of fifty. But before I could engage myself in wholetime research, I had to find gainful employment for some more years till my sons completed their education and started earning. I worked as the Executive Director of the Indian Express Group of publications in South India during 1980-82 and then resigned the job to take up research activities. However, tragedy struck when my elder son Vidyasagar aged 29, married and with two young children, lost his life in an accident in 1986. I was forced to seek employment again to support and educate my grandchildren. So I accepted Ramnath Goenka's invitation to join Dinamani as its Editor.
Tell us about your Dinamani days.
I had never been in the newspaper publishing industry. I didn't know what a newspaper office looked like, nor did I know the kind of Tamil that was required for a newspaper. Absolutely to my surprise, I did well. I introduced 'Tamil Mani' and 'Ariviyal Sudar' supplements, which became popular with the readers. I introduced the reformed Tamil script to print the newspaper. I also encouraged a new style of writing avoiding words from Sanskrit and English to the extent possible. More importance was given to the editorial page, which also regularly carried articles on serious topics. I enjoyed absolute editorial freedom. Just to cite one instance, The Indian Express edited by Arun Shourie fiercely opposed the Mandal Commission recommendations, while Dinamani from the same stable supported them subject only to the exclusion of the creamy layer. I thoroughly enjoyed my work as Editor, Dinamani. I resigned in 1991 to devote my remaining years to complete my research projects.
Please tell us something about your second spell of research on the Tamil-Brahmi script?
I resumed my work on Tamil Epigraphy in 1991. I began an intensive tour of TamilNadu visiting all the caves once again for re-copying and re-editing the inscriptions. I was awarded a National Fellowship by the Indian Council of Historical Research for three years (1992-95). However, I suffered another setback when my wife died suddenly in 1992 from a heart attack. Somehow, I resumed my work with the help of a band of young scholars from the TamilNadu State Department of Archaeology and completed the work in 2000. My book Early Tamil Epigraphy was published in 2003 by Cre-A in Chennai and by the Harvard University, USA.
What are you working on currently?
I have resumed my work on the Indus script. We have recently established the Indus Research Centre at Roja Muthiah Research Library in Chennai. The Centre is collaborating with the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, and Math Science at Chennai on a project to prepare a revised and enlarged concordance to the Indus inscriptions, which would include all the new material discovered after my earlier publication in 1977. The Centre has already published some good papers. My hope is that the Indus Research Centre would attract brilliant young scholars to carry on the study of the Indus Script. I am also engaged in writing a book Interpreting the Indus Script : A Dravidian Model due to be published by Penguins India in 2009.
Please tell us about the charitable trust you have established?
When our elder son Vidyasagar died tragically in 1986, my wife and I had resolved to perpetuate his memory by creating a charitable trust. The project had to wait till I had fulfilled my other commitments and found the resources to set up the trust. In 2003, I sold my seaside bungalow at Tiruvanmiur and established the Vidyasagar Educational Trust with a personal donation of Rs. fifty lakhs. The Trust has donated Rs. forty lakhs to the Sankara Nethralaya at Chennai, to establish the Vidyasagar Institute of Biomedical Technology and Science, affiliated to BITS, Pilani, for M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. The Trust is also awarding annual scholarships to poor and meritorious students studying in Polytechnics or Industrial Training Institutes in TamilNadu.
What keeps you going even at this age?
An insatiable thirst for knowledge and passionate pursuit of Truth.
* * * * * * * *
There is much more to hear from this legend. But, it is already three hours since he started his recount. I end the interview half-heartedly. But I also know, his history is as deep and as vast as the Indian History. How much ever you try to unravel, you would never finish??