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Home > Tamils - a Nation without a State> One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century > S Vaiyapuri Pillai

One Hundred Tamils
of the 20th Century

S Vaiyapuri Pillai

An incomparable Tamil Lexicographer
Courtesy: V Sundaram, retired IAS officer
6 July 2005

Tamil Scholarly world was dominated by Prof S Vaiyapuri Pillai (1891-1956) during the 30s and 40s of the 20th century. His Himalayan erudition was never questioned even by his bitterest critics who were intolerant of his views in fixing a later date than what was assumed to be true for some of the great classics like Thirukkural.

The mantle of leadership in the field of editing the age-old Tamil classics seems to have passed from the hands of Dr U V Swaminatha Iyer to Prof S Vaiyapuri Pillai beginning from the early 1920s. His painstaking collection of manuscripts from different areas of Tamil Nadu and editing them with great fidelity to truth made him a worthy successor to Dr U V Swaminatha Iyer. Like his illustrious predecessors, Vaiyapuri Pillai had many great admirers. But quite unlike them, he had many critics also.

Vaiyapuri Pillai was born on 20th October 1891 at Tirunelveli. His father Saravanaperumal Pillai was a devout Saivaite, besides being a great lover of Tamil. He studied at St Xavier' High School, Palayankottai and Hindu College at Tirunelveli. He graduated from the Christian College, Madras. In Tamil he stood first in the whole Presidency of Madras and won the coveted 'Sethupathi Gold Medal'. The illustrious Maraimalai Adigal (then known as R S Vedachalam Pillai) was his Tamil Teacher in Madras Christian College. In 1915, he went to study Law at Trivandrum. He practiced Law at Trivandrum for the next 7 years. During this time he was a regular contributor of learned articles to scholarly journals in English and Tamil which were all noticed by eminent men of letters all over India.

Perhaps his writings helped him in securing the post of one of the sub-editors of Tamil Lexicon of the University of Madras in 1924. Miron Winslow's 'A Comprehensive Tamil and English Dictionary' (Madras, 1862), together with G U Pope's revisions, formed the starting point for the new Lexicon. This work is a standing monument of Vaiyapuri Pillai's Lexicographical scholarship.

In this gigantic task, he had the very valuable assistance of no less a person than M Raghava Iyengar of Ramanathapuram, an erudite scholar nurtured and fostered by Pandithurai Thevar of the 4th Madurai Tamil Sangam.

Prof Vaiyapuri Pillai successfully completed the Tamil Lexicon over a period of 12 years from 1924 to 1936. Volume I Part I of the Tamil Lexicon appeared in 1924 and Volume VI Part V of the Lexicon in 1936. The number of headwords exceeded 104,000 in more than 4000 pages.

In this context, it has to be remembered that this great and historic project had begun as early as in 1913 with J S Chandler as Chief Editor and M Raghava Iyengar as Chief Pundit.

After the retirement of Chandler in 1922, Anavarathavinayagampillai, C P Venkatramaa Iyer and P S Subramaniya Sastri acted as Chief Editors. Prof Vaiyapuri Pillai became Chief Editor of the Tamil Lexicon Project in 1926 and completed the work in 1936.

The Tamil Lexicon was a serious attempt at a scholarly reference dictionary, based on extraction of material from literary sources for illustrative citations of use. It is still the most comprehensive dictionary available. Entries are given in Tamil with a Romanization, followed by syntactic classification, origin and derivation, cognates, with loans identified by their source languages, the meaning in English and referenced citations from classical literature.

Vaiyapuri Pillai also took effective steps to tap sources of local usage. The public were invited to cooperate and many people sent in collections of words. The Sangams at Madurai, Thanjavur, Chidambaram, Jaffna and elsewhere, the Tamil Academy at Chennai (Madras) and the Saiva Sabha at Palayankottai and other bodies were asked to help in collecting local usages, particularly relating to castes, social customs, occupations, trades, tools and utensils, medicines, music, technical terms, religious rites, and beliefs, and terms occurring in manuscripts, documents, etc. Institutions like Dharmapura Aadeenam, Madurai Aadeenam, Tiruvadudurai Aadeenam and Thiruppanandal Aadeenam were also requested to send in words in traditional use particularly with reference to Saiva Sidhantha and to hereditary establishments.

Prof Vaiyapuri Pillai clarified that the aims of his Lexicon were as follows:

a) to satisfy the Tamil Scholars of the use of orthodox style by the elucidation of rare usages and technical terms used in literature;

b) to satisfy the ideal of Western Scholarship by showing the philological relations of Tamil with other languages and, taking cognizance of the socio-linguistic and pedagogic demands of potential users and those competent in English;

c) to give word definitions in chronological order, and to refine definitions in Tamil and English;

d) to provide supplementary denotative or connotative information, and to show the development of senses over time.

Prof Vaiyapuri Pillai admitted that 'in the present state of linguistic research in the Dravidian languages, the last two purposes can hardly be fulfilled'.

A major critic of Prof Vaiyapuri Pillai was the litterateur and philologist G Devaneya Pavanar (1902-1981), whose 'A critical survey of the Madras University Tamil Lexicon' offered devastating censure on its composition, advocating extreme prescription as the appropriate alternative to the descriptive approach of the Lexicon. According to him the definitions in the Lexicon were inaccurate, inadequate and inexhaustive.

Prof Vaiyapuri Pillai served in the Tamil Terms Committee (1941-46) set up by the Government of Madras. At the Oriental Conference held at Nagpur in 1946, Vaiyapuri Pillai presided over the Dravidian Section and presented an English paper 'Research in Dravidian Languages'. During 1951-54, he served as Prof of Tamil at Travancore University.

He rendered great service by finding out novel methods to compile the Dictionary of Sangram Phrases. On his retirement in September 1954, he settled at Adyar in Madras. His total works, published during his life time, numbered 40. He began his work with the editing of Manonmaniam of Prof P Sundaram Pillai in 1922 and ended with the first 1000 poems of Divya Prabandham in 1955. Kambaramayanam was his passion and he was very keen on bringing out a definitive edition of Kambaramayanam. But unfortunately he passed away on 17th February, 1956 even as he was planning to undertake this work.

All the great Tamil scholars of his time have spoken about his capacity for brilliant conversation. As a talker, he was incomparable. His wit was verbal and cumulative. His words came in short, sharp bursts of precisely aimed, concentrated fire, as image, pun, metaphor, parody, seemed spontaneously to generate one another in a succession of marvelously imaginative patterns, sometimes rising to high, wildly comical fantasy. His unique accent, idiom, voice, the structure of his sentences, became a magnetic model which affected the style of speech, writing and perhaps feeling of many who came under his spell. Indeed he was a liberating force in the enervating world of Tamil scholarship.

His personal collection of valuable research material over 4500 (Tamil-2943; English, French and German-1543; Sanskrit-113; Malayalam-16) and over 300 palm leaf manuscripts were donated by his legal heirs and became the priceless possession of the National Library at Calcutta. The name of Vaiyapuri Pillai will last for ever in the annals of Tamil Literature.

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