Friday 6 September 2019

VichitraChittha Swaminathan

The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things
Of shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings.
-          from The Walrus and the Carpenter, by Lewis Carroll

Unlike the walrus, few people can talk of such a variety of things. I have heard Prof Swaminathan talk of shoes and socks in Ajanta paintings, ships that sailed between England and India, the Fibonacci patterns of leaves in cabbages, and many a king including Mahendra Varma Pallava -the maverick who called himself Vichitrachitta, the innovative and exotic thinker who unleashed the era of sculptures and architecture in Tamil country. If I had studied mechanical engineering in IIT Delhi, I am sure I would have heard him speak about sealing wax, too.

To talk about such a variety of things, one must first have an abundant curiosity and the intellectual discipline to understand what they have to offer. In short he must be an AtyantaKaama and a TattvaVedi. Which he is, to our good fortune.

Our VichitraChittha Swaminathan can not only talk about them, but talk about them in interesting ways, and provoke the listener’s curiosity and instigate a sense of wonder.

Most Indians, unlike Isaac Newton, stand not on the shoulders of giants, but surrounded by the wonders wrought upon this many splendored land by innumerable generations of giants, intellectual artistic and indefatigable. Sadly most of us see this treasure trove not with eyes not always appreciative but sometimes ignorant, often apathetic, even blasé. Even the curious and the restless among us, often need a spark, a shaft of light, a steady lamp to look long and deep and absorb the essence of such wonders, waiting to be discovered. Such a spark, a lighthouse is Swaminathan.

The few paragraphs above are the introductory passages to my essay on him, which will be part of the book we, Tamil Heritage Trust, have compiled on his work and dreams, and will release on September 8, 2019 when we salute his achievements.

Of his days in Delhi and upto the recent period until I met him in 2009 or so I can say very little.I first noticed him at a lecture on history at the Musiri house in Oliver Road, by Dr Chitra Madhvan. A few months later he gave a series of talks on The Story of Scripts, about the various writing systems of the world. It was quite a dazzling and eye opening experience. I had only recently learnt of Brahmi from a lecture by Iravatham Mahadevan, and had some minor interest in linguistics after having read Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond. This Swaminathan, I realized, was truly a scholar, and a marvelous accumulator and presenter of facts.

This series was later followed by a five part series on the Oral Tradition of Sanskrit. Not Sanskrit literature, mind you, but its orality. What does that even mean? He began with a long explanation about the power of human memory, and an account of an ashtavadani, a special kind of scholar, who can do eight (ashta) different tasks (avadaanam) simultaneously. Having established the stupendous feats the human mind can accomplish, he went on to demonstrate that the Sanskrit alphabet was a marvel, a logical, analytical organization of the sounds of the language. Then followed an explanation of Siva Sutras and how Panini used them crisply to write a grammar simply but crisply.

To say my mind was blown away at this point, is an understatement. Jared Diamond and Kalki had done it in 1999. The Kanchi Kailasanatha and Ellora Kailasanatha temples blew my mind in 2005 and 2006. And Swaminathan and Panini blew my mind then. If Sivakamiyin Sabatham was a paradigm shift about technology, the two Kailasanathas about engineering and art, Swaminathan on Sanskrit was an paradigm shift about linguistics. I started an email conversation with him about Sanskrit and its alphabet (basically arguing that the Tamil alphabet was better in someways and more sensible) and he responded point by point.

Shortly after this, I realized that he had started the Tamil Heritage Trust and I began attending its monthly lectures. Then I was pulled into THT as a potential contributor by V Chandrasekhar, for the next THT experiment, a site seminar in Mamallapuram in January 2010. The inaugural Mamallapuram lecture was another dazzler. Not only me, even Kalki was blind about Mamallapuram, I realized. I made a lot of learned friends, and became a part of the THT family – it feels more a family than an trust.

I have written earlier about two of Swaminathan’s contributions - Powerpoint Literature and Bulletpoint Literature. He has so much more in his repertoire, and so few of us to learn and carry these forward. Fortunately we are growing in strength.

I won’t talk about the various activities of THT at this point, as we do that at the beginning of every monthly lecture. But I played a useful role, and my loooong talk on Pallava Grantham as a preparatory lecture, was appreciated by KRA Narasiah. What a boost! Later in 2010, I borrowed Swaminathan’s manuscript about Ajanta, which was even more mind blowing than the Mamallapuram book. When I returned it, he said I was the first person to read it (besides his brother, the writer Calcutta Krishnamurthy, who only proof read it).

We used to meet the evenings of the last Saturdays at Gandhi center in Thakkar Bapa Vidyalaya, to discuss future programs. While most suggestions focused on art, sculpture, architecture, music, literature, etc., I suggested science and commerce, like astronomy. He immediately responded by asking me to give a talk on astronomy; and even gave a book to start my research. If I thought Sanskrit had a lot in linguistics, its astronomy and mathematics just blew me away.

My father Rangarathnam was ill, he suffered from mild dementia for a couple of years, but in the last few months of 2010 he really suffered. He was hospitalized in September, eerily on the anniversary of my mother’s death in 1981. My dad survived, but was put on severe restrictions including feeding from a Ryles tube, via his nose, rather than his mouth. It was devastating. Then on October 5, he just passed away. The next day, I joined Nagupoliyan Balasubramanian’s Sanskrit classes, which he just started, perhaps to the shock of some friends. The next month was spent preparing for the astronomy lectures, and the next hundred weekends learning Sanskrit.

Sanskrit and astronomy helped me cope with my father’s loss. Swaminathan served as a father figure. So did Balasubramanian and Narasiah…. I lost one father, and these three took their place in a fashion which I can’t explain in words. One thrill and amazing opportunity, was to spend a Teacher’s Day, giving a talk to the teachers of a school, with these three gurus in the audience.

Later in October, Jayaram and I went to Hyderabad with Swaminathan and his wife Uma. With my Hyderabad friends Balaji and Bina, we had arranged two of his talks on Sanskrit and Music. Balaji was my roommate in Texas and later, colleague in Microsoft. When we went to check on them in the train, Uma mami spotted us and returned telling her husband, “The children are here (குழந்தைகள் வந்திருக்கா).” (I was forty. Some child!) But that’s how she saw us. My first Astronomy talk in November went better than I hoped (and also, very very long).

By this time THT had become established, and steady. In December 2010, Swaminathan was requested to conduct a tour of Mamallapuram by the ASI for the local panchayat school students, and he invited myself, Ashok Krishnaswami and Selvam to accompany him. I went from student to guide practically overnight. Later in December, we also accompanied him to Pudukottai for  a dream project of his, Project Sittannavasal, along with VSS Iyer and Kanaka Ajita Doss. We met the Collector, discussed a few things, saw Sittannavasal, Kodumbalur, Kudumiyan Malai, etc. In January, we went to Ajanta and Ellora. We had frequent, almost weekly gettogethers in my house in Kodambakkam, discussing and showcasing photos of Nageshvaram and Pullamangai, Ajanta, a plan to curate a series of TED talks, record some TED like talks on Indian art, and a whole host of projects, several of which never came to fruition.
With Walter Spink,
Fardapur resort, Ajanta

He introduced me to artist Maniam Selvan, whom we visited, and who talked raptorously about the scene in Sivakamiyin Sabatham, where Paranjothi crosses the mountain ravine. Chills! He took me to meet publisher Vellayampattu Sundaram and later interview him. I missed a chance to meet Iravatham Mahadevan. Then we went to chat with Narasiah…
Jayaram and I went with the Swaminathan and Uma mami to Uthiramerur and Kanchi, including my first guided visit to Kailasanatha temple. Swaminathan was a kid in a candy shop. A couple of years later he asked me to give a talk on the temple. Then he introduced me to Dr Nagaswamy and asked me to prepare a lecture about his selected works.

There are several stories more to tell. But I wonder if these personal remembrances would be of interest to anyone but the two of us.

I’ll wrap up with a couple: conversations with him. He kept telling me a few times that Indians were empirical while Europeans were analytical. It took me a long time to understand what he meant; I don’t entirely agree, but my God, what a bold and brilliant statement. The other is a question he asked – Is there an Indian way of thinking? It took me many years to understand what an enormously loaded and sweeping question he was asking. And no one seems to be engaging him in this conversation. Or even contemplation.

Our most recent large intellectual engagement is with Vilayanur Ramachandran, who stated in January that two persons he admires are William Jones and Swaminathan. And that he hopes that Tamil Heritage Trust can be a new Asiatic society. What could be more delightful, a more fitting cap in the feather of our Vichitrachitta?

பேராசிரிய சுவாமிநாதனுடன் ஒரு நேர்காணல்
நம் விருந்தினர்  - பொதிகை டிவி