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Tamils of Bengal – Book Review

February 6, 2021 | By

Eminent author and film scholar Shoma A Chatterji reviews Tamils of Bengal, by Srinivasan Sampath Kumar that explores the history of Tamils in Kolkata.

Tamils of Bengal

Tamils of Bengal – by Srinivasan Sampath Kumar

Author: Srinivasan Sampath Kumar
Year: 2019
Binding: Hardback
Printed Pages: 150
Price: INR 435.00

Many years ago, perhaps around the mid-Eighties, I had watched a beautiful documentary made by the late film journalist Mriganka Sekhar Roy. It was a beautiful film that detailed the real-life story of a group of Tamil Iyengar Vaishnavite families who were invited by the king of Panchkot Raj to the village of Godibero in Purulia in the middle of the 17th century. They were brought, it is believed, to perform the religious rites and ceremonies and to teach Sanskrit to the children of the village and beyond.

The amazing fact that came across in this film is that the descendants of these Tamil Iyengar families stayed in this area for all these years carrying on the tradition of priesthood on the one hand as Sebaits of the local temple by inheritance of birth. The film revealed that the present generation of Tamils are very well-versed in Bengali – written, spoken and understanding. But that is just half the story. The other half is that these Iyengars never gave up on their root traditions, customs, language, learnings, food habits, cultural modes such as ways of dress and everything else. They had smoothly adapted to the customs, food habits and everything of their adoptive place also. The film offered a great insight into a group of people who resided in the area for thousands of years without forgetting their original roots. Sadly, though I remember the name of the filmmaker, I do not recall the name of the film.

I was pleasantly surprised to read about the entire history of the above story in a very good book. Tamils in Bengal authored by Srinivasam Sampath Kumar who has devoted an entire chapter to this fascinating true story lifting it from the pages of history to re-create a new one from a different perspective. The author informs us that long long ago, He visited Godibero to hear the entire story from the present Sabait Dwarkanath Srinivasn of the Bero temple where the deity was Keshab Roy Jiu (Vishnu).

The author, a Tamil himself, was born in Kolkata and lived in the city for six decades and more and this led him to write this book “before details become inaccessible and forgotten” as he notes in the preface of the book, acknowledging the help he received in his research from Sru P. Thankappan Nair, noted chronicler, author and historian of Kolkata who has himself authored a very informative book called South Indians of Kolkata.

The book has an erudite foreword by Chittatosh Mukherjee, former Chief Justice of Calcutta and Bombay High Court, former Acting Governor of Maharashtra and former Chairperson of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission.  Kumar, a member of the Supreme Court Bar, with several distinguished credits to his name, was conferred Knighthood by the Italian Government in 2006. The photographs in the book were taken by him.

The book is divided into four parts – beginning with a rather long Preamble by the author that summarises the context of the main text. Next comes a brief but detailed history of Tamilians across the world, their origins in the Dravidian root followed by their spread across the globe.

Part I is the most interesting among the four parts. It explores the history ranging from the 8th Century through the Tamil Conquest in the 11th Century followed by the Tamil migration to Bengal in the 17th century, throwing up fascinating stories of which we know little or nothing. He goes on to describe the Calcutta connection of the Chettiars, followed by the Maharaja of Tanjavur – His Highness Serfoji, the Tamil Muslims in Kolkata and the Howrah Tamils.

Part II lists and details the rich contributions of Tamils who lived in Calcutta covering around 25 personalities that includes C.V. Raman and C. Rajagopalachari which many young Calcuttans, Tamilian or Bengali, may not know about at all. Some of these sketches are quite brief while some are considerable in terms of length but all of them are eye-openers for all of us, young and old, Bengali or Tamil or any other, as we know little of the contribution of these great personalities to the history, culture and temples in Kolkata. One notes the absence of Raju Raman, a Tamilian born and brought up in the city who can speak, write and read Bengali, Hindi and German with the same fluency he can in his mother tongue Tamil. He was the cultural secretary of the Max Mueller Bhavan at the Goethe Institute for many years and his contribution to the cultural and artistic life to the real ambience of the Bhavan has no parallel. Missing also, with a tiny mention is the name of Prof N. Viswanathan who was not only a famous actor along with teaching Literature for many years at the St. Xaviers College but was equally fluent in writing for Tamil papers in Tamil and English papers in English. His son, filmmaker Ashok Viswanathan who can be dubbed a “Bengali” in every sense, is also missing from the book.

Part III under the title Performing Arts covers not only eminent practitioners of performing arts who have lived in the city practically all their lives but also the form of performing art the Tamils have introduced and popularised in the city. The easily recognizable name in this is Usha Uthup while the arts are – Carnatic music and Bharatnatyam.

Part IV introduces us to four Institutions and Tamil Associations that have dug their roots in the city which perhaps, is the least interesting though the contribution of these institutions to the cultural, social and religious life of the city is unparalleled.

So far as this writer is concerned, I loved the Preamble because I could identify with most of the places and food places he has described beautifully. The author talks about the Komala Vilas along Lake Market in the southern parts of Kolkata which began around the1930s, Udipi Home, Aiyappa Temple on an emotional and personal level. The sad truth that comes across in the Preamble is that with the huge exodus of Tamils coinciding with the Naxalite movement in Calcutta specially, the nearly 50,000 Tamil population of Calcutta and Howrah shrunk to 15,000 or less at the present time.

The language is fluid and flowing, easy to follow without ornamental jugglery of words or vocabulary and the mounting of the book plus the cover design photographed by the author are good and artistic. The font size however, could have been larger for senior citizens. But the greatest quality of the book lies in its very painstaking and long research that made this possible.

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Dr. Shoma A Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. Her focus of interest lies in Indian cinema, human rights, media, gender and child rights. She has authored 24 books mainly on Indian cinema and on gender and has been jury at several film festivals in India and abroad. She has won two National Awards - for Best Film Critic in 1991 and for Best Book on cinema in 2002. She has also won four fellowships over the past 10 years.
All Posts of Shoma A Chatterji

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