With literary works dating as far back as 300 BCE, the Tamil language is nearly as old as Hebrew (335 BCE), and stands next to Chinese as the most enduring classical language still spoken today. Yet remarkably, while dozens of U.S. colleges and universities have Hebrew or Chinese language and cultural studies programs, only a handful offer Tamil.
Bala Swaminathan and his wife, Prabha, are determined to change that. The couple has created the Anandavalli and Dr. G. Swaminathan Endowed Research Professorship in Tamil at Stony Brook University in honor of Bala’s mother and father. Studying an ancient yet still relevant Tamil language and its literature, said Swaminathan, offers scholars insights into humankind’s earliest worldview providing context for our life today and our collective, global future.
“Tamil language is more than something to speak,” said Bala Swaminathan. “It harbors a culture’s history and traditions, and perpetuates identity and pride. Ultimately, when its wisdom is shared, Tamil language creates better cross-cultural understanding and cooperation.”
While the University is also home to a thriving India Studies Center (which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary), the Swaminathans deliberately established the Tamil professorship in the College of Arts and Sciences to leverage interdisciplinary, scholarly research collaborations with linguistics, anthropologists, musicians and sociologists.
“I have a very high regard for Stony Brook’s research capabilities,” said Swaminathan. “I expect the professor in Tamil will be an active contributor on campus, publishing many papers, offering Tamil language classes and creating the new knowledge that will perpetuate and celebrate the language that still has so much to teach us.”
It was the wisdom of one of Tamil’s oldest texts, the Kural, that first captivated Swaminathan as he grew up in the southern Indian town of Madurai. His father “lived by” the Kural. Written by the 4th century BCE poet and philosopher Valluvar, the Kural is one of the most venerated texts of secular ethics and most widely translated works in the world. Coincidentally, Valluvar was also born in Madurai, preceding Swaminathan by more than 2,000 years.
Before Swaminathan’s father became a prominent doctor, he had little to give to others. Still, his father followed the Kural precept to be charitable, once explaining to his son, “Whatever we earn is to provide for others who do not have the same opportunities.”
While creating a successful career in the U.S. and founding the New York Tamil Academy for school children, Swaminathan says he’s most proud of the life of purpose and meaning he shares with Prabha and their two sons, Isai Maran and Kavin Mathi.
Creating the professorship in Tamil at Stony Brook University, just minutes from the Swaminathans’ home, was the natural next step in the couple’s quest to help sustain the language and culture that have served them so well.
“Offering endowed faculty appointments, such as the Anandavalli and Dr. G. Swaminathan Endowed Research Professorship in Tamil, helps us attract the most talented teachers and researchers,” said Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. “We are grateful to Bala and Prabha for their incredible leadership in keeping Tamil and the ideas of the Kural alive for future generations.”