The sixth eco-zone: Tamil in the digital age
FOR over a century and more, Tamil speakers, users and enthusiasts have staked claims to their language as being as important, classical and singular as any of the world languages that were upheld as worthy bearers of culture in the mid-19th century and after. With the progress of Indian nationalism, as language and marker of cultural and civilizational difference, Tamil was counter posed to Hindi, which was viewed by a range of political actors from the right to the left as a unifying lingua franca for the nation-to-be. Even as they opposed the imposition of Hindi, the Non-brahmin and anti-caste movements in the Madras Province called for greater literacy in English, which, they claimed, was a more useful and viable national language.
Meanwhile, the use of Tamil in all aspects of communication, from the political to the scientific was proclaimed to be central to a politics that was equally committed to equality and social justice and in that sense considered itself the obverse of ‘Hindu-Hindi-India’. Tamil thus became the very form of the modern-secular, never mind that its claims to being so, rested on its antique past. As reinvented tradition, this latter was made to cohere with the demands of the present.
I argue in this essay that these historical and political claims continue to haunt, in one way or another, Tamil digital worlds.
Those familiar with Tamil history know that ancient Tamil poetry conceived of the world as comprising five eco-zones, with each defined in terms of the interrelationship between landscape and people, between specific geographies and the human acts of living, labouring and loving that unfolded in them. When Tamil speakers took to the digital universe with enthusiasm from the late 1990s, one enterprising digital publisher from Chennai named the portal that that he set up ‘Aaraam Thinnai’ or the sixth eco-zone: rendering it a crucial aspect of Tamil life-worlds, even while signalling its evident newness. This gesture, of aligning the present, however different, to a past that was apposite to the moment at hand, would be repeated in any number of digital instances.
The Tamil digital universe owes its existence to four intersecting spaces: of the global Tamil scholarly world, both academic and non-academic; the technoeutopic landscapes imagined by the Tamils of Malaysia and Singapore; the diasporic Sri Lankan Tamil universe; and finally, the realms of popular communication in Tamil Nadu, including of contemporary social media.
In the 1990s, these worlds came together, and on account of developments in Tamil computing. This latter had its beginnings in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and soon enough there was considerable interest and investment in creating viable word processing modules, computer type-faces and solutions that would allow for an easy use of the Tamil language on the internet. Tamil language teachers in departments attached to universities in Europe and North America, amateur computer enthusiasts across the Tamil speaking world, and technologically proficient Tamils from Malaysia and Singapore helped to leverage a presence for Tamil on to the worldwide web by the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, the government of Tamil Nadu also expressed interest in developing Tamil digital technology and this provided a context for assessing existing initiatives and exploring others.
There were parallel developments with regard to content. Electronic archiving of Tamil literature and circulation of select Tamil e-texts on the internet began in the 1980s. These efforts gathered apace in the years that followed, and resulted in the launching of Project Madurai in 1998. Self-consciously modelled on the practices of those who collated palm-leaf manuscripts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and pioneered the publication of the corpus of texts known to the world as Sangam and post-Sangam literature, this initiative, undertaken by Tamil scholars and enthusiasts across the world, set the tone for subsequent archiving efforts.
Archiving acquired a political turn, as Sri Lankan Tamils sought to create digital repositories for Tamil texts from the island. Interestingly, in both Singapore and Malaysia, the state encouraged archiving efforts, viewing these as essential acts for the preservation of uniquely Tamil-Malaysian and Tamil-Singaporean histories and heritage.1
From 1966 onwards, World Tamil Conferences have been held at regular intervals and these helped take forward a sense of global Tamil citizenship, and in the event, provided the ideological and cultural modalities that rendered the language ‘world historical’. Scholars such as Father Xavier Thaninayagam from Sri Lanka provided the ideological and cultural heft and labour to these efforts, which resulted in the making of a sensibility, at once particular and expansive, rooted in discussions to do with origins, identity and cultural endurance, and yet looking to a future where Tamils across the world might reimagine and renew their civilizational memory.
The other history that is germane to our discussion has to do with the Tamils’ struggle for national self-determination in Sri Lanka. Among other things, this led to a prolonged civil war (from the 1970s), and made for a large number of Tamils fleeing the island. After the initial trauma of exile and resettlement, the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora devised several channels for cultural contact between dispersed populations. Shaped by intra-Tamil tensions and restiveness this emergent Tamil universe whose coordinates were everywhere but which had no physical location, viewed the digital world as a space to voice its political and nationalist concerns.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who had emerged as the most visible and triumphant face of the Tamil resistance, came to command an authoritative presence in this context, and anchored their vision of the Tamil nation-to-be in a range of coercive and communicative practices. The latter proved far-reaching, and eventually comprised forays into radio, television, and the digital world. An eponymous site, tamilnation.org, was the most fitful expression of this last endeavour (copyrighted in 1998) that looked to the future, but in ways that linked the present to the certitudes of antique and medieval Tamil history. In its heyday, the site ran into thousands of web-pages, and was nothing short of a compendious discursive universe, a miniature Wikipedia for all things Tamil. It won several awards for its many features, and while it suffered a temporary disappearance with the brutal end to the civil war, has been restored to the internet, where it now exists as its own archive.
A parallel but essentially different effort at working with digital space unfolded in Sri Lanka, a few years hence, in 2005, with a group of young Tamils setting up an archive of texts having to do with Sri Lankan Tamil history and culture. Noolaham (library), as it is called was conceived of as a poignant tribute and memorial to the great Tamil Library in Jaffna that was burned down in 1981. Equally Noolaham imaged itself as a repository that sought to collect and keep safe Tamil texts, magazines and sundry publications (noolaham.org.).
Given the multiple times that Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka had to move, and the many times that their homes and possessions, including books, were destroyed, this effort sought to keep alive a tradition of scholarship and publishing, even as war and dispossession threatened to destroy the fragile yet consequential world of Tamil print. Over time this archive has grown in significance, and currently it views its mission as also accounting for the diversity of voices in the Sri Lankan Tamil context, including of Muslims, women, the indigenous Veddas and the Plantation Tamils (migrant workers from India, who came over in the early and late colonial periods).2
Around this time (in 1999) the Tamil Nadu government set up the Tamil Virtual University (now known as the Tamil Virtual Academy), and which has since undertaken a slew of tasks, including familiarizing Tamil speakers and users with Tamil software and related technical know-how, providing ways and means to expand the Tamil language’s presence on the internet, and setting up a Tamil digital library, comprising texts from the past and present, for which copyright clearances have been obtained. The Academy is self-consciously global in its orientation, and asserts the importance of ensuring that Tamil lives on in the digital age, even as its long history is preserved for future generations, not only in Tamil Nadu, but as the Academy’s website has it, in the forty countries where Tamil is spoken and used in a daily sense.3
Meanwhile, in Tamil Nadu by the early 2000s, Tamil blogs and sites had begun to emerge, and in the first decade of the 20th century, the worlds of popular print media were reborn in digital space. Since the last decade, there has been an explosion of plebian presence in digital space: demotic political and social wisdom, everyday self-making that is at once ingenious and ironic, and remixes of popular cultural expressions that possess transgressive aspects, as also more routinized engagements with the world of film and television. Caste and religious partisanship is also evidently present, even as it is called out by bahujan and dalit counter-publics, which propel forth their visions of history, the present and hopes for the future.
Increasingly, queer voices and sites, and a range of feminist expressions are beginning to be heard as well. All of these have made for a distinctive and contentious politics, lively, acrimonious and at times self-obsessed – and shaped as much by the inexorable algorithmic logic of social media, as by ideological disputation.
In all this, Tamil in the digital age continues to bear the marks of an older history, of a moment, which enabled us take to science and rationality, democracy and the republic, even as we sought to become a modern people, in and through an affective relationship to language and culture. On the one hand, E.V. Ramasamy Periyar and others in the Self-respect movement looked to replace affective cultural ties, with rational, just ones and it is not accidental that some amongst them advocated that Tamil ought perhaps be written in the roman script (they were fascinated by Kemal Ataturk’s language reform policies).
On the other hand, as this politics that valued social justice sought to take on the verities of Indian nationalism and the hegemony of the ‘brahmin-bania’, identified with the semantics of Hindi (and by that same token, Sanskrit) it came to be mediated through linguistic and cultural affect. The digital world of today bears the impress of this history, and even as Dalits and feminists query the limits and content of language-based identity, their responses unfold within an affect-laden cultural universe.
The paradoxical unity of cultural affect and political critique was constitutive of the Sri Lankan Tamil presence on the worldwide web as well. When the Tamils from Sri Lanka proclaimed their claims to digital nationhood in and through tamilnation.org, they spoke both as global citizens who inhabited a virtual space that knew no boundaries, and as a beleaguered people who had a certain investment in memory and national history. In fact, the claims of culture haunt the Tamil techno universe as well: Muthu Nedumaran the talented font designer from Malayasia, views his efforts at ensuring the presence of Tamil in ever expanding digital worlds as helping to preserve it as common heritage, which ought to exist on its own terms, in and through a distinctive script, and not only as transliteration and translation.4
Given the bind of history, and especially the way we inhabit the past in and through structures of feeling that shape our understanding and action, we might want to ask what histories are likely to prove germane as we look to the internet and machine-languages to remember, record, archive and go forward in our quest for retaining our links to language, community and memory.
1. This short history of Tamil computing is drawn from diverse sources. See, in this context, https://www.projectmadurai.org/faq. html#1.1; https://cutt.ly/Vbyz4ym (accessed on 17 April 2021).
2. For details about Noolaham, see https://cutt.ly/IbymcgO (accessed on 17 April 2021).
3. For a short description of what the Tamil Virtual Academy does, see https://cutt.ly/ObsrNV9
4. View in this context, ‘Creating Trouble with Strokes’, a talk by Muthu Nedumaran, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ODHwe0eUUU