‘There is no language in the world which is pristine and pure.’

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Interview with Professor David Shulman, Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of “Tamil: A Biography”. By A.S. PANNEERSELVAN

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His Tamil: A Biography (published by Harvard University Press) has an important but rare trait, rare in the documentation of Indian languages: retaining a critical distance despite the writer’s love for the language. The threat of linguistic hegemony posed by the pan-Indian nature of Sanskrit and the role of Tamil in wresting a space for heterogeneity are political realities. The perch from which Shulman looks at Tamil gives him the space to negotiate this minefield with erudition. Probably, at a deeper level, his peace work in Israel, which exposed the injustices perpetrated by Israel by showing the human dimension of the occupation, helps him look at linguistic traditions in an organic manner rather than in political silos generated by colonial and the postcolonial politics.

The Tablet magazine captured well the nature of Shulman’s journey when it wrote: “Scholar David Shulman has made an improbable journey, geographically and academically: from small-town Iowa to Jerusalem, where the Hebrew University professor received the Israel Prize in 2016 for his research on southern India. The rigour in Shulman’s erudition is tempered by a deep pathos and love for his subject.” Shulman is an expert in Hebrew, English, Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit and reads Greek, Russian, French, German, Persian, Arabic and Malayalam, and has an abiding interest in Carnatic music and in the Kutiyattam dance form.

Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline.

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