Governor M.K. Narayanan at the school’s centenary function on Sunday. (Bishwarup Dutta)
Calcutta’s only school where Tamil has been taught as a first language for 100 years is struggling to find students keen to learn the tongue.
National High School for Girls and Boys, formerly the Anglo Tamil School, had been established in 1913 in Howrah as a primary English-medium school for children of Calcutta-based Tamil parents who wanted their wards to stay in touch with their native language.
A century later, the school has separate campuses for boys and girls and Hindi has long trumped Tamil as the first-choice language paper.
“Even our Tamil students would rather opt for Hindi or Bengali than their own language. They weigh the benefits of learning a language with the opportunities it will provide them in their career,” S. Radhakrishnan, the president of the governing body, told Metro.
Sunday saw the twin schools at 164 Sarat Bose Road and 42/1 Hazra Road — the campus moved from Champatala, in Howrah, to south Calcutta in 1934 — kick off their centennial with a function at Science City.
Old-timers recounted how the Tamil class used to be the USP of National High School with almost every child of Tamilian parents choosing it as his or her first language with English as the second-language paper.
“Now career dictates the choice of language. The shift also has to do with Bengal no longer being an industry-friendly state. There was a time when people would come here for employment; now most of the youth want to leave the city and so opt for Hindi,” said a member of the governing body, whose founder president was the scientist C.V. Raman.
In recent years, the two campuses have had barely 10 to 12 Madhyamik candidates with Tamil their first-language paper. Between 10 and 15 students opt for Bengali and the rest of the 120-odd candidates study Hindi.
In the Higher Secondary classes, about 15 each out of around 300 students choose Tamil or Bengali and the rest tick Hindi as their preferred first language with English the second language.
“Many Tamilians from the city migrate to north India for higher studies or jobs and knowledge of the national language comes in handy. They learn to speak, read and write Tamil, at least the functional part of it, at home,” said Chitra Krishnan, assistant secretary of the Tamil Sangham.
But National High School at 100 remains as committed to keeping the study of Tamil alive in the city as it was in 1913. “We cannot shift from the original objective, which is to promote Tamil,” secretary K.R. Sriram said.
While the Tamil ethos is alive through the language and the celebration of festivals like Pongal and Navratri, the twin campuses are now cosmopolitan in composition like any other Calcutta institution. The ratio of Tamil students to those from other communities also reflects the dwindling south Indian population in the city.
“The early settlers had come from Madras Presidency (extending right up to Orissa) and settled in Howrah. Hence the original school was first started in Howrah,” secretary Sriram said.
After National High School moved out of Howrah, the girls and boys’ schools used to share the Sarat Bose Road campus until the early Sixties. The boys’ campus at 42/1 Hazra Road was inaugurated by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India’s first vice-president who went on to succeed Rajendra Prasad as President.