Classical tag on Kannada and Telugu

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  • Published 31.10.08

New Delhi, Oct. 31: The Centre has decided to declare Kannada and Telugu classical languages, a status enjoyed by only Tamil and Sanskrit in the country.

Culture minister Ambika Soni said the declaration would be made on the occasion of the formation day of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh tomorrow. However, the classical status will be subject to the outcome of a case pending in Madras High Court.

The classical tag ensures more opportunities for scholars to research the origin and history of the language with the objective of finding missing links. More funds will now be available for research in Kannada and Telugu, and universities will be able to set up Chairs for studies on the languages.

“A classical language has a relatively superior status. It’s a recognition of its ancient history and literature,” said Chagahalli Subbaraya Ramachandra, reader in Kannada at the University of Mysore.

But the drive for the classical label had been matter of political pride, rather than a linguistic issue, which raises the possibility of more states placing similar demands.

Tamil was declared a classical language in 2004 following pressure from the DMK. Since then both Karnataka, which has a history of water dispute with Tamil Nadu, and Andhra had been demanding similar status with the chief ministers and senior politicians of both states making many trips to Delhi.

Karnataka, which had always suspected Tamil Nadu of scuttling its bid, had set up a linguistic commission to support its cause.

Soni acknowledged today that she had received representations from a wide spectrum of political and civil leaders. Unable to withstand the regional pressure, the culture ministry had set up a committee of linguists from the Sahitya Akademi to examine the merits of the demands of Karnataka and Andhra.

The committee had recommended three months ago that both languages fulfil the criteria laid down by the government for recognition as classical languages. (See chart)

However, the implementation of the recommendation got delayed as a Chennai-based advocate filed a public interest litigation in Madras High Court questioning the expertise of the committee. The PIL has requested the court to quash the decision and ask the government to set up a new committee headed by a retired judge of the high court or the Supreme Court.

Followed by Tamil, Sanskrit was accorded classical status in 2005. “At present, there are no other languages pending with the committee to be declared as classical. But it is possible that this would lead to several other states making similar demands,” said a culture ministry official.

Linguists specialising in the Dravidian languages said the decision to label Kannada and Telugu classical would be justified because they shared common roots with the Tamil language and have equally rich literary traditions.

“These three languages diverged from a common ancestral proto-Dravidian language about 3,000 years ago,” said Rallapalli Venkata Subbu Sundaram, the former director of the Institute of Kannada Studies at the University of Mysore.

Political leaders of all hues had pitched in to support the cause of Kannada and Telugu. One of them is the Congress veteran from Karnataka, Veerappa Moily. He said Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam had similar ancestry. If Tamil was accorded the status, the same could not be denied to Kannada and Telugu, Moily added.

No Kerala politician has so far forcefully claimed the status for Malayalam — perhaps the reason it has not blipped on the Centre’s radar.

Similarly, few politicians have campaigned for orphan languages. “Prakrit is also very old and deserves a classical status but, unfortunately, no one is rooting for it,” said Sundaram.

In Calcutta, linguist Pabitra Sarkar said Kannada and Telugu were extremely old languages. Telugu in particular, he pointed out, has literature dating back to the times of Christ. “I would not be surprised if Malayalam, too, is included soon,” he said.

The Dravidian school evolved independently of Sanskrit and it is much later that Sanskrit influences entered the languages because of cultural exchanges.

“Bengali is barely 1,000 years old as are other languages in the Neo-Indo Aryan school like Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and Assamese. Bengali cannot lay claim to a classical language status,” Sarkar added.