Tribute - Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby:
An unparalleled Tamil scholar
“His life was gentle, and the elements so mix’d in him, that nature
might stand up and say to all the world,’ This was a Man.”
An intellectual giant is no more. The void is there, never to be
filled. From time to time, we have seen intellectual personalities
appearing on the horizon of the firmament of the educational sphere,
shine for a short while and disappear into nothingness. But not so
Professor Sivathamby. He lived and served many causes and still remains
a permanent star that will never set. Such was his fame.
He was born to a Tamil scholar Pandithar and Saivapulavar T P
Karthigesu and Valliammai Karthigesu of Karaveddy, Jaffna on May 10,
1932. In a span of almost eight decades his life was a Himalayan climb
to success, till he reached the peak of fame and remained there until
his demise in 2011.
Avvayar, a poet of the Sankam period sang thus:-
“Should you weigh the wroth
Of a king against that of a learned man
The king is revered and respected only in his kingdom,
Where as the scholar is honured and held in high esteem wherever
Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby
That sums up the status of an erudite scholar like Professor,
Being the elder son of Pandit and Savivapulavar (Renowned poet of
Savaism) T P Karthigesu, it was not a difficult task for him to step
onto the first run of the ladder of learning with ease. It is an amazing
feat on the part of the young scholar to show his prowess and succeed in
many fields. His knowledge grew in direct proportion to his physical
To start with, he was a teacher. Those who were fortunate enough to
have him as their guru say that he would render a history lesson without
so much as referring to a textbook. He never carried a book in his hands
when he entered the class. All the facts were computed in his brain
cells and used when needed. As a fellow teacher who was not interested
in history said, “Sivathamby inculcated in me not only a better
understanding of history and the interesting and valuable aspects of the
subject but also made it so easy to digest and absorb”. Such was his
ability to make a subject considered boring to many as interesting and
fantastic as a fairy tale.
Professor Sucharitha Gamlath referring to Professor Sivathamny as the
greatest living scholar in Tamil recounts an incident which proved how
well known, honoured and esteemed was Professor Sivathamby in keeping
with the words of Avvaiyar.
It seemed Professor Gamlath once met a Canadian Professor of English
who had come to Colombo to learn an old Tamil text from Professor
Sivathamby. As it was the worst period of the war in Sri Lanka Professor
Gamlath suggested he could go to South India and consult Tamil scholars
there. The Canadian replied, “Professor Sivathamby is the greatest
living Tamil scholar and it was worth the risk”. The erudite scholar’s
name and fame has reached the Western shores. He had done proud by his
country, his family, his old school in his native town of Karaveddy and
to Karaveddy too. As Sri Lankans and of the same community as the
Professor we have every reason to be proud of him.
“Nothing is simpler than greatness, indeed to be simple is to be
great” - Emerson. “In character, in manners, in style, in all thins the
supreme excellence is simplicity” - Longfellow. Perhaps Emerson and
Longfellow have visualized a great but simple person like Professor
Sivathamby when they uttered these words.
Those words of wisdom were a perfect fit on to Professor Savathamby.
Any body regardless of their position, status, wealthy or poor, young or
old could approach him and be treated with kindness by this man who
followed Marxist Principles. He believed in respect of the individual
and not for position wealth or power.
But it is his colleagues, his underlings, the minor staff, his
neighbours and those who sought his help Professor Sivathamby received
them with affection with scant respect for post or position and with
respect for the individual and render any help or advice sought. When I
was writing a book on Jaffna ‘The spirit of the palmyra’, I approached
him for guidance. He gave me valuable advice.
He was then in poor health but despite his physical suffering he
helped me. That was his greatness such incidents and instances are
etched and cherished in the memory of many whom he had helped.
There is a long list of nearly 18 Honorary Degree and awards. Among
those the following are worth mentioning;
* Banka Award 1998 by Sri Lanka-Japan Friendship Society for
Contribution to Tamil Literature.
* Man of the Year Award 1998 for Services rendered to Tamil.
* One of the 2,000 outstanding scholars of the 20th Century.
* One of the 2,000 outstanding individuals of the 20th Century. Both
awarded by the International Biographical Centre Cambridge.
* Medal of Honors hallmark 2000 by American Biographical Association.
His services were also in many fields. He started as teacher, then he
was a simultaneous Interpreter House of Representatives - Parliament, a
radio artiste, served in the University as Senior Professor and obtained
merit promotion as Senior Lecturer, Asst Lecturer.
He was visiting Lecturer in many Universities worldwide. Space
prevents completing the list which stretched to several papers.
His specialization were;
*Literary History of Tamils
* Literary Criticism
* Social History of the Tamil
* Culture and Communication among Tamils
For his PhD at Birmingham University he did ‘drama in ancient Tamil
His award list goes to almost 15 in numbers.
His Publication is about 18.
He submitted research papers on 44 topics in English.
It is indeed a record.
How could one man in his life span of three score and ten and a
little more achieve so much, in so short a time? The answer lies in his
marriage to an understanding lady. His marriage to Rupavathy from
Velvetithurai in 1963 was a turning point in his life.
Quick to understand his untiring toiling in the field of research and
studies, the wife took full responsibility of the home front and his
three daughters did not bother him much so he could sit at his desk in
carefree mood to pen his thoughts. It is said, ‘Behind each successful
man is a woman’. In the case of the professor there were four women
behind his success. He served his wife’s native town with as much zest
as he served his own hometown. At VVT he was an active member of TRRO
Refuge Rehabilitation Organization. CMCH (Committee for Monitoring
Cessation of Hostilities) and also in other citizen committees where he
went, in whatever capacity he worked, he would just throw himself in and
work night and day. This earned him the respect of all around him.
At a time the Western world thought Sanskrit was the language of the
orient, Professor Sivathamby through his research and talks established
the fact that Tamil ranges with Prakrit and Sanskrit. In fact he proved
to the world the antiquity of the Tamil Language. He was solely
responsible for placing Tamil on the international fora. At his funeral,
scholars from Tamil Nadu too flew in to pay their respects to Professor
Savithamnby. It was a pride to all Sri Lankans that a Sri Lankan
presided over the world Tamil Research Conference held in Coimbatore.
Looking back we see a man, a teacher an actor, artiste, dramatist,
interpreter Tamil scholar as simple great man in his life playing many
parts and the most popular man whose heart reaches out to the weak and
the poor, all the elements so well mixed in him and nature could salute
him and say ‘This was a man’. He lives through his creative writing in
the mind and memories of all who had met him at least once in their