How A Grammar Book Gave Rise to Dravidian Identity

The Telugu script (Representational image)
The discovery that South Indian languages were not rooted in Sanskrit paved the way for the Dravidian movement.

It’s not often that a grammar book gives rise to an entire ethnic identity. In the early 19th century, Francis Whyte Ellis wrote a thesis. A.D. Campbell released it in his book “Telugu Grammar”. It was about much more than what the title would suggest.

For, decades and centuries later, Ellis is recognized as the first scholar to posit that the South Indian family of languages is distinct from the Sanskrit ones. In 1856, his work was built upon by Robert Caldwell in “A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Languages.” As he wrote:

The word I have chosen is ‘Dravidian’, from Drāviḍa, the adjectival form of Draviḍa. This term, it is true, has sometimes been used, and is still sometimes used, in almost as restricted a sense as that of Tamil itself, so that though on the whole it is the best term I can find, I admit it is not perfectly free from ambiguity.

Ellis recommended that civil servants learn Tamil as a base language to understand the South Indian languages. He came up with what was called the “Dravidian Proof”, firmly distancing the Dravidian languages from the Indo-Aryan language families.

It was a significant discovery. More than ever now, the idea that the South was ‘different’ began to take hold. The discovery in Madagascar, of signs that an ancient submerged continent once existed in the Indian ocean, added to this idea. The growing consensus was that the Dravidian people had existed in India long before the ‘Aryan invaders’ swept them away.

It’s a historic grudge for many reasons – India’s largest empires, the Mauryan, Gupta, Mughal and British – have always been ruled from the North. The idea of being different grew strong, as it turned out that the Tamil language had borrowed many words from the Sanskrit families.

In 1916, this exploded into the ‘Thani Tamil Iyakkam’ or ‘Pure Tamil’ movement. At the same time, Kerala also saw a ‘pucca Malayalam’ or Pure Malayalam movement – although that became more of a stylistic practice than a movement. The inclusion of Sanskrit words would sometimes feel contrived, as was the case in Kannada – where ‘shauchālaya’ or “abode of cleanliness” came to replace ‘toilet’.

Dravida identity was closely linked to its languages. Nearly a century after Caldwell wrote his piece, speakers of the Dravidian language-family had taken firmly to its defence. Following independence, with the British gone, the Indian government attempted to replace English as the national language – with Hindi. 1965 was set as a deadline for the switch.

Many South Indians were upset at this unilateral imposition of Hindi as the national language. It led to large-scale protests and riots. Nine people set themselves on fire and up to 300 were killed – in what was months of police firings, protests and destruction of property. The ruling Congress government backtracked on the idea but the damage was done. The Dravida movement gained momentum against the regional Congress party. Since then, the Congress has never returned to power in Tamil Nadu.

The Dravidian claim to its own language extends far beyond the geography of the South. In the Indus Valley Civilization, to the North-West, traces of Dravidian words have been found – the word Muruku, referring to an ancient destroyer-type deity. Muruku finds mention within the oldest Sangam literature – giving the Dravidians a serious claim to the language of the Harappans.

In parts of Balochistan, one will find similarities between the local language ‘Brahui’ and words in Tamil. Such linguistic similarities have also cropped up with the Korean and Japanese languages!

The Dravidian movement has changed dramatically over the years. It failed to find a common South-Indian ambit and the Dravidian political parties changed their hues as well. Any mention of a Hindi or Sanskrit imposition is still bound to drive up agitation in the South. So far, the Central Government’s attempts to impose Hindi on the South have been met with severe protest in all of the South Indian states.

Barring criticism from the right wing politicians, Caldwell’s study of grammar proves a key moment in the history of the Dravidian movement. But scholars have found his work as academically rigorous; remaining a good reference for understanding the South Indian languages even today.

Grammar, identity and ethnicity in India remain intertwined.


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