Obituary: CreA Ramakrishnan and the art of defining the meaning of a Tamil word


The lifelong struggle of  ‘CreA’ Ramakrishnan, who passed away in Chennai mid-November, to create an authentic Tamil dictionary was a truly remarkable one. And just before he tragically died due to complications related to Covid-19, he did manage to do bring out the revised third edition of his landmark Tamil dictionary, working on it even while undergoing treatment.

Ramakrishnan founded Cre-A Publications in 1974 and was among the first publishers to make significant efforts to bring out Tamil books on par with foreign publications. Ramakrishnan’s magnum opus Tharkala Thamizh Agarathi (Dictionary of Contemporary Tamil (Tamil-Tamil-English) was brought out first in 1992 and remains a standard reference.

When I first discovered how ‘CreA’ Ramakrishnan, was  producing a Tamil Dictionary with the technical  help of the highly skilled Iswaran, who was programming a database structures in native C-language, it was a big surprise to me. The labyrinth of elaborate mark-up they created using MS Word formatting structures for dictionary sub-entries with Sangeetha font encoding was typical of many in-house methodology employed by the publisher before the modern era of the internet and Unicode.

Many font encoding were employed in the 8-bit era like TAM, TAB, TSCII encodings, which required back-end conversion to Unicode using complex software. To further complicate the problem dictionary entries were created in MS Word in Sangeeta encoding and to typeset it in PageMaker it had to be converted to SriLipi version of TAM encoding. Finally for electronic delivery it had to be converted to Unicode UTF-8 encoding for Web and mobile app developers, quite a nightmare for any developer and publisher.

The simple modern solution to that is to use Unicode fonts all the way and typeset it in InDesign/XeLaTeX using modern Unicode Tamil fonts. To make matters more complicated, Tamil (like it’s cousins Malayalam, Tulu, Telugu and Kannada) is an agglutinative language that makes it difficult to produce a comprehensive list of words that can be used in a spell-checker and so requires a morphological analyser to create a spell-checker. So CreA Ramakrishan took the correct decision of creating dictionary of smaller set of words without the inflections, just concentrating on the word stems rather than all the inflections.

Here was a Kannadiga, Iswaran, helping a Telugu Brahmin publish a Tamil Dictionary! Yes, the Tamil language invites such interest. It interested Father Heros, Robert Caldwell and now Finnish scholar Asko Parpola. There were also many important contributions from Arabs and Islamic scholars before the arrival of Europeans in India. Iravadham Mahadhevan finds so many interesting substratum and connections with ancient Dravidian languages and culture of India.

CreA Ramakrishnan was an astute observer of evolving copy-editing practices in Tamil using a collection of corpus that he developed out of his published materials. Like many other publishers in Tamil language, he was of the opinion that the Tamil font should be slanted (italic), and he considered Modular Infotech’s SriLipi font as the only usable font in Tamil.

Sadly, he did not find any of other fonts, such as the fonts produced by CDAC and other free/commercial fonts usable. This is probably the current state of Tamil fonts. We are hoping to change this state of affair by initiating a new foundry named Ezuthurupattarai (headed by Karuna Prasad, his former colleague in Koothupattarai) in Tamil but it is sad that CreA  Ramakrishnan will no more be available to validate our font effort.

CreA published a comprehensive list all verb-forms and their inflections in Tamil authored by E.Annamalai, a well-known scholar in the study of the structure and linguistic features of Tamil. A structural linguistic approach to Tamil using Algol (an imperative programming language) was attempted V.Renganathan] and was also published by CreA.

Of course, Chomskian structural linguistics is out of fashion in the post-modern world of Google and machine-learning that produces garbage-out from garbage-in creating automated translations across languages, using a simple string-to-string matrix mappings. To convert word into data requires considering a word as a matrix of connections with other words. As correctly critiqued by the young Christopher Caudwell, the limits of bourgeois post-modern philosophy are the limits of capitalism and not the limits of human endeavour.

Just as Karl Marx defined human essence to be an ensemble average of social relationships, a word is defined in machine-learning as a matrix of connections with other words. Meaning of the word emerges in the context of the soup of words that surrounds it. Beyond the soup of words lies human consciousness and the socio-political society that creates these words. In fact, sometimes language acts as a proxy for politics.

When Robert Caldwell studies Dravidian languages, he is studying this against Max Muller’s study of Indo-European languages family and it’s politics of Aryan superiority. Robert Caldwell declared that when he is buried that he must be done in the Dravidian traditions of song and dance, a celebration of death. Robert Caldwell also clearly indicated in his comprehensive study of Dravidian languages that the scheduled castes and tribes of Tamilnadu and elsewhere were native Dravidians, as is now well established.

But when this book was republished these important pages were removed by upper-caste publishers. Kavithaasaran and myself took the onus of republishing this original book retaining those important pages. It was through the lens of Kavithaasaran that I was able to see CreA Ramkrishnan.

Words do not exist by themselves, and without the social milieu that breathes life into it is a meaningless set of characters, just as how it is described in Tamil that consonants are provided life by the vowels, which otherwise would be a listless noise. Kavithaasaran mentioned that CreA Ramakrishnan contributions are very important to the Tamil society, but his only criticisms were that CreA books are high-priced (like iPhone brands) and also that it has words like “Mahabharat” but not words like “Silapathigaram” (an ancient Tamil tale similar to the story of Isis and Osiris in Egypt).

When I mentioned this remark of Kavithaasaran to CreA, he said: “I hear this only through third-persons but no one conveys these criticisms directly to me”. He was also critical of divisive Dravidian politics. I retorted that but for resurgence of Tamil and Dravidian politics there will be no space for scholarship and study of Tamil that we are able to do now.

Hindutva (inspired by Max Muller, William Jones) and Sanskrit fascism requires no scholarship but servility of Arnab Goswamy (Fox News) type. As Marx emphasised, it is as a rebel that you can catch the trail of truth, in the inverted obscurantism of the world of ruling semi-feudal, billionaire gods.

S K Venkatesan did B.Tech in IIT, Chennai and Ph.D. In Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. Was a visiting fellow at S.N.Bose National Center for Basic Sciences. He is currently Chief Scientist at TNQ Technologies, Chennai




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