In the age of Wikipedia, it has been forgotten how important the Encyclopaedia Britannica once was in the mind of the English-reading Indian. Seen as the supreme repository of knowledge, it was also a status symbol sought as bookshelf adornment.
What most people do not know at all is how an intrepid band of Tamil intellectuals, inspired seventy-five years ago by the Britannica, decided to create an encyclopaedia in their own language. They felt a linguistic system as advanced as theirs, with a literary history stretching two millennia, needed to showcase its civilisational achievement: it was imperative that Tamil boast its own encyclopaedia. The odds against realising this ideal were impossible. And yet the project of compiling the Kalaikkalanjiyam – the Tamil Encyclopaedia – began and was soon unstoppable.
This intriguing episode of Indian intellectual life is as forgotten as its narration here is compelling. Book history comes brilliantly alive in A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s vibrant chronicling – from the conception of an extravagant idea to its execution as a printed work. This story of lofty ideals and financial scandals, bruised egos and ideological conflicts reveals a fascinating world of cultural enterprise, political struggle, and regional nationalism.
This is a book for every reader of history.
A.R. Venkatachalapathy is Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai. He has taught at Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli; Madras University; the National University of Singapore; and the University of Chicago. An accomplished Tamil writer, he has published widely on the social and cultural history of Tamilnadu. His publications include The Province of the Book: Scholars, Scribes, and Scribblers in Colonial Tamilnadu; In Those Days There Was No Coffee: Writings in Cultural History; Who Owns That Song? The Battle for Subramania Bharati’s Copyright; and Tamil Characters: Personalities, Politics, Culture. He won the V.K.R.V. Rao Award in 2007.