How I came to teach about Tamils at CU
By Dennis McGilvray
I am pretty sure I am the only professor who teaches an introductory course about Tamils and Tamil culture to 100-plus freshmen and sophomores at any American university. My colleagues at cosmopolitan urban campuses such as Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania are astounded.
Of course, I seldom mention that my course satisfies a CU graduation requirement in the category of “human diversity,” and that CU students are known to sign up simply because it is taught at a convenient time of day.
Still, the course has proven to be popular, and I always enjoy teaching it to a fresh group of (largely) Anglo-American freshmen every year. The syllabus attempts to cover those elements of Tamil culture that anthropologists have found most intriguing: Dravidian kinship terminology and cross-cousin marriage, Hindu caste identities, male vs. female gender roles and rites of passage, and popular forms of Hindu and Muslim religious worship.
I also include a discussion of classical Tamil Sangam poetry, 20th century non-Brahmin Tamil nationalism, and an analysis of the current Sri Lankan Tamil secessionist conflict. To be honest, however, the thing that sticks in student minds the longest is how to nod your head in proper Tamil fashion. I began teaching this course two decades ago, and I will now encounter former students working in Boulder who recognize me and instinctively begin nodding their heads.
You might wonder how I got into this line of teaching. The short version is that, as a graduate student in cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago in 1967, I read a new book on Sri Lankan village life by one of my professors, and he pointed me toward the east coast of the island.
He assured me that Ceylon, as it was then called, was lush, peaceful, ethnographically absorbing, and an easy place to get a research visa. At the time, of course, all of that was true, so I got a research grant and embarked on a two-year solo fieldwork project in the Tamil-speaking agricultural town of Akkaraipattu in Amparai District.
This is in the eastern Batticaloa (Mattakkalappu) region which is culturally and geographically distinct from Jaffna in the north. I rented a vacant dowry house on the dividing line between the Hindu and Muslim neighborhoods, and I enjoyed eager colloquial Tamil lessons from a gang of unmarried men my age (late 20s) who were waiting around hoping to receive marriage proposals.
To this day my Sri Lankan kochchaittamil pronunciation strikes most south Indian Tamils as quaintly literary and archaic, and I in turn struggle to grasp the nasalized drawl of modern Tamil film stars.
One of the main topics of my research in Akkaraipattu has been the unusual pattern of tracing family (clan or kudi) descent through women (i.e., matrilineally) and a system of marriage in which the son-in-law lives in the dowry house of his wife and her parents (i.e., matrilocally). It’s a family pattern that has historical connections to Kerala, rather than to Tamil Nadu.
In my CU class, we play a role-playing game about Tamil arranged marriages, and occasionally I try to demonstrate how a Hindu puja works. Some of my South Asian American students are grateful that I helped them to understand the unfamiliar beliefs and practices of their grandparents back in India or Sri Lanka.
The course ends with a section on Sri Lanka and the LTTE campaign for Tamil Eelam, a violent struggle that has directly impacted my research and the people I have studied for over 20 years. Along with the tsunami of 2004, the Eelam Wars have devastated eastern and northern Sri Lanka, pushing many middle class Tamils into the global Tamil diaspora, and for some reason especially to Toronto.
Thus, in the span of my career I have moved from studying remote village temple festivals to documenting the global influences on Tamil life. I am an avid photographer, and my research is visually displayed in a photobook entitled Symbolic Heat: Gender, Health, and Worship among the Tamils of South India and Sri Lanka (Ahmedabad: Mapin 1998). I have also just published a book on eastern Sri Lanka, including the impacts of the Eelam conflict, entitled Crucible of Conflict: Tamil and Muslim Society on the East Coast of Sri Lanka (Duke University Press 2008). Both titles are in paperback and available from Amazon.com.
Dennis McGilvray is chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This essay originally appeared in the Tamil Association of Colorado’s May 2009 newsletter (Malai Chaaral).