Frontlist | Scholar who made Tamils rediscover their backyard

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Long before the pandemic made us realise the importance of travel and the internet offered us respite with photographs and information for our next vacation, words were the only window to the world.

Although popular in western countries, travelogues were a nascent stage genre in the country in the early 1950s. And one of the pioneers in the field was Somalay (pen name for Soma Lakshmanan) who with his descriptions could transport his readers to lands unknown.

Born on February 11, 1921, in Nerkuppai, a village in Sivaganga district, Somalay’s tryst with travel began with a family business trip to Burma in 1947-48. On his return, he was inspired by A K Chettiar’s travel books and embarked on a 40,000-mile tour of Europe, Australia, the US and the Far East during 1948-49.

Although family business was the primary reason for his global tour, Somalay was more interested in learning about different countries, people and cultures. Upon his return to India, he recollected the impact of global travel on him and said, “I went as a businessman and returned as a travel writer.”

His career as a travelogue writer began with his travel articles in Tamil magazines such as ‘Sakthi’, ‘Hanuman’, ‘Paarijatham’ and ‘Kalaikadir’. Those contributions lead to his first book ‘Naan Kanda Velinattu Katchigal’ (The Scenes I Saw Abroad) published in 1949. The curiosity of Tamils about foreign lands and Somalay’s affable writing style resulted in three editions of his first book in just two years.

When Somalay described his arrival in the US in 1948 by the famous ship ‘Queen Elizabeth’, it was like the reader’s American dream came true. Thousands of Tamils saw America through his book ‘Amerikavai Paar’. Eminent Tamil author M S Udhayamoorthy recalls that it was Somalay’s book that inspired him to visit the US. His exploits in Australia and Africa gave a peek into the cultures of those continents. His eye for indigenous lifestyles were apparent when he wrote separate books on the less-known countries like Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana as part of his Africa series.

Impressed by Somalay’s unique penmanship and extensive knowledge, fellow travelogue writer Sa Visvanathan, editor of the erstwhile popular Tamil weekly ‘Dinamani Kadir’, invited Somalay to write. But instead of his explorations abroad, Visvanathan asked him to rediscover places closer to home, writing about the states and Union territories of India. Those weekly features published in 1971-72 were a big hit among Tamil readership and are now available as ‘Imayam Mudal Kumari Varai’ (Himalayas to Kanyakumari). Delving deeper than the geographic marvels of a place, Somalay’s book recounted the folklore, history and culture of the various parts of India, which makes them relevant till today.
Senior Tamil scholar Avvai Natarajan, who also served in the government over several decades, says Somalay’s books on the districts of Tamil Nadu became the source of information for developing the state government’s district gazetteers.

The writings inspired to look inwards, says vice-chancellor of Tamil Nadu MGR Medical University Sudha Seshayyan. “As I was brought up in Chennai, I was eager to learn about the city’s history and culture and was attracted to Somalay’s ‘Chengarpattu Mavattam’ which has a wealth of information about the city and its surrounding areas,” she says.
The writer and thinker’s contributions transcend beyond his trailblazing work in travel literature to other fields such as folklore, tourism, journalism, biographical literature, and religion. His ‘Folklore of Tamil Nadu’, provides a comprehensive picture of the folk heritage of the state.

His premier contribution on modern Tamil writing ‘Valarum Tamil’ is a pioneering study of the development of Tamil prose in the 19th and 20th centuries. S P Thinnappan, emeritus professor at the National University of Singapore says the ‘Valarum Tamil’ was a source to promote Tamil through Singapore Radio’s programmes in the island country.

Somalay compiled about 20 Kumbabishekam (temple consecration) volumes on major temples in India ranging from Kasi (Varanasi) to Rameswaram. His research acumen and unbiased documentation of facts made him a sought-after editor for such official souvenirs and his works have been produced as evidence in the courts to retrieve properties belonging to temples and mutts.

Over the next four decades, until his death in 1986, Somalay wrote about 100 books, most of which are travelogues on Tamil Nadu’s districts, India’s various states and different countries of the world. He was also considered an authority on Chettinad heritage and his 716-page research volume, ‘Chettinadum Senthamilum’ continues to be an encyclopedia about the region. Some of Somalay’s books are available at Paari Nilayam, Manivasagar Pathipagam and Vanathai Pathipagam. Efforts by the state government to nationalise reprint and digitalise his works would be a fitting tribute to this legendary Tamil scholar on his birth centenary.

Read More: ‘He was that rare writer whose personality matched his work’

Source: Times of India

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