Dr. U. Ve. Swaminatha Iyer was one the foremost scholars of the Tamil language. Born in Uthamadhanapuram in Tanjavur district on 19 February 1855, Swaminatha Iyer dedicated his life to the study and research of Tamil. One of his biggest contributions was bringing to light several literary classics such as the Jeevakachintamani, Pathuppatu, Silappadhikaram, Manimekalai etc., works that had hitherto been known only through passing references in other pieces of Tamil literature. His painstaking efforts, which involved going in search of and collecting palm leaf manuscripts from various sources, resulted in a huge body of work and earned him several admirers and dedicated followers, besides the moniker Tamizh Thatha. In 1935, when he turned 80, a group of prominent well-wishers from Madras took it upon themselves to celebrate the occasion in a grand manner.
A committee titled the ‘Mahamahopadhyaya Dr. V. Swaminatha Iyer 81st Birthday Celebration Committee’ was formed under the chairmanship of Sir P.T. Rajan, the Justice Party leader who would become the Chief Minister of the Madras Presidency the following year. Popular science writer P.N. Appuswami and noted Tamil lexicographers T. Sivaramasetu Pillai and S. Vaiyapuri Pillai were the Secretaries, while Rao Bahadur K.V. Krishnaswami Ayyar served as its Treasurer.
In its appeal calling for public donations dated February 6, 1935, the Committee noted Dr. Swaminatha Iyer’s contribution to the world of Tamil and his role in the resuscitation of the great classics of Tamil literature. It credited his work as being instrumental in reforming the prevailing conception of ancient Tamil culture and added that, in other countries, such occasions were celebrated on a magnificent scale by publishing memorial volumes, raising commemorative statues etc. The Committee proposed to express its gratitude to Dr. Swamintha Iyer by presenting an address on his birthday and installing his portrait at the Madras University.
An account of the birthday celebrations on 6 March 1935, published by the Madras Law Journal Press, makes for interesting reading. The sathabhishekam was performed by Dr. Swaminatha Iyer’s son Kalyanasundara Iyer in a grand manner, following all ritualistic traditions at their home ‘Thyagaraja Vilas’ in Pillaiyar Koil Street, Tiruvatteeswaranpet (now demolished). In the afternoon, an address was presented to Dr. Swaminatha Iyer by some of his former students, in the form of a poem of three stanzas, which paid tribute to the services rendered by him to the study of Tamil literature. The poem was composed by his star pupil, Vidwan K.V. Jagannatha Iyer (Ki.Va.Ja.). Amongst those present on the occasion were Prof. K. Sundararama Iyer, Dewan Bahadur K.S. Ramaswamy Sastri and a representative of the Dharmapuram Adheenam.
That evening, a large and distinguished gathering of citizens met at the Senate House for the unveiling and presentation of Dr. Swaminatha Iyer’s portrait. A tea party with catering by Ramakrishna Lunch Home was hosted by Kalyanasundara Iyer on its lawns, after which the public meeting commenced. P. N. Appuswamy read out a number of messages received from friends and well-wishers of Dr. Swaminatha Iyer, such as Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, Sir T. Desikachariar, the Rt. Hon’ble V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, Sir M. Devadoss and the Raja of Ramnad. Sir P.T. Rajan presented a purse containing Rs 3,001 on behalf of the Committee to Dr. Swaminatha Iyer.
Two interesting gifts received were a cheque for Rs 501 sent by an anonymous donor, with a request that it be utilised by Dr. Swaminatha Iyer towards penning his memoirs in the form of a book and a 60-year-old stylus presented by R. Krishna Rao Bhonsle on behalf of the Board of Studies in Tamil and Kannada of the Andhra University.
Addresses in tastefully done gold and silver caskets were presented on behalf of several organisations such as the Madras Tamil Pandits Sangam, the Sanskrit Academy, the Madras Library Association and the Tamil Lexicon Committee. The Old Boys Association of the Kumbakonam College (where Dr. Swaminatha Iyer had taught for 23 years) and the Tamil students of the Presidency College (where he took up employment in 1903 on his transfer to Madras) presented addresses too, as did the students of Loyola College and the Government Mahomedan College.
Sir Mohammad Usman, the Chief Guest of the evening, unveiled the portrait (executed by artist Dorai), which had been presented to the Senate by the Tiruppanandal Adheenam, a prominent patron of the Tamil language. Paying rich tributes to Dr. Swaminatha Iyer, Sir Mohammad Usman noted that it was thanks to the Tamil scholar’s efforts that the Adheenam had instituted a scholarship of Rs 1,000 to be awarded every year to the student who stood first in the Vidwan’s examination. The portrait was received by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Madras, R. Littlehailes who, in his address, recognised the scholar’s achievements and took great pride in the fact that the University had conferred a Doctorate on him a few years earlier for his services to the Tamil language.
In his acceptance speech, Dr. Swaminatha Iyer gratefully acknowledged all the praise and gifts received, and humbly submitted that these were to be attributed to the love of the donors for the Tamil language. He added that his success was largely due to his master Meenakshisundaram Pillai and recalled the help he had received from various people in the course of his journey, mentioning in particular Thyagaraja Chettiar, the Tamil Pandit who had recommended his name for the post of Tamil teacher at Kumbakonam College.
Copies of the 64-page special issue brought out by the Kalaimagal magazine, to which Dr. Swaminatha Iyer was a regular contributor, were presented to the gathering. A concert by Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar provided a fitting finale to the grand celebrations.
The celebrations were not restricted to Madras city. Meetings were held across several places in the Presidency such as Kumbakonam, Erode, Madurai and Tirunelveli to commemorate the occasion. Celebrations were also held at Rangoon and Jaffna, where a portrait of Dr. Swaminatha Iyer was unveiled at the Kala Nilayam Hall, evidencing the far-reaching impact of his work.