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Dr G. Thrivikraman Thampi, who taught Malayalam in various schools including Loyola, died 29 May at his residence in Parvathipuram (in Kanyakumari District), the Mathrubhumi newspaper reported yesterday.

Hat tip: Harikrishna M. (1994 ISC)

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Thampi Sir taught in Loyola in the late 1980s and 1990s. The bald schoolteacher with a doctorate degree stood above his colleagues, also literally — he was over six feet tall. The news of Thampi Sir being awarded a doctorate reached him when he was a teacher in Loyola. Hence, many of us know that it was awarded for his research on place-names, which has since been published as Sthalanama Padana Pravesika. (According to the Mathrubhumi obituary, he won it from a German university, but my recollection is that it was a Belgian one.) My brother, who was taught by Thampi Sir, always used to go ga-ga while discussing his Malayalam classes. Those less fortunate, like me, have to content ourselves with discovering Thampi Sir after his death.

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A neglected aspect of the much-praised student-teacher relationship of Loyola is that students know very little about their teachers. That neglect is most striking and shameful in the case of Dr Thampi, for he was a scholar who, even before he set foot in Loyola, had etched his name in the annals of Malayalam literature and Kerala historiography.

GTT was born on 23 September 1929 in Manavalakurichi, in Kanyakumari district of Travancore state. Growing up in a Tamil-speaking village in a state dominated by Malayalam speakers, GTT became proficient in Tamil and Malayalam. When Kerala state was created in 1956, his native village, along with other Tamil-speaking taluks, went from Travancore state to Madras state (renamed Tamil Nadu). But GTT began his teaching career in 1957 in Kerala. For the next four decades, he taught in various Nair Service Society schools and Loyola, Trivandrum. He also served as President of a cultural history organisation in Kanyakumari district.

Our generation will most likely remember GTT as a teacher. When we are gone, he will be remembered as a scholar and litterateur. His oeuvre comprised researched studies (on place names and ballads), a biography (M Rajaraja Varma), children’s literature (Bhoomi Enna Muthassi), on grammar (Vyaakaranavum Vrithaalankaarangalum), historical non-fiction (Mandaykkaadinte Charithram; in Tamil), and a historical novel (Aditya Varma; in Tamil). He also published articles in periodicals (including Malayali, Malayala Rajyam, Manorama, Vijnana Kairali, and Vachinad) and presented papers at seminars organised by the University of Kerala, the latter on studies of grammar and folk literature.

In 1984, the Kottayam-based Writers’ Cooperative published two works by GTT — Thiruvaathirakali Paattukal, and Valiyakesi Katha. The first was prompted by a “renaissance” of thiruvaathirakkali performances in youth festivals. GTT compiled several songs of this popular art form of southern Travancore (according to the book, the corresponding art of northern Kerala was kaikottikali) and wrote a researched article to accompany the compilation. The second (Valiyakesi Katha) is his most notable contribution. Valiyakesi Katha was a ballad that he had heard of when he was young. When GTT began his literary odyssey by going about collecting thekkan pattukal (literally, “songs of the south”; the vadakkan paattukal are more familiar to Malayalis), he had little hope of stumbling upon Valiyakesi Katha, estimated to be written around AD 1696. After several years, when he discovered this popular ballad of southern Travancore, he published it with his notes explaining the meaning and historical context of the composition. This work became a textbook for MA students of Malayalam, in Kerala University in the 1990s.

In 1999 and 2000, out came two studies on thekkan paatukal. The 1999 work — Thekkan Paattukal: Oru Padanam — was published by the Trichur-based Kerala Sahitya Akademi and is a good introduction to songs and ballads of southern Travancore. In less than 80 pages, GTT lucidly touches upon various aspects of the songs — their language, their descriptive styles, their themes (devotion, heroic exploits), their typology, and the method of writing on palm leaves (even how the leaves were readied and bound with wooden pieces). In it we enter the world of southern heroes like Eravikutty Pillai,  who match Thacholi Othenan of the northern ballads.

In contrast, GTT’s 2000 book — Thekkan Paattukal: Chila Adisthaana Chinthakal — published by the Trivandrum-based Rajarajavarma Bhashapadana Kendram, is not for just everyone. It is a sequel to the 1999 book, and intended for those who wish to go deeper into the linguistic and literary aspects of the songs. It is based on a study of 17 songs and ballads, that include those he found in books, unpublished scripts, and palm leaves; those he could recall; and those he heard from others. A dying tradition, some of these songs continue to be sung, in private temples in Kanyakumari district, every evening after deepaaraadhana. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the foreword to this scholarly book was written by GTT’s Loyola colleague, poet, critic, and my Malayalam teacher in high school K.V. Thikkurissi.

In his books, GTT lamented the neglect of the study of thekkan paattukal and in general, the literary culture of the past. “It is not just stories that we learn from the ballads. We can, in them, find the political conditions, cultural customs, and social history of that time. In these ballads, we can see the people of that era,” he wrote. These two recent works on songs of southern Kerala reveal a patient man who went about collecting songs, and decoding them, so that our past can be enjoyed by our future. His native soil was fertile to supply the knowledge of Tamil and Malayalam that such an enterprise called for, but the passion and persistence were cultivated.

It would be a fitting tribute to institute GTT prizes for researched essays in Malayalam by school children, on any aspect of Malayalam literature. GTT, who pored over songs written on palm leaves as well as quickie publications that appeared on pavement stalls will not object to the medium of the document — it can be a humble essay, a creative multimedia presentation, or one prepared for the mobile phone screen. As long as the research exercise fans the flames of curiosity and students learn more about their culture, Thampi Sir would be alive in Loyola, perhaps more meaningfully than he ever was.

This blogpost is based on an obituary in the Mathrubhumi (31 May 2009, p. 8), and four books by GTT.