G. Thrivikraman Thampi, Schoolteacher and Scholar, Dies at 79

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.

20 Comments

  • Ashok,

    Really sorry to hear the news. Its quite unfortunate that many of us were not aware of his body of work. I knew about Sthalanama Padana Pravesika and actually consulted it at some point for the history of some names. Don’t recall now if I got a copy from him or bought one from the store. I also remember being fascinated by his knowledge of the history behind the Padmanabhapuram Palace in a conversation I had with him – did we all do a trip there? Don’t recall now the reason for that conversation, but I remember being amazed at what all he knew about it.

    One of the problems of “English Medium” education was that the mother tongue never really enjoyed the place of prominence that it rightly should have. I often wonder how one can reconcile the two – getting folks to learn in their mother tongue and also making them proficient in English. Probably schooling could be exclusively in the mother tongue until Junior school.

    Irrespective of all that, I do miss the fact that I did not get to learn from him since I took Hindi as my “second language” elective. Like many other things in life, your options choose you sometimes, not vice versa.

    My thoughts are with his near and dear ones – hope He gives them the strength to see this through.

  • Ashok,

    This is sad news… I have been fortunate to have attended malayalam classes taken by Thampi sir. We used to be quite scared of him since he had a serious air about him. It was near impossible to be distracted in his classes since he was a strict disciplinarian too… I would say that he falls into that category of teachers who are equally respected and feared. But overall he was a scholar who maintained a simple lifestyle.

    On a related note, dont you feel that Loyola of the 1980s-90s was very fortunate to have an excellent contingent of Malayalam teachers, each one unique in his style of teaching – Thankappan Nair sir, Thikkurissi sir, Thampi sir and P K Sebastian sir ? However, did that really result in a generation of students with even a marginal interest in the language or its literature?

  • Ashok, for me it is poignant that you based your post in part on the Mathrubhumi’s obituary. As a student in junior school, I had observed Thampi sir while traveling home in the school bus. I did not know much about him at that time – not even his name. Then one day, I noticed the photograph of a familiar looking person in that day’s Mathrubhumi. It was a snippet announcing that a certain G. Thrivikraman Thampi had just received his Ph.D. I remember excitedly showing the article to my parents and telling them that the new Doctor of Philosophy was a teacher in my school.

    Thampi sir was my class’s Malayalam teacher in the fifth and sixth standards – so his first class with us must have been in May 1988, more than twenty-one years ago. In that class, Thampi sir explained to us the origin of the word ‘Malayalam’. “Mala”, we knew meant hills or mountains. “Aalam”, he explained to us, is Tamil for “Aazham” or depth, the root of the word “Aazhi” which means ocean. Even after twenty-one years, I still remember that lecture. He got our class’s undivided attention and my lifelong respect in those 40 minutes.

    A teacher’s greatest challenge is to develop excitement about his subject among his students. He did that with great effect.

    In the two years that I was in his class, I have observed many facets of the man’s personality. He was a no nonsense disciplinarian and did not tolerate any behavior in poor taste from the boys. There was no fooling around with him.

    He was humorous and quick witted. Once when in his class, after he was done with the lesson, I asked him how many minutes remained for the lunch break, he stared at me bemusedly, and exclaimed “Eda Shaappaattu Raama!”, sending the whole class into a laughing fit.

    He was a great motivator. In one of his papers in the fifth standard, there was an essay about the topic ‘Keralam’. He singled out one of our classmates for praise after the evaluation. The object of his praise was a person known to be proficient in English, but like many of us, a little linguistically challenged in his mother tongue. What impressed Thampi sir the most about his essay was that he had begun it with the sentence: “Njaan Keralathil jeevikkunnu.” He asked the rest of the class to reflect on the beauty and depth of that simple sentence. He made us see what he saw in that sentence. We were inspired.

    There was a Gandhian simplicity about him. He always wore white shirts with rolled up sleeves and plain white mundus. As far as I can remember he was always barefooted. He wore an old wind-up watch with a yellowing dial. He was a literary scholar, but did not try to intimidate us with bombast. He spoke in a clear and simple manner. Whether it was Vallathol, Pala Narayanan Nair, ONV or Bodheshwaran, his parsing of their poems made the experience of understanding poetry enjoyable.

    He was one of my favorite and most admired teachers in Loyola. I am profoundly saddened by his passing. I hope he remains forever in the memories of his students.

  • Only faint memories abt thampi sir and thikkurishi sir. May his soul rest in peace.

    Although there are contact id’s of old teachers in the website, It would be nice if an article can be written about each one of them (but I cant figure out how!), so that the current batches would come to know such great teachers once taught in Loyola..

    Nice article!. Your blog makes me very nostalgic!
    Matt

  • Anand’s point about the medium debate (English vs mother tongue) is a tough nut. Even though I’ve heard/read many arguing for mother tongue in Junior School, I am not convinced — if only we knew of schools that have achieved a good balance. I feel, for schools like Loyola, it’s possible to ensure basic Read-Write-Speak ability in two languages by the time a student finishes high school.

    Sandeep raised the issue of interest in Malayalam and its literature. The number of Loyolites who went on to do BA Malayalam would be a single digit. A few more would have read (by now) a good number of classics. But the vast majority, I suspect, would have celebrated the last Malayalam exam in school, only to rue the neglect later in life. Though Loyola’s Malayalam teachers were not really exam oriented (in the 1980s), I think student energies were focused on clearing the exams. Many of us found the subject tough, if I recall rightly. So, to love the language and its literature was not a central concern.

    Deepak, thank you very much for adding to the post with your observations of Thampi sir, and anecdotes from his classes. The Gandhian simplicity, I believe, also prevented him from boasting about his academic and literary adventures.

    Matt, thank you. An article on each teacher is a good suggestion. Many are still alive and might not want an unvarnished portrait on the Web 🙂 So, I try to present facets of teachers, or approach their life-story from an unusual angle, with a post now and then. Teachers of Thampi sir’s stature are rare, in any case.

  • Anand – about your point on the “second language” – it’s six of one, a half dozen of the other.

    Going into the point where we had to make the decision on choosing the second language – I remember being at or near the top of the class in Hindi, and close to the last in Malayalam. I chose Malayalam because I thought it would be a long term investment – being a malayalee, you ought to be able to pick up a newspaper and read it, which I couldn’t at that point.

    Finally, I ended up knowing enough to survive, but not to excel (in either Malayalam or Hindi).

    The biggest memory I have of Thampi Sir (apart from being completely scared of him) was an incident in 7th grade (I think). We had to do an essay on how Onam is celebrated. I had a description of how the pookkalam is created. He called me over because he was puzzled by the sequence of steps I described. The fact is that I was wrong, but I stood fast and claimed that’s how it’s done in Kottayam (where I used to spend Onam holidays).

    Thinking back, the cool thing about Thampi sir was his intellectual curiosity. He could have been dismissive and called me out, but he probably figured it’s something he needs to go research. There aren’t a lot of teachers who would admit to a 7th grader that their knowledge is not limitless 🙂

  • May his soul rest in peace.

    I really wonder as to how many teachers of Thampi sir’s stature would be so humble.

    I actually came to know that Thampi Sir hailed from Kanyakumari District (where my native place also is) during my school days in the 8th or 9th. At that time, it filled me with wonder wonder that he was proficient in both languages.

    I remember the time when cine artist Thikurrishi had been a Chief Guest for the Onal celebrations at Loyola. He said that though he also used to write poetry he was nowhere in the league of either Thampi Sir or Thikkurisshi Sir.

  • Thanks for the article, Ashok.

    I joined Loyola in ’97 and needless to say, didn’t get to know Thampi Sir.

    The senior Malayalam teachers from our days were Annie Ma’am (has she retired?) and Anil Kumar Sir, both of whom held very engaging classes. And in our batch only two chose Hindi as the second language, only to return to Malayalam in a week or two 🙂

    There was another teacher, Sadashivan Sir, who with his luxuriant white beard and erudite manners, looked every bit a literary giant. We couldn’t find out more as he taught us only for some weeks before leaving Loyola. Can anyone elaborate a bit on him as well?

  • ashok, deepak wonderful tribute to a great person.

    Based in a place where the pass percentage in the nearest school was a miserable 8%(15 out of 190 students passed their 10th exam), one can only but look back with a lot of gratitude for people like Thampi sir who gave us such a tremendous gift early in our lives.

  • Small incidents, big lessons. Looking forward to more anecdotes.

    Thampi sir was feared, that much I recall. Do you know of any incident where he actually punished guys cruelly? Was he really strict? Or was it a misperception?

  • In my view, Thampi sir was feared by many boys because he knew boys rather well and could sniff malicious intent in seemingly innocuous acts. There were physical punishments, but they were well within the ambit of the school’s policies at that time. However, his punishment methods were at times innovative. Here’s one:

    One of my classmates was, for reasons I can’t remember, punished with what we referred to then a ‘imposition writing’. He would have to write an entire poem ten times, but with three constraints. He could use only a pencil, the ten iterations had to be on the same side of a sheet of notebook paper, and the whole thing had to be legible. By forcing him to write in that manner, Thampi sir said, the erring student would face three losses, which in his words were: samaya-nashtam, aarogya-nashtam and dhana-nashtam. In my view, cruelty-free punishments like that would be enough to arouse fear in most eleven year olds.

  • Hi Ashok, an eye opener truly.. all that i knew of this great man was that he used to teach a language which was not my favourite subject :).. unfortunately such acheivements of teachers are not highlighted in Loyola.. indeed great work .. thanks a lot ..

  • Thampi Sir taught my class once, when I was in the 6th or the 7th. I’ll never forget 2 incidents – once when he tried to make me see the difference between the two “Ra” sounds in malayalam (I struggled with malayalam sounds as I am a native Tamil) much to the bemusement of the class, and the next when he caught me out for reading out from someone else’s homework. I had taken pains to do the homework myself, but chickened out from presenting it at the last minute because my malayalam was (and is still) very bad and I thought I would make a fool of myself. That was the only time I’ve ever faced corporal punishment. The scar from his “pinch” lingered for a few days. But he had a private talk with me later and pointed out why I was wrong, quite gently. Now, I’m no fan of corporal punishment, but if I were, I might say that I deserved what I got :). Looking back, I have no reasons to believe his motives were malicious. I don’t think he enjoyed doling out such punishments, but he probably came from a generation that thought that there were circumstances when such punishments were warranted, indeed, necessary.

    I never knew about his scholarly works. Thanks for the article.

  • Excellent recap of the accomplishments of a man whose body of work is a testament of scholarship and pride, in what essentially seems to be, of Dravidian culture and language. To chip in with others on this thread, the teaching of Malayalam was introduced in Loyola during the mid to late 60’s probably due to Fr.E.Kuncheria acknowledging the mood of the South during the Tamil language riots of the time. I remember studying Malayalam as a “third” language, relegated to that place since Hindi was the only other second language apart from German and French offered by the ISC board of those days. By Std 8 after learning Nallam Padom that came to an end. Who knows with the likes of Dr.Thrivikraman Thambi I might have been inspired to learn more of my mother tongue. I know, just blame it on the system aka school for any shortcomings one has over time.<:)

  • Ashok, Nice that you have paid tribute to an elderly person who made rich contributions to our Mother tongue.

  • Thank you Deepak and Srikanth for your anecdotes and musings, which help us understand Thampi sir. A few Loyolites, on reading the post and the anecdotes, contacted me via e-mail and conveyed their happiness at this post.

    Peter, nice of you to add the view from the 1960s. One of the weaknesses of this blog has been the relative silence on the 1960s. I hope others from that era will follow Peter’s example.

    Sureshchetta, thank you for dropping by.

  • First let me introduce myself.My name is Anil.I am a doctor.i was also a loyolite.rather say am.i passed out in 1996.i really had the pleasure and the honour of being taught by loyolas finest .but the demise of Thampi sir is like a shock to me.not only to me but to everyone who personally new him.
    To say abt GTT sir,the only thing hat comes to my mind is A legend who comes by once in a lifetime.He holds a special position in my heart along with Fr pullickal.In GTT sir’s class if u sit there ,he will take u on a journey to places where u can never imagine of tredding.anyway we will miss u sir.Thank u sir for all u have done for us.

  • Ashok,

    Let me introduce myself….1990 SSLC…

    Indeed a great loss may be for the generations following….My marks for SSLC in Malayalam was 90/100, the great man GTT when I went to show him that told me ” I am not happy with whatever you have got””

    Still remembering the Bus No.1 coming down at 9.05 with Thampi Sir in a side seat at the back……

    May the god almighty give all strength for his Family to move forward.

  • Thank you, Anil for sharing your thoughts.

    Harshan, oru introduction aavashyamilla 🙂 Interesting anecdote. Yes, Thampi Sir in Bus No.1 is one of my memories too.

  • I know it’s too late for a comment, but still..
    Thampi sir was one of our finest teachers.
    He taught us when we were in the sixth grade. We had a text book supplement (or ‘Non-Detailed’) – “Bharathiya pancha maha prathibhakal”, which dealt with the lives and works of 5 Indian scientists. This has been by far the toughest book I ever had to live with. It had some of the longest and tongue-twister words (like vellakullanmar and birudanantharabirudam) in Malayalam.

    While teaching this book, Thampi sir would randomly pick some student to read a lesson aloud to the whole class. He used to be intolerant to broken reads (with long pauses within sentences) and mistakes in ucharanam; and at the same time would appreciate a good reading.

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