Temadura Tamil Osai ulagelaam paravum vagai seydhal vendum.” We have to work to take the sweet sound of Tamil all over the world.

These words of Tamil poet Subramania Bharatiyar have inspired two doctors in the United States to do exactly that. Cardiologist Vijay Janakiraman and oncologist Sundaresan Sambandam, both of Tamil origin, have been campaigning for three years to set up a Sangam professorship in Tamil at Harvard University in Massachusetts. This permanent endowment fund would enable the teaching of and research in Tamil literature and offer scholarships in the discipline at the 381-year-old institution.

Sangam literature comprises some of the earliest writings in Tamil, including a book on grammar and anthologies of poetry.

To set up the Harvard Tamil Chair, the doctors need to raise a minimum of $6 million (approximately Rs 40 crores), including recruitment fees, by June. Donations have poured in from Tamil communities in Hong Kong, Australia, Durban, Taiwan and elsewhere. Last month, the Tamil Nadu government announced a sum of Rs 10 crores, or a little more than $1.5 million, for the campaign.

“We are now just another $1.5 million away from hitting our target,” said Vetriselvan, the global coordinator of the Chair. “Our goal now looks possible.”

How it all began

The idea of a Harvard Tamil Chair took root in a conversation Janakiraman had with Tamil scholar Vaidehi Herbert four years ago. The two met at an award ceremony conducted by the Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America where Herbert was being felicitated for her translated works of Sangam Tamil poetry.

Janakiraman – who is from Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu and has a practice in Pennsylvania – expressed a desire to contribute to the spread of the Tamil language, especially Sangam literature. When Herbert mentioned that Harvard University did not have a permanent Tamil professorship, the idea stuck with Janakiraman.

His friend and collaborator Sambandam, who is also from Thanjavur district but has been living in Rhode Island for over 45 years now, said, “I believe it was a calling from Tamil.”

In October 2014, Janakiraman applied to set up an endowment with the Department of South Asian Studies at Harvard University. The proposal was accepted the following year. Parimal G Patil, who heads the Department of South Asian Studies, said in 2016 that the university was excited about the collaboration. In a letter accepting the proposal, Patil wrote, “… the Sangam Professorship will enable to study of Tamil to take its proper place at Harvard alongside the study of the other great literary traditions for which Harvard is renowned.”

Janakiraman and Sambandam together contributed a seed amount of $1 million for the Chair. Over the next few years, they managed to garner the support of entrepreneurs and industrialists from the Tamil community in the United States and Canada and formed a 10-member board of the Harvard Tamil Chair Inc, a registered non-profit organisation.

From left: Vijay Janakiraman, Sundaresan Sambandam and Vetriselvan are the driving forces behind the Harvard Tamil Chair campaign. (Credit: Harvard Tamil Chair Inc)
From left: Vijay Janakiraman, Sundaresan Sambandam and Vetriselvan are the driving forces behind the Harvard Tamil Chair campaign. (Credit: Harvard Tamil Chair Inc)

Gathering funds

The $4.5 million the group has raised thus far did not come easy. Vetriselvan, global coordinator of the Harvard Chair, said he had to constantly reinvent their fundraising strategy.

Apart from the $1-million seed money, the team managed to raise half a million dollars by December 2015. At this point, it started organising art and music competitions for children, cultural events and food festivals across the United States to catch the attention of Tamil organisations, schools and entrepreneurs. “With the help of the dedicated Tamil Chair board, strong volunteer support and my determination, we were able to take the cause global in a short time,” said Vetriselvan.

By the end of 2016, they had collected a total of $2.1 million.

They now receive donations from close to 20 countries and have volunteers there. The team has even composed a Harvard Tamil Chair Anthem to get more visibility.

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For more than two years, the team also reached out to the Tamil Nadu government for assistance. Their efforts elicited a promise from both the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam to support the Harvard Tamil Chair. Both parties included this promise in their manifestoes for the Assembly elections in 2016.

But there were disappointments along the way too. In June, the team had a fund-raising event in Chennai that was attended by celebrities from the film industry. “Though it was a grand event, not many people understood the cause,” said Vetriselvan. “We did not receive much monetarily out of it.”

Social media presence

To get more attention, Vetriselvan decided to boost the group’s social media presence. Till last year, the Harvard Tamil Chair Facebook page had 5,000 to 6,000 followers. After contacting popular social media pages, such as Chennai Memes, and getting them to publicise the cause, the number has now gone up to almost 70,000.

“We started a target-based campaign for 100,000 followers by the end of the year,” said Vetriselvan.

The group’s other target is to raise $1.5 million in 100 days, as their Facebook cover photograph explains. There are more ambitious goals ahead. The coordinator said plans are underway to “conduct 100 events in 100 days across 100 cities”.