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Passion for Dravidian words impoverished him

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Twenty-five years ago, Njattyela Sreedharan, a school drop-out, set out on a journey in search of words. The idea was to compile a dictionary connecting four major Dravidian languages, namely Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu. Travelling across four states and learning Kannada, Tamil and Telugu on his own, he finally finished the work of the multilingual dictionary in 2018.

Titled Chathur Dravida Bhasha Nighandu (Dictionary of Four Dravidian Languages), this unique dictionary offers a comparative study of Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil and Telugu. However, no one came forward to publish it because Sreedharan didn’t know how to promote his work. After all, he did it mainly due to his love for languages.

It was during this time, Nandan, a young civil engineer-filmmaker, met Sreedharan in Thalassery where he lives. He made a documentary about Sreedharan. Titled Dreaming of Words, the documentary traces Sreedharan’s life, work, love for languages and the struggles to get the dictionary published. After seeing the documentary, a senior citizen’s forum came forward and published the first edition of 500 copies of the multilingual dictionary in 2021. The dictionary is currently undergoing scrutiny at the Kerala Bhasha Institute for a second edition.

Sreedharan is happy that he could bring out Chathur Dravida Bhasha Nighandu (Dictionary of Four Dravidian Languages) as he wished. “The idea was to make a dictionary connecting the four languages with the similarities and dissimilarities between them. So I was in constant search of words. Some came to me fast, but at the same time some took even months,” said Sreedharan, who was born in Kerala’s Thalassery in 1938.

Titled Chathur Dravida Bhasha Nighandu (Dictionary of Four Dravidian Languages), this unique dictionary offers a comparative study of Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil and Telugu

After dropping out from the Kodiyeri Junior Basic School while studying in Class 4, Sreedharan went to work in a beedi-making unit, the refuge of school-dropouts those days. The workers in the beedi-making units would discuss what was happening around them. The atmosphere influenced young Sreedharan, who continued his study and passed Class 8 by appearing privately. He got a job at the Public Works Department of Kerala when he was 22 years old. It was while working in Palakkad he got a chance to learn Tamil. “I used to get Malayalam and Tamil newspapers in Palakkad. There was a Tamil barber who helped me learn Tamil. I would walk into his tiny salon when he was free, and he would teach me Tamil,” said Sreedharan.

Njattyela Sreedharan

To learn Kannada, Sreedharan would shuttle from Kasargod (where he was working) to Kannur by train. “My job was to take blueprints, which I did during the night. So there was no problem if I was not in my office during the day,” he added. After learning Tamil and Kannada, Sreedharan started learning Telugu. “Finding a Telugu newspaper or magazine in Kerala was difficult. So I went to Pondicherry (today’s Puducherry) where a lady from Yanam taught me the language,” he said. The multilingual dictionary has words in four languages: Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu. It is easy to find out the meanings and usages of a word in other languages.

Also Read: C Parasuraman and his long love affair with spoken Tamil

Sreedharan’s journey in search of words took him more than 25 years. It was difficult for Nandan to include all his experiences in a 60-minute-documentary. “If you are making a film on a building or a sport, you will have a lot of visual elements to show. Sreedharan spent most of the time in his room when he was not travelling. He even kept himself away from his friends and relatives because he only knew the seriousness of his job. So we had to recreate his journey.

We revisited the places in the three states where he stayed,” said Nandan. “Dreaming of Words had its world premiere at the International Mother Language Day Celebrations 2021, organized by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and the Ministry of Education in partnership with UNESCO. It was screened at the DC South Asian Film Festival, RapidLion Film Festival and Micheaux Film Festival. The documentary won the National Film Award for Best Educational Film in 2020.

Sreedharan said he was grateful to Nandan for making a documentary based on his life and struggles. “He spent a lot of time with me. It was after getting an idea of the dictionary, he started shooting. I am happy that the documentary helped me reach more people,” said Sreedharan. However, the 25-year-long initiative cost him a lot of money. He had to borrow from many people. With an empty pocket coupled with old-age related illness, this 84-year-old is today struggling to make ends meet. “This is a one-of-a-kind of dictionary in India. I spent a lot of money to make it but I haven’t got any help from the state (Kerala) government. I don’t have any source of income, barring a small pension. I don’t know how to survive,” he said, holding a copy of the dictionary close to his heart.

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