K.A. Nilakanta Sastri

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K.A. Nilakanta Sastri


A brilliant scholar, reputed for his massive works on South Indian history, K.A. Nilakanta Sastri was one of the most illustrious Indian historians of the 20th century. His books remain widely read, and his contributions helped unearth the cultural inter-connections between South and North India.

K.A. Nilakanta Sastri

K.A. Nilakanta Sastri
Date of death 15 June 1975
Death place Madras
Date of birth 12 August 1892
Birth place Kalidaikurichi, Tirunelveli, British India

South Indian history has often been caught up in doldrums owing to political rifts and academic uncertainty, and few scholars have over the years shown the will to bring out a comprehensive and truthful history of this region. Perhaps the tallest among such luminaries is KA Nilakanta Sastri, whose scholarship and provenance is admired even decades after his works got published. Scholars from across ideological and historiographical spectrums acknowledge the sheer volume of work accomplished by Professor Shastri in his career, and his contributions still carry a lot of heft in modern academia.

Career

Born on August 12, 1892 into a Telugu Niyogi family in the Tirunelveli district, Sastri pursued History from Hindu College, Tirunelveli. Later, secured an MA degree from the renowned Madras Christian College in 1913.

From 1913 to 1918, he worked as a lecturer in the Hindu College, Tirunelveli. After a brief two-year stint as History professor in the newly-inaugurated Banaras Hindu University (BHU), he was appointed as Principal of Meenakshi College, Chidambaram. From 1929 to 1947, Sastri served the University of Madras as a Professor in Ancient Indian History and archaeology. Through the span of these two decades, Sastri’s scholarship fetched him worldly acclaim. He became a veritable colossus in the study of South Indian history, and his reputation only enhanced after his retirement from the University of Madras. He served as Professor of Indology in the University of Mysore from 1948 to 1956, and in 1953 was also invited to visit Malaya to oversee the development of the Department of Indian studies in the University of Malaya.  In 1959, he was a Visiting Professor in the University of Chicago, USA. Taking note of his prolific contributions towards Indian history writing, Professor Sastri was awarded the prestigious Padma Bhushan in 1958.

Sastri wrote as many as 150 research papers and 22 books. He nurtured a deep interest in South Indian political history, and wrote extensively on the cultural ties between South India and South-east nations. In fact, he passed away in 1975 as an Honorary member of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.[ref]

Legacy

Professor Shastri’s academic contributions need to be located in the political context in which he operated. South India, in the early decades of the twentieth was witnessed significant political developments that shape the contemporary situation in the region as well. In the 19th century, British writers like F.W. Ellis and Bishop Robert Caldwell wrote essays constructing a folk identity for non-Brahmans, projecting them as inheritors of a ‘buried Dravidian culture’. Fault-lines between Brahmins and non-Brahmins only deepened with the onset of the 20th century. With the national movement stirring up the populace, a parallel movement exhorting an indigenous Tamil identity gained currency in South India.

With EV Ramaswamy Naicker exiting the Congress in 1925 and initiating the self-respect movement, divisions had reached a crescendo. One decisive factor underpinning these ruptures was (and continues to be) a skewed perspective of history highlighting Tamil culture as entirely indigenous, having no connections whatsoever with North Indian (Brahmanical) culture. Professors like Shastri courageously combated such divisive theories, and brought the numerous connections between South Indian and North Indian cultures. 

Not that Sastri was not swayed by political compulsions. In the early stages of his career, Sastri- echoing the general impulse of his times- argued for a distinct Tamil culture. However, he later significantly diluted his statement, claiming that the most striking feature of the Sangam Age was its ‘composite quality’ which was the ‘result of two originally distinct cultures, best described as Aryan and Dravidian’. By the 1940s, he further asserted that ‘Sanskrit is the pivot of our whole culture, and Tamil is no exception to the rule’. This way, he resolutely stood his ground inspite of the political situation that shrouded his career.[ref]

Criticism

Nilakanta Shastri, despite setting such lofty standards of scholarship, had his own limitations. His identity as a Brahmin may have shaped his historical outlook, bringing an element of bias into his academic works. Noboru Karashima notes that 'as a Brahmin, his inclination was to emphasise the role of North Indian and Sanskrit culture in the development of South Indian society'. [ref]

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