Kindred Spirits

An unlikely friendship links the Volga and the Vaigai

Pankajam Sivaraman and Alexander Dubiansky, although thirty years apart in age, forged a kinship over two decades. Courtesy Kalpana Karunakaran
30 June, 2021

On 19 November 2020, the Indian embassy in Russia announced that Alexander Dubiansky, a professor of Tamil studies at Moscow State University, had died of COVID-19 at the age of 79. Dubiansky was a reputed scholar of the Tamil language and its literature, and the news of his death led to an outpouring of grief through social-media posts by writers, scholars and leaders across the political spectrum in Tamil Nadu. He was remembered as “an adopted son of Mother Tamil,” whose devotion to the language had “linked the Volga and the Vaigai rivers.”

Dubiansky’s scholarship contributed to, and was in turn shaped by, a rich exchange of ideas between Tamil and Russian writers, readers and scholars. D Ravikumar, a Tamil author and member of the Lok Sabha, wrote an extended obituary note for the journal Manarkeni, in which he placed Dubiansky’s work in the context of the shared scholarship that evolved through cross-cultural exchanges between India and the Soviet Union. The fall of the Soviet Union, which had actively promoted the study of Indian languages, precipitated a collapse of the institutions that had buttressed this relationship. As state patronage waned in Russia during the 1990s, individual researchers such as Dubiansky took on the mantle of preserving and reviving the ties forged by the two nations and their literary cultures.

Although his life was dedicated to the study of languages, Dubiansky’s daughter Tatiana Dubianskaya told me that his first love was music. He had been trained as a classical pianist but, after being conscripted into the army for three years, found that the interruption in his musical training made it impossible for him to pursue a professional career. A friend of his, a Sanskrit scholar, suggested that he take up the study of ancient civilisations instead. Dubiansky enrolled in Moscow State University’s Institute of Oriental Languages, which had just begun to teach Tamil. After years of applying for permission to travel to India—as Tatiana put it, studying foreign languages was often the only way for Soviet citizens to travel abroad—he was finally allowed to spend nine months at Madras University in 1978.

Dubiansky’s scholarship lay in the field of Sangam literature—the earliest corpus of Tamil writings, compiled between the first and third centuries CE. In his obituary, Ravikumar recalled that Dubiansky’s paper on the Tholkappiyam, a text on Tamil grammar, aroused much interest among participants at the World Classical Tamil Conference in Coimbatore, in June 2010. The paper, Ravikumar wrote, delineated what the text had borrowed from other texts as well as which elements were unique to the Tamil language. Dubiansky had shown, for instance, how writings in Tamil and Sanskrit reflected and echoed content in each other, and thus could not be considered mere translations.