Papers of influential Sri Lankan Tamil leader now digitally available in Tamil and English at UTSC library

Photo of S. J. V. Chelvanayakam from the Chelvanayakam archival collection at the U of T Scarborough Library.
Photo of Samuel James Velupillai (S. J. V.) Chelvanayakam from the Chelvanayakam archival collection at the U of T Scarborough Library.

Raquel A. Russell

The papers of S. J. V. Chelvanayakam – often referred to as the Gandhi of Sri Lankan Tamils – are now accessible for the first time in the digital collections of the U of T Scarborough Library. 

Many Sri Lankan Tamil books and collections were lost during the 26-year civil war that lasted from 1983 until 2009.  A major historical loss was the Jaffna Library, which, at the time of its burning, was one of the largest libraries in Asia housing over 97,000 books and manuscripts.  

In the early years of the conflict, Chelvanayakam's daughter Susili, a librarian in Sri Lanka and later in Canada, preserved his records.  

"I think she's the true hero in this story," says her daughter, Malliha Wilson.

"She salvaged the filing cabinets, had them kept safely somewhere and then transported them to where she was living in Fredericton, New Brunswick," says Wilson. 

It was after learning of Dr. Ravi Gukathasan $2 million donation to U of T Scarborough Tamil Studies through Scarborough—Rouge Park MP Gary Anandasangaree and former U of T Scarborough director of alumni relations Georgette Zinaty, that Wilson thought of the collection of her grandfather's papers sitting in her basement. 

"When I heard about Dr. Gukathasan's gift - I thought a safe and good place for this collection to reside would be in Toronto for many reasons," says Wilson. "One is, of course, you know, U of T is a fantastic university."

The second reason is geography. Toronto is home to the largest Tamil-speaking Sri Lankan diaspora outside of South India, many seeking refuge in Canada as they fled ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka during the war. 

The Chelvanayakam records, made up of documents, pamphlets and correspondence, offer insight into South Asian history and the life and times of the lawyer, "a towering parliamentarian and Sri Lankan Tamil leader,” says U of T historical and cultural studies professor, Bhavani Raman.

The records even include letters written to the parliamentarian from concerned citizens collected from 1943 until his death in 1977. 

"Father Chelva, as he was called," says Raman, "belonged to everyone." 

Chelvanayakam belonged to a generation of intellectuals and leaders of the Global South who were thinking about how to build democracy and how to build a future after the wreckage of colonialism, the withdrawal of empire, and the second world war, explains Raman. 

"This earlier period is not something that people know of in much detail," she says. "That's largely because materials like this have not been available in the public domain." 

People of a certain generation have personal memories of him, or a remembered connection to him, says Raman. She hopes that these records will fill in the blanks in collective memory, with the letters of ordinary Tamils who corresponded with Chelvanayakam, reflecting their experiences, struggles, and hopes of those times.

“Beyond Chelvanayakam himself, the multitude and diversity of ordinary voices in the archive offer an opportunity for a wide range of people today to enter into a conversation with it,” says Raman. 

The Chelvanayakam archives are also historically significant. The collection is the first in North America to contain both English and Tamil descriptions, while the archival finding aid, which describes the archive, and the digital collection, are both bilingual. 

Preserving these archives bilingually isn’t always common practice says, U of T Scarborough digital scholarship software developer Natkeeran Ledchumykanthan. Historically, description items are often solely in English, and the main audience would have been primarily North American and European.

It was important to make the collection as accessible as possible, particularly for Tamil speakers in Sri Lanka and the diaspora, says Ledchumykanthan.

"Scarborough is the place where this work can really happen in a more authentic way," says Ledchumykanthan. "Here, you serve the local community and the global community at the same time."

Stewardship of the collection was done in an ethical way to respect the materials, says Ledchumykanthan, especially considering the long history of colonizing Sri Lankan records, including the removal of palm leaf resources and artifacts. 

If the Chelvanayakam archives were only physical, researchers could not access the material as readily, while the pandemic has made in-person visits even more difficult. So stakeholders, including the consultative committee for the Digital Tamil Studies project made up from local and international Tamil scholars and information managers, chose to digitize a select portion of the archives.

Those interested in seeing the archive in person can book appointments once it is safe to do. 

On February 26, the collection officially launched through a free online webinar curated by Raman. Speakers included international and U of T experts on Chelvanayakam, Tamil history and struggles, Sri Lankan and South Asian history, and South Asian law and policymaking. A shorter version of the webinar will be shared online. 

Wilson, who also spoke at the launch, says the collection and the stories it contains are a testament to a people's endurance.

"Until Sri Lankan Tamil arrived in Canada, we have really not had a safe place to live in and to grow our language, our culture, and preserve our history," says Wilson. "As a result, we don't have much documentary information about our cultural history language." 

 "Any time we've had documents, cultural institutions or buildings of any sort - their safety has not been guaranteed."

If there’s anything else Wilson hopes is discovered through the archives, it would be the nature of her grandfather and the people he loved.

"I hope people see the Tamil people's dedication to democratic equality," says Wilson.