Of wit and wisdom – An interaction with Solomon Pappaiah

This story was published today in The Times of India, Madurai

In a regular Tamil home, it’s a bi-annual ritual to watch Pattimandram, a televised debate, during Pongal and Diwali. As speakers make a passionate pitch about their point of view, the moderator interjects with a witty one-liner and the listeners burst into peals of laughter. Many who lis- ten to the star speakers of Pattimandrams wait for those meaningful and often humourous gems that come unexpectedly from its moderator Solomon Pappaiah.

In the several decades of his work, Solomon has been very empathetic towards issues faced by women in our society and he attributes this empathy to this upbringing. “I grew up ina compound house full of mill workers. When the men left the homes for work, the women would gather after finishing the household chores and talk about their daily issues. As children, we would also sit around and listen to them talk and many of those stories were sorrowful.Those discussions had a deep impact on me,” he says.

As a youngster he was highly impressed with the speeches delivered by various political leaders in Tamil Nadu. “Back in the 1950s, the Congress was a mighty force to reckon with. The Communists and the DMK formed a vehement opposition against them and the speeches of their leaders were very powerful. I was very fond of the speeches of Anna and Karunanidhi. But then, all the political parties soon had chinks in their armour and to- day, my connection with politics is only limited to casting my vote.Yes, when people meet, we do discuss a few re- cent developments but nothing beyond that,” he says.

While he made Madurai and its Tamil heritage the centre of his life as a professor of Tamil at the American College in the city, he was often asked to explore new territories. “I was told to move to Chennai to improve my career prospects. But I hesitated from doing so as my family and all that mattered to me were in Madurai. There are more Tamil-centred activities and organisations here and I felt all this was enough for me,” he says.

While Tamil is dear, in hindsight, he feels opposing Hindi wasn’t an intelligent move either. “Hating another language is uncalled for. Hindi is also a language of our country. Back then, I loved the idea of Hindi opposition because it meant one subject less to learn in school and college. But knowing a language does no harm to your culture. Perhaps by engaging with Hindi rather than hating it, we could have done more as Tamilians in other cities to promote our culture.”

Unlike many moderators, Solomon’s interventions are thoughtful and mostly humorous. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he changed the nature of pattimandrams with his choice of topics, moving from history and classics to social issues. “The change was well thought out. Back then, pattimandrams were very literary and ornamental in nature. It was a good way to pass your time but it didn’t result in any social impact. But then, it’s tough to bring change through discussions too.” Such discussions have taken him across the world, to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, France, Middle East, England, Kenya, US and Australia.

Televised pattimandrams have also garnered more viewers. “My first show was for Madras Doordarshan in 1982 but it was not possible to view it beyond Villupuram.Two years later, I did another pattimandram, which was telecast across the state, which brought me fame. But this format is increasingly becoming just about time-pass. Also, on television, with its time constraints, the depth is lost. ”

Another major influence on him have been epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. “My father would read the Mahabharata regularly and would even discuss it with us very often. These are stories of our land and regardless of our religion, they belong to us.”

Madurai, built around the Meenakshi Amman temple, has had a strong impact on his personality. “The temple is very special for me.The spiritual air of its precincts makes me feel at peace. There are several festivals here that are a part of our lives. Pattimandrams, as a part of the temple festivals, would start at 10pm and go on till late in the night, with men and women in the audience. And a Maduraikaaran is an avid listener. Pattimandrams have shaped the nature of discussion in this city.”

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