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Endowed professorship in Tamil language created at SBU

A Setauket couple funds study of the 2,000-year-old language, spoken by millions across South Asia, to further cultural understanding.

A Setauket computer scientist, Bala Swaminathan, and his wife, Prabha, have created an endowed professorship to research the culture, art and history of Tamil, one of the world's oldest languages, at Stony Brook University. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

As a boy growing up in southern India, Bala Swaminathan was sent off to school whispering verses from the Thirukkural, a classic book of virtues written in the ancient language of Tamil.

Among the text’s teachings, called Kurals, Swaminathan often heard: “Whatever we earn is to provide for others who do not have the same opportunities.”

Now a 49-year-old analyst at Renaissance Technologies and living in South Setauket, Swaminathan and his wife, Prabha, have funded the creation of the Anandavalli and Dr. G. Swaminathan Endowed Research Professorship in Tamil at Stony Brook University.

The endowed professorship is in honor of his parents, who are from Subbulapuram, a hamlet of only about 300 families south of Madurai, one of the most populous cities in southern India.

The 2,000-year-old Tamil language — nearly as old as Hebrew — is spoken by more than 70 million people in a diaspora that has its main origins in India, Sri Lanka and Singapore, where it is among the official languages.

Few colleges and universities offer students the opportunity to study Tamil, even though the language has been compared to Sanskrit and its literature holds the potential to provide insight into an ancient civilization.

“Tamil language is more than something to speak,” Bala Swaminathan said. “It harbors a culture’s history and traditions, and perpetuates identity and pride. Ultimately, when its wisdom is shared, Tamil language creates better cross-cultural understanding and cooperation.”

Unlike the Indo-European languages of northern India, those who identify as Tamils, like Swaminathan, have completely distinct and different festivals, traditions, clothing, music and architecture.

Stony Brook University is home to a robust and diverse course of study in languages and literature of Southeast Asia — and it is expanding. There are several local and national cultural organizations devoted to promoting the Tamil heritage, but Harvard University stands as one of the only institutions with academic courses in the language.

While the Tamil professorship will support the curriculum in SBU’s College of Arts and Sciences, the university also is home to an India Studies program started in 1995, and the Mattoo Center for India Studies was founded in the College of Arts and Sciences in 1997.

Swaminathan emigrated in 1990 to the United States as an international graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. After earning a doctorate in computer science in the midst of the dot.com boom of the mid-1990s, he tried and failed at launching a successful startup company three times — before he got it right and sold his company to a larger one. He and Prabha married in 1997. They have two sons.

He was living in Dallas when he was recruited to work at Renaissance Technologies. The couple has been living in the Setauket area since 2002.

In 2005, the Swaminathans started teaching Tamil in the basement of their home to two children and grew it into the New York Tamil Academy, which has an enrollment of 40 and meets each Saturday at Mills Pond Elementary School in Smithtown.

Creating the professorship in Tamil at Stony Brook seemed like a natural extension of their mission to sustain the language and culture. They expect the program to begin when they find a professor, which will likely be later in the year, they said.

The minimum gift for an endowed professorship at SBU is $750,000 with an annual impact of $33,750, according to the university’s advancement office website.

Creating more opportunities to fund scholarships and endowed professorships has been a major focus at the university, as there are fewer higher education dollars to invest in diversifying the curriculum and attracting top faculty talent.

SBU President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. said there are 51 endowed professorships universitywide and he hopes to reach 100. The university is in the midst of a $600 million capital campaign that will close in June.

“We are a global university, and we have had an interest for expanding our study of India studies and cultures that have a real impact on our world,” Stanley said. “Having light shown on the contributions on this culture in our world as a whole is one of the things a university should do.”

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