I was saddened to learn yesterday that my friend and colleague Bernard Bate passed away. A scholar in his prime in his mid-fifties, Barney (as he was known) was a model of vitality, health, optimism. On paper, Barney’s story is straightforward: A Chicago anthropology alumn with a speciality in Tamil oratory, he taught at Yale before moving to Yale-NUS, an innovative liberal arts college in Singapore where Yale and the National University of Singapore created a unique curriculum combining Western and Eastern classical traditions. His book, Tamil Oratory and the Dravidian Aesthetic says a lot about Barney: It’s sly reference to Weber encapsulates the mix of playfulness and profound depth that marked Barney’s scholarship. The book is also a homage to Barney’s deep personal commitment to Tamil as a language, Madurai as a place, and to the global Tamil-speaking community.
But it is really in this YouTube clip where you can catch a sense of Barney’s remarkable personality. Asked by the interviewer what duty Tamil speakers have to preserve their language, Barney immediately turns the question around. “I wouldn’t put it like that,” he says. “What joy of preserving your language, I would say. I mean, it’s not a really a duty.” And then, switching into Tamil, he walks the walk by talking the talk, ending with the line “it’s your duty to enjoy your language.”