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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Navigating identities: a look into the Varam Tamil Student Association

Club founded in Spring 2024 has over 30 members so far
Courtesy of Nandini Kritam

Harshada Nagarajan, a junior psychology and public health major, and Krithika Sasikumar, a junior biochemistry & molecular biology and psychology major, were sitting in Hampshire Dining Hall when they came up with the idea of the Varam Tamil Student Association (TSA). As students of Tamil-origin, the roommate-duo found it hard to feel included in South Asian spaces on campus and realized something needed to change.

“I had a lot of Indian friends, but I always felt that there was a disconnect, just because [of those] cultural differences,” said Nagarajan, who is Malaysian-Tamil and Sri Lankan-Tamil.

Tamil or Tamizh is one of the longest-surviving classical languages in the world and originates from South India. When the country was colonized by the British, numerous Indian communities, including Tamils, were enslaved and forced to work as indentured laborers across the world. Now, Tamil is recognized as an official language in India, Sri Lanka and Singapore, and there are rooted communities in countries like Malaysia, Mauritius and South Africa.

Despite a large Indian population on campus, Nagarajan felt that the community was predominantly North Indian, and if there were South Indian events, it would feature mostly Telugu (another South Indian language) culture.

“I feel like at times, the South Indian community is very lost in [Indian events] so we wanted to bring more representation on campus,” Nagarajan said.

As a student from India, Sasikumar has found that most students at UMass, especially those from different Tamil lineage, have often had difficulty navigating their identity on campus, which is why she wanted to start the club. “I feel like they’re forced to just feel [at] home [in] home-sounding clubs … but it may not be what [they’re] looking for,” Sasikumar said.

Founded this spring, Varam TSA has over 30 active members and has hosted a variety of events this semester including a Tamil New Year celebration, a general body meeting, two fundraisers and two movie nights.

The five-membered executive board is currently working on developing their events for next year and are hoping to gain registered student organization status (RSO). Nandini Kritam, Varam TSA’s secretary and a junior biochemistry and molecular biology major, said they joined the organization to “find more people who resonated with the same ideas as us … and to get more people in our community,” especially as someone from a predominantly white town.

The New Year celebration was their biggest event of the semester. It featured numerous Tamil foods like ‘Murukku’ (a crunchy snack) and had popular games like ‘Kallanga’ where people throw stones and catch it. There was also a ‘Kolam’ drawing segment, where students could use chalk to draw intricate designs significant to Tamil culture.

Their ‘Ghilli’ movie night was also a hit, with 50 in attendance. “It was so overwhelming but at the same time, I think it gives us hope [and] we can feel [that] support,” Sasikumar said.

“We just want to establish the Tamil community … it’s one of those things that flies underneath the radar very loosely, so we want to broadcast it, make it more present in the community, and show people [that] there is a population at the school,” Kritam said.

In the future, if they get RSO status, the group hopes to have a “Kollywood Night,” with Tamil movies playing and people dressing up as iconic characters. Kollywood is the name for the Tamil film industry.

The club is currently focusing on growing their membership and being more inclusive of Tamil students from countries outside of India as well. They hope to reach out to Tamil student clubs at other universities to better meet all their members’ needs.

They’re also hoping to collaborate with a Tamil language school in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, to host classes for their general body members. They also want to reach out to a local chapter of Tamil Sangam, a non-profit Tamil organization. Over the summer, they’re planning more Tamil-food fundraisers for the next academic year and some off-campus events.

TSA’s logo. Courtesy of Nandini Kritam.

As for the name and logo, ‘Varam’ is an auspicious word in the language, which means boon or blessing in English. “We didn’t want it to just be ‘UMass Tamil Student Association, we wanted to have some kind of uniqueness that also captured [the Tamil language],” Nagarajan said.

Their logo was inspired by a drawing of Tamil Thai, an allegorical personification of the Tamil language as a mother.

“She looked very just cultural and [was] something that you wouldn’t see in a movie with any [female] character … she was a dark-looking woman with long hair [and] was dancing. It was something that really was touching to me, especially having been raised religiously in India all my life,” Sasikumar said.

The letter used in the logo is unique to the language. Sasikumar played around with different colors and worked with artists from India to get to the ultimate design.

“I think our main goal is to spread awareness and have people celebrate [our culture] as a language, not [just] based on [a] country or region, and I think that’s one of the most unique things about [the Tamil community],” Nagarajan said.

Mahidhar Sai Lakkavaram can be reached at [email protected] and followed on X @Mahidhar_sl.

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