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Kallidaikurichi Aiyah Nilakanta Sastri (12 August 1892 – 15 June 1975) was an Indian historian who wrote on South Indian history. Many of his books form the standard reference works on the subject. Sastri was acclaimed for his scholarship and mastery of sources and was a recipient of the third highest Indian civilian honour of Padm Bhushan.
Nilakanta Sastri was born in a poor Brahmin family in Kallidaikurichi near Tirunelveli, on 12 August 1892. He completed his FA in M.D.T Hindu College, Tirunelveli and his college education in Madras Christian College.
Sastri obtained his MA by coming first in the Madras Presidency. He joined the Hindu College as lecturer in 1913 where he taught till 1918.He served as Professor of History, Banaras Hindu University from 1918 to 1920.After that he became the Principal of the (then) newly started Arts College of Annamalai University.In 1929, he was employed as Professor of History at National College, Trichy. The same year, he succeeded Sakkottai Krishnaswamy Aiyangar as the Professor of History and Archaeology at the Madras University, a post he held till 1946.He was the Professor of Indology (Currently renamed as Department of History and Archaeology) at the University of Mysore from 1952 to 1955. He was appointed as the ex-officio Director of Archaeology for the Mysore State in 1954. He was also the President of the All-India Oriental Conference in the early 1950s.From 1957 to 1972, he served with the UNESCO’s Institute of Traditional Cultures of South East Asia, as the Director of the institute. In 1957, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian honour. In the summer of 1959, he was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago where he delivered a series of lectures on South Indian History .Nilakanta Sastri died in 1975.
Nilakanta Sastri is regarded as the greatest and most prolific among professional historians of South India. Tamil historian A R Venkatachalapathy regards him as “arguably the most distinguished historian of twentieth-century Tamil Nadu”.
Sastri’s A History of South India is a recommended textbook for university students of Indian history. In a preface to the 2013 reprint, historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam describes the book thus
a classic work, which retains its importance and has never quite been replaced. It shows the author’s mastery over a huge set of sources, which placed him head and shoulders above other South Indian historians of his time
In 1915, a Bengali historian Jadunath Sarkar, wrote an essay Confessions of a History Teacher in the Modern Review regretting the lack of acclaimed historical works in vernacular languages and stressed that efforts should be made to write history books and teach history in vernacular languages. Nilakanta Sastri, who was then a young teacher in Thirunelveli, wrote a letter to the newspaper opposing Sarkar’s suggestion by saying that “English serves me better as a medium of expression than Tamil – I mean in handling historical subjects. Perhaps the vernacular is not so well off in this part of the country as it should be”.
Sastri’s comments evoked sharp criticism from the nationalist poet Subramanya Bharathi.According to Venkatachalapathy, Sastri’s Tamil proficiency was not good and he relied on Tamil scholar S. Vaiyapuri Pillai for understanding Tamil literary works. Thus he was not able to analyse the changing meaning of words over time. Venkatachalapathy says, the professional historiography in Tamil Nadu practised during K. A. Nilakanta Sastri’s period there was rarely any interrogation of sources (except in terms of authenticity and chronology).