Beschi, Costanzo Giuseppe
BESCHI, COSTANZO GIUSEPPE
Italian Jesuit missionary in South India and the foremost Christian poet in the Tamil language; b. Castiglione, Italy, Nov. 8, 1680; d. Manapar, India, Feb. 4, 1747. During studies at Rome he mastered Greek, Latin, French, Portuguese, and other European languages. He joined the Society of Jesus in 1698 and left for India; after some time in Goa, he reached Tirunelveli in the extreme south (1711) and later proceeded to Madura (1716). He became expert in Tamil under the guidance of a noted scholar, Supradīpa Kavirāyar, and learned Sanskrit, Telugu, and other South Indian languages, as well as Persian and Urdu. He composed poems, dictionaries, grammars, and manuals on religious, didactic, and medical themes, and he wrote Tamil grammars in Latin; he also translated the Kural into Latin verse.
Like another Italian Catholic missionary in the South, Robert de nobili, Beschi adopted the customs of the Tamils in diet and dress and won their affection and trust. During his long ministry of about 35 years, he built many churches, and he spread the gospel through his Tamil writings. It is said that he won the confidence of the Muslim ruler of Trichinopoly (1736) and indeed served as his diwan (prime minister); but when the Marathas took over (1741), Beschi went to Ramnad and Tirunelveli and retired a few years before his death.
Beschi is more popularly known in southern India as Vīramāmunivar (The Heroic Sage) and Dhairyanāthar (Lord of Courage). As the author of the first Tamil dictionary, Chaturaharāthi, he is called the father of Tamil lexicography; as the author of the Tamil grammar, Tonnūl Vilakkam, he seems to have advocated certain innovations in Tamil orthography; his Tamil prose writings— religious as well as secular—like those of de Nobili, have helped to lay the foundations of modern Tamil prose. Among his poems are the hagiological Kittēriammāl Charitram (On the Martyr St. Quiterea ) and Tēmbāvani (1726, Unfading Garland ), his magnum opus. This epic is divided into three parts, 36 cantos, and 3,615 stanzas. The reference in the opening verse to "three worlds" and the fusion of philosophy and theology with a drama that is both human and divine have led critics to hail Beschi as the Tamil Dante. Beschi was obviously steeped in the ancient Tamil classics—for example, the Jīvakachintāmani and the Rāmāyana of Kamban—and he naturally followed the Tamil epic tradition when he composed this work on the life of Joseph and Mary, set in the background of the Old and New Testament world. Tēmbāvani has been described as "the noblest poem in honor of St. Joseph written in any literature East or West."
Bibliography: c. g. beschi, Tembavani (Madras 1849). c. sommervogel et al., Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus, 11v. (Brussels–Paris 1890–1932; v. 12 suppl. 1960) 1:1402–09. r. streit and j. dindinger, Bibliotheca missionum (Freiburg 1916— ) 6:30–41, 53, 55, 64, 83, 84, 88, 92, 106. m. ledrus, Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, a. baudrillart et al. (Paris 1912— ) 8:1167–70. m. s. venkatasĀmi, Christianity and Tamil (Madras 1948), in Tamil. l. besse, Father Beschi of the Society of Jesus: His Times and His Writings (Trichinopoly 1918).
[k. r. srinivasa iyengar]
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