Norman Cutler, associate professor and chairman of the department of South Asian language and civilizations, died on Tuesday of natural causes. Cutler, 53, was a major scholar of Tamil literature, poetry, and religion.
"He's been a tremendous stabilizing influence in our department and in the Tamil field in general," said Booth Seeley, associate professor in the department.
Dipesh Chakrabarty will be the acting chair of the department.
Cutler, who had been at the University for 25 years, is renowned for his work in medieval Indian literature. Cutler specialized in pre-modern Tamil, which differs greatly from the modern language spoken in Southern India and Sri Lanka. Cutler also studied Hinduism in South India and Tamil cultural history.
According to Wendy Doniger, professor in the Divinity School and the department of South Asian languages and civilizations, Cutler's work helped to break stereotypes about India. With his professor, scholar and novelist A.K. Ramanaujan, Cutler showed that Tamil is not only a contemporary language but also a classical Indian language with a 2,000-year literary tradition independent from that of Sanskrit and Hindi.
Cutler's work on pre-Modern India was multifaceted, ranging from his dissertation, on "The Poetry of the Tamil Saints," to eyewitness accounts of modern Tamil popular culture. Through his translations, Cutler made Tamil literature available to a non-Tamil-speaking audience.
James H. Nye, Southern Asian bibliographer at the Regenstein library and director of the South Asia Language and Area Center, said that Cutler was an extremely sensitive translator and teacher. "He had a sensitivity to the nuances of language that he brought to his work as a translator and to someone studying medieval Tamil texts," Nye said. "That's the same sensitivity he brought through to his interactions with students."
Cutler provided instruction in all levels of Tamil and was committed to teaching students through primary sources. "He was thoroughly appreciated and loved by the students because he was so willing to work to accommodate their needs," Seeley said. "If a student needed a particular level or set of texts he would manage to find the time to provide the class for him."
Cutler was appointed chair of the department of South Asian languages and civilizations in June. Previously, he served as the chair of the committee on Southern Asian studies and the associate director of the South Asian Language and Area Center on campus.
"He stood out as an extremely fair person and that was important in the way that he led many of his activities related to South Asia on campus," Nye said. "He's dearly missed by his colleagues and by his students."
Born in Silver Spring, Maryland, Cutler received his B.A. from the University of Michigan. During college, he received awards from the American Institute of Indian Studies and National Defense Foreign Language Fellowships to study Tamil at the University of Washington. Cutler came to the University of Chicago as a graduate student in 1975 after receiving his M.A. After earning his Ph.D., Cutler began teaching the Tamil language at the University.
Cutler's works include Songs of Experience: The Poetics of Tamil Devotion, a study of religious poetry based on his Ph.D. dissertation, Consider Our Vow: Translation of Triuppavai and Tiruvempavi into English, and "The Fish-Eyed Goddess Meets the Movie Star: An Eyewitness Account of the Fifth International Tamil Conference," an essay about modern Tamil culture. Cutler is an editor of Gods of Flesh, Gods of Stone: the Embodiment of Divinity in India, and A Gift of Tamil, a collection of Tamil literature.
A recent essay of Cutler's, entitled "Three Moments in the Genealogy of Tamil Literary Culture," will appear in Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia, a collection which is being edited by Sheldon Pollock, a professor in the department of South Asian language and civilization. This work documents the cultural history of Tamil literary scholarship and historical memory.
A memorial service for Cutler will be held at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 3 at his home at 4932 North Karlov.