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Modernity and the Tamil Identity

the Tamil Identity In Those Days There Was No Coffee: Writings in Cultural History by A R Venkatachalapathy; Yoda Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp xxiv+199, Rs 495 KANAKALATHA MUKUND The Dravidian movement was perhaps the single most important influence to emerge in late colonial Tamil Nadu. A truly revolutionary movement, built on the ideology of rationalism, anti-caste and antireligious society and a profound belief in Tamil identity, it has certainly changed the face of politics and society not only in Tamil Nadu but in many other parts of India also. However diluted these early ideals may have become in the day to day reality of practical politics, they still exercise a strong influence over intellectuals and thinkers in Tamil Nadu.

Modernity andthe Tamil Identity

In Those Days There Was No Coffee: Writings in Cultural History

by A R Venkatachalapathy; Yoda Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp xxiv+199, Rs 495

KANAKALATHA MUKUND

T
he Dravidian movement was perhaps the single most important influence to emerge in late colonial Tamil Nadu. A truly revolutionary movement, built on the ideology of rationalism, anti-caste and antireligious society and a profound belief in Tamil identity, it has certainly changed the face of politics and society not only in Tamil Nadu but in many other parts of India also. However diluted these early ideals may have become in the day to day reality of practical politics, they still exercise a strong influence over intellectuals and thinkers in Tamil Nadu.

Venkatachalapathy’s work is inspired in large measure by these ideals, and especially a great commitment to the revival of Tamil language. Intellectually he draws his inspiration from new trends in historiography, moving away from conventional sources and linear histories of nation states, to more subtle explorations of identities defined by region, culture and language. The volume under review is a collection of essays which reflect both these influences to present several facets of Tamil society in the early decades of the last century and the changing perceptions and tastes as traditional society negotiated modernity even as a new linguistic identity and political culture were being forged by the Dravidian movement.

The first five essays in the book focus on “consumption” and deal with both “material” (coffee and tobacco) and “cultural artefacts” (cartoon, urban living and literature), to quote the author. The paper on coffee is widely cited and, the author comments, has “received embarrassingly positive attention”. It is extraordinarily rich in capturing perceptions, especially the ambivalence with which traditional society reacted to a change in taste and consumption pattern, particularly when the product in question was perceived to be modern and alien, and therefore somewhat suspect because it compromised age-old values. Coffee drinking soon attained cult status in middle class society

– the class phenomenon is stressed by the author even in the title of the essay. The coffee habit was not merely an indicator of a shift in personal tastes and private consumption, but also led to new institutions in the public sphere, especially restaurants, locally known as coffee houses or cafes, often also indicating that they were run by brahmins and therefore could be used by caste-bound clientele. What I find lacking is a sense of the other factors which led to changing lifestyles like new avenues of employment, urban living, incomes, etc, which must have materially influenced the changes in tastes. The chapter on tobacco, unfortunately, is not equally rich. I find it strange that a historian of Venkatachalapathy’s calibre could have missed out on how class-differentiated the consumption of tobacco was. The westernised professional upper-classes smoked cigarettes or pipes, the working class smoked bidis, whereas the more conventional and old-fashioned took snuff or chewing tobacco. In fact, the snuff sniffing classical musician was a favourite caricature for cartoonists in Tamil magazines.

The paper on cartoons gives a detailed account of the introduction of cartoons in Tamil newspapers and journals. Many years ago Venkatachalapathy had already published the cartoons which Subramania Bharati, the great Tamil poet, had made a regular feature of the paper India which he brought out between 1906 and 1910. Cartoons from magazines like Punch had become popular among the reading public all over India, so much so that Indian language papers soon followed suit. Of these, the cartoons in Bengali were probably the most noteworthy. However, Venkatachalapathy points out, while the Bengali cartoons primarily focused on social issues, the cartoons in Tamil were highly political and anti-British, reaching out to Tamil readership by using traditional idioms and popular metaphors. Some years later, other nationalist Tamil papers also started to publish political cartoons on the same lines. Weekly journals began to feature cartoons which became very popular, though cartoonists

– now given recognition by name – rarely produced the cartoons independently, but rather drew what the editor or publisher wanted.

Next comes the paper on the attractions of “The City” or “Pattanam”, as Chennai was generally known. Chennai was like Circe – alluring, inviting, ready to ensnare the unwary, innocent rustic migrant, with a corrupt underworld which had devised means of cheating and defrauding the newcomers in ways which they had never dreamed of. This is particularly captured from an obscure book which lists all the ways of cheating practised in Chennai. The last piece of the first section is about Pudumaipithan (literally, “mad after modernity”) who was one of the first authors to introduce modern realism in Tamil short story writing, revolutionising modern Tamil literature. Such radical and irreverent attitudes which often questioned traditional wisdom did not always find favour – among conservatives like Rajaji, for example – but the long-term influence of Pudumaipithan can hardly be overstated. Venkatachalapathy has extensive knowledge of Pudumaipithan

Economic and Political Weekly August 19, 2006 and has already brought out an edited complete volume of the latter’s short stories, and this comes out in this brief appreciation of Pudumaipithan’s contribution to modern Tamil literature.

Of the last four essays, two deal with the recasting of the identity of Tamil society in the burgeoning awareness of Dravidian ideology. This was seen in the way the “literary canon” was re-defined in the early part of the 20th century. Prior to this, when people spoke of Tamil literature, they were referring to religious and moral texts. But, by the early 1900s Tamil literature was taken to refer to the more secular and older works of Sangam literature, to the Jain and Buddhist classics like Silappadikaram and Manimekalai. This was not merely a revival of interest in literature of greater antiquity. It was equally a self-conscious creation of social identity citing a literary tradition which was as authentic and ancient as Sanskrit, of a society which was more egalitarian and would lead to a more equitable society during the 20th century. The need to strengthen Tamil was also stressed in the movement to coin scientific and technical terms in Tamil. While one group wanted this to be done using words only with Tamil roots, there were thinkers like Subramania Bharati who felt that words with roots in Sanskrit would be more appropriate since these would have a pan-Indian uniformity. While Venkatachalapathy very fairly presents both sides of the argument, it is clear that his own subjective bias is towards the anti-Sanskrit stand. Thus, Subramania Bharati, the great Tamil poet and defender of Tamil usage (in the ‘Introduction’) because a typical brahmin nationalist in the context of this debate! In the situation prevailing at present where we seem to be moving more and more to a one-language world of English and computer terminology, this entire debate seems to be only of academic interest.

The internal contradictions within the Dravidian movement are captured very well in the paper on the Dravidian movement and the vellalar. Vellalar are powerful land-owning upper caste non-brahmins, who were closely involved in the Dravidian movement. Many belonged to the Saiva Siddhanta Society, which, as the name implies, was a devout, Saivite organisation. Thus, while the vellalar also subscribed to the staunch anti-brahmin and anti-Sanskrit stances of the Dravidian movement, the strongly religious beliefs of the vellalar created a divide between them and followers of the atheistic Self-Respect Movement. Venkatachalapathy ends with a piece on the genre of autobiographies in Tamil. There are relatively few autobiographical works by modern Tamil writers in the first half of the 20th century. Almost all of these are excursions in nostalgia, contrasting the halcyon days of the past, usually spent in an idyllic village with the reality of the present in “The City” (Chennai) with its modern lifestyle and western habits. Since these writers generally were from the more privileged upper castes or classes, they did not see the gross social and economic inequalities which the underprivileged weresubjectedto. As Venkatachalapathy points out, these are not autobiographies in the western sense, which explore the evolution and experiences of the self. These writings, in contrast, “excised the self” and became, rather, histories of social transformation through which the authors had lived.

It is never easy to write a one-line evaluation of a collection of several papers written at different points of time of the working life of a scholar. The pieces are of varying length and the thematic unity is provided only by the reference point of Tamil society; some are polemical, and the others are non-controversial historical accounts. But the whole book is an interesting excursion into the wide world of social history. I must also here refer to the craft of historical writing. Venkatachalapathy stresses that he has not used conventional historical sources for these essays. However, it is surely no less difficult to access and use the kind of sources that he has explored here, particularly long-forgotten newspapers, journals and the “quarter anna” (‘kalana’) magazines, as well as literary works and better known publications. This, in addition to his extensive reading of secondary works makes him a formidable scholar. One can argue with Venkatachalapathy on several points and substantial issues, of which I have indicated a few. But, to persons interested in regional histories, and especially for those who know Tamil and Tamil politics, the essays offer a fascinating insight into the social history of the region during the late colonial period. I wish that students in schools could be introduced to such modes of historical thought, so that they learn to appreciate the wide horizons of history as a discipline.

EPW

Email: jmukund2001@yahoo.co.in

Manohar (23.5)

Economic and Political Weekly August 19, 2006

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