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A Concert for the Ages

Ode to the Tamil Language

C S Lakshmi ( is a Tamil writer and a researcher in women’s studies. She is director of the Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW), Mumbai.

Tamil: A Biography by David Shulman, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016; pp xii + 402, $35.

We have read histories of languages, tracing their origins, growth and status. But, no one, so far, has written a biography of a language. David Shulman has reason to write, not a history, but a biography. The reason is very simple. For him, Tamil is a living being and one does not simply write the history of a living being (unless one wants to write a dry chronological account meant for equally dry and serious scholars). One writes, rather, life stories or biographies of living beings, which is just what Shulman has done. In his words, Tamil is “a living goddess, her body constituted by the phonemes (in their oral and also written forms) that make up the language and its grammar” and is “entirely permeated by divine forces that are accessible to those who know the language and that may be amenable to pragmatic uses that can make, or change, a world” (p 4). And, the biography of a language that is musical has to be composed, like classical songs are. So, this biography is written as alapanai (opening improvisation), pallavi (refrain), anupallavi (secondary refrain) and charanam (verse). There are three charanams, followed by a ragamalikai (a medley of ragas) and a final thillana to add verve and vigour. It is not a book, but a kachcheri, a music concert.

What becomes obvious as one reads this book is that Shulman enjoyed writing it, although it involved a lot of painstaking research and analysis. As we read, we are drawn into his excitement of finding details and stories with dramatic twists and turns. In which other book can one read of palm leaf manuscripts written by gods and goddesses themselves, divine and non-divine beings appearing and disappearing on cue, or a mechanical man created by a sculptor, who could utter “I’m hungry” in Sanskrit? Or of a slate floating on water, which was the yardstick to judge the merit of a poet (for it allowed only good poets to climb on to it and pushed the others into the water)? Or further still, the story of a poet who hung himself upside down, above a cauldron of boiling oil while surrounded by raging elephants, in order to prove that he was a “good poet” who could compose poems extempore on any given subject? If all this sounds implausible when one talks about a classical language, let me guide you through this adventurous biography set to music.

Two Languages in Coexistence

From the alapanai onwards, Shulman’s efforts are to point out that Tamil and Sanskrit have coexisted and borrowed from each other, that there is no such thing as an absolutely pure language, and that Tamil is a language characterised by diglossia or polyglossia. This means the language has a formal register, a semi-literary register, and the colloquial language of the street. His argument about Sanskrit and Tamil goes against the grain of Dravidian nationalists, who have been trying to build a collective identity based on Tamil, “forged in opposition to Sanskrit and an invasive north Indian culture and ideology” (p 15). Shulman argues that Dravidian and Aryan should not be confused with ethnic or social categories and that there were never “pure Vedic Aryans” or “Dravidians,” for that matter. He says we can assert with confidence that

Speakers of Vedic Sanskrit were in contact, from very ancient times, with speakers of Dravidian languages, and that the two language families profoundly influenced one another, to differential effect in accordance with geographical and cultural-historical variation throughout the subcontinent. (p 19)

Shulman is also quick to point out that the interpenetration of Sanskrit and Dravidian “is not a simple matter of cumulation over time in some seemingly linear mode.” So, he does not believe in the “postulate of a progressive ‘Arayanization’ of Tamil and the summary idea that the process can be measured by a single formal criterion: Sanskrit vocabulary” (p 24).

Now to the origin stories and the plethora of gods, goddesses, demons, and the colourful dwarf sage Agasthya. It all begins with Agasthya, who wrote Agattiyam, the first Tamil grammar. He was initially born as a fish in a pot—after two gods, Varuna and Mitra were excited on seeing the beautiful heavenly dancer Urvasi, and shed their seed in the pot—and thus takes on the pot’s dimensions. This rather weighty dwarf sage was sent to the south to balance the earth, for it was tilting towards the North East where all the gods and sages had gathered in the Himalayas. Agasthya is associated with two demons, Ilvala and Vatapi. He brings with him the Kaveri river received from the Ganges, and when he upturns his pot, the Kaveri flows through the southern land, which becomes the fertile Tamil heartland.

On the way to the mountain where he settles down, Agasthya finds his star pupil Tolkappiyar, the author of Tolkappiyam, the authoritative book of Tamil grammar. Agasthya sends Tolkappiyar to fetch his wife Lopamudra, whom he had left behind, warning him to keep a safe distance from her. But, when they reach the Vaikai river near Madurai, Tolkappiyar helps her across by holding out a bamboo pole. This enrages Agasthya, whose curse renders Tolkappiyam an ignored text for a while.

Agasthya becomes one of the first in the academy of poets (Sangam) along with Siva, Murugan, Kubera, and others. This story is first told by the poet–scholar Nakkirar in the old prose commentary ascribed to him (eighth or early ninth century) on the first sutra of the Iraiyanar Akapporul (Grammar of Stolen Love)—written by Siva himself—and it mentions the stone slab on which the poets sat and deliberated. Much later (16th or early 17th century), we come to know of the popular version of this story in the well-known Tamil classic Thiruvilayadal Puranam by Paranchoti Munivar. Shulman says that Thiruvilayadal Puranam is a continuation of the Sanskrit Halasya Mahatmaya (late 15th or early 16th century) which is a different version of the local Purana texts.

The Sangam Poets

How did the Sangam poets come to this world? The story goes that in the far away Kasi-Varanasi, Brahma, after conducting a series of 10 horse sacrifices, went with his three wives, Saraswathi, Savitri and Gayatri, to bathe in the Ganges. On the way, Saraswathi stopped to listen to the music of one of the woman singers who would move regularly between heaven and earth. Upon reaching the river late, she was angry that her husband and his two other wives had bathed already. Brahma, incensed at her anger, cursed her with 48 human births. There is a beautiful play on words here. Brahma uses the words enn aru which could mean either “senseless” or “forty eight.” When Saraswathi protested, Brahma reinterpreted the curse. Saraswathi’s body, since she was the goddess of speech, was made up of 51 phonemes. Of these, 48 phonemes (from a to h) would become 48 poets in the world. So the Sangam poets were phonic pieces of the goddess of speech. Once born, they studied Sanskrit (Ariyam) as well as 17 other languages and achieve special mastery over Tamil. Shulman argues that the 48 phonemes suit Sanskrit and not Tamil. He also beautifully describes the movement of the language from divine dimension to the human world, and links it with speech (Saraswathi) getting momentarily mesmerised by the non-verbal experience of music. He states that speech is “a devalued and more limited form of music” (p 33). At no point does Shulman lose track of his argument of the simultaneous existence of Sanskrit and Tamil and their exchanges, while also viewing Tamil as music.

The 48 syllables, having taken human form, wander around, besting the local poets, and eventually reach Madurai in the Pandya kingdom. Here, Siva himself takes the form of a poet, greets them, and takes them to his own temple. The Pandya king gives them an exalted place, which incites jealousy among the other poets in the kingdom who seek to contest against them. So the Sangam poets turn to Siva to give them a yardstick: a slab or a slate that can weigh poetic wisdom. The slate is small, but expands infinitely to accommodate true poets. Yet, the 48 poets have constant fights over whose poetry is better and why. So, they request Siva to join them as the 49th poet. He consents, and gives them a grammar called adhikaram to judge poetry by.

But, then, the great poet Nakkirar declares that his poetry contains the “fifth note” (the perfect note sounded by the cuckoo), and a competition ensues between Nakkirar and Siva, with Nakkirar finding faults with Siva’s poetry. Siva is tolerant for a while, but when Nakkirar oversteps his limit, the god opens his third eye, and Nakkirar is forced to jump into the Golden Lotus Tank to escape being burnt. He emerges not just soaking wet, but devoid of all his grammatical knowledge. Siva, thus, summons one person who has learnt the rules of Tamil from god himself, Agasthya, the author of Agattiyam.

Now, Agasthya, when told to go south to balance the earth, was apprehensive about dealing with this land full of Tamil wisdom, and had requested Siva to heal his ignorance. Siva gave him the mutanul (first book) and Agasthya studied so thoroughly that the Tamils were unable to do without Agasthya, the Vedic seer. Thus, at the inception of the South Indian civilisation is Agasthya, the unconventional Vedic grammarian. Shulman says that even the Buddhist authors in Tamil need this Vedic sage, who, according to them, learnt grammar from the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.

Pallava and Pandya Courts

While talking of the budding of the language, Shulman takes us through the lives of two great kingdoms, the Pallavas and the Pandyas, the latter being the font of Tamil poetry and learning. He talks of three important works on the temporal periphery of the Sangam period, Thirukkural (according to a story when Thirukkural was placed on the Sangam slate, it contracted to the size of the manuscript and pushed all the other poets into the water), Silappadhikaram and Manimekalai. He elaborates the five Tamil landscapes, and says they are evocative and not symbolic, and that while they constitute the realistic ecozones of the Tamil region, they are also the inner, visionary backdrop or “inscape” to the “whole range of emotional and perceptual experience a Tamil person might experience and a gifted Tamil poet might seek to express” (p 53). In fact, he views the entire process of the growth of the language as a movement from the inside moving outward (“in-ness” and “out-ness” in Shulman’s description), and says that “everything that moves through language carries something of the interior” (p 104).

In this crystallisation of the Tamil literary tradition, while it had its own “highly autonomous and self-regulating terms,” Shulman points out that it was not remote from Sanskrit sources or influences. He asserts that there is no such dichotomy in any of the sources (p 105).

Shulman goes on to talk about artistic life in the Pallava and Pandya courts. Although the Pandya state to the far south nurtured an ideology of patronising Tamil and its literature, the Pallava inscriptions “record amply a royal interest in Tamil as a medium” (p 141). The Tamil bhakti poets, according to Shulman, are linked by tradition to both, the Pallava and Pandya courts. The Pallavas did have a northern orientation with a northern language, vadamozhi, which was Sanskrit. Here, Shulman beautifully explains north and south. He says,

[I]n the Tamil world north and south, that is, Sanskrit and Tamil, necessarily constitute and inform each other in a single interlocking conceptual core that includes context-sensitive vectors of contrast. (p 142)

He goes on to explain that even though a special love for Tamil can be seen in the Srivaishnava commentaries, the north is only rarely devalued in premodern Tamil. A symbolic expression of this is the fact that the lord of Srirangam, Vishnu-Ranganatha, reclines facing the south. This gesture is considered a divine grace for the northerners, because Vishnu’s back has a supernatural beauty and is turned toward people living north of Srirangam (p 142).

A further example of the north and south existing in non-conflicting situations is that of Dandin, a native Tamil speaker, writing Kavyadarsa (mirror of poetry) in Sanskrit, and its later adaptation into Tamil in maybe the 12th century, as Dandialankaram. Shulman sees the Pallava paradigm as a foundational reflection of the “symbiosis of Tamil and Sanskrit in the cultural life of the court as well as the agrarian regime of the country” (p 145). In fact, the mid-ninth century Nandikalampakam, whose authorship is not known, so exquisitely blended the akam and puram modes of poetry that Pandyas, according to Shulman, cannot claim any monopoly over the classical Tamil corpus (p 146).

An Inclusive Medium

Throughout the book, Shulman cites apt examples: the Buddhist text of Veerasozhiyam, a Buddhist Tamil grammar which is the first fully sanskritised Tamil grammar of the Chola period by Buddhamittiran; Jain texts like Chudamani of Thozamozhittevar (mid-to-late 10th century), Nilakesi (in which a Tamil demoness is converted to the Jain-concept non-violence); and the very well-known Sivaka Chintamani of Tirutakkatevar. Thus, he consistently argues that “the boundaries of the Tamil social order had widened to include Buddhists, Jains, Saivas, Vaishnavas, elite courtesans, wandering shamans, proto-Tantric mystics” (p 185), all of whom used Tamil as a medium. He states that this expansion of Tamil, where it becomes fully commensurate with Sanskrit, creates an “inclusive cultural eco-system” (p 187).

When we come to the mid-15th century when the Vijayanagara rulers were secure in the Tamil country, the examples of Manipravalam Tamil of Kalamegappulavar, and Nalavenba of Pukhazendi Pulavar are cited to explain how Tamil and Sanskrit produce a “third literary-linguistic domain” (p 212). By the time we come to the poet Kumaraguruparar—the author of Madurai Meenakshiammai Pillaithamizh who went to Kasi and spent some years learning fluent Urdu and Saiva metaphysics—Tamil is already the embodiment of the goddess Saraswathi from whose form the Tamil phonemes emerged, a beautiful karikai or maiden, the Tamil Buddhist grammar Veerasozhiyam, and the goddess Meenakshi herself. Further, Tamil and Sanskrit are coextensive, and Tamil is an “internally complex, mixed being at once local and trans-local, or rather, universal and cosmopolitan” (p 248) existing within the reality of Tamil speech. By introducing the Muslim Tamil poet, Umaruppulavar, author of Sirapuranam, Shulman brings us to Tamil existing in a multi-lingual reality.

The Modern and Very Modern

As we come to the modern period, Shulman, in tune with his narration of this biography, says that modernity never occurs in a single instance; nor does it have a single, homogeneous set of features. It is gradual and continuous, with its own proto-history. He says that reformist modernity is a shallow notion that has come with the colonial regime (p 250). Shulman takes us to Tenkasi, to the middle of the 16th century, where rulers who claim to be descendants of the medieval Pandya kings have consolidated themselves. He introduces us to Ativirarama Pandiyan, author of Naitatam, and Kasi-Khanda, his brother Varatunkaraman, author of Brahmottara Khanda and Ayyam Perumal Sivantha Kavirasar, author of Pururava Charidhai.

The literary circles of Tenkasi also knew about developments in Telugu and Malayalam. This is a period of translations and adaptations from Telugu to Tamil and vice versa, as well as the period of “poetry as prose,” and one can see the polyglossic reality—including diglossia or triglossia that is systemic—of Tamil. The linguistic borders are blurred, and there is Tamil, Sanskrit, Telugu and Manipravalam, as well as Malayalam and Kannada. Tamil and Sanskrit are two distinct entities but they are “wedded, not without tension and conflict within a single package that, as such, overpowers all other languages” (p 261).

Shulman says that only when we go beyond the modern notion of an exclusive “Tamilness,” does a vast horizon open up. He says that Sanskrit is only one prominent language in this expansive landscape, and that by the late 17th century, two new languages have entered into Tamilness: Persian and Arabic. In the late-medieval or early-modern Tamil country, there is sustained paronomasia, and it operates with the lexical and grammatical resources of more than one language.

Thus enters Katikaimuttupulavar, whose important work is Samudhira Vilasam, and who cannot say anything that is not paronomastic. Shulman states that in the poetry of this period, Tamil is infused with so many languages, that one can say it acquires not just bilingual, but trilingual and quadrilingual registers. One of the students of Katikaimuttupulavar was Umaruppulavar, who authored Sirapuranam—modelled on Kamban—which tells the story of Muhammad in Hijaz, but he situates Muhammad in the Tamil land, with the classic five Tamil landscapes, and the text incorporates numerous Arabic loanwords. The story goes that Umaruppulavar had a patron, Sidakkati (Shaikh al-Qadir, also known as Periya Thambi) who was a merchant–politician of the Marakkayar community. Sidakkati sent him to study Arabic sources on the Prophet’s life, under the prominent Qadiri Sufi teacher Shaykh Sadaquatullah, but Sadaquatullah refused to teach him because he went dressed as a Hindu. God himself had to intervene, by sending a dream to both teacher and student, so that the tuition could take place. Shulman says that the image of Umaruppulavar dressed as a Hindu, yet studying Arabic, while writing a Tamil sira “perfectly encapsulates the organic, interwoven polyglossic culture” of Tamil (p 266). He says one might even go so far as to characterise that world as “secular” in the sense that “communal identities, hypertrophied today under the pressure of modern nationalism, were configured differently, and less antagonistically” (p 267).

That brings us to the very modern Tamil, and two figures that dominate this period are P Sundaram Pillai, author of Manonmaniyam, and U V Swaminathaiyer. Manonmaniyam begins with an invocation to the Thamizhthai (Mother Tamil) which is now an invocation sung in most meetings in Tamil Nadu. The song states that Tamil does not know aging and death; it is eternally young. A spoken language could become corrupt, but Tamil, like Sanskrit, is immune to such processes. It goes further and says that Sanskrit and Tamil are the two eyes of the goddess of knowledge. Shulman poses the question: Which of these eyes is the right eye and which is the left? The goddess faces the east, so Tamil in the south must be her right eye, he says, and adds that although the two languages remain symbiotic and interdependent, a clear superiority of Tamil is established. The song also elaborated the glories of Tamil and paints it as the most ancient and eternal tongue that existed even before Sanskrit and the Vedas appeared in the world. Emerging from this play were themes of linguistic nationalism.

Revival of Sangam Classics

Then, towards the end of the 19th century, we encounter U V Swaminathaiyer or Thamizh Thatha (Tamil grandfather) as he is fondly referred to. Swaminathaiyer devoted his entire life to going back to the earlier periods of the Tamil land and recovering manuscripts, editing the Sangam corpus and printing them. Printing the classics immortalised them in a kind of “romance with the antique” (p 303) that was Western and colonial, Shulman says. He says it was amazing how thoroughly and painstakingly the Sangam corpus was revived, to the extent that the Tamil literary production of the last centuries was overlooked
(p 303). Shulman feels that this loss led to what he terms “tyranny born of linguistic nationalism” (p 285).

Shulman quotes Venkatachalapathy, a scholar of Dravidian history, who states that the revival of the Sangam classics generated a new literary canon which he identifies as a product of secularisation. However, Shulman argues that the term secularisation is somewhat misleading, as a very large percentage of the 17th- and 18th-century literary texts were entirely secular, addressed to local human patrons and small-scale kings. Shulman goes on to say that “a non-sectarian, non-communal, secular aesthetic culture” (p 307) was the literary mainstream throughout the Deccan. He says that it was not that Tamil literature was secularised at the turn of the 20th century, but that it was “radically nationalized and appropriated by a rising, largely non-Brahmin elite,” and that one could thus say, “one older and outmoded mythology was replaced with a newer one” (p 307).

Tamil–Sanskrit Conflicts

Was there ever a Sanskrit–Tamil conflict? There is no doubt of this. When Srirangam temple was chosen as the venue for the first public recitation of Kamban’s Ramayanam, the priests said that since it was in Tamil, and not Sanskrit, they could not assess its quality. Apart from that, Kamban had, in his poem, praised his patron, Sadaiyappar, which was objected to. This was a period when poets were not patronised by just the courts, but by temples and patrons. Not unlike today’s bureaucrats, the priests demanded that Kamban provide them with written consent for the event signed by not only courtesans, artisans, the Saiva Dikshitar priests of Chidambaram, the kings of the Tamil country, and the learned Jains in the village of Thirunarunkontai, but also by his own extended family.

Apart from the time Shulman terms the “classicist backlash” (p 204)—when important commentators like Peraciriyar in the 13th century considered Sangam poetry alone the golden standard, and were hostile to Sanskrit, two other instances are really interesting. One is a story of Nakkirar, and his encounter with a potter. The potter is sitting at the southern entrance to the Madurai temple and remarks that Sanskrit was “good” and Tamil, “bad.” Nakkirar curses the potter to die for saying so. Shulman notes that ironically, the Tamil verse of Nakkikar’s curse ends in the Sanskrit syllables “Swaha.” Nakkirar then reverses the curse with another verse ending in the same syllables. More than a “conflict” it is interesting that a potter is praising Sanskrit and Nakkirar, a Brahmin, is defending Tamil.

Another instance is of a disciple of the great philosopher Ramanujar, wanted to serve Vishnu and so goes and stands near some cowherd women. When a fellow student asks him why he did so, he responds that they were simple people and the bountiful love of the lord flowed directly to them, hence he joined them. He says they offered him milk, fruit and a well-woven set of clothes, and in return he wished them victory and hailed them in Sanskrit. Upon hearing this, his friend remarks that although he went to the cowherd women who spoke Tamil, he could not get rid of his coarse Sanskrit.

Apart from taking us through passages of time, when Sanskrit and Tamil were really extensions of each other, Shulman talks evocatively about the word as not only something that carries weight over time, like a curse or a promise, but of the unwritten word as the silence that has its own power. It is as if unwritten words hover in the air through time, waiting to be heard. Talking of performative bhakti texts like araiyar sevai as modes of preservation of the canonical texts, he has an extremely poetic description that they were forms of writing, not on palm leaves, copper plates or stones, but, empty spaces and bodily gestures.

In his Tillana conclusion, Shulman says that the Tamil Renaissance, which began with new poetry in the mid-20th century is still going on and lists the writers who contributed to this reinvention. He says that modernity intensified the Tamil diglossia. During this time, Tamil purist politicians began to give public speeches on the model of the written word, while at the same time, modern Tamil literature began to be written on the spoken word model. Shulman strongly believes that the future of Tamil is bright and that it can never lose its musicality. He quotes his favourite writer Na Muthusamy, whose language he says is “gently hyperglossic and hypotactic” (p 322), worthy of Marcel Proust or even Ativirarama Pandian’s Naitatam. Shulman also cites a poem by Manushyaputhiran, in which he says, “the old akam grammar of in-ness in relation to a projected, imagined, and therefore objective out-ness has miraculously surfaced” (p 323). It is a classical literature text in a modern guise; in words that could have been spoken or sung by a lovesick heroine from the Sangam period. It is illustrative of a situation where a “somewhat desolate present-future rejoins its own past” (p 323).

The poem is titled “Lost Love” and goes thus:

A tree from my garden

Tired of standing

Came to me for comfort

Ascending the steps gently.

Since I knew

that trees could not walk

I thought it was a strange dream

And tarried along

before welcoming it.

Feeling slighted,

filled with the sorrow of rejection

to the tips of its thousand leaves

and roots,

there goes my garden tree

descending the steps.

An Intimate Connect

There is still a question I have to answer. Why does this book fascinate me so much and is there something that I disapprove of in the book? Apart from the erudition with which the book is written (which would fascinate anyone interested in Tamil as a language), there are personal reasons why I relate to the book with such ardour. One is that my grandmother, born around 1900 and who got married at the age of five, was a self- taught person and learnt Tamil on her own, because she loved the language. Towards the end of her life, she gave me a book that she had loved reading and to which she felt only I could relate. The brown-paged book, which showed signs of having being read many times, was a bound copy of Naitatam by Ativirarama Pandian. Shulman has talked about this book, especially the verse which I also feel is an exquisite one. In a way I feel that Shulman has written what I had in mind. This applies to his Sanskrit–Tamil analysis, and also to his contention of Tamil existing in a multilingual context.

Where Tamil purists have positioned themselves in opposition to Sanskrit and the north (which really is referred to as opposition to Brahminism, but is in practice opposition to Brahmins as individuals and as a caste group), it would be difficult to write, let alone even imagine writing such a biography, which has depth and vision, and is not constrained by the present Dravidian politics. Such politics are also irretrievably caught in a north–south dichotomy and a purity obsession with regard to language, which has descended to the level of some people renaming gulab jamun as paagu kundu (balls soaked in sugar syrup) and autorickshaws as thaanizhuni (something that is pulled on its own). There is a joke that someone looking for a bus stop asked a passerby where the “perundu nirutham” (bus stop in pure Tamil) was. The passerby was confused and when the term was explained, retorted: could you not say “bus stop” in proper Tamil?

Finally, do I have any complaints? Just one. In the Tillana, Shulman provides a long list of contemporary Tamil writers. Throughout the book, he has referred to the reader in the feminine, and he has also written exhaustively about Andal and the Avvaiyars. But, the list of writers that he offers does not contain even a single woman writer, which coincides with the common male perception in Tamil Nadu that the best of the women writers have been in the past. It seems, in the present, Tamil writers who happen to be women, are not worth including in its literary history. One cannot agree with the author on this aspect.
Et tu, Shulman?


Updated On : 24th Aug, 2018


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