ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Ode to the Tamil Language

A Concert for the Ages

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.

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Updated On : 24th Aug, 2018

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