Gods/Goddesses, Demons/Demonesses and the Tamil Maiden

by C.S.Lakshmi
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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 write the history of a living being (unless one wants to write a dry chronological history meant for equally dry and serious scholars). One writes life stories or biographies of living beings which is just what Shulman has done. In Shulman’s definition 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 Tamil 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 and is linked with music has to be composed like classical songs are. So this biography is written as alapanai, pallavi, anupallavi and charanam. And 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 is obvious when one reads this extremely readable book is that Shulman had fun writing this book although it involved lot of painstaking research and analysis. And as we read we get drawn into his excitement of finding details, stories with dramatic twists and turns. In which other book can we find palm leaf manuscripts disappearing and reappearing written by gods and goddesses themselves and divine and non-divine beings coming and going as if on cue, reference to a mechanical man created by a sculptor a few centuries ago who could speak two words (“I’m hungry”), a slate floating on water which was the yardstick to judge the merit of poets for it allowed only good poets to climb on to it and pushed the others into the water, a poet who hung himself upside down with a fire pit below with boiling oil and raging elephants to take the challenge of being a good poet who can compose poems extempore on any subject demanded by the poets around and a poet going north to learn Urdu? If that sounds implausible when one talks about a classical language, let me guide you into this adventurous biography set to music.

Two Languages in Co-existence and Origin Stories

From the alapanai onwards, Shulman’s efforts are to point out that Tamil and Sanskrit have co-existed and borrowed from each other and that there is no such thing as an absolutely pure language and that Tamil is a language characterized by diglossia or polyglossia which means the language has a formal register and a semi-literary register and the colloquial language of the street. His argument about Sanskrit and Tamil goes against the grain of the Dravidian nationalists who have been trying to build a collective identity based on Tamil and which identity is “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 a plethora of gods who are too quick to ejaculate, curse and find solutions to undo the curse and who write Tamil verses on themselves and goddesses and demons and the colorful dwarf sage Agasthya. It all begins with Agasthya who wrote Agattiyam, the first Tamil grammar. Agasthya was born as a fish initially in a pot after two gods Varuna and Mitra get excited on seeing the beautiful heavenly dancer Urvasi and shed their seed in the pot. So Agasthya had the pot’s dimensions. This rather weighty dwarf sage was sent to the south to balance the earth for it was tilting towards the northeast where all the gods and sages had gathered in the Himalaya. Agashtya is associated with two demons, Ilavala and Vatapi. He brings with him the Kaveri river received from 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 he finds his star pupil Tolkappiyar, the author of Tolkappiyam, the authoritative book of Tamil grammar. Now Agasthya sends Tolkappiyar to fetch his wife Lopamudra whom he had left behind warning him not to ever touch her. But when they reach the Vaikai river near Madurai Tolkappiyar helps her across holding out a bamboo pole. This enrages Agasthya who curses them both and they get very annoyed and curse him back. Agsthya’s curse makes Tolkappiyam an ignored text for a while.

Agasthya becomes one of the first Academy of Poets (Sangam) along with Siva, Murugan and Kubera and others. This story is first told by Nakkirar in the old prose commentary ascribed to him (8th or early 9th century) on the first sutra of the Iraiyanar Akapporul (written by Siva himself) and it mentions the stone slab on which poets sat and deliberated. And 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 fifteenth or early 16th century) which is a different version of the local purana texts.

How did the Sangam poets come to this world? For this we should know the story of some more curses of gods and the response of goddesses and the role of Agasthya. Story goes that in the far away Kasi-Varanasi Brahma was conducting a series of ten horse sacrifices and at the end of which he went with his three wives (Saraswati, Savitri, Gayatri)  to bathe in the Ganges. Now on the way Saraswathi stopped to listen to the music sung by a woman singer, one of those who move regularly between heaven and earth. So she got late to go to the river. She got angry that her husband and the other two wives had bathed before her. Brahma was angry that she spoke angrily and cursed that she should have 48 human births. There is a beautiful play with words here. Brahma says enn aru which can mean senseless or forty eight. When Saraswati protested Brahma reinterpreted the curse. Saraswathi’s body, since she was the goddess of speech, was made up of 51 phonemes. 48 of these phonemes (from a to h) would become 48 poets in the world. So the Sangam poets were phonic pieces of the goddess. Once born what do they study? They study Sanskrit (Ariyam) as well as seventeen other languages and they achieve special mastery over Tamil. Shulman argues that the 48 phonemes, however one wants to count them, suit Sanskrit, 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 mesmerized by the non-verbal experience of music. And he says 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 and also his view of Tamil as music.

The forty-eight syllables, having taken human form, wander around always defeating the local poets and they reach Madurai in the Pandya kingdom. Now Siva himself takes the form of a poet and greets them and takes them to his own temple and promptly disappears after that. The king gives them an exalted place. Now, like anywhere else, there are other poets who get jealous. So they turn to Siva, the god-poet, to give them a yardstick, a plank or a slab or a slate that can weigh poetic wisdom. The slate is small but it can expand infinitely to accommodate true poets. So now the stone slab has become a slate to judge poetry. But the poets have constant fights over whose poetry is better and why. So they request Siva to join them as the 49th poet and he does and gives them a grammar called adhikaram to judge poetry by. But there is the great poet Nakkirar who claims that his poetry contains the “fifth note”, the perfect note sounded by the cuckoo. A competition ensues between Nakkirar and Siva and Nakkirar finds fault with Siva’s poetry. Siva is tolerant for a while but when Nakkirar oversteps his limit, Siva opens his third eye and Nakkirar jumps into the Golden Lotus Tank and emerges not just soaking wet but with all his grammatical knowledge lost. Siva 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 a bit apprehensive about how he was going to deal with this land full of Tamil wisdom and he asks Siva for not just a primer but a book that would take him into Tamil wisdom. Siva gives him the Mutanul (First Book) and Agasthya studies it thoroughly. The Tamils really cannot do without Agasthya, the Vedic seer. At the inception of the South Indian civilization 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.

The Pallava and the Pandya Courts and the Vijayanagara Rulers

While talking of the budding of the language, Shulman takes us through the life 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 landsapes and says they are evocative and not symbolic and that while they constitute the realistic eco-zones of the Tamil region, they are also the inner, visionary backdrop, what Shulman calls “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 he says that “everything that moves through language carries something of the interior.” (p.104) In this crystalization 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 says, there is no such dichotomy in any of the sources. (p.105)

Shulman goes on to talk about artistic life in the Pallava court and the Pandya court and says that although the Pandya state to the far south nurtured an ideology of patronizing 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 Pallava and Pandya courts. The Pallavas did have a northern orientation with a northern language, what is referred to as vadamozhi which was Sanskrit. Here Shulman beautifully explains north and south. He says that in 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 pre-modern Tamil. A symbolic expression of this is the lord of Srirangam, Ranganathar, who 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 twelfth 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 cannot claim any monopoly over the classical Tamil corpus, according to Shulman. (p.146)

Throughout the book Shulman has consistently argued, with apt examples, like when he talks about Buddhist text of Veerasozhiyam, a Buddhist Tamil grammar which is the first fully Sanskritised Tamil grammar of the Chola period  by Buddhamittiran or   Jain texts like Chudamani of Thozamozhittevar (mid-to-late tenth century), Nilakesi (in which a Tamil demoness is converted to non-violence of the Jain concept) and the very well-known Sivaka Chintamani of Tirutakkatevar, 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 and he says that this expansion of Tamil where it becomes fully commensurate with Sanskrit creates an “inclusive cultural Eco-system.” (p.187)

David Schulman

When we come to the mid-15th century when Vijayanagara rulers were secure in the Tamil country the examples of Manipravalam Tamil of Kalamegappulavar, (the one who was given to hanging himself over a fire pit mentioned above) where Tamil and Sanskrit “come together in a symbiotic mix” (p.216) and Nalavenba of Pukhazendi Pulavar are given to explain how Tamil and Sanskrit produce a “third literary-linguistic domain” (p.212) and there is an interpenetration of Sanskrit and Tamil. By the time we come to Kumaraguruparar author of Madurai Meenakshiammai Pillaithamizh  who went to Kasi and spent some years learning fluent Urdu and Saiva metaphysics Tamil is already Saraswathi, the goddess from whose body emerge the Tamil phonemes, a beautiful karikai, maiden, of Veerasozhiyam and goddess Meenakshi herself and Tamil and Sanskrit are co-extensive and Tamil is an “internally complex, mixed being at once local and translocal, or rather, universal and cosmopolitan” (p. 248) existing within the reality of Tamil speech.   And  with Muslim Tamil poet Umaruppulavar author of Sirapuranam, Shulman has brought us to Tamil existing in a multi-lingual reality.

Entering the Modern and the Very Modern

As we come to the modern period Shulman in tune with his narration of this biography, says that modernity never happens in a single shot. Nor does it have a single, homogenous 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 colonial regime.(p.250) He takes us to Tenkasi, to the middle of the sixteenth 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.  Naitatam is the story of Nala and Dhamayanthi inspired by the Sanskrit work but Shulman says even as it follows it, it systematically exceeds the model. This is a period of translations and adaptations from Telugu to Tamil and Tamil to Telugu and 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 which has all the languages above and 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 get beyond the modern notion of an exclusive Tamil-ness does a vast horizon open up. He says that Sanskrit is only one prominent language in this expansive landscape and that by the late seventeenth century two new languages have entered into Tamil-ness: Persian and Arabic. Thus in 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, who cannot say anything that is not paronomastic. He says in the poetry of this period Tamil is infused with so many languages that one can say it acquires not just bilingual but tri-lingual and quadrilingual registers. One of the students of Katikaimuttupulavar was Umaruppulavar of Sirapuranam, modelled on Kamban, that tells the story of Muhammad in a Hijaz but he situates Muhammad in the Tamil land, with the classic five Tamil landscapes and the text incorporates Arabic loan words. 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 and that he sent him to study Arabic sources on the Prophet’s life with the prominent Quadiri Sufi teacher Shaykh Sadaquatullah but that he refused to teach him because he went attired as a Hindu. God himself had to intervene by sending a dream to both teacher and student so that the tuition could happen. Shulman says that the image of Umaruppulavar dressed as a Hindu yet studying Arabic 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 characterize 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. Ve. Swaminathaiyer. Manonmaniyam begins with an invocation to the Thamizhthai (Mother Tamil) which is now an invocation song that is sung in most meetings in Tamil Nadu. Now the song says 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 two 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 created a picture of Tamil as the most ancient and eternal tongue that existed even before Sanskrit and the Vedas appeared in the world. Underrunning the play was an emerging linguistic nationalism. And then in the last third of the nineteenth century we encounter U Ve 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 and editing the Sangam corpus and printing them. Printing the classics immortalized 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 calls “tyranny born of linguistic nationalism.” (p.285)

Shulman quotes Venkatachalapathy, a scholar of Dravidian history, who says that the revival of the Sangam classics generated a new literary canon and Venkatachalapathy identifies it as a product of secularization. But Shulman argues that the term secularization is somewhat misleading as a very large percentage of the seventeenth and eighteenth century literary texts were entirely secular, addressed to the 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 secularized at the turn of the twentieth century but that it was “radically nationalized and appropriated by a rising, largely non-Brahmin elite” and that one could say that “one older and outmoded mythology was replaced with a newer one.” (p.307)

Tamil (Dravidam)-Sanskrit (Ariyam) Conflicts and

Some More Stories

Was there ever a Sanskrit-Tamil conflict? Of course, there was. 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 cannot assess its quality. Apart from that he had also referred to his patron Sadaiyappar. 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 Kamban must provide them with a written consent signed by not only courtesans, artisans, the Saiva Dikshitar priests of Chidambaram, the kings of the Tamil country, the learned Jains in the village of Thirunarunkontai but also his own extended family!

Apart from the time Shulman calls the “classicist backlash” (p.204) when important commentators like Peraciriyar in the 13th century who considered Sangam poetry alone the golden standard and was hostile to Sanskrit there are some more instances of which  two 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 was bad. Nakkirar curses the potter to die for saying so. (Shulman remarks that the Tamil verse with which he cursed ends in a Sanskrit Swaha!) Onlookers beg Nakkirar to bring the potter back to life. 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, who goes and stands near some cowherd women. A fellow student asks him why he went and stood next to the cowherd women. The first disciple replies that they were simple people and the bountiful love of the lord flowed directly to them and hence he joined them. His friend asks him what ensued when he met them. He says they offered him milk and fruit and well-woven set of clothes and in return he wished them victory and hailed them in Sanskrit. His friend responds saying 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 that lives across time but the unwritten word as the silence that has its own power. It is as if the 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 leaf, copper plate or stone but in visible, empty space and bodily gesture.

Then there are those stories and anecdotes throughout the book narrated with Shulman-humour which draws one into this complicated narrative and makes one relate to it with ease and often with a hearty laugh shocking those around who surreptitiously  read the title of the book and wonder if a biography of a language could elicit such laughter. I must narrate the ones I loved.

Dandin, the great scholar of the Pallava period, and author of Kavyadarsa, visits Mahabalipuram at the invitation of Lalitalaya, the chief sculptor, who could seamlessly reattach a broken arm of a reclining Vishnu. Dandin records this outing in his Avanti-sundari Katha which talks of the creative ambience of the Pallava court where higher learning in the Vedic sciences was encouraged. But he also says that Lalitalaya’s father was a genius who was capable of creating a mechanical man (referred to above) who could speak at least a single sentence in Sanskrit: I’m hungry! There is another story of a Pallava king and the unknown author of the Nandikalampakam. The author prophesied that whoever heard the hundredth verse of the work would die. The king ordered him to sing it anyway and was burnt to ashes as the poet recited the final verse. “It is certainly possible, “Shulman says, “and at moments perhaps even necessary, to die for good poetry!”  (p.146) Then there was the poet Sattanar. He was known as Sithalai Sattanar or Pus head as Shulman, translates. He had been given this nickname because every time he heard bad poetry he would scratch his head hard with his stylus and there was an infected wound on his head. Shulman remarks in the brackets: There is a lot of bad poetry out there! Anyway, Saatanar’s wound healed only after he heard Thirukkural.

Of the many literary works produced in the Chola courts or on its periphery, Jayankondar’s Kalingaththuparani (War on Kalinga) on Kulotungan 1 and his military campaign in Orissa is a famous one. Kulotungan 1 is supposed to have rewarded the poet by rolling a golden coconut down the aisle to his feet after the recitation of each verse. The main protagonists of the work are demons who are hoping the king would attack Kalinga and provide them with a meal of fresh corpses. The senior demon is describing the entire royal lineage to goddess Kali and her ghouls. The demons turn out to be very caste conscious. The Brahmin ghouls beg (in Sanskrit) for a taste of battlefield sambar, and the highly intelligent Buddhist ghouls get sambar made specially with human brains and the Jain ghouls carefully strain their soup to make sure there are no hairs in it. Shulman remarks that there is a persistent demon’s-eye perspective on Tamil literature and culture recalling that both the Saiva and Vaishnava bhakti currents claim to have poetry composed by demon-like devotees like Karaikkal Ammaiyar, Peyalvar and Putattalvar. In Tamil as in Telugu, Shulman says, demons have an inborn affinity with poetry! (p.156)

Ottakuttar was a famous poet of the Chola period and a contest was set between him and Kamban by the Chola king to write the Ramayanam. Ottakuttar was an earnest poet and he worked steadily while Kamban whiled away his time with the courtesans. After a few months the king wanted an update. The hardworking Ottakuttar had already completed five books and was into the sixth. Kamban had not written even a single verse. But he claimed that he had also written almost as much and that he had reached the section where Rama builds a bridge to Lanka. To prove this Kamban improvised 70 beautiful poems. Ottakuttar was shattered and he completed his work but tore it to pieces. Ottakuttar really seems to have had very low self-esteem for with another poet Pukazhendi Pulavar author of Nalavenba he does not seem to fair very well either. As Pukazhendi is reciting Nalavenba in his first oral recitation Ottakuttar picks holes in his verses. Sick of his pettiness Pukazhendi decideds to kill him. He reaches his house with a heavy stone. Ottakuttar dejected about his inferior talent has gone to bed. He has not eaten. His wife coaxes him to eat but he refuses. She insists that he should have at least milk and sugar. Ottakuttar tells his wife what is on his mind. Shulman adds in brackets: in Tamil verse,  apparently the only way he can speak! Anyway he tells her that he can’t eat milk, fruit, honey or sugar. Not even the sweetness of Pukazhendi’s  Nalavenba, if squeezed and given, can he swallow. Pukhazendi comes out of his hiding throwing the rock and goes and hugs Ottakuttar, one is sure, much to his embarrassment!

Another story that fascinates me for the kind of twists and turns it takes with Saraswathi and Siva as participants is an early sixteenth century story Shulman has chosen as an example for what he calls “auralization”, a sonic equivalent for the act of visualization and written documents and how they get reconverted to oral recitation. (p.274) Kaviraja Pandithan Viraiyan, a Brahmin poet, produces a remarkable Tamil version of the Sanskrit poem Saundarya Lahari (The Wave of Beauty) which depicts the goddess. The poem is divided into two segments, Ananda Lahari (verses 1-41) and Saundarya Lahari (verses 42-100). The story is about how the division of the unified text came about. The text is wrongly ascribed to the philosopher Shankaracharya. But according to the story, he was visiting Siva who was in his abode, Mount Kailasa. And he noticed a book the goddess had left behind. It was a book of mantra-sastra. Shankara picked up the book and tried to leave as most book stealers are wont to do. But Nandikeswara, the god’s doorkeeper, caught him and tried to snatch it from his hands. In the process, Shankara was left with a fragment of the book which contained verses 1-41. He brought it down to earth and later wrote 59 more stanzas to complete it. Later commentators say that the entire work was written by Thirugnanasambandar, the Tevaram poet, and that he inscribed it on Mount Kailasa. Shankara saw the verses there and began to commit them to memory but he could retain in his memory only the first 41 stanzas for the goddess asked him to stop memorizing.

Kaviraja Pandithan Viraiyan narrates this story differently with more embellishments. Saraswathi, goddess of wisdom, composed a book that was the essence of the four Vedas, which was in praise of the goddess Yamalai which is Parvati. She recited the work which she thought was her own original creation, to Siva. Siva laughed aloud and showed her that it was already inscribed on the Kailasa mountain. Saraswathi, like Pierre Menard (the character in the 1939 story of Jorge Luis Borges, who tried to “translate” Don Quixote of Miguel de Cervantes and ended up producing exactly the same text word for word), says Shulman, has rewritten an already existing work. The story goes further. An ascetic Pushpadanta copied and reinscribed it on another northern mountain Meru, where the Advaitin Gaudapada saw it and committed it to memory and taught it to his student Shankara. A written text thus reverts to oral recitation which guarantees larger dissemination.

The book is full of such nuggets of exquisite stories, which, if I were to use a musical term, are like the neraval which is expansion or the improvisational aspect in Carnatic music.

Tillana and a Male Order List of Writers

In his Tillana conclusion Shulman says that the Tamil Renaissance which began with new poetry in the mid-twentieth century is still going on. And he lists a long list of writers. Talking of diglossia, he says that modernity intensified it and that Tamil purist politicians began to give public speeches on the model of the written word but the spoken word model, also got into modern Tamil literature and continues to be a part of it. Shulman strongly believes that the future of Tamil is bright and that it can never lose its musicality and quotes his favourite writer Na. Muthusamy whose language he says is “gently hyperglossic and hypotactic” (p.322) which he says is worthy of Proust or even better, Ativirarama Pandian’s Naitatam and also a poem of 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 modern guise and he says the poem is in words that could have been spoken or sung by a love-sick Sangam-period heroine. And the poem is an illustration of a situation where a  “somewhat desolate present-future rejoins its own past.” (p.323)

It is a poem entitled 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.

There is still a question I have to answer. Why does the 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 who is 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 in 1900 or so, 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 long life, she gave me a book that she had loved reading and which she felt only I could relate to. The brown-paged book which showed signs of her having read it many times, was a bound copy of Naitatam by Ativirarama Pandian. Shulman has talked about the book and especially the verse which I also feel is an exquisite one and in a way I feel that Shulman has written what I had in mind. This applies to his Sanskrit-Tamil analysis as well and also with regard to Tamil existing in a multi-lingual context. Where Tamil purists have positioned themselves in opposition to Sanskrit and the north (which really is referred to as Brahminism but is in practice opposition to Brahmins as individuals and as a caste group) it would be difficult to write leave alone imagine writing such a biography which has depth and vision, not constrained by the present Dravidian politics which sees one’s birth as one’s position. It is 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 gets pulled on its own and does not need a person to pull like the hand-pulled rickshaws)! The joke is that someone who wanted to know where the bus stop was, asked a person where the perundu nirtutham was and the other person got a bit confused and when explained, retorted saying, “Could you not say bus stop in proper Tamil?!”

And do I have any complaints? Just one. In the final Tillana, Shulman gives a long list of contemporary writers. Throughout the book Shulman has referred to the reader in the feminine which thrilled me quite a lot and he has also written exhaustively about Andal and Avvaiyar. But this list that he offers of writers does not contain even a single woman writer which coincides with the common male perception in Tamil Nadu that the best of women writers have been in the past. The present writers who happen to be women are not worth being included in its literary history. One did not expect this from Shulman of all the people! Et tu, Shulman?!

(Note : A  shorter version of this article appeared with the title “A Concert for the Ages: Ode to the Tamil Language” in the Economic and Political Weekly in its issue dated 25 August, 2018 (Vol.53, Issue No.34))

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