Many of the poetic works in Tamil can rank with the best anywhere in the world. However, the lovers of literature ture who do not know the language are denied
the pleasure of enjoying these works. Perhaps, some Tamil knowing people themselves would need assistance to comprehend the full meaning of these works
composed several centuries ago.
It was to meet these needs that the Government of Tamil Nadu launched an ambitious project in 1988 to bring out translations in English of selected Tamil
classics. It was decided by the committee of Experts I had appointed for this purpose that the translations should be in verse in order that the exquisite artistic
appeal of the original may be brought out in adequate measure.
The Committee had set itself the rather difficult task of bringing out the first set of translations by Pongal 1989 and had taken enormous pains in selecting
scholars and providing them the necessary guidance and help. I am very happy to find that translations of the ‘Narrinai’ and the ‘Bala kanda’ of kamban’s
Ramayana are ready for release and I wish to convey to the members of the committee and the scholars who undertook this difficult task my heartfelt
congratulations and thanks. They have indeed done a great service to Tamil literature.
I also wish to convey my congratulations and thanks to the Vice-Chancellor of the Tamil University, Thanjavur for his valuable efforts in bringing out these
publications in a very short time.
I am sure lovers of Tamil literature everywhere will find these works interesting and useful. I look forward to the opportunity of welcoming more and more such
publications under the quidance of the committee.
I do not particularly want to be known and pointed out as a translator of classical Tamil poetry. I happened to do a book–the Squirrel in the Courtyard, I was
invited to do a second–The Ten Decads–and before I knew it, I had contracted a habit. It is not bad as habits go and this certainly keeps me out of the public
houses. And some charitable critics–for, contrary to the prevailing view there do exist some charitable– minded people among this tough breed–assured me they
have read worse passages. And, as they helpfully add, they do enable one to make sense out of the extraordinarily recondite Sangam lyrics composed within the
frame work of conventions unique to that epoch.
Hence, to start with, I have furnished quite a detailed introduction explaining the Sangam literary conventions, without a knowledge of which these lyrics cannot
be enjoyed. I appologise for the length of this part, but I know I shall be forgiven at the end of its perusal by the intelligent reader who may most likely have
missed acquainting himself with this unique literature during the course of his apprenticeship as a literary dilettante.
I have added three appendices to the book. The first is a glossary of Tamil terms which I have had to use as such in the transcompositions as it is either
inconvenient, inartistic or, occasionally, ludicrous to use equivalent western terms–where they exist. The second provides an analysis of the verses trans-
composed into the five moods and stages of love––a division, uniquely hit upon by the gifted Sangam Tamils. The third is a note explaining the way I have set
about the task of transcomposing poetry of two thousand years ago into English verse. Here I have sought to focus the attention of the reader on some of the
problems that oppress the harassed transcomposer and I have indicated how I have gone about solving them.
I am much indebted to the Government to Tamil Nadu for commissioning me, with all my faults and inadequacies to do this work. Indeed I find that this
Government has been the most generous patron of my ventures in the field of transcomposition, having brought out all but one of them. I am thankful in a
general way to the Government and specifically to Dr. Avvai Natarajan and his colleagues in the Tamil Development Department for much help and advice. I have
generally found that the energies of a Government for any cause are seldom sustained over long periods. I hope that the Government of Tamil Nadu will
persevere in this venture long enough to bring out transcompositions of all the Sangam works.
For, this obligation to make these immortal classics available to the entire world of poetry-lovers is as much a part of the bequest of the Sangam forebears to this
generation of Tamils as the right to enjoy the lyrics themselves undoubtedly is.
The poetical works in Tamil known under the collective title of Sangam literature constitute the earliest literary creations of the Tamil people. This fact is of
overwhelming importance that needs constant iteration as many critics and lovers of poetry tend to undervalue this great body of poetry. Among them are men of
high critical acumen much attached to Kamban's Ramayana. In fact there is a discernible cleavage among lovers of Tamil literature, a small body of votaries of
Sangam works on one side and the vast majority on the other side owing a single- minded, often fanatical loyalty to Kamban. The present writer, himself a warm
admirer of Kamban's death- less classic, while wholly unwilling to lend further acrimony to the on-going debate, would respectfully urge Kamban partisans to
reflect on the tremendous debt Kamban himself owed, beyond a doubt, to Sangam literature.
For, clearly, Kamban's genius was fed and nurtured on a diet of Sangam works and on the five great epics like Silappadhikaram and on the Vishnuite hymns, the
Divyaprabandham. But a keen student of literature would discern that the latter two sets of works, again, owed a great deal of inspiration to the works of Sangam
literature. Indeed a few passages of Ilango's Silappadhikaram recreate for us the glories of the Sangam tradition, by using Sangam symbolism. Hence ultimately,
Kamban's source of inspiration can be traced back to the Sangam works, especially those devoted to love. In his treatment of the moods of lovers and the
influence of nature and the impact of the flora and the fauna on these moods and in exploiting their great, inherent potential to represent the psychological states
of lovers, Kamban very clearly demonstrates the debt he owes to Sangam literature. Kamban's greatness is not being questioned here; but as T.S. Eliot has
brilliantly demonstrated, part of the greatness of a poet who comes later is based on the inspiration derived from those who went before him, creating and
enriching a tradition. An important element of Kamban's title to poetic greatness is undoubtedly derived from his study of the Sangam works of which he must
have been an ardent and devoted pupil.
It can therefore be taken as a settled fact that the Sangam works have influenced all of Tamil literature; this fact alone makes it incumbent on lovers of Tamil to
study this great body of poetical works. Anyone sincerely desiring to understand Tamil should carefully study Sangam works which constitute the fountainhead
of inspiration for all the works in Tamil. In truth these works of the Sangam epoch have served as the model for all subsequent poems for the use of symbolism,
for the proper use of poetic diction and metre, for the adroit use of characters' version, for delicate and subtle suggestivity, for every one of those many devices
that crowd a poet's quiver.
Fortunately, such a study of the fountain head, besides proving highly useful to the academic researcher affords exquisite pleasure to the dilettante. Once the
difficulty of a recondite diction which represents the state of the language as it existed over two thousand years ago is overcome and the nuances of the literary
tradition in use in that era are grasped, the true lover of literature can settle down to continuing sessions of the purest artistic delight for the rest of his life.
The difficulty set up by the language is wholly removed in a transcomposition such as is being offered to the reader herewith. The basics of the literary tradition
by which all Sangam love lyrics were bound are set forth briefly to enable the reader to get the fullest benefit out of the poems. Poetry everywhere is much
influenced by the literary tradition current at the time of the composition. Sangam love literature: is more influenced than most by the literary conventions which
were specifically spelt out by the great grammarian and rhetorician Tolkappiar. This statement may create the impression that these love lyrics are too hamstrung,
too rigidly controlled to offer aesthetic pleasure. This is far from being the case. It is at once a measure of the aesthetically inspiring quality of these conventions
and the calibre of the poets themselves that these poems which conform so well to the conventions still manage to remain so fresh, so unhindered. Sangam love
lyrics depend a great deal on suggestion and symbolism; the process of comprehending their purport is rendered easier• and more pleasant for the modern reader
if he gets familiar with the literary conventions of the age which often hold a key to the suggested significance.
A significant feature of a poet's personality is his highly developed sensitivity to this environs not merely to the physical atmosphere but to the emotional and the
intellectual. As a person gifted with heightened sensitivity to his environs, a poet is moulded by the beliefs, the collected wisdom, the many conventions of the
society of which he is a member perhaps to a great extent than others. He is influenced in a subtle manner by the racial memory that is largely unwritten; he
absorbs the hundreds of little ideas, even the whims and the peculiar angles of vision that characterise a culture and he absorbs them a little better than others on
account of his sensitive perception. While it is undeniable that a creative writer has a certain impact on posterity he is also certainly influenced to a greater or
lesser measure by the thought of those that have gone before him. If poets create new vogues, and modify traditions, the poets themselves are coloured and
perfumed by the existing tradition of their age.
In his essay "Tradition and the individual talent" T .S. Eliot has undeniably made a contribution of fundamental importance towards our understanding of the
place of tradition in literature. In it he gives a wide connotation to the term tradition: "What I mean by tradition involves all those habitual actions, habits and
customs from the more significant religious rites to our conventional way of greeting a stranger, which represent the blood kinship of the same people living in
the same place."
This tradition is largely unconscious and since much of it is unwritten, every poet, according to Eliot has to labour hard to grasp the essentials of the tradition of
his people. A sense of history which is a part of the sense of tradition has necessarily to be acquired slowly even by perceptive poets. This historical sense makes
the poet perceive not only "the pastness of the past but its presence;" the relevance of much that is past to the thoughts and feelings, the experience of the present
day has to be intuitively grasped. Perhaps Eliot is not quite right in stressing the hard labour involved in acquiring this knowledge; but he is very right in pointing
out that this is not acquired in a day reading a treatise; nowhere has tradition in the wide sense in which Eliot used it been written down comprehensively, though
some of it can be learnt through books- intelligently selected. The awareness of the 'presence of the past' is in reality a sense that grows with the growth of a
With the wide connotation given to the concept of tradition, it certainly includes the body of conventions which regulate the composition of imaginative
literature. The concept of literary conventions again is a little more limited, definitive and cohesive than Eliot's concept of literary tradition, which includes those
principles and conditions which hold good always' and which forms the basis for a literary standard of values and which therefore necessarily is a little
amorphous and very much comprehensive. The conventions are, however, not a crystallised code of prescriptions and prohibitions, an unvarying body of
legislation which rules unchallenged the world of literature. Like the larger body of tradition of which they are a part, these literary conventions too undergo
modification continually. In fact, as long as a culture has the principle of growth and development alive in it, so long it continues to change and adapt itself; and
literary conventions which regulate the creation of literature which is a part of the culture of a people are flexible and undergo modifications continually. A
tendency to rigid conformity to rules whether essential and reasonable or arbitrary and not of fundamental importance is most often a sign of decadence and even
Literary conventions, while they regulate literature are themselves formulated by analytical thinkers drawing from the best works of the most creative writers of
the past. These are usually committed to writing and at this stage have a tendency to become a little rigid temporarily, perhaps because of the formal shape given
to them, perhaps because what is in writing has greater authority than what is passed on as oral tradition. However, if the culture of the people has any life in it,
these written-down conventions are repatterned by writers of genius whose authority usually is able to quell the opposition of the no-changers present in every
society at all times.
In the Tamil language, the oldest extant work is not one of creative literature but a grammar, the Tolkappiam, the work of a great analytical thinker called
Tolkappiar, Grammars in Tamil not only deal with etymology and semantics, they include in their sweep subjects like poetics, rhetoric and prosody. The
Tolkappiam deals in its third book with the subject matter of poetry and here it lays down prescriptions and prohibitions which constitute the basic pattern to
which Sangam poets conformed with remarkable fidelity. Ancient Indians delighted in meticulous rule- making and Tolkappiar covered most of the field of
poetry and emerged with a detailed pattern of rules and conventions which went very deep indeed. His authority has been a absolute during the Sangam era; he
ruled like a benevolent dictator over one of the most amazingly productive eras in the history of Tamil literature. Here it is necessary to take time off to examine
briefly the history of ancient Tamil literature so that we may grasp clearly the place of this all- important work, Tolkappiam.
The oldest creative works in the Tamil language available today are those that belong to the Sangam period: the most recent among them cannot be assigned to a
period later than the second century after Christ. It is probable that they were composed over a long period of five to six centureis though they were certainly
collected in the form of anthologies towards the end of this era, drawing on a larger body of poems. The uniformly high quality of the poems that have come
down to us indicates the critical acumen of the anthologists; they were so choosy, they have in many cases rejected all but one poem of a poet!
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