Negotiations with the Past: Classical Tamil in Contemporary Tamil

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Item Code: IDJ671
Author: Kannan M. & Carlos Mena
Publisher: French Institute of Pondicherry
Language: English
Edition: 2006
Pages: 478 (Illustrated in Black & White is 10)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 9.5" X 6.5"
Weight 1 kg
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Book Description

Back of the Book

This volume is the outcome, extended and enlarged, of a one day seminar, "Negotiations with the Past: Classical Tamil in Contemporary Tamil", held on July 30th 2004 at the French Institute of Ponidcherry, under the joint auspices of the Indology Department, French Institute of Pondicherry (IFP) and the Tamil chair, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies (SSEAS), University of California, Berkeley.

"…Tamil from now on is officially recognized, alongside Sanskrti, as a classical language. The language is not, all the same, the property of philologists and linguists or the favourite toy of politicians: it is expression of a people and therefore, above all, the reflection of a culture. What is of definitive importance is the people and its culture that expresses itself in language but may also, let us not forget, express itself without recourse to any written witness.

Nobody doubts that ancient Greek is a classical language and recognized as such all over the world even though there was no one in Athens who still spoke that language at the time of the very recent Olympic Games. Even so, the glory of ancient Greece is still in evidence by way of these games, due to the aesthetic quality and artistic imagination that went into that evocation of the anique celebrations of Olympia by today's Greeks in today's Athens. May we not say that a heritage is of value to the extent of the capacity its heirs have for assuming or at least transmitting it? If this is indeed the case, the collection of testimonies I have the honour to introduce here leave us with good omens for the future both of research and of Tamil culture."- Prof. Francois Gros

"…Classical Tamil, starting with Sangam literature and culminating with Kampan, is one of the richest of all human accomplishments. For modern Tamil, it is potentially an inexhaustible resource of ideas, syntax, and vocabulary, and in this respect it sets Tamil apart from any other modern South Asian language. Certainly, modern Tamil has built upon the edifice of its classical literature, for its writers have been guided-sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously- by the great Tamil classical traditions even as they have been influenced by Sanskrit and by the literature of the west. Much that is characteristic of modern Tamil-its use of vocabulary, its perspective, its tone-can be traced to an extent to the classical literature, and yet one cannot help but feel that contemporary writers have not really come to terms with the heritage of old Tamil, and that if they would pay more attention to it, they would be surprised and gratified by the richness of the resources they would suddenly recover."-Prof. George L. Hart



Tamil is the only Indian language whose modem literature can draw from two independent classical traditions. In this respect, it is like the modem languages of Europe, which draw from the Greek/Roman and the Hebrew traditions. Tamil draws from its own ancient traditions, starting with Sangam literature, and also from Sanskrit. There are many elements from each source which are used extensively in modem Tamil. In this introduction, I will suggest some of the ways in which modem Tamil uses its double classical heritage and some ways in which more attention to their native tradition might prove valuable to contemporary writers.

It has become common for Tamils to see their heritage as going back to the great Tamil classical tradition begun in Sangam times. This is natural, as ancient Tamil literature is one of the major features that gives Tamil its identity. This is reflected in many ways-the Tamil alphabet, for example, is the only Indian alphabet that cannot represent all the Sanskrit phonemes, and this is because it was developed at a time before Sanskrit became an indispensable model for South Asian languages. Yet it would be a mistake to underestimate the influence Sanskrit has had and continues to have on Tamil. I once looked through a hymn in the Rig Veda and discovered that every single word in it has been borrowed in some form (often with changed meaning) into modem Tamil. But beyond this, we see the influence of Sanskrit taking hold in Tamil as early as the Civakacintdmani and becoming stronger as time goes on. Today, Sanskrit has provided a large vocabulary for Tamil that is used in the everyday language. Of course, Tamil differs from other South Asian languages (except Urdu) in its replacement of Sanskrit vocabulary with native words in more formal writing and speech. Thus, while the four written Dravidian languages all use about the same number of Sanskrit words in informal speech, Tamil uses almost no Sanskrit in its formal variety and Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam use more and more Sanskrit as their diction becomes more formal. Modern Tamil writers, such as Ramamirutham, often use this ability of Tamil to use different vocabularies to create effects in modern stories. A. K. Ramanujan once pointed out to me Tamil stories in which a mood or perspective could be created by using Sanskrit words. And certainly modem Tamil uses stories and ideas first found in Sanskrit very commonly. It is a notable fact that illiterate Tamilians know far more Sanskrit words than their Hindi-speaking counterparts (cf. pustakam vs. kitab). I have collected several villuppattu folk stories sung by barbers who use a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Sanskrit words and stories ultimately derived from Sanskrit.

Beyond the provision of loan words and stories, what is the influence of Sanskrit on Tamil and its sister languages? Perhaps the most insightful summary of the aim of classical Sanskrit authors is provided by the great esthetician Jagannatha in his Rasagangadhara. Summing up his view of the purpose of literature at the beginning of his work, he writes, "Kavya (poetry) is sound that produces a beautiful (ramaniya) meaning. And beauty (ramaniyata) is something that pertains to knowledge that produces other- worldly delight (ahlada). And by 'other-worldly' is meant something with its own peculiar qualities (jativisesa) that informs delight and is also known as the quality of being charming (camatkaratva)" If we look backwards from this definition at the great works of classical Sanskrit, starting with those of Kalidasa, we find that almost without exception, they take place in an imaginary and idealized world. Their characters are not real people but mythological personages; the sense of these works is one of escapism and fantasy. This is not to denigrate their beauty and profundity, both of which are undeniable, but rather to delineate a mentality that came to characterize most Indian literatures as they developed in the early centuries of the second millennium (see Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia, edited by Sheldon Pollock, University of California, 2003). In their more formal manifestations, the South Asian literatures attempted to distance themselves from their spoken counterparts by extremely heavy use of Sanskrit vocabulary-culminating in Manipravalam in Malayalam, which used not only Sanskrit vocabulary but also mixed Sanskrit grammatical forms with native ones. The result was literatures that could only be read and appreciated by rasikas and pundits--often rich and rewarding literatures, no doubt, but still quite inaccessible to ordinary people.

There is, however, another stream that informs Sanskrit and other Indian languages-that of folk literature. The Sanskrit Mahabharata, which antedates formal Sanskrit poetry by many centuries, arose from a bardic corpus that described ordinary life and does not often have the sort of artificiality that was the lifeblood of later Sanskrit. And throughout the history of India, Sanskrit was a sort of repository of all sorts of local knowledge and lore, especially the puranas. When the other languages of India developed in the second millennium, they were also influenced by local folk sources, and next to the Sanskritized works of .such authors as Nanniah, we find works that are indebted to the folk traditions, such as the Kannada Vacanas and the Telugu Basavannapuranam. Yet, for all the folk influence, most languages of India looked for their identity and for the model of proper literature to the tradition described by Jagannatha, It is virtually impossible to read most of the classical works of Kannada, Telugu, and Malayalam without knowing as much Sanskrit vocabulary as a Sanskrit pundit. People who speak those languages are unlikely to understand much of their own literatures unless they are highly educated. I have often heard educated speakers of Kannada and Telugu recite long passages from their pre-modem traditions that were more than 95 percent Sanskrit. As a colleague once remarked, "Are such things even Dravidian?"

Tamil is the only Indian language except Urdu that does not fit this model of deriving its authority from the imitation of Sanskrit. In fact, strangely, in ordinary Tamil, Sanskrit words occupy a position of lower formality than native words. There are countless examples of this: pustakam vs. nul; varuni vs. punainturai; suddham vs. tuymai; bhasai vs. moli. The reason for this is obvious: Tamil has its own classical tradition that did not arise from Sanskrit and is not in any way indebted to that language and its conventions. When we survey Sangam literature, we find an extensive body of work that uses virtually no Sanskrit vocabulary (less than two percent), has its own esthetic prescriptive works, and tries to describe the lives, feelings, and ambitions of ordinary people, including even the very poor and marginal. These works do not attempt to rationalize or romanticize human tragedy the way virtually all Sanskrit works do (and which Tamil begins to do beginning with the Cilappatikaram). Nor do they see the world from the point of view of various religious systems, as dependent on karma, bhakti, or any other theoretical construct. They provide us with a view of life that is untainted by the theological and the philosophical, and in this they are radically different from the productions of North India.

Thus, for Tamils, the Sangam works provide a corrective to the Sanskrit tradition-a body of works that treats the real world, one in which ordinary human beings live, prosper, suffer, and die without any otherworldly intervention or perspective, one in which suffering is not rendered appealing and esthetically pleasing as it is, say, in the lovely Rativilapa in Kalidasa's Kumarasambhava. Nor, in spite of the sections of the Tolkappiyam that treat the meyppatus (which correspond to the sthayibhavas of the rasa theory) is there a sense in early Tamil that the depiction of suffering can produce a feeling of delight. Tragedy in the Sangam corpus is depicted to deepen the hearer's sense of being alive, and to imbue him or her with the awareness that life is often pain. In this it resembles some of the Greek tragedies. It provides the modern Tamil writer, I would argue, with a much-needed corrective to the Sanskrit heritage, and to the use of "spiritual" motifs that mars much modern Indian literature. As in other parts of the world, South Asian writers use predominantly western forms-novels, short stories, and the like-and they read Western literature extensively. Naturally, such movements as social realism that characterize Western literature are borrowed into their writing. This helps make modern Indian literatures dynamic and relevant. Yet Western models are not always an ideal fit-and sometimes not even a comfortable fit-for South Asian ideas and culture. Obviously, Tamil writers cannot always simply take their ideas and themes straight from the Sangam works. Yet a deep acquaintance with this literature, one based on a habitual reading of it, will certainly suggest to them ways of thinking and of expressing ideas that fit into their own writing, in much the same way that Shakespeare influences all modern English writing.



This volume is the outcome, extended and enlarged, of a one day seminar, "Negotiations with the Past: Classical Tamil in Contemporary Tamil", held on July 30th 2004 at the French Institute of Pondicherry, under the joint auspices of the Indology Department, French Institute of Pondicherry (IFP) and the Tamil Chair, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies (SSEAS), University of California, Berkeley.

"There is no unmediated access to the past"
The seminar brought together experts from a variety of fields to demonstrate and discuss the relationship between classical and contemporary Tamil and the continuities and discontinuities perceived in that relationship. The fields, each represented by one expert, were: Archaeology, Epigraphy, Literature, Grammar, Lexicography, the Sciences and Music, and the Performing Arts.

The papers given and the resulting discussions provided a multi- disciplinary framework for looking at the study of Tamil today and highlighted the holistic approach to Tamil studies always taken by the IFP and by the Tamil Chair, Department of SSEAS, u.c. Berkeley, in their research program on Classical and Contemporary Tamil and on Historical Geography.

Every culture has its own characteristic way of dealing with the past, a way which reflects the social and cultural changes taking place in any epoch. Tamil culture is at a crucial juncture in its evolution and in its adaptation to the contemporary period. Amongst other signs of this we find: the Tamil diaspora, Tamil on the net, and on open source platforms etc., while, at the same time, it continues to explore its classical and folk past. At the time of the seminar the Tamil language was still struggling for classical status within India; this has since been achieved.

In illustration of the holistic approach to Tamil studies just mentioned, two poems appear at the beginning of the book, one from the cankam corpus, Purananuru, and the other by the contemporary Sri Lankan poet, Vilvarattinam, along with French and English translations. In this juxtaposition may be seen the radiant link which exists, or may exist, between the classical and contemporary language: visible too are the obstacles to the reading, understanding and translating of Tamil poetry, whether ancient or modern. In order to have an accurate and comprehensive understanding of these two poems, for instance, a reader would, in order to understand the first, have to be familiar with the ancient story of King Pari. And by the way, does anyone know where the kingdom of Pari was actually situated? She or he would have to be able to read classical Tamil history and the history of the cankam corpus, and have knowledge of matters such as the place in it of the Purananuru. For an informed appreciation of the contemporary poem knowledge would be required of the history of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, of India's role in it, and how it has led to the dispersal of Sri Lankan Tamils amongst the refugees of the world, as well as of the history of Sri Lanka, and that of Ealam Tamil literature. Competence in modern day Tamil and grasp of syntax, style and images being also necessary, it is evident that a great deal is required of the student of Tamil literature but we believe that this kind of holistic approach may be the only way in which Tamil studies may be able to emerge from their present fragmented and isolated state.

"We read history to learn about the past, and pass exams.
In order to define that state more precisely in the brief space we have here, let us look for a moment at some of the scholars and students responsible, at this time, for the study and teaching of the Tamil language and culture.

First, from the culture itself, come the traditional scholars who learned classical Tamil grammar and literature by rote and repetition, literally at the feet of their gurus in the tradition's great lineages. These bearers of a unique heritage lecture and produce streams of books in a meta-language that few understand and, as well, 'employ an archaic, and often impenetrable, form of English which only adds to the obfuscation. That self-reflection and self- cnticism are not part of the practice of the tradition is a barrier to development as is the lack of interest of these experts in the modern Tamil world which barely exists for them. The original idea of a lively interaction between traditional and up-to-date methodologies and their respective exponents has been replaced by a one way street where researchers tap into the indispensable data base constituted by the memories of these living legends who are, however, an endangered species.

At the feet, virtually, of these traditional exponents of the culture sit the overseas scholars who have learned classical Tamil in their universities but are unable to read the Tamil manuscripts and must have everything transliterated. They record their teachers' remarks and produce their own translations and critical editions of classical Tamil texts directly from that source and from unpublished English translations available in a few libraries. Technology enters in the name of applied research and texts appear on CDs and on the web without any serious study of them having been done. The text is dissected as though it were a cadaver and nowhere do we find the pleasure of reading or the joy of understanding and of course, this type of scholar has no interest in, or insight into, contemporary Tamil life.

Next, from every clime, come Tamil scholars under other names. As sociologists, anthropologists and historians they frequent archives and write papers in English with an approach that would, if their work were written in Tamil, be recognizably more journalistic and commonsensical than scholarly. Works are produced and often come to be considered as landmarks in literary anthropological oral history, even though no corresponding original Tamil version was made available. For such works are based largely on fieldwork, usually conducted, through an interpreter and with a resulting lack of any sense of the culture. The absence too of any refereeing or peer reviewing in the field of the Humanities in general means that a single paper is published with minor amendments over and over again.

Our fourth type of scholar is to be found teaching in universities, colleges and schools. Products of the faulty Indian educational system, these graduates teach Tamil without the basic reference tools in a caricature of education. There are candidates for Ph.D. in Tamil who are not aware of the existence of the Tamil lexicon and wouldn't be able to use it if they were. Such Tamil Peraciriyar professors tend to read and to write elementary articles for Tamil journals and critical reviews, only to the extent necessary for their promotion. If, in contrast to the traditional scholars mentioned above, they have weak memories and only faintly remember what they wrote in their own dissertations, this hardly matters since every year, in time for the inspection, they faithfully copy and recopy their "notes of lesson" which rarely correspond to the lessons actually taught. Their hapless students are limited in their choice of thesis subject to those on the list provided by the professor.

Lastly come the students themselves, those who, even though their mother tongue is Tamil, speak and write it unconsciously, making all sorts of simple mistakes. There is little incentive for them to rectify this as only about 25 marks are awarded in the school exams for grammar. Facilities are next to non-existent: most students have never, for instance, seen a Tamil dictionary.

Schools which have retained Tamil as the medium of instruction are few and far between and their number is dwindling. The teaching in most schools of the medium language, English, is a contributory factor in the generally low standard of education.

As Dr. Indira Manuel in her contribution to this volume informs us, the study of Tamil history or literature is increasingly taken up by students who have failed entrance to science or business courses, year by year, follow the example of their professors and seek posts teaching Tamil in schools and universities.

The students who come from abroad are those who have reached the stage of studying Tamil by avoiding being ambushed by Sanskrit. They tend to be perplexed by the reality of the ever contracting and expanding world of classical and contemporary Tamil.




Acknowledgements v
Song of Pari's daughters and the Echo of Moonlight by Vilvarattinam vii
Negotiating with the past
Dr. Francois Gros
Negocier avec le passé
Dr. Francois Gros
Dr. George L. Hart
Kannam M., Carlos Mena
Prehistory in Tamil Nadu: The Need for Links and Communication
Dr. Shanthi Pappu
Archaeology and Tamil Literature
Dr. K.Rajan
Tamil Epigraphy: Past and Present
Dr. Y.Subbarayalu
Becoming an Epigraphy: My Experience
Dr. N. Venkatesan
Pandiya Inscriptions
Dr. V. Vedachalam
Beginnings of the Writing System in Tamil
Dr. R. Kothandaraman
Classical Literature  
Current Trends in Tamil Classical Studies
Dr. K. Nachimuthu
Teaching Sangam Literature to a Modern Reader
Dr. Indra Manuel
Classical Tamil for a Contemporary Audience: A Few Personal Involvements
Dr. Prema Nandakumar
Classical Tamil and Contemporary Tamil
T.V. Gopal Iyer
Contemporary Perspectives on Classical Literature  
Remains of Tribal Ethos in Purananuru: A Contemporary Reading of the Sangam Anthology
Dr. Raj Gauthaman
Sangam Literature: Reception and Reconstruction
Dr. V.Arasu
Text and Time in Early Tamilakam
V. Rajesh
Tamil Lexicography  
Tamil Lexicography Past and Present
Dr. P.R. Subramanian
Tamil Performing Arts  
Tamil Music Yesterday and Today
Dr. R. Thirumurugan
Presenting the Past: Classical Tamil Texts on the Contemporary Stage
Dr. A. Mangai
Science in Tamil  
Science and Tamil Society: Issues for Consideration
D. Senthil Babu
Unicode System and South Indian Scripts
N. Uma Sankari
A Comparative Dravidian Perspective  
The "War of Bobbili": Genres of Composition of a Folk Epic Story
Dr. Daniel Negers
Wandering in the Tamil Archipelago  
Wandering in the Tamil Archipelago
Dr. Francois Gros
"Modern Pandits…"
G. Subramania Iyer
Note on Contributors 471


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