The Poetics and Politics of Praise
The founding narrative which popularized the habit of imagining Tamil as goddess, mother, and maiden is P. Sundaram Pillai’s 1891 hymn, “Tamiḻt teyva vaṇakkam,” “Homage to Goddess Tamil.” Sundaram Pillai, of course, occupies a hallowed niche in the pantheon of tamiḻppaṟṟu as a truly loyal son of Tamiḻttāy. As his fellow devotees exclaim, was it not remarkable that although he lived all his life in Kerala, a non-Tamil-speaking region, he confessed to Tamiḻttāy, “I may reside in [the land of] Malayalam, but I think of [only] you as my mother” (Sundaram Pillai 1922: 23)? Born in 1855 in Allepey into a middle-income Vellala family of traders, Sundaram Pillai had a master’s degree in philosophy. Aside from a brief bureaucratic stint as commissioner of separate revenues for Travancore (1882-85), he taught history and philosophy at the Maharaja’s College in Trivandrum until his death in 1897. His historical researches on Tamil literature secured for him membership in the Royal Asiatic Society and the coveted title of Rao Bahadur from the colonial state (Pillai et al. 1957).
In writing his hymn on Tamiḻttāy, Sundaram Pillai took great care in locating it within a prior Shaiva tradition of deifying Tamil (Sundaram Pillai 1922: 9; Kailasapathy 1970: 102-9). Like his seventeenth-century predecessor, Karunaiprakasar, he refers to Tamil as deity and even boldly establishes a parity between the mighty Shiva and his Tamiḻtteyvam, both of whom are deemed “primordial,” “everlasting,” and “boundless.” Nonetheless, Sundaram Pillai was indeed inaugurating a new sensibility when he explicitly feminized Tamil as goddess, mother, and maiden. Aside from a few verses, the feminization of the language was quite underdeveloped prior to his hymn, but since then it has gained an immense following. Furthermore, large numbers of subsequent poets, especially those influenced by the Dravidian movement, have abandoned the conventional practice of beginning their works by calling upon the traditional Hindu deities to shower their benedictions on them. Instead, they more typically appeal to Tamiḻttāy as their sole muse and guardian deity (Kailasapathy 1970). In doing so, they broadcast their allegiance to the Tamil cause and secure membership for themselves in the Tamil devotional community, even as they elevate the language to a status commensurate with that of the gods.
Equally striking, since Sundaram Pillai’s time many devotees have not just been content with short invocatory verses on Tamiḻttāy; instead they have also produced long and elaborate praise poems on her, many of which have been—and continue to be—published in literary journals and popular newspapers, or printed in anthologies (e.g., Nagarajan 1980; Somasundara Pulavar n.d.; Velayutam Pillai 1971). Indeed, praise poetry is one of the principal technologies through which devotion to Tamiḻttāy is produced and circulated. For while there are a number of devout prose writings in which Tamiḻttāy figures, it is praise poetry written in Tamil that is her favored niche.
Praise poetry has a long history in the literary cultures of the region, and it may be traced back through the devotional verses of the second millennium to the royal panegyrics of the ancient Canḳam corpus. Most such praise poems focused on deities, sovereigns, and spiritual notables, although occasionally other subjects of praise, like Tamil itself, materialized (Krishnan 1984; Ramaswamy 1996). As literary practice, praise poems enabled poets to articulate sentiments of love and adulation for their chosen subjects, to recount the salvific powers and glorious actions of the deity or the sovereign, to dwell lovingly upon his or her beautiful form and appearance, and the like. Many conventional genres of praise—such as the tirupaḷḷiyeḻucci, the tirutacānḳam, the piḷḷaittamiḻ, the tūtu, and so on—have been extremely productive over the centuries, offering standardized templates that a poet could readily deploy in the praise of a chosen subject or patron (Zvelebil 1974: 193-219).
Remarkably, such genres, which were predominantly reserved for deities or sovereigns in the premodern praise literature, are used from the early decades of this century to laud Tamil. Thus, there are many examples of Tamiḻttāy paḷḷiyeḻucci, “the awakening of Tamiḻttāy from sleep” Tamiḻttāy tirutacānḳam, “the ten constituents of [the kingdom of] Tamiḻttāy” and of Tamiḻttāyppiḷḷaitamiḻ, “Tamiḻttāy as extraordinary child.” There are innumerable versions of Tamiḻttāymālai, “garland of Tamiḻttāy” at least two poems written in the ancient āṟṟuppaṭai, “guide,” genre in which poets direct their fellow speakers to the presence of a glorious and bountiful Tamiḻttāy whom they had forgotten; and two poems featuring Tamil as messenger, tūtu (Amirtham Pillai 1906; Arangasami ; Parantama Mudaliar 1926; Somasundara Pulavar n.d.: 8-10, 35-43; Sundara Shanmugan 1951; Velayutam Pillai 1971: 56-61, 83-84; Pekan 1986). Additionally, popular and folk genres such as the kuṟavaņci and the villuppāṭṭu have also been appropriated in narratives such as the Tamiḻaracikkuṟavaņci (The fortuneteller song on Queen Tamil) and Tamiḻ Vaḷarnta Katai (The story of Tamil’s growth) (Navanitakrishnan 1952; Varadananjaiya Pillai ). At the very least, all this suggests the energy with which modern devotees of Tamil have colonized high as well as popular forms, so that a space may be cleared for their chosen one among the more conventional objects of adulation in the Tamil life-world. Through the deployment of such poetic genres and praise strategies, they have endowed their language with the powers and charisma that have gathered around gods, sovereigns, and notables over the centuries—the right to command allegiance, demand loyalty, and mobilize followers. In turn, her devotees are encouraged to relate to Tamiḻttāy as they have interacted with these figures—with a mixture of adulation, reverence, and deep love.
Praise, Arjun Appadurai suggests, is a “regulated, improvisatory practice” that creates a “community of sentiment involving the emotional participation of the praiser, the one who is praised, and the audience of that act of praise” (A. Appadurai 1990: 94). The praise poem on Tamiḻttāy personalizes the language, presenting it to its devotee as a tangible being who is familiar, even intimate—a personal god, patron sovereign, guardian muse, object of desire, and increasingly, mother figure. The praise poem also knits together the language and its devotees into a community of adulation and worship, each act of praise allowing them an opportunity to dwell lovingly upon the wonders and powers of their beloved Tamil. Finally, the praise poem allows its authors to renew their faith in themselves and in each other as devotees of Tamiḻttāy. The praise of Tamiḻttāy through poetry thus is more than just a literary or political gesture, signifying one’s adherence to Tamil; it is, also, crucially, a ritual act through which tamiḻppaṟṟu is continually renewed and reaffirmed. It is therefore not surprising that many such praise poems, particularly by hallowed devotees such as Sundaram Pillai, Subramania Bharati, or Bharatidasan, are recited over and over again in devotional circles, especially at times that call for a heightened demonstration of piety and loyalty.
All this is not to say that poetry is the only form of expression in Tamil devotion. Certainly, its devotees wrote a great deal about Tamil in prose, especially on matters relating to language and cultural policy, on the promotion of Tamil in education, government, and public activities, and so on. In such prose narratives, however, especially when they were written in English, it is comparatively rare to find Tamiḻttāy. Instead, Tamil generally appears in prose as a nonpersonified language—not as an animate being, as it frequently does in its poetry. This in itself is perhaps not surprising, for prose narratives on Tamil were often produced for the consumption of the state, in the process of petitioning the government for various favors. In contrast, poetry on Tamiḻttāy is typically generated for the consumption of its speakers. Indeed, especially in the colonial period, the state appears to have been remarkably disinterested in this whole sphere of activity that was so prolific and widespread among Tamil’s devout. So the striking dependence on poetic discourse in Tamil devotional circles was more than just a literary habit, dictated by the norms of a culture in which poetry, rather than prose, was until fairly recently the privileged mode of literary expression. Rather, the recourse to Tamil poetry was also a strategic practice through which its devotees expressed and constituted their devotion to their language through a medium (Tamil) that is considered their very “own,” through a form (poetry) that is deemed authentically and deeply “Tamil,” and through forums (such as community based literary and revivalist activities) that were outside the interests of the state. Poetry made possible intimate, even veiled, discourse about the language, allowing participation only to those who were familiar with its imagery, meters, rhetorical nuances, and so on. Thus poetry enabled Tamil’s devout to practice what I would characterize as “intimate politics” in which affect and passion were deployed to establish the boundaries of a community united in devotion to the language.
And yet, although poetry had been the preferred mode of pre-colonial literary work, with the onset of modernity and its privileging of prose as rational, objective, and scientific, poets were increasingly pushed to the margins of social prestige and economic well-being in many parts of colonial India, and certainly in the Tamil-speaking region. Paradoxically, this itself may account for poetry’s popularity as a discursive form among Tamil’s devotees. Because prose, especially prose in English, was so closely associated with the existing power structures, poetry, I suggest, emerged as the favored form for the disenfranchised and the disempowered. Concomitantly, poetry also presents itself as a form of expression for those who want to oppose the existing system and the dominant ideology. In her marvellous ethnography on the ideology of poetry in Bedouin society, Lila Abu-Lughod suggests as much and notes that among the Bedouins, “poetry is, in so many ways, the discourse of opposition to the system[,]…[a] symbol of defiance” (1986: 233-59). I appropriate her suggestion, applying it as well to the production of poetry by tamiḻppaṟṟu, which has clearly been a discourse of opposition conducted around sentiments of decline, loss, and disempowerment. On the one hand, poetry is widely believed to encapsulate the best of Tamil’s literary tradition; it is associated with the Tamil past, especially the past of the ancient Canḳam age when poets, we are repeatedly told, commanded even kings. Poetry, it is nostalgically believed, is a deeply and authentically Tamil form. On the other hand, at least in the past century or so, its very subordination to prose within the regimes of colonial modernity meant that it emerged not just as a means but as a site of resistance to dominant ideologies, as well as to the new literary and linguistic forms that threatened what was perceived as authentically Tamil. For all these reasons, when Tamil’s devotees want to write most passionately, intimately, and fiercely about their language, they turn to poetry.
In the praise poetry on Tamil and Tamiḻttāy since the time of Sundaram Pillai, there is no singular conception of paṟṟu, “devotion,” that reigns. Instead, like the language and like Tamiḻttāy, devotion, too, is multifaceted, and here I examine three of its modalities. In what I wish to call its “pietistic” mode, it is Tamiḻttāy’s persona as teyvam, “goddess,” that is foregrounded, and the devotee casts himself as a pious worshipper. The predominant sentiment of this modality is reverence for a divine being, the relationship between the language and its pious devotee modelled on the ritual relationship between an omniscient goddess and her subordinate worshipper. I characterize the second of the modalities as the “somatics of devotion.” Here, the emphasis is on Tamiḻttāy’s persona as tāy, the “mother” of her devotees, who correspondingly cast themselves as her “children.” In this modality, the relationship between the language and its filial devotee is biological and corporeal, modelled on the genealogical and familial bonds that tie a mother to her child. Here, devotion takes on a distinctly filial flavor, predominantly expressed in the domestic idiom of the family and the home. And then, there is a third modality that I characterize as the “erotics of devotion.” Here, it is Tamiḻttāy’s persona as woman that is highlighted, the devotee casting himself as a desiring man. In this modality, the relationship between the language and its desiring devotee is charged with eroticism, although Tamiḻttāy’s status as kaṉṉi, “virgin maiden,” obviously complicates an already ambivalent situation. I have analytically distinguished these modalities of devotion (pietistics, somatics, and erotics), these three aspects of the devotee (pious, filial, and desiring), and these three personae of Tamiḻttāy (goddess, mother, and maiden). But in much of the discourse of tamiḻppaṟṟu, they are all quite intertwined, making Tamil devotion a very fraught and complicated affair indeed.