Tamil as Maiden: Erotics of Tamil Devotion
Like so many other love stories, Tamil devotion, too, has its triangle of desire constituted by three protagonists: Tamiḻttāy, imagined as a beautiful, desirable, but emphatically virginal mother; the male devotee, typically portrayed as young, heterosexual, virile, and desiring; and the female devotee, young and heterosexual like her male counterpart, beautiful and desirable like her mother/language, but destined to be a married mother entrusted with the task of reproducing the language and its community. By virtue of being constituted as a hallowed mother figure to whom absolute devotion and loyalty is owed, Tamiḻttāy obviously does not enter the field as an equal player, and she frequently interrupts the sexual and familial bonding of her human devotees. Nevertheless, the devotional triangle is not just disruptive but productive as well, which is not least of the reasons that it flourishes. For the circulation of desire among the three protagonists, however complicated and conflictual it may seem on the surface, only ensures that the language and its devotees are indelibly interlocked in structures of pleasure and service which further increases their longing for each other. The work of the modality of erotics reminds us that Tamil devotion is not just about loss, pain, suffering, and death, but also about enjoyment and pleasure. Passions of the tongue may be pious and filial, but they are erotic as well.
At the core of the structure of sentiment that is constituted by the modality of erotics is the desiring male devotee’s undiluted pleasure in Tamil and in Tamiḻttāy, rather than his awed reverence or filial anxiety. The Tamil word that is generally used for expressing this pleasure is iṉpam (and its cognate, iṉimai). This polysemic word means joy, delight, sweetness, and bliss, but in a large number of contexts, it signifies sensual pleasure and romantic love. So, the numerous verses and essays entitled iṉpattamiḻ, “sweet Tamil,” or tamiḻiṉpam, “pleasures of Tamil,” are certainly replete with images of Tamil’s innocent beauty and delights, the pleasures of hearing its mellifluous sounds, the joy of-speaking the language and reading its literature, and so on (Bharatidasan 1986: 87-89, 94; Sethu Pillai 1968). But consider the following 1938 verse by Bharatidasan, recited during the anti-Hindi protest marches of that year:
Our bodies, our wealth, our very breath, We will surrender to our sweet Tamil (iṉpattamiḻ)! Even the pleasures woman alone gives do not compare to our great Tamil! We will declare! (Bharatidasan 1948: 9)
This explicit comparison by the poet of the pleasures (cukam) offered by a woman and by Tamil is not fortuitous, as evidenced in several poems written by male poets with titles such as “Tamiḻ eṉ Kātali” (Tamil is my beloved) and “Tamiḻ Eṉ Maṉaivi” (Tamil is my wife) (Mudiyarasan 1976: 34-39; Nagarajan 1980: 26-34). Thus, in “Tamil is my beloved,” Mudiyarasan, one of the better-known poets of the Dravidian movement, declared passionately:
Or consider this verse in which there is a striking slippage from Tamil as “mother” to Tamil as “wife”:
In order to acquire you, I wander all around; If you reject me, how can I endure this life? Is it not your sweet passion that drives me to frenzy? O delicious language of mine! Gather me up and embrace me! (Mudiyarasan 1976: 35)
[You] are the mother who fed us milk; You are the food that sates our hunger; You are the song that gives so much delight (iṉimai); You are the light we bring into our Tamil homes with the bond of marriage (tāli); O Mother/Goddess Tamil (tamiḻaṇanḳē)!
So, just as Tamiḻttāy comes to occupy a space inhabited by their conventional gods and human mothers, she also competes, as a woman, with their human spouses and lovers in the imagination of many a male devotee. The desiring devotee dwells on her physical attributes as a beautiful, sensuous woman, praising her “glorious, golden body,” “abundant breasts,” “lustrous lips,” and so on. He rejoices that her “dark spear-shaped eyes” beckon him, that her “glowing face” rivals the luster of the moon, that her “narrow waist puts lightning to shame,” and the like. He pronounces ecstatically that “his heart surges with the nectar of pleasure” when he beholds her, and that the pleasure (cukam) she gave him when she embraced him in the moonlight caused him to tremble (Mudiyarasan 1976: 34-36; Velayutam Pillai 1971: 84-89). Many such statements are highly stylized, of course, and follow the conventions of erotic Tamil literature. However, occasionally we also get more personalized glimpses of the devotee’s desire for his beloved Tamiḻttāy. T. K. Chidambaranatha Mudaliar (1882-1954), a well-known Tamil scholar and expert on the medieval poet Kamban, recalls that as a young boy studying in high school in the 1890s, he heard a public lecture by Swaminatha Aiyar at a local college in Tiruchirapalli. The lecture was on the glories and greatness of Tamil. Chidambaranathan remembered it well in 1935:
The reverend Aiyar listed the beautiful jewels worn by our Lady Tamil (tamiḻmakaḷ):
The Cūḷāmaṇi adorns her head;
The Cintāmaṇi is on her breast;
The Kuṇṭalakēci hangs from her ears;
The Vaḷaiyāpati encircles her arms;
Her waist wears the Maṇimēkalai;
And her ankles are adorned with the Cilappatikāram.
As soon as he recited this, I became completely entranced (mayanḳip pōyviṭṭēn). That night, all I could do was dream about this—that Lady Tamil (tamiḻaṇanḳu) was approaching me, and bewitching me with her every step and turn with the beauty of her jewels.
Yet Chidambaranathan and his fellow male devotees could only dream of Tamiḻttāy as such, for their desire for her, however passionate, could never be consummated, lurking as it had to in the interstices of the two dominant structures of imagining their beloved: she was their mother, and she was a perpetual virgin. Indeed, one of the most frequent ways in which Tamiḻttāy is described in Tamil devotional discourses from its very inception is as kaṉṉittāy,“virgin mother,” a deliberate contradiction which only emphasized her extraordinary exceptionalism (K. Appadurai 1944: 28-29, 33; Kathiresan Chettiar 1959-60: 170; Pancanathan n.d.: 25; Sharif 1990: 8-9; S. Subramanian 1939: 36-37). Tamiḻttāy’s bodily intactness underscored the inviolability of the language she embodied, its purity and autonomy as well as its self-sufficiency, even its divine wholeness. Immensely fruitful though her womb may be, the insistence that she is a virgin meant that her sexual purity (tūymai) is not compromised by her fertility and productiveness (vaḷamai). As one devotee proudly noted, “Our Tamiḻaṉṉai [Tamiḻttāy] flourishes as a virgin, as queen of chastity (kaṟpu)” (Tamilmallan 1984: 62). Cast as an asexual figure confined to perpetual virginity and hallowed motherhood, Tamiḻttāy is rendered sexually “safe,” an object of filial longing at best, of unconsummated desire at worst. The dilemma this poses for the desiring devotee is best expressed by Ramalinga Pillai in a poem suggestively entitled “Kaṉṉit Tamiḻ,” “Virgin Tamil”:
Underlying the medley of ambivalences here—of shame and guilt, of desire and revulsion, of grief and joy—is the (sexual) unavailability of Tamiḻttāy, however desirable she may be. Her state of perpetual virginity transforms Tamiḻttāy into a passive, undesiring female herself, erasing all traces of active sexuality from her being, but it also meant that the male devotee’s desire for her went unrequited. It remained as fantasy, never to be consummated. In Tamil devotion therefore, as indeed in so many ideologies, female virginity proves to be both disempowering and empowering: disempowering because it marks the female body as undesiring; empowering because it suggests impenetrability, self-sufficiency, and unavailability.
She came towards me, adorned with blossoms, Filling me with such delight (iṉpam); Transported to the world of gods, I rejoiced; O, how can I describe my bliss! Gold and gems she may not have; Even so, she was filled with beauty; With her sweet gentle smile, she filled my mind with pleasure (iṉpam). ...... Enchanted by her virginal beauty, I reached forward to tightly embrace her! Seeing then that she was my mother, I shrunk back, and fell at her feet, my body doubled up in shame! “Filled with alien thoughts, I totally forgot the mother who gave birth to me. Alas! I lost my mind.” So I grieved in distress.
The emptying of active sexuality from Tamiḻttāy’s being is critical to the work of the devotional triangle of desire, for this is what allows the Tamil-speaking woman to enter the male devotee’s regimes of pleasure. As the flesh-and-blood embodiment of Tamiḻttāy, she acts as her surrogate but without the imperative to maintain a virginal status. In fact, the very reproduction of Tamil required the woman to abandon her virginity through a chaste monogamous marriage to the male Tamilian (Ramaswamy 1992a). All the same, because the male Tamilian is also devoted to Tamil in these narratives, there is a concern that the primary commitment to Tamiḻttāy should not be compromised by the necessary sexual bonding with these human surrogates. So, in a long poem published as recently as January 1993 in a daily newspaper, the hero declares to his beloved that only after he had destroyed Hindi, which was threatening to enslave and wipe out Tamil, would he even “think about [her] beautiful breasts, and caress and enjoy [her]!” Similarly, years earlier, during a December 1956 debate in the Madras Legislative Assembly on instituting Tamil as the official language of the state, one of the members burst into a story about two lovers, in which the woman waits impatiently for the arrival of her beloved only to find out that he had been delayed on his way over to meet her. The hero tells her: “I was hurrying along thinking about you. At that time, I heard someone making a speech in sweet Tamil (iṉpattamiḻ); hearing that, I forgot myself and stayed on.” The legislator, V. Balakrishnan, goes on to tell his (predominantly male) audience that this is why we have been told that iṉpattamiḻ, “sweet Tamil,” has more kātal, “(romantic) love,” to offer us than even our kātali, “female lover.” The explicitness of the analogy here between the woman and Tamil as kātali is all the more remarkable because it is made in the state’s legislative chambers and in the context of promoting the cause of Tamil as official language.
Caught between his language/mother and his wife/lover, the male devotee looks for ways in which he could have them both. One solution for accomplishing this, which Bharatidasan offers in one of his poems, is for the male devotee to work together with his beloved in serving Tamil. So the hero tells his lover:
I have been born for you, truly, my beloved! You have been born for me, O cuckoo bird, my shining beam! ...... I gave myself to you. . . . You gave yourself to me. . . . ...... [My] mother hailed me. . . . She hailed you. . . . Our mother’s land, our Tamil We have to rescue from ruin! This is iṉpam! This is iṉpam! What else do we desire but this?
Thus the male devotee calls upon his beloved to give up their mutual pleasure in each other for the sake of Tamiḻttāy. Here, we see that the devotional triangle works not so much to disrupt the dyadic relationship between the male and female devotee as to rewrite the very meanings of “pleasure” and “desire” themselves: the poem begins with a celebration of the sexual union of the male devotee with his beloved and ends with a call to jointly sublimate that pleasure in each other in service of the language. Through such an act of sublimation, the language and its devotees, male and female, come to be ever more tightly bound to each other through bonds of pleasure and desire—fueled, denied, and rekindled.
This is of course not the only way out. The male devotee also confesses that if he indeed had to abandon himself to a sexual relationship with a human lover, it could be with none other than a Tamil-speaking woman, imagined as the very living embodiment of Tamil—a surrogate Tamiḻttāy cast in her image, but without the ambivalent burdens of virgin motherhood. Many poems suggest this, some even maintaining that it would be an act of betrayal and disloyalty for the Tamilian male to marry anyone other than a “true” and “pure” Tamilian woman, but there is one text I want to focus upon here, entitled Kātalikku (For my beloved). Published in 1961, the work is cast in the form of a series of letters written by an ardent male adorer of Tamiḻttāy to his human beloved, who appears to be severely vexed over his intense attachment to the language/mother which frequently takes him away from her side. The purpose of the letters appears to have been not only to convince her of the worthiness of his work for tamiḻppaṟṟu but also to convert her to its cause, because only then, it is clear to him, could he consummate his relationship with his beloved. So, in the penultimate letter he declares in response to her question, “Do you want me? do you want Tamil?”: “Dearest! I need you; I need Tamil as well; I need both you and Tamil. I need you as one who has herself blended with Tamil.…Dearest! For me, you are sweet Tamil (iṉpattamiḻ).” He then goes on to compare different parts of his beloved’s being and body to the different aspects of Tamil and its literature, writing, “In your youth—your beauty—your dark eyes—your fine brow—your eyelids—your black hair—…in the very movement of your limbs, I see only precious Tamil.…[Y]ou are living Tamil. I want you. I want only you as the very embodiment of Tamil (tamiḻ kalanta nī tāṉ vēṇṭum)” (Arulsami 1966: 80-86).
In this narrative as well, the work of the devotional triangle is productive. The hero is an ardent devotee who, passionately dedicated as he was to the cause of Tamil, is drawn to the Tamil-speaking woman precisely because in her, he sees the flesh-and-blood embodiment of his dear Tamiḻttāy. The narrative also works to successfully constitute him as an object of desire of the female Tamil speaker: she starts out as a reluctant lover, not entirely enchanted with either him or tamiḻppaṟṟu. By the end of the narrative, in the final letter of this exchange, his narration of his work for Tamil wins her over to him and to its cause (Arulsami 1966: 87-88).
These fascinating instances clearly suggest that Tamil devotion cannot be confined to its more obvious pious and filial manifestations alone. The modality of erotics, however, exists only in the interstices of tamiḻppaṟṟu, erupting every now and then, tantalizingly, in the writings of Tamiḻttāy’s desiring devotee(s). This may seem surprising in light of the vigorous traditions of pre-colonial erotic poetry in the Tamil-speaking region as indeed in other parts of India. But these traditions did not fare particularly well with the introduction of new Victorian and bourgeois norms of sexual morality which took deep root in colonial India, under the scathing missionary, Orientalist, and colonial scrutiny of “Hindu” sexuality (Metcalf 1994: 92-105; Sinha 1995). This colonial scrutiny was itself reflective of a major realignment in notions of respectability and “correct” sexuality within ideologies of nationalism from the early decades of the nineteenth century in modern Europe (Mosse 1985). For twentieth-century South India, the conflicts between older forms of sexual expression and its newer, more “respectable” bourgeois manifestations have scarcely been documented. But it does appear that the colonial critique only heightened puritanical norms and sexual ethics that the upper castes of the region routinely supported in pre-colonial times. The Dravidian movement, in its own attacks on Brahmanism, celebrates what it identifies as the authentic Tamil form of premarital love and sexual union, kaḷavu, which is held up as the desirable alternative to the “arranged” intra caste marriage dictated by Brahmanical norms. At a rhetorical level, the movement certainly promotes freer expressions of love and sexuality. Nevertheless, it too practices its own politics of virtue in which the chastity, modesty, and sexual fidelity of the Tamil woman underwrite not just the honor of the Tamil man but also the purity and honor of Tamil culture, land, and language (Lakshmi 1990; M. S. S. Pandian, Anandhi, and Venkatachalapathy 1991). So M. Rajamanikkam declares, “As we safeguard the purity of women, we ought to guard the purity of [our] language” (quoted in Tirumaran 1992: 159). Caught between the new norms of bourgeois respectability and older, deeper conventions of female chastity and sexual virtue, the modality of erotics has a troubled and shadowy presence in the discourses of Tamil’s devotees. Consequently, the erotic and sensuous persona of Tamiḻttāy is displaced by the compassionate and nurturing image of de-sexualized and spiritualized motherhood.