On the Feminization of Language
Its devotees may empower their language by drawing upon three different models of femininity—an all-powerful goddess, a compassionate but endangered mother, and a desirable but unattainable maiden. But eventually and hegemonically, it is the maternal image that came to dominate devotional imaginations, overwriting the divine and the erotic. Why? And why feminize the language at all? In the pre-colonial poetic traditions to which Tamil’s modern devotees are indebted in myriad ways, the feminization of Tamil was largely underdeveloped, although not entirely absent. And the language was not associated with motherhood. In the rare instances when it was personified, its gender was either unspecified or even male. Yet, from the late nineteenth century on, the personification of Tamil relied extensively on the female form, and especially on the female form clothed in maternal garb. Such a feminization of the language, however, was neither idiosyncratic nor exceptional, but symptomatic of a fundamental regendering of culture and community under colonial rule and modernity. Two complex imaginaries converged to provide the terrain on which this took place: a dominant colonial identification of all things Indian as feminine (or effeminate); and bourgeois nationalist discourses of modernity conducted around the hallowed figure of the mother.
Their many contrary impulses notwithstanding, colonial discourses fundamentally contrasted the natural “masculinity” of British imperial culture with the inherent “femininity” of (Hindu) India, the former being preordained to rule and command, the latter to obey and follow. This in turn was the gendered expression of the Orientalist imaginary that undergirded colonial rule, in which the natural and inherent superiority of the rational, secular, industrious, progressive (masculine) West prevails over the irrational, spiritual, passive, and unchanging (feminine) East (Metcalf 1994: 92-112; Said 1978; Sinha 1995). It was not only India that was feminized thus. At least since the time of James Mill, the Indian woman, too, metonymically came to represent “Indian” culture and civilization, just as, in another context, the (white) European woman was a sign of her culture and civilization. Identified as it was in colonial discourses as the site of the authentic India, the female domain assumed a new significance in anticolonial and countercolonial discourses which mounted their resistance on the same terrain. When imagined as the repository of all that was uncolonized, Indian women became the embodiment of all that is truly and purely Indian. Correspondingly, all that is deemed authentic, true, and pure is by definition feminine, domestic, and private, for the male, public world was tainted by its association with colonialism (Chatterjee 1989).
The language of that public world was of course English, whose very dominance had consigned India’s languages to the inner, private domain of the home and the family—the domain of the woman. Inhabiting the same domain as the woman, India’s languages, too, were perforce feminized in the discourses of the colonized. Like the woman with whom they now shared space, they became embodiments of all that was imagined to be authentically Indian. Sivagnanam best captured this transformation, although he confined his remarks to Tamil, in a speech he gave to an anti-Hindi conference in Madras in 1948, soon after Indian independence: “Formerly, when the British empire sought to destroy Tamil by introducing English, men took to its study for jobs and status. At that time when Tamil was neglected and relegated to the kitchen, it was Tamil women who guarded it with their own arms. Now that English rule has come to an end, our women who have hitherto been protecting Tamil are now returning Tamiḻttāy back to us.” The easy slippage in the last sentence from “Tamil” to “Tamiḻttāy,” from Tamil as language to Tamil as woman, is possible because in Sivagnanam’s imagination, as in that of numerous other Indians like him, it is women who are the “custodians” of India’s languages, watching over them until they could be reclaimed and restored to their former glory (by men).
And yet Indian women themselves—as indeed women in so many other parts of the world—had been radically reconfigured by bourgeois discourses of modernity, for if woman was idealized as the repository of all that was glorious and wonderful in one’s culture, she was also firmly put into her place, in the home and amid her family as “mother” (Mosse 1985: 90-91). Many studies have demonstrated that the consolidation of nationalist ideologies in different regions of the world was accompanied by an “extravagant celebration of motherhood” (Margolis 1984: 28). This was especially true in western Europe, which provided the model for so many ideologies that crystallized in colonial India. There, bourgeois nationalist discourses were marked by the discursive and symbolic separation of the “home” from “work,” and of the “nation” from the “world.” The home and the nation were hallowed as noncompetitive, depoliticized arenas, and as sacral repositories of moral values and virtue. The reproduction of these arenas, as such, was ensured by insisting that women are “by nature” self-sacrificing, virtuous, unambitious, and nonpolitical beings, destined to be child bearers and nurturers. As George Mosse notes (1985: 97), “Women as national symbols exemplified order and restfulness. Woman was the embodiment of respectability; even as defender and protector of her people, she was assimilated to her traditional role as woman and mother, the custodian of tradition, who kept nostalgia alive in the active world of men.” Such a representation was only further consolidated within nationalist ideologies seeking to put the nation on a pedestal as an iconic object of platonic affection and unconditional devotion, for how much more successfully could this be done than by recasting the nation itself as a selfless, compassionate, and de-sexualized Mother, disaggregated from the public realms of politics, self-interest, and sexual competition (Badinter 1981; Davin 1978; Margolis 1984; Poovey 1988: 1-23)?
In colonial India as well, at different times in the nineteenth century, the “woman’s question” loomed large in the writings of newly westernized and middle-class (Hindu) elites. Mostly centered in the urban hubs of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras, they sought to counter the colonial censure of Indian culture and tradition by “reforming” their women and transforming them into virtuous, educated “companions.” By the turn of this century, this reforming zeal yielded to a “new” nationalist patriarchy, as the nation came to be valorized as a “home” and “family” whose health could be guaranteed by ensuring the re-signification of largely middle-class women as the educated mothers of its future citizens (Chatterjee 1989; R. Kumar 1993; Lakshmi 1990). The woman-as-wife or sexual being was subordinated to the woman-as-mother or reproductive being, for as one Swami Jagadiswarananda insisted in 1933, “motherhood is the fulfillment of wifehood” (quoted in Visweswaran 1990: 67). As Visweswaran rightly notes, motherhood emerged as “a strategy of containment” that was both oppositional and hegemonic: “Oppositional because it resisted the British ‘sexing’ of all Indian women as potential ‘wives,’ opting for a spiritual, de-sexualized woman, ‘the mother.’ Hegemonic because the other side of the British equation of the sexual Indian woman, was the asexual, spiritual Victorian woman” (Visweswaran 1990: 66).
Thus, in Indian nationalist discourses, while the home is presided over by the woman as mother, the nation as home is presided over by her archetype, Bhārata Mātā, a nationalist icon like Britannia or Marianne, but one who also embodies the difference of Indian spirituality and tradition. For nationalist thought in Tamilnadu, Subramania Bharati’s statement in his essay “The Place of Woman” marks this convergence of the woman in her guise as mother and India as Bhārata Mātā:
Nor is it without significance that the country of spiritual liberation, India, should, at this hour of her mighty awakening, have adopted as her most potent spell, the words “Vande Mataram,” i.e., “I salute the Mother.” That means that the first work of a regenerated India will be to place the Mother, i.e., womankind, on the pedestal of spiritual superiority. Others speak of their Fatherlands. To us, the Nation is represented by the word “Mata” [mother].
In projects like tamiḻppaṟṟu, which were conducted in the outlying regions of the emergent nation, this nationalist valorization of India as mother was supplemented by the celebration of language as mother, itself at odds with Bhārata Mātā in the Dravidianist imagination, as we have seen. Given the cultural politics of Tamilnadu, where a large number of Tamil’s devout asserted that they were victimized not just by British colonialism but by North Indian “imperialism” as well, the Tamil-speaking home and its mother—and their language—were doubly burdened. They not only had to define authentic Tamil subjectivity against the colonial West; in addition, and even more urgently in the decades following Indian independence, they were enrolled into the project of guarding the purity and fidelity of Tamil speakers from what in many accounts was considered a more enduring enemy, the Aryan Sanskritic Brahmanic North.
So, the representation of the language as Tamiḻttāy; as tāymoḻi, “mother tongue” tāyppāl, “mother’s milk” or simply tāy, “mother” surfaced in a late colonial situation in which motherhood came to be privileged, not only as the sine qua non of women’s identity but also as the foundational site on which pure and true subjectivities and communities could be imagined and reproduced. In the fractured colonial context in which the (Tamil) male was increasingly tainted by his association with the outer, non-Tamil-speaking colonized public domain, the home-family-domestic nexus was imagined as the site where an essential “Tamil” unity, spirituality, and wholeness continued to be maintained. As the woman in her incarnation as “mother” came to be marked as the very human embodiment of this wholeness, spirituality, and unity, the (Tamil) language she spoke (= “mother tongue”) correspondingly also found itself reconstituted in her image, taking on her persona of femininity, spirituality, and de-sexualized motherhood. Of course, given the powerful anti-Hindu and even antireligious sentiments of many of her devotees, great care was taken—although not with unconditional success, as we may recall—not just to de-sexualize Tamiḻttāy but to de-spiritualize her as well. So the image of Tamiḻttāy as deity and desirable maiden is progressively overshadowed by her reincarnation as a familial and secular tāy, “mother.”
Its devotees themselves offer two kinds of explanations for why they have imagined Tamil as mother. It is customary, they tell us, to think of one’s language as one’s mother; it is “ancient Tamil tradition” (Government of Tamilnadu 1990: 49; Purnalingam Pillai 1930: 56-58). As we have seen, however, this “tradition” was neither ancient nor customary. The devotees also insist that their language, like their mothers, gives birth to Tamil speakers, and nourishes and raises them. Like their mothers, their language, too, abides with them for ever and ever. In a world where there was nothing more assured than the love of a mother for her child, K. Appadurai asked what could one say about “the love of the mother of all of Tamilnadu who bore not only our bodies, but also bore the mothers who bore us, and bore the mothers of the mothers who bore us?” (1944: 20). For Tamil’s devotees, it was natural to valorize the one bedrock of their existence as a community, that is, their language, by assimilating it to that foundational figure which they claimed guaranteed their existence as individuals, namely, their mother.
The new ideologies of motherhood that confirmed motherly love as foundational were thus enrolled in reinforcing the new ideologies of modernity in which language was seen as foundational to community and nation. In the discourses of tamiḻppaṟṟu, there are multiple roles played by this foundational metaphor of the nourishing and compassionate mother. It familiarizes and familializes the relationship between Tamil speakers and their language by couching it in the comfortable everyday terms of the home and the family. The metaphor also naturalizes this relationship by constituting a sense of originary and selfless love that Tamilians, as her “children,” necessarily and naturally owe to their language/mother. It de-historicizes the bonds between the language and its speakers by presenting them as timeless, essential, and beyond the vagaries of history. Above all, it depoliticizes the relationship by enabling the abstraction of the community of speakers of Tamil from politics, and by re-signifying it as a “family” whose members were united as harmonious siblings bonded together through sharing Tamiḻttāy’s womb and milk.