The struggle over the multiple linguistic imaginings and the many conceptions of femininity that have gone into the constitution of Tamiḻttāy came to the fore when the devout attempted to fashion for her a consistent and credible iconographic presence. In January 1981, almost a century after her first appearance in the poetry of her admirers, a statue of Tamiḻttāy was officially installed in Madurai, on the occasion of the Fifth International Tamil Conference, by the Tamilnadu chief minister, M. G. Ramachandran. One critic scoffed at the government’s attempt to pass off an archaic female figurine as Tamiḻttāy (Ilantiraiyan 1981: 67-68). Another wrote:
It is a matter of great sorrow that they have made a statue, called it Tamiḻttāy, and have even conducted an inauguration ceremony around it. There cannot be anything more foolish than this. In these days when we say that we should not have any statues of even our gods, they have turned what is merely imagination into solid form. They have sown the seeds of great danger for future generations who will come to believe that all this is true. This is foolishness of the highest degree. Formerly, during the nationalist movement, this is how the Congress wove its lies around figures such as Cutantira Tēvi [Goddess Freedom], Bhārata Mātā, and so on, by creating statues for them and painting their pictures. There is nothing wrong in imagining that Tamil, or our nation, is our mother, and in praising them as such. But to then turn around and create statues for them is not very rational.
This critic objected not so much to the feminization of the language as mother as to the transformation of “mere imagination” into concrete reality. That such an objection should have emerged is perhaps not surprising, for it is hard to miss the irony of an overtly material form of Tamiḻttāy receiving the blessings of a government that was putatively dedicated to implementing the ideology of the Dravidian movement. At least since the 1920s, that movement had attacked the rationality and sensibility of a Hindu culture that generated multilimbed, multiheaded material manifestations of what ought to be a singular, formless godhead (Annadurai 1969: 42-43; Ryerson 1988). Thus Ramasami asked every true Dravidian to solemnly pledge, “I will not worship images anymore; I will not go to temples where images of divine forms are placed” (Anaimuthu 1974: 317). And Bharatidasan declared, “God has neither figure nor name.…It is not a Tamil principle to worship stone or copper” (quoted in Ryerson 1988: 82-83). Yet, and the irony continues, some of the earliest material and visual manifestations of Tamiḻttāy appeared during the anti-Hindi protests of the late 1930s that were spearheaded by Ramasami and his Self-Respect movement. In 1938, Dravidian movement newspapers carried visuals of Tamiḻttāy being assaulted by C. Rajagopalachari (figs. 5, 6). And when Ramasami himself was arrested in 1938, thousands of his followers protested by carrying in a procession a giant statue of Tamiḻttāy in a posture of mourning through the streets of Madras (Visswanathan 1983: 236).
Indeed, it was not until the 1930s that the verbal habit of imagining Tamil as Tamiḻttāy was supplemented by visual practice. By that time, visual and material representations of Bhārata Mātā were fairly common, even in Tamilnadu (Baskaran 1981). Occasionally, drawings of Tamiḻttāy began to appear in literary magazines, often accompanying poems or essays on her; on mastheads of Tamil devotional journals; and sometimes in advertisements for shops or publishing houses that carried her name (fig. 8). Consumption of these visuals, as of the journals that they appeared in, would have been by a largely urban, scholarly elite, interested primarily in Tamil literature and poetry and hence by no means a popular audience. More recently, she has also been featured on covers of books on language issues and on Tamil poetry (Bharatidasan 1992; Govindarajan 1988; Nagarajan 1980; Sivagnanam 1978). And, over the years, many Tamil revivalist and literary organizations as well as individual devotees—the Kamban Kazhagam in Karaikkudi; a group of notables headed by Professor A. Alagappan of Annamalai University; and, more recently, the Tamilnadu state—have printed and circulated large color posters, very much like the posters of Hindu goddesses and popular personalities that one frequently encounters in modern homes and public spaces everywhere in India (figs. 1, 2, 9) (Guha-Thakurta 1991). Statues of Tamiḻttāy are less frequent. Giant floats carrying Tamiḻttāy’s statue were part of the grand state-sponsored public processionals of the Tamil conferences held in Madras in 1968 and Madurai in 1981. A statue in wood adorns the entrance foyer of the library of the Tamil University in Tanjavur. Large stone statues of Tamiḻttāy may be found in Madurai and Karaikkudi. Significantly, there are no statues of Tamiḻttāy in Madras, the political capital of the region. This in itself is a sign not just of the state’s ambivalence towards religious and female iconography, but also of its very different attitude towards language and Tamil devotion, as we will see later.
These statues and pictures show clearly that Tamiḻttāy’s iconography as generated by tamiḻppaṟṟu is a melange of traditional and nouveau forms, of conflicted dependence on religious and secular imagery, and of an ambivalent reliance on old esthetic devices to iconize what is after all a brand-new personage. Their best efforts to the contrary, her devotees have found it often difficult to escape the vise of Hindu religious as well as Indian nationalist imagery. For one thing, unless she is clearly identified as “Tamiḻttāy,” it is very easy to confuse her visually with the hundreds of other goddesses and female divinities that are popular in this region. For another, in the cartoons in which she was featured in the 1960s, she could easily be mistaken for—or deliberately be read as—an everyday Tamil woman (fig. 10). While in quite a number of the visuals that are printed in magazines and journals she is left unnamed, leaving it to the reader to figure out from context who she is, in a large majority of cases she is named specifically as Tamiḻttāy. The fact that her devotees have to regularly resort to identifying Tamiḻttāy through inscribing her name suggests, at the very least, that no iconographic canon has as yet crystallized around her, as it has around well-known deities such as, say, Lakshmi or Ganesha who arguably do not need to be identified as such. At the same time, given the low literacy rates in the region, the use of writing to identify her visuals has obvious implications for who has, and who does not have, ready access to Tamiḻttāy.
Naming is not the only strategy that her devotees have used to identify their Tamiḻttāy visually. They have also tried, with mixed success, to generate a repertoire of distinctive iconographic features that would give her a visual presence that cannot be readily confused with other well-known goddesses. First and most clearly, an important feature of Tamiḻttāy’s iconography is that she is almost invariably shown carrying a sheaf of cadjan leaves in her left hand. Ironically, given the important role played by print capitalism in disseminating the assertions of Tamil devotion, there are very few visuals which show her with a printed book. The use of cadjan leaves instead of the printed book underscores the archaizing strategies in devotional poetry, conveying to the viewer the impression that she is an ancient and hoary figure. At the same time, when the leaves are left unnamed, as they are in a large number of cases, Tamiḻttāy could be easily mistaken for Saraswati, whose iconographic tradition also has her holding such palm-leaf manuscripts. In a number of cases, however, the leaves in Tamiḻttāy’s hand are identified specifically as the Tirukkuṟaḷ. Additionally, the Annamalainagar poster of Tamiḻttāy (fig. 1), as well as pictures of her published in journals like Tamiḻt Teṉṟal (1 July 1948) and Nakkīraṉ (15 January 1960), visually translate the poetic notion that the many “gems” of Tamil literature are jewels that adorn Tamiḻttāy’s body. In particular—and here one may note the clever play on the titles of these various texts—the Cilappatikāram jingles on her feet as anklets, the Maṇimēkalai encircles her waist as a jeweled belt, the Kuṇṭalakēci hangs from her ears as gold rings, the Vaḷaiyāpati adorns her arms as bracelets, and the Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi crowns her head as a diadem.
Other iconographic features drawn from Tamil literary and historical traditions serve to bestow upon Tamiḻttāy a visual presence that distinguishes her from that “other” mother, Bhārata Mātā. In the Annamalainagar poster, Tamiḻttāy sits on a throne inscribed with the symbols of the fish, the bow, and the tiger, which are claimed to represent the ancient Pandya, Chera, and Chola kingdoms, the oldest in the recorded history of the region (fig. 1). The same symbols may be seen in the official Tamilnadu government statue and in the poster released by the state (fig. 9). The Annamalainagar poster, as well as the Kamban Kazhagam’s, also links her visually with the three “branches” of Tamil, iyal (literature), icai (music), and nāṭakam (drama), by incorporating images of a literary manuscript, a lute, and drums (figs. 1, 2). In many visual and material manifestations, Tamiḻttāy holds a musical instrument in her hand; once again, the similarity here with Saraswati, the Sanskritic goddess of music, is unmistakable. Yet her followers insist that Tamiḻttāy’s musical instrument is not Saraswati’s vīṇā but the much more ancient yāḻ mentioned in Canḳam poems.
In general, there is unusual unanimity in presenting Tamiḻttāy visually as a young woman, albeit one who often appears rather matronly. This is in keeping of course with her dominant image as a kaṉṉi (maiden), and with the assertion that Tamil is an evergreen, ageless, undying language (kaṉṉittamiḻ). So far, I have only found two exceptions to this general pattern. First, in a cartoon that appeared in a DK journal, Pōrvāḷ, during the anti-Hindi protests of 1948, Tamil is cast as an old woman who contemptuously looks at the newborn babe, Hindi, with which the Indian state was planning to displace her. The cartoon resorts to the image of the old woman to juxtapose the venerable antiquity of Tamil with the upstart immaturity of the “infant” Hindi. And second, in illustrations accompanying a set of poems written in the piḷḷaittamiḻ (extraordinary child) genre and published in 1981, Tamiḻttāy is featured, in keeping with the requirements of that genre, as a little infant and young girl, albeit one who has the face of a grown woman. These exceptions aside, in the majority of cases in which she appears as a young woman, Tamiḻttāy is generally depicted sedately seated and chastely clothed, which suggests, if we follow George Mosse’s comparable discussion of Marianne of France, the imperative to associate her with stability and bourgeois respectability (1985: 91). In quite a few cases, Tamiḻttāy wears a sari and blouse in the modest style that comes to be associated with the middle-class woman. But equally strikingly, in a large number of instances, including the official state poster, she appears in garments truer to a more archaic iconographic tradition—tight-fitting short upper bodice, no top cloth, and figure-hugging clothing from the waist down (figs. 9, 11). This is typically how the devotional assertion that Tamil is an ancient “classical” language has been visualized; the body of Tamiḻttāy is archaized by clothing her in the (imagined) garbs of an ancient Hindu goddess or literary heroine. Here, parenthetically, one may note Mosse’s observations about the comparable archaizing of the clothing and accoutrements of European icons of the nation, such as Germania and Britannia. “Like all symbols,” he comments, “the female embodiments of the nation stood for eternal forces. They looked backward in their ancient armor and medieval dress [suggesting] innocence and chastity, a kind of moral rigor directed against modernity—the pastoral and the eternal” (Mosse 1985: 98).
Despite the ambivalently developed but nevertheless manifest eroticization of the Tamiḻttāy figure, I have not come across a single visual representation of her as an object of (sexual) desire, with one potential exception: the 1967 cover of the literary journal Tamiḻ Vaṭṭam, which features a sensuous, beautifully adorned Tamiḻttāy seated rather seductively on a globe (fig. 3). In all her other visual appearances, Tamiḻttāy is a remarkably de-sexualized figure with little indication of her poetic persona as a desirable woman. The female allegorical figure, Madelyn Gutwirth suggests, “operates to reify female untouchability.” The “mute remoteness” and “emptiness of expression” worn by many a statue of Tamiḻttāy, their voluptuousness notwithstanding, hardly make them suitable objects of desire (Gutwirth 1992: 256-57). The absence of visuals of a sensuous Tamiḻttāy only underscores the precarious life of the modality of erotics within the world of Tamil devotion.
The alternate conceptions of the language generated by the religious and classicist imaginations on the one hand, and Indianism and Dravidianism on the other, visually manifest themselves in the contrary images of Tamiḻttāy as a glorious, bejeweled woman in some of her pictures, and as a disheveled woman in a state of disarray in others. In general, the latter is restricted to the various cartoons generated during the anti-Hindi protests of the midcentury in contexts that were clearly populist. These cartoons thus show Tamiḻttāy in various stages of distress—as weeping behind bars, bending over the bodies of her dead children, cowering in a corner with tears running down her face, and so on (figs. 7, 10). One striking visual which was published in February 1965 even has a weeping Tamiḻttāy holding the charred body of Aranganathan in her arms. At the end of the Hindi struggle in 1967 with the coming of the DMK to power, Tamiḻttāy recovers her beatific stance, once again, as she is portrayed happy, smiling, and back on her throne.
Another important area of visual contestation is over Tamiḻttāy’s representation as a queen on the one hand, and as an everyday Tamil mother/woman on the other. In the former, her limbs are adorned with jewels; she wears a crown, or is being adorned with one; and she carries a scepter: she is clearly the sovereign of her putative kingdom. But during the 1950s and 1960s, Tamiḻttāy was more often than not featured as an everyday woman, clad in a sari and blouse (fig. 10). Some of these visuals mark her distinctiveness by bestowing a halo around her or placing a small crown on her head. Nevertheless, she could quite readily be mistaken for a generic Tamil-speaking woman, especially when the pictures do not name her. So cartoons of Tamiḻttāy crying over the bodies of her children fade into newspaper pictures of women shedding tears over the death of their near and dear ones. The feminization of the language is so pervasive that texts and essays on Tamil, or on “our mother tongue,” routinely begin to carry the figure of a woman either playing with her children or reading to them. Such images only visually reinforce the notion that the Tamil-speaking woman, especially in her guise as mother, is after all a surrogate Tamiḻttāy.
But undoubtedly the biggest area of contestation in the visual politics around Tamiḻttāy, as in the written and spoken discourses on her, surrounds her representation as “goddess.” The reliance on the canons and materials of Hindu iconography has meant that the over-riding impression imparted by the various statues and some of the posters of Tamiḻttāy is that she could well be a goddess: she wears the crown that many Hindu divinities typically wear; she holds her right hand in the typical gesture of offering grace to her devotees; she sits on a large lotus, or her feet rest on it, as is typical of many goddesses; and her face often carries the same look of remoteness and transcendence that marks the countenance of many a deity. The real distinctive marker, however, of whether a particular picture or statue intends to present Tamiḻttāy as a goddess lies in the number of arms she is endowed with. As is well-known, the supernatural quality and the power of Hindu deities find iconographic representation in the multiple arms they bear. Typically, deities with great power are shown with four arms, while minor deities, female consorts, and godlings have two. The mother-goddess is generally portrayed with four arms, sometimes more.
In general, the large majority of these pictures and statues, especially those produced under the mantle of the Dravidian movement and Dravidianism, show Tamiḻttāy with two arms. She is not a supernatural, superhuman figure participating in all the irrationalities of Hindu religiosity; instead she is a near and dear mother. The seductive maiden on the cover of the 1967 issue of the Tamiḻ Vaṭṭam is four-armed, however, and so is the Tamiḻttāy of the poster issued by the Kamban Kazhagam (figs. 2, 3). The statue of Tamiḻttāy that the latter sponsored is also four-armed, the four arms signifying, I was told, the three branches of Tamil learning (iyal,icai, and nāṭakam) and grace (aruḷ) (fig. 11). This very same statue was recast again in 1981 as the official, government sponsored figure of Tamiḻttāy installed in Madurai. But the state’s statue shows Tamiḻttāy with only two arms; in all other respects, it is identical to the four-armed statue of the Kamban Kazhagam. The two additional arms were left out on specific orders from the highest levels of the government—even from the chief minister himself, I was told (compare figs. 9 and 11). This concession to Dravidianist iconoclasm aside, it is telling that the state’s visual representation of Tamiḻttāy is in all other respects truer to her religious persona as goddess than to her secular incarnation as mother. For the state would very much like to capitalize on the enormous attention that Hindu divinities continue to command among the populace, in its own effort to pass itself off as a devotee of Tamiḻttāy, albeit a reluctant one.
Today, the Kamban Kazhagam’s four-armed statue of the goddess sits in a “temple” to her that has been built in the southern town of Karaikkudi (fig. 12). The foundation for the temple was laid in April 1975 with the blessings of the DMK government of M. Karunanidhi, which also sanctioned the hefty sum of five lakh rupees for the project. The temple was finally opened to the public in April 1993. Its central sanctum houses, in addition to Tamiḻttāy, the images of her two most ancient “sons,” the grammarians Agastya and Tolkappiyar. Three subsidiary sanctums carry the images of Ilango, Tiruvalluvar, and Kamban, three of Tamil’s most famous poets. The temple itself is shaped in the form of a triangle, the three angles signifying the three most ancient kings—the Chera, the Chola, and the Pandya, Tamiḻttāy’s oldest patron sons; alternatively, they also represent the three branches of Tamil, iyal (literature), icai (music), and nāṭakam (drama). Although the structure is referred to as a kōvil, the sponsors are very clear that it is not a “temple” in the religious sense; the image of Tamiḻttāy is not an object of worship, nor are Hindu religious rituals performed. This is a temple that commemorates, in their vision, the language that belongs to the entire world; accordingly it is open to all who revere Tamil. Indeed, during the dedication of the temple in 1993, it was clear that everybody assembled there was careful to distance themselves from all overt signs of religiosity. In his speech, Karunanidhi, who officially opened the temple to the public, even pointed out there should be no mistake about his extending his approval to an image that had four arms. Rather than signifying irrational divinity, the four arms represented the four languages that Tamil had given birth to: Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu, and Tulu. Tamiḻttāy was not a goddess to be worshipped but a guardian who will guide us, he insisted. For his part, Kunrakudi Adigal (1925-95), the controversial head of the Shaiva maṭam (monastery) at Kunrakudi, also concurred, making clear his hopes that Tamil speakers visiting the temple would renew themselves as Tamilians and resolve to write, speak, and think in Tamil, always.
All the effort invested in creating for her a distinctive iconographic presence notwithstanding, there is no single, standardized image of Tamiḻttāy that reigns today. Even as it underscores the many quandaries inherent in translating into visual and material media what is after all an abstraction, the absence of a singular pictorial representation provides a powerful visual reminder of the multiplicity of conceptions about the language, and the many models of the feminine, that have gone into the imagining of Tamiḻttāy within the poetic and prosaic productions of her devotees. And as with the verbal discourses on Tamiḻttāy, in iconographic practice as well the struggle has been waged on several fronts, producing a range of variations in her visual persona. That out of all this a single standardized hegemonic image has not emerged is not necessarily a sign of failure; on the contrary, the existence of this multiplicity and fluidity—what Paul de Man has characterized as a “surplus of meaning” (Gutwirth 1992: 255)— sures the iconographic availability of Tamiḻttāy, as goddess, queen, mother, and maiden all rolled into one, that future devotees can continue to cash in on.