The Brahman Devotee
For most sections of the devotional community, and indeed for the bulk of the Tamil-speaking populace today, the very category “Brahman devotee of Tamil” would be a contradiction in terms. Yet, in the early decades of tamiḻppaṟṟu, many who were nominally Brahman wrote and spoke enthusiastically about the glories and wonders of Tamil, about the need to improve it, and so on. In contrast to his comparatively high visibility in those early years, the Brahman devotee becomes a rare presence by the 1930s, especially as radical neo-Shaivism, contestatory classicism, and Dravidianism consolidated their explicitly anti-Brahman agendas. The Brahman adherent indeed offers a curious counterpoint to the missionary devotee; where the latter’s demonstrated love for Tamil allows him to erase the stigma of foreignness and his association with the colonial power structure, the former is not able (or allowed) to transcend his primordial identity as Brahman. His putative Brahmanness makes his devotion suspect, his love for Tamil spurious.
While defense of Tamil-speaking Brahmans continues well into the century, especially within Indianism and compensatory classicism, and while they were progressively rehabilitated by the 1950s into the Tamilian community in official DMK rhetoric, a question that was repeatedly raised in the discourses of many of Tamil’s devotees from the turn of the century is “Are Brahmans Tamilian?” The answer, increasingly, was an emphatic “No.” Brahmans are exclusionist and caste conscious; they identify themselves with the North, with Aryan culture, and with Sanskrit. Above all, and most sacrilegiously from the radical enthusiast’s point of view, they disparage Tamil, treating its high literature and culture as derivative of Sanskrit. So in 1926, Ramasami—not particularly devoted to the language himself, as we will see—insisted that Brahmans had sold out “Tamiḻttāy’s chastity” to traitors of Tamil by introducing Sanskrit words into it (E. V. Ramasami 1985: 84). And in Tamiḻttāy Pulampal (The lamentations of Tamiḻttāy), Tamiḻttāy herself lamented that the Brahman had been borne by her womb, and had been nourished on her milk; yet he had rejected her and her other children. “Will he even call himself a son of Tamil?” she asks (Arunagirinathar 1937: 12). The message was increasingly unambiguous: Brahmans were not supporters of Tamil; they were ashamed to accept, or refused to admit, that they were Tamil speakers. As Ramasami thundered in Viṭutalai in 1960, “Where can we see a Brahman who is ready to declare that Tamil is his mother tongue?” (Anaimuthu 1974: 998-99). With the gathering Hindi threat, the Brahman became an even more menacing figure, colluding with North Indians to destroy Tamiḻttāy (Bharatidasan 1948: 17). In August 1938, at an anti-Hindi gathering in Madras, the lead speaker, Pavalar Balasundaram, asked his audience, “What is to be done with the Brahman community which is killing our [Tamiḻttāy]?”
The response to this question varied over the years; it included the progressive dislodging of Brahmans from positions of bureaucratic and political power from the 1920s with the ascendancy of the Justice Party, as well as the more radical, albeit unsuccessful, calls for Brahmanicide by Ramasami and some of his followers in the 1950s. Not surprisingly, that anomalous figure, the Brahman who did profess his love for Tamil and dedicated his life to its cause, is tainted by association with the community of which he is recognized as a nominal member. He was further tainted because his love for Tamil was generally compensatory classicist and Indianist in complexion. This meant that he was not overtly anti-Sanskritic, anti-Aryan, or anti-India, even when he expressed his passionate desire for Tamil. Instead, he insisted on seeing Tamil as coexisting with Sanskrit and Sanskritic culture; and, not surprisingly, he is increasingly peripheralized within the devotional community. Consider the fate of M. Raghava Aiyangar, a leading member of the Madurai Tamil Sangam, who between 1905 and 1910 helped edit its famed journal, Centamiḻ. In 1913, Raghava Aiyangar was appointed as the chief Tamil pandit in the committee set up to produce the multivolume Tamil Lexicon, and he received the prestigious title of Rao Sahib in 1936 for his efforts. In addition, he wrote several historical and literary theses in a compensatory classicist vein, many critical commentaries, and a study of the ancient grammar, Tolkāppiyam(Zvelebil 1992: 203-5). The latter in particular was severely attacked within the devotional community, by contestatory classicists as well as Dravidianists, for its portrayal of the sexual morality of ancient Tamilians (Maraimalai Adigal 1936b; Pulavar Kulanthai 1958: 22-23). In August 1938, at an anti-Hindi rally held in Madras, Pavalar Balasundaram fumed:
A little earlier, in 1936, Panditai Gnanambal wrote a searing essay defending the fidelity of Tamil women and questioning the sexual morality of Brahman women and their Aryan gods. She called upon the government to confiscate Raghava Aiyangar’s “traitorous text” that set out to dishonor Tamilians, especially the woman. Otherwise, she concluded, Tamilians would be compelled to rise up in anger all over Tamilnadu to protect their tarnished honor (Gnanambal 1936).
Raghava Ayyangar has written a commentary on Tolkappiyam.…I shall read to you what he has written.…“Tamilian women of those days were flirting with whomsoever they came across; the Aryans taught and gave them education to be chaste. . . .” How dare he write like this? Today, it is the Brahman who plays the part of pimps.…[W]ith whom have our women flirted? Can a Tamilian who keeps quiet after this claim to be a human being?…Who can put up with such an insult?…Are not the Tamilian women our mother [sic]?
Another enthusiast whose devotion became suspect was V. V. Subramania Aiyar, editor briefly of the nationalist newspaper, the Tēcapaktaṉ (1920-21). In 1922, with the help of funds from the Congress and private patrons, Subramanian established a residential Tamil school (tamiḻk kurukulam) first at Kallidaikurichi and then at Sheramadevi (in Tirunelveli) for the purpose of teaching students in Tamil, following the principles of the national education scheme. His intention, he explained in a 1924 editorial in the journal Pāla Pārati that he launched from the school, was “to restore Tamil to its natural state of unrivalled preeminence.” He planned to do this by teaching students not only ancient arts and sciences but modern ones as well, and by imparting to them the spirit of social service. Subramanian himself resigned from the management of the school in 1925 after a scandal erupted when it was learned that Brahman students were fed separately. Soon after, he died in an accident while trying to save his young daughter from drowning (Visswanathan 1983: 45-55).
Subramanian did not start out as a Tamil devotee; on the contrary, he first made a name for himself as a nationalist who advocated violence as the principal means to secure freedom from colonial rule. Born in a small village near Tiruchirapalli in 1881, he went on to get a B.A. in history, economics, and Latin from Madras University. He worked for a few years as a lawyer in Tiruchirapalli and in Rangoon before going to London in 1907 to study for a law degree. There, he linked up with V. D. Savarkar and, over the next three years, got drawn into the circle of militant nationalists around him. On his return to India in 1910, he went to Pondicherry, where he met Subramania Bharati and became part of the poet’s circle. Subramanian’s devotional activities included an English translation of the Tirukkuṟaḷ in 1915 and the establishment of a Tamil publishing house in 1916 (Mani 1993). In a number of essays on Tamil he published beginning in 1914, he took an Indianist stance on the language; in 1924, he even insisted (to the ire of many fellow devotees) that for its replenishment and modernization, Tamil should turn to Sanskrit, “the great treasure house.” He pointed out that hostility towards Sanskrit was misplaced when even the earliest works of Tamil literature had so many words of Sanskritic origin (Subramania Aiyar 1981; Mani 1993: 116). His own Tamil was highly Sanskritic, and drew criticism even from someone like Kalyanasundaram, a fellow Indianist. Another of its devotees sarcastically asked how Subramania Aiyar could claim to restore Tamil to its “natural state of unrivalled preeminence” if his own speech was so inflected with Sanskrit (Mani 1993: 187-88).
The 1925 scandal over the Sheramadevi Tamil school, which led to Subramania Aiyar’s earlier record as a “militant nationalist” being overshadowed by his putative Brahmanness, was soon followed by attacks on other Brahman adherents of Tamil. In 1926, Ramasami published an essay in his Kuṭi Aracu in which he ridiculed his fellow “non-Brahmans” who had established the prestigious Madurai Tamil Sangam only to have that association hijacked by Brahmans and their Sanskritized Tamil (E. V. Ramasami 1985: 82-83). Soon after, in 1933, a group of Tamil enthusiasts, several among them Brahmans, organized the Tamiḻaṉpar Makānāṭu (Tamil Devotees Conference) in Madras to discuss publication of Tamil books in the sciences, the creation of new words to express modern thought, the dissemination of ancient Tamil literature among the populace, the reform of the Tamil script, and the removal of books which promoted caste consciousness from school curricula. But the conference was bitterly attacked in both the Dravidian movement press and in journals like Centamiḻc Celvi, whose spirit was neo-Shaivite and contestatory classicist. It was seen as a means through which, among other things, Brahmans tried to pass themselves off as “devotees of Tamil,” to corner the publishing market, and to introduce more Sanskrit words into Tamil in the name of “improvement.” Is it not revealing, critics asked, that these Brahman enthusiasts called the conference by the Sanskritic word makānāṭu instead of the pure Tamil mānāṭu? These “lovers of Tamil” (tamiḻ aṉpar) were actually “deceitful lovers,” it was declared. In a decade marked by the rise of the Self-Respect movement and by efforts of pure Tamil advocates to create taṉittamiḻ scientific vocabularies, it is not surprising that the proceedings of the conference were disrupted. In 1934, members of the rival taṉittamiḻ faction convened their own conference, the Ceṉṉai Mākāṇat Tamiḻar Mānāṭu (Madras Presidency Tamilians Conference), which released proposals challenging those of the Tamil Devotees Conference (E. M. Subramania Pillai 1951-52: 141-43; Velu and Selvaraji 1989: 17-78).
All this antagonism towards Brahmans came to a head in the late 1930s during the anti-Hindi protests, not least because the author of the government’s compulsory Hindi policy was a Brahman: the much-maligned Rajagopalachari, the premier of the Presidency from July 1937 to October 1939. A native of Salem district and a lawyer by profession, Rajagopalachari, like many other Brahman adherents of Tamil, started his devotional career as an Indianist. More than any of his fellow devotees, he was involved in local Congress politics from very early on, serving as a member, then as chairman, of the Salem Municipal Council from 1911 to 1919. His interest in Tamil-related activities dated to the 1910s, when he demanded the adoption of Tamil as medium of instruction in schools (Rajagopalachari 1956) and, along with some friends, in 1916 instituted the Tamil Scientific Terms Society. The early few issues of its short lived journal published various scientific terms relating to botany, chemistry, physics, astronomy, and mathematics (Irschick 1969: 303-5; Kailasapathy 1986: 32). Rajagopalachari’s interest in creating scientific vocabularies in Tamil continued in subsequent years as well when he published books such as Tamiḻil Muṭiyumā? (Can it be done in Tamil?; 1937) and Tiṇṇai Racāyaṉam (Chemistry on the front porch; 1946). For example, the former, a translation of an English-language physics textbook, set out to demonstrate that physics (pautika cāttiram) could be studied in Tamil. In its preface, Rajagopalachari apologized for the preliminary quality of his efforts and called upon Tamil scholars, with more courage, time, and love for Tamil than he had been able to summon up, to continue this work (Rajagopalachari 1937). The book had a mixed reception in the Tamil devotional community, not least because of its reliance on Sanskrit roots to coin new Tamil words. This reliance was not surprising, for from the start, Rajagopalachari was a great admirer of Sanskrit and its literature, an admiration which he did not see as being at cross-purposes with his attachment to Tamil (Rajagopalachari 1962: 66-67).
His obvious involvement in Tamil “improvement” activities notwithstanding, during the anti-Hindi protests Rajagopalachari was repeatedly identified as an “enemy” of Tamiḻttāy and her “destroyer.” Dravidian movement newspapers circulated inflammatory cartoons showing him hurling a dagger at Tamiḻttāy and disrobing her (figs. 5 and 6). The antagonism against him mounted not least because Rajagopalachari persisted in publicly disparaging the struggle against Hindi in the most elitist (and Brahmanical) terms possible, even casually dismissing the death of a young protester in 1938 when asked about it in the Legislative Assembly. “While Tamilians shed tears of blood that their hero had died, the Aryan members [of the assembly] laughed and clapped their hands,” one critic declared indignantly (Ilanceliyan 1986: 173). In the 1940s, Rajagopalachari extended his support to the Tamil music movement and, by the 1960s, lent his considerable influence to the anti-Hindi protests of that decade, but all this helped little in overcoming his predominant image as the Brahman who had tried to “snuff out the life of our ancient Tamiḻttāy.”
Of course, not all Brahmans fared this way, and there are at least three devotees whose Brahmanness is pondered over, debated, and then set aside in favor of their incorporation into the devotional community. Thus Swaminatha Aiyar, the much revered tamiḻ tātā, “grandfather Tamil,” did attract some ire for his defense of Sanskritic Tamil. Nevertheless, he is praised widely for his painstaking efforts to recover and publish the ancient manuscripts of the Canḳam corpus, although a suggestion was aired in the 1950s in Kuyil, a journal edited by Bharatidasan, that he may have tampered with these. Similarly, V. G. Suryanarayana Sastri, a novelist and essayist who in 1902 was the first devotee to vehemently demand recognition of Tamil’s “classical” status, is much praised. Brahman he may nominally have been, but in his Tamiḻmoḻiyiṉ Varalāṟu (1903), Suryanarayana Sastri offered a spirited defense of the autonomy, originality, and uniqueness of Tamil, refusing to subordinate the language to Sanskrit in any realm. Suryanarayanan was born into an orthodox Smarta Brahman family of Vilacceri near Madurai in 1870. His father was a scholar of Sanskrit, and Suryanarayanan formally studied the language from his early youth. It was not until he went to high school, however, that his love for Tamil was really kindled, and by the time he was twenty, he was learned enough to start writing literary pieces. In 1890, he moved to Madras for his college education, and he graduated with top honors. Although he could have had any job for the asking, as a true devotee of Tamil he chose to become a Tamil pandit, low salary and all, at Madras Christian College. Over the next decade, he became renowned not just for his mastery of literary Tamil but also for his attempts to introduce innovative ideas, from English literature, into Tamil prose, plays, and poetry. Yet he never let his admiration for English compromise his love for Tamil: indeed, his fellow devout recall with delight that as a student, when challenged by one of his English professors, he had declared that Kamban’s verse from centuries before was superior to Tennyson’s. Not surprisingly, for all his work he won the admiration of the famed scholar and fellow devotee Damodaram Pillai, who bestowed upon him the title tirāviṭa cāstiri, “Dravidian Brahman scholar,” a title which even in those days already appeared oxymoronic (N. Subramanian 1950). And he became a close associate of another Tamil litterateur and fellow devotee, M. S. Purnalingam Pillai, whose journal, Ņāṉapōtiṉi, he helped co-edit and who declared, when Suryanarayanan died young at thirty-three in 1903, that he had become a “martyr to Tamil” (Purnalingam Pillai 1985: 347).
Suryanarayanan’s reputation as Tamil adherent also rests on a singular act that has elicited much admiration from successive generations of the devout. In 1899, in an anthology in which he attempted to introduce the sonnet into Tamil poetry for the first time, he adopted the pen name “Paritimāl Kalaiņar,” the pure Tamil rendering of his own given (Sanskritic) name. In his preface to the text, he was clear about why he did this; he was worried about his innovation and was keen on getting his fellow scholars’ frank criticisms of his attempt. The work went on to elicit much enthusiasm, and its second edition was published with its author’s Sanskritic name (N. Subramanian 1950: 81-84). Although he was hailed as a founder of the taṉittamiḻ movement by some later devotees, his critics fault him for using his pure Tamil name only once; they also point out that his plays and novels featured characters bearing Sanskritic names, and his own Tamil was inflected with Sanskrit (Tirumaran 1992: 118-23).
And then, finally, there is the most famous of them all, Subramania Bharati. One can do little justice to Bharati in the space of a few pages, but my concern here is with considering whether his Brahmanness factors into the ambivalence with which he has been treated for a good part of this century, his hallowed status today notwithstanding. So, speaking in 1960, Ramasami demanded that if Bharati was such a great devotee of Tamil as they all say he is, how is it that in his poetry, Tamiḻttāy herself declares that she is a companion of Sanskrit. How is it that he does not proclaim her autonomy from Sanskrit (E. V. Ramasami 1960: 9-10)? A few years earlier, a short piece in the Dravidianist journal Tīcuṭar declared,
Similarly, another fellow devotee, the Dravidianist poet Pulavar Kulanthai, wrote in the 1950s that “in the name of ‘nationalism,’ Bharati inserted Sanskrit into Tamil, caused Tamilians to lose pride in their own community, and enslaved them to Northerners” (Pulavar Kulanthai 1958: 22).
They say Bharati is an immortal poet.…[E]ven if a rat dies in an akrakāram [Brahman settlement], they would declare it to be immortal.…All of Tamilnadu praises him. Why should this be so? Supposedly because he sang fulsome praises of Tamil and Tamilnadu. What else could he sing? His own mother tongue, Sanskrit, has been dead for years. What other language did he know? He cannot sing in Sanskrit.…[He says Tamilnadu] is the land of Aryas.
Thus the charges against Bharati are similar to those brought against other Brahman devotees; even in claiming devotion to Tamil, he repeatedly sacrificed Tamiḻttāy at the altar of Sanskrit and Aryanism. Bharati’s vision of Tamil is vulnerable to such attacks, for it falls well within the parameters—indeed, it provides the defining moments—of the Indianist imagination. Yet, as Bharati’s many admirers also do not fail to point out, the poet was clearly ambivalent about his Brahman status; he cut off his hair tuft and sacred thread characteristic of many orthodox Brahmans of his times, and sported a mustache; he wrote essays and poems over the years in which he was clearly critical of Brahmanical privilege (Bharati 1987: 51-52, 1988: 264-67); and intimate accounts by friends and family suggest that he hardly led a conventional Brahmanical lifestyle, thereby inviting the wrath of many in his putative community. Indeed, by the 1940s when he had been confirmed as modern Tamilnadu’s greatest poet, albeit not without considerable controversy (Sivathamby and Marx 1984), many an ardent Dravidianist, like Annadurai, glossed over the issue of his Brahmanness, preferring to focus on his roles as the “people’s poet” and as revolutionary social reformer (Annadurai 1948). And even an acerbic anti-Brahman critic like Bharatidasan, who was to become the poetic muse of the Dravidian movement, did not hesitate to call himself the “slave” (tāsaṉ) of Bharati, the latter’s Brahmanness notwithstanding.
All the attention he has received after his death might have come as quite a surprise to Bharati, for during his own lifetime, although he had an ardent coterie of friends and admirers, his genius went largely unrecognized. In fact, towards the very end of his life, when he tried to raise money from the public to have his manuscripts published, he received hardly a response. He died in 1921, broken and dejected, and a man very much in debt (Padmanabhan 1982b: 153-59). Bharati’s life—as indeed the life of many a Tamil devotee—clearly underscores one of the principal claims of Tamil devotion: namely, that even in the putative “kingdom” of Tamiḻttāy, it was impossible to make ends meet as a Tamil poet or writer or journalist. It was because of this fear that his father, as Bharati tells us in autobiographical verses published in 1897 and in 1910, had compelled his son to learn that “foreign” language English, when Bharati himself would have preferred to have studied the “sweet” Tamil which Shiva favored with his grace. But, he adds, there were few who cared for such a glorious language (Bharati 1987: 1-3, 173-90). Following his father’s injunction, the young Subramanian did study English; but in his spare moments in his native Ettaiyapuram, he stole off with his childhood friend and fellow devotee, Somasundara Bharati, to a nearby temple to surreptitiously read Tamil literature away from the eyes of watchful adults.
Subramanian’s poetic abilities received early acclaim when he was just eleven, and he secured the title “Bharati” (the learned) from the landlord of Ettaiyapuram (Padmanabhan 1982b: 4-12). His poems did not begin to be published regularly until 1905. By then, he had graduated from high school and gotten married (1897), spent a few years in Benaras studying Sanskrit and Hindi (1898-1902), and taught Tamil in the high school attached to the Madurai Tamil Sangam for a few months (1904). A friend who knew him in his Benaras days later recalled that he had had no idea then that Bharati was interested in Tamil literature, for he could be seen wandering around the city with a copy of Shelley’s poetry. In fact, soon after he returned to Ettaiyapuram in 1902, he formed a local Shelley literary guild and even wrote a few essays under the pen name Shelleydasan, “follower of Shelley” (Padmanabhan 1982b: 16).
In late 1904, he moved to Madras to work for the nationalist daily Cutēcamittiraṉ, where his job involved translating into Tamil news received in English. The pay was poor and the work difficult, but it provided the foundation for Bharati’s lifelong passion for transforming Tamil into an easy language of modern communication and politics. Under him, the Cutēcamittiraṉ began to rid itself of its reliance on English (but not Sanskritic) words, for which it had become notorious in Tamil devotional circles. Around this time, Bharati also got involved in nationalist politics; attended the annual meetings of the Congress; and published fiery essays and poems in Cakravarttiṉi, the women’s magazine that he edited in 1905-06, and in Intiyā, the newspaper of which he was editor from 1906. From the start, Bharati’s nationalism was heavily inflected with religious fervor, and of course, some of his most famous, and much recited, poems were on Bhārata Mātā. In 1908, fearing that he, too, would be caught in a general crackdown on “seditious” writers initiated by the Madras government, he fled to Pondicherry, then a French colony, and was in exile there until 1918. These were also his most productive years as poet, essayist, and journalist, and much of what we now have of his oeuvre today, including some of his most passionate statements on Tamil, belongs to this period. In 1918, he returned to British India and was thrown into prison for a brief while. At the time of his early death in 1921, he was in Madras where he had been working, once again, on the editorial board of Cutēcamittiraṉ.
Much of his later life was marked by poverty, even destitution; poor health; the burdens of taking care of his family; and the attempts to find patrons who would publish his work. Yet the stories that circulate about Bharati today emphasize that he did not let any of these stand in the way of expressing and pursuing his primary passions—devotion to India and to Tamil. Sprinkled through his personal letters to friends and relatives, which recount his many financial and health problems, are his injunctions to them to not abandon Tamil. So, in a 1918 letter to his brother that shows him clearly troubled about his many financial problems, he takes the time to insist, “Do not write me letters in English any more. However colloquial your Tamil may be, I am eager to read it. If you cannot even write in colloquial Tamil (koccaittamiḻ), write to me in Sanskrit” (quoted in Padmanabhan 1982b: 134). And in another much-cited letter to his close friend Nellaiyappar, which ends with his numerous personal problems, he writes, “Tamil! Tamil! Tamil!—think ceaselessly that it is your duty to make it prosper!” He goes on, “Oh! what can I do. I suffer when I see languages other than Tamil prosper. I will not accept that men who are not Tamilian are forging ahead, in knowledge and strength. My heart grieves when I see women who are not Tamilian look so much more beautiful” (quoted in Padmanabhan 1982b: 130). Is it any surprise that latter-day devotees rejoice over sentiments like this, and embrace Bharati as one of their own, his Brahmanness notwithstanding?