The Devotee as Patron
Among the many grievances of the devotional community was the absence of appreciative patrons who would extend their liberality and largesse to the support of Tamil and its followers. In 1897, as a young man barely fifteen, Subramania Bharati lamented to one such patron, the landlord of Ettaiyapuram:
Tamil’s devotees were of course not alone in colonial India in lamenting over the deteriorating state of patronage extended to traditional arts and letters. The attrition and disappearance of royal courts and religious centers of learning, the redirection of funds towards “useful” and “modern” forms of knowledge, the rise of new bourgeois forms of consumption, and a colonial state indifferent to the promotion of India’s languages and literatures—all these contributed to the generalized feeling that things were no longer as they were in the past. The nostalgia for ancient Canḳam poems that was so endemic in devotional circles was also very much a nostalgia for an age in which magnanimous kings were imagined to welcome with open arms the poor poet who wandered into their courts, lend an appreciative ear to his compositions, and shower him with food, clothing, and gold. Those were the days, its devotees sigh, when the wealthy and the notable were admirers of Tamil (and of its scholars). But today, “we lavishly heap our wealth on jewelry, cards, drinks, tobacco, entertainment…but would not spend even one paisa out of a hundred rupees to protect [Tamiḻttāy]. What a shame!” (Lakshmana Pillai 1892-93: 154).
Is our glorious and auspicious Tamil, sweeter than nectar, to which the great lord Shiva himself offered his grace; Yet there is no one around anymore to favor it; Its learners languish away, while lesser tongues flourish. (Bharati 1987: 2)
Not surprisingly, when one such patron did put in an appearance at the turn of this century, and placed his considerable wealth and influence at the service of Tamil, he came to be narrated in devotional writings as a Canḳam king reincarnate. The institution that he founded and funded in 1901, the Madurai Tamil Sangam, was itself characterized as the “Fourth” Tamil Canḳam, thus establishing a genealogical connection with the three ancient academies that are believed to have flourished in the distant past under the patronage of successive generations of Pandyan kings. Its founder-patron, Pandithurai Thevar, named at birth in 1876 Ugrapandyan (an ancient name that recalled the glory of the Pandyan kings of the Canḳam age), was the landlord (zamindar) of Palavanatham, a small estate in Ramanathapuram district. In the reckoning of his biographers and admirers, Pandithurai—unlike many of his zamindari cohort, who frittered away their life and wealth in wasteful activities—was an enthusiastic Tamil scholar and poet himself. He may have inherited his love for Tamil from his father, Ponnusami Thevar (1837-70), who also had been its patron, “like the Pandyan kings of yore,” in the words of the famous Shaivite scholar Arumuga Navalar (M. Raghava Aiyangar 1948: 51). Indeed, distressed that so many great works of ancient Tamil had yet to find their way into print, Ponnusami, who was then the chief manager of the Ramanathapuram estate of his brother, Muthuramalinga Setupati (1841-73), commissioned Arumuga Navalar to publish texts such as the Tirukkōvaiyār and the Tirukkuṟaḷ, which he then distributed at his own expense to scholars. Ponnusami also established a much-needed printing press for the publication of Tamil books in Ramanathapuram town (M. Raghava Aiyangar 1948: 51-53).
Raised in an environment where such value was placed on Tamil learning, Pandithurai continued this tradition of extending patronage to Tamil and also prevailed upon his more influential cousin, Bhaskara Setupati (1868-1903), the zamindar of Ramanathapuram, to do the same. Indeed, their “courts,” we are told, were like “heaven on earth.” Here, from morning till late into the night, one could hear learned disquisitions on the intricacies of Kamban’s Irāmāvatāram or the Tirukkuṟaḷ poets and musicians were frequent visitors, and “forgetting hunger and thirst,” they would sing their compositions and recite poetry. In addition to throwing his court open to visiting scholars, Pandithurai also financed the publication of many ancient manuscripts, including some of Swaminatha Aiyar’s (M. Raghava Aiyangar 1948: 76-95). Tamil enthusiasts narrate with pride an incident from Pandithurai’s life illustrating how his devotion to Tamil led him to ensure that the reading public had access to well-published and error-free editions of their ancient texts. An Anglo-Indian lawyer of Madurai had had the temerity to publish five hundred copies of the Tirukkuṟaḷ, “made easy.” Pandithurai invited him over to his palace and asked to see the publication. He noted with anger that the lawyer had erred in the very first key verse of the text. Learning that only two hundred copies of the publication had been sold so far, Pandithurai purchased the remaining three hundred and burned the whole lot, rather than expose his fellow Tamilians to such a travesty (M. Raghava Aiyangar 1948: 105-7).
The scarcity of good published versions of Tamil literary works was what spurred Pandithurai to found his well-known Sangam. In one version of the story, when he was visiting Madurai and needed copies of the Tirukkuṟaḷ and Kamban’s Irāmāvatāram to prepare a lecture, he discovered that it was impossible to procure them. If these works, the heart of Tamil literature, were unavailable in Madurai, the center of Tamil learning, what fate awaited Tamil? he lamented. Resolving to do something to change this, in 1901 he summoned together various notables and scholars and spoke of the need to create a society dedicated to the improvement of Tamil (M. Raghava Aiyangar 1948: 87-89). “The rejection of our mother tongue, Tamil, and the embracing of English mostly for the sake of greater comfort, is like the rejection of our mother in favor of our newly arrived wife,” he declared in his speech urging his fellow speakers to come forward and help him in his new venture.
His idea was not new. Since the 1880s, a few such societies had sprung up in the Presidency, although most were short lived. No doubt, the Madurai Tamil Sangam’s own longer and more fruitful existence was the result of a convergence of factors: the liberal funding it received from Pandithurai and Bhaskara Setupati (who also used their influence to get other notables to make contributions); the supplementing of the scholarly activities of the Sangam with the establishment of a printing press, a research center, a school that conducted exams and offered degrees in Tamil, and a library (which was started with liberal donations of books from Pandithurai’s and the Setupati’s own collections); and the founding of a journal, Centamiḻ, in late 1902. All of these attracted to the Sangam some of the finest minds in the world of Tamil learning. But not least of the reasons for the Sangam’s success was the symbolic capital that accrued from its location in Madurai; from its self-representation as continuing the traditions of the ancient academies of the Tamil land; and from the persona of its founder, Pandithurai, as a true descendant of the great vaḷḷaḷs, “benefactors,” of yore (Rowther 1907).
A less spectacular, but no less heroic, model of patronage is offered by the life of V. Tiruvarangam Pillai, the founder of the Shaiva Siddhanta Kazhagam, perhaps the largest publishing house devoted to printing ancient Tamil literary and religious books from its inception in 1920 to this day. Tiruvarangam’s life, in stark contrast to Pandithurai’s, began in a humble Vellala home in Palayamkottai in Tirunelveli district, where his family ran a general merchandise store. When his father died in 1899, the young Tiruvarangam, who was then only nine years old, went to work in Tuticorin to support his family. When he was seventeen, he sailed to Colombo where he worked for a number of years in various commercial establishments. His entrepreneurial skills must have been forged in this context, for he was able to gather together enough money in 1914 to help finance the first trip to Colombo by Maraimalai Adigal (about whose skills as a speaker and reformer there was much talk). Furthermore, he was also able to put together a handsome purse which he presented to Maraimalai and which enabled the latter to continue with his work in Madras. Over the next few years, Tiruvarangam continued to help Maraimalai’s reform activities by arranging for public lectures, collecting funds, and opening bookstores in Colombo and Madras to help sell the reformer’s books. In 1920, he even launched a monthly journal called Centamiḻkkaḷaņciyam, primarily for the purpose of publishing Maraimalai’s commentary on the Tiruvācakam (Ilankumaran 1982: 1-30) .
His crowning achievement, however, was the establishment of the Kazhagam in Tirunelveli in 1920, with a branch office opening in Madras in 1921. His biographer tells us that he took the cue from Maraimalai and his circle of scholar friends, who lamented that Tamilians were quick to invest in all kinds of new ventures but none would support the publication of books of knowledge which are the very source of life (Ilankumaran 1982: 30-31). True to the spirit of tamiḻppaṟṟu, its admirers insist that although the Kazhagam is a business venture, it has not let economic reasons override its dedication to the cause of Tamil (Ilankumaran 1991: 183). The Kazhagam’s involvement in Tamil devotional activities over the past few decades has been manifold, including the support of educational institutions as well as of Tamil libraries. Additionally, it has convened numerous public conferences on various aspects of Shaiva and Tamil literature, on the creation of Tamil technical terms, on Tamilnadu history, and the like. In 1937, Tiruvarangam and his associates played a key role in the founding in Tirunelveli of the Tamiḻp Pātukāppuk Kaḻakam (Society for the Protection of Tamil), which published several pamphlets and books promoting the cause of taṉittamiḻ and protesting the government’s Hindi policy. In 1923, Tiruvarangam also started the Centamiḻc Celvi, a journal devoted to promoting the twin causes of Shaivism and Tamil that is still published today.
But over and above all this, Tiruvarangam’s fame in the world of tamiḻppaṟṟu rests on the role that the Kazhagam has played in the field of publishing: under its auspices, almost every major work in Tamil and Shaiva literature, as well as several minor and hitherto unknown ones, has been printed and made available to the public. Indeed, the image of Tiruvarangam that is remembered most fondly by fellow devotees is that of a man whose voluminous coat pockets were ever stuffed with old manuscripts and galley proofs. In 1980, V. S. Manickam, then vice chancellor of Madurai Kamaraj University, noted that if Tiruvarangam had not founded the Kazhagam, none of the following would have found their way into print: Tamil school textbooks, the Canḳam poems, the Tolkāppiyam, M. Varadarajan’s sparkling commentary on the Tirukkuṟaḷ, dictionaries and encyclopedias, and the Centamiḻc Celvi. Consequently, “our Tamiḻttāy, too, would have wandered around like a weakling able to carry only one child. [But, because of the Kazhagam], our Tamiḻttāy has acquired several heads and arms, her blood has been enriched with knowledge, and her nerves and sinews have been strengthened with books. She now has the capacity to go everywhere in all directions; even shouldering the burden of fifty million of her children, she flourishes happily” (quoted in Ilankumaran 1982: 2).