The Tyranny of Civilization
An undiluted enchantment with the Canḳam age undoubtedly floods the entire devotional community. But its poems were of special interest to a particular regime of tamiḻppaṟṟu that I characterize as “counter Orientalist classicism.” This regime’s fundamental agenda lay in securing acknowledgment—from the world at large, but especially from the colonials and from the Aryan North—of the “civilizational” status of Tamil culture. It went about this task by demanding recognition of an ancient truth that had been grossly overlooked by Orientalism, colonialism, and metropolitan nationalism: namely, that Tamil, too, like Sanskrit, was glorious, polished, and perfect. It is centamiḻ, “refined Tamil.” Yet Orientalism and the colonial state had classified it as a “vernacular,” as a corrupt derivative of Sanskrit, and denied its great texts the status of “literature.” Classicism thus sought to rescue Tamil from its current lowly status as a mere “vernacular” (uṇṇāṭṭu moḻi) and to have it reinstated in all its glory as a “classical” language (uyartaṉic cemmoḻi) that was, like Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin, the vehicle for a lofty, unique, and refined literature, culture (paṇpu), and civilization (nākarīkam) (Suryanarayana Sastri 1903: 132-34). The historian Nambi Arooran (1980: 70-110) has skillfully charted the growing demand among Tamil scholars and politicians from the early decades of this century for recognition of Tamil as a classical language on par with Sanskrit (and Arabic and Persian) in the curriculum of Madras University. I would suggest that there were other gains to be made in securing such a recognition, besides ensuring the victory of “non-Brahman” (Tamil) over “Brahman” (Sanskrit) in the struggle for power in the region. A less tangible, but nonetheless potent, consequence lay in the possibility that Tamil speakers, too, might now demand membership to that select club of “civilized” cultures of the world whose languages had been deemed “refined” and “classical.”
It has been suggested that “the colonies of the European empires were in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the context of a new and doomed efflorescence of European discourse about virtue, race, and civilization, even while that discourse was in a process of radical reconsideration in Europe as the alternative ontology of ‘political economy’ advanced” (Kelly 1991: 11). Tamil devotionalism as conducted in the classicist idiom offers one striking illustration of such an efflorescence, although I will reserve judgment (for now) on whether this was necessarily “doomed.” Unlike neo-Shaivism, which retreated into the domain of an (imagined) uncolonized religion to conduct its project of resistance and renewal, classicism took its battle right into enemy territory. For the concept of “civilization” was no innocent classificatory device through which Orientalist and colonial knowledges neatly organized the messy world of culture(s). Instead, it was a fundamental technology of rule in which colonial dominance was secured by institutionalizing a hierarchy of differences, not only between the “West” and the “Orient,” but between the various regions, cultures, and communities of the subcontinent as well, on a developmental scale ranging from savage barbarism to civilized perfection. Language was one tangible index by which such differences of cultural and moral worth were measured. The “inflectional” Indo-European, representing the summit of linguistic (and racial) achievement, was the standard by which the “tonal,” “isolating,” and “agglutinative” languages that were not Indo-European were evaluated: the latter were declared incapable of expressing complex, abstract, refined thought. Correspondingly, their speakers were “primitive,” “barbarous,” and morally deficient (Curtin 1964; Metcalf 1994; Spadafora 1990).
Such notions were embedded in numerous discourses on language, race, and progress that came to the attention of Tamil’s devotees. Consider the following unflattering portrayal of the “Turanians,” a linguistic and racial group into which, through much of the late nineteenth century, many colonial narratives placed Tamil speakers:
And consider the response by one of Tamil’s devotees, Nallaswami Pillai, to such a characterization:
We may say generally that a large number of them…belong to the lowest Paleozoic strata of humanity[,]…peoples whom no nation acknowledges as its kinsmen, whose languages, rich in words for all that can be eaten or handled, seem absolutely incapable of expressing the reflex conceptions of the intellect or the higher forms of consciousness, whose life seems confined to the glorification of animal wants, with no hope in the future and no pride in the past. They are for the most part peoples without a literature and without a history[,]…peoples whose tongues in some instances have twenty names for murder, but no name for love, no name for gratitude, no name for God.
Did we not all read in our school-days that the Tamilians were aborigines and savages, that they belonged to a dark race, a Turanian one, whom the mighty civilising Aryans conquered and called Dasyus, and that all their religion, language and arts were copied from the noble Aryan. Even a few years ago, a great man from our sister Presidency held forth to a learned Madras audience how every evil in our society, whether moral, social or religious, was all due to the admixture of the civilized Aryan with the barbarous Tamilian.
Classicism, like neo-Shaivism, thus set out to contest all such claims—Orientalist as well as metropolitan Indian—that denigrated Tamil speakers as “barbaric” and “primitive,” and that unilaterally declared that the “civilized” Aryan was inevitably superior to the “aboriginal” Dravidian. This battle, however, was fought not on the ground of religion but on the terrains of “literature” and “history,” those domains whose very possession spelled the difference between peoples who led moral and civilized lives and those who barely subsisted on immoral “animal wants.” In this war, the weapon was the “classicality” (uyarttaṉiccemmai) of Tamil with which its devotees would demonstrate the originality, autonomy, and antiquity of their culture and history; the distinctiveness of their language from Sanskrit; its crucial role as a parent of many languages; and its status as the fount of an ancient civilization as glorious as, if not more glorious than, the Sanskritic one (Maraimalai Adigal ; Suryanarayana Sastri 1903).
Like neo-Shaivism, classicism, too, was an oppositional discourse that was conducted largely by an educated, urban, and professional middle-class, attracting academics (historians, litterateurs, philologists, and Tamil scholars), schoolteachers, lawyers, and bureaucrats. Unlike neo-Shaivism, however, a number of Brahman admirers of Tamil, among them V. G. Suryanarayana Sastri, T. R. Sesha Iyengar (1887?-1939), and U. V. Swaminatha Aiyar, joined the ranks of devotees who were nominally Christian, such as D. Savariroyan and G. Devaneyan (1902-81), as well as upper-caste “non-Brahmans” like P. Sundaram Pillai, Maraimalai Adigal, and Somasundara Bharati (1879-1959), and those of Sri Lankan origins such as Damodaram Pillai and V. Kanakasabhai (1855-1906). Like neo-Shaivism, classicism primarily conducted its activities through literary and historical societies, the most famous among them (which continue to exist today, although fairly truncated) being the Maturait Tamiḻc Canḳam, “Madurai Tamil Academy,” founded in 1901 (henceforth Madurai Tamil Sangam); the Karantait Tamiḻc Canḳam, “Karanthai Tamil Academy,” founded in 1911 (henceforth Karanthai Tamil Sangam); and the Shaiva Siddhanta Kazhagam. Like their neo-Shaiva counterparts, with whom they frequently shared members, their contrary views of Tamil notwithstanding, these associations promoted the cause of Tamil in educational institutions, petitioned for the establishment of a Tamil University, encouraged the battle against Hindi, and so on. But most of all, they focused upon editing and printing ancient manuscripts, publishing periodicals and books, holding literary festivals, running libraries, and conducting classes for the study of classical Tamil. As such, they represent the antiquarian and scholastic aspirations of tamiḻppaṟṟu.