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2. One Language, Many Imaginings

In his important reflections on language and nationalism, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson concludes evocatively: “What the eye is to the lover…, language—whatever language history has made his or her mother tongue—is to the patriot. Through that language, encountered at the mother’s knee and parted with only at the grave, pasts are restored, fellowships are imagined, and futures dreamed” (1983: 140).

In this statement, as elsewhere in the vast scholarly literature on nationalism, languages are assumed to have singular, homogeneous, and stable identities that their speakers carry with them from mother’s knee to the grave. Yet this in itself is perhaps one of nationalism’s lasting myths, installed by its own strategies of rationalization and standardization of language. The many adventures of Tamil within the discourses of tamiḻppaṟṟu suggest rather that attachment to a language is rarely singular, unanimous, and conflict-free. A language may carry a singular name—its “proper” name—but this does not necessarily translate into a singular body of sentiments that connect it to its speakers. Instead, as languages are subjected to the passions of all those interested in empowering them, they attract multiple, even contrary, imaginings. The power that they exercise over their speakers is correspondingly varied, multiplex, and historically contingent.

The putative unity suggested by the name “Tamil” notwithstanding, there is no monolithic presence which reigns in the regimes of Tamil devotion that so assiduously transform the language over time into an object of adulation, reverence, and allegiance. Instead, it is imagined in different ways in different contexts by different devotees. In four such regimes of imagination—the “religious,” the “classicist,” the “Indianist,” and the “Dravidianist”—Tamil is variously conceived as a divine tongue, favored by the gods themselves; as a classical language, the harbinger of “civilization” as a mother tongue that enables participation in the Indian nation; and as a mother/tongue that is the essence of a nation of Tamil speakers in and of themselves. Tamiḻppaṟṟu is thus not a static monolith, but evolves and shifts over time, entangled as it is in local, national, and global networks of notions and practices about language, culture, and community.

What follows in this chapter, then, is a discursive history of Tamil from the 1890s to the 1960s. By “discursive history” I mean the history of the discourses that gathered around Tamil as it became the focus of talk and practice. “Discourse” has become one of the most frequently used but casually understood terms of our times. My own sense of it has been influenced by Foucault’s. Although I do not necessarily agree with many aspects of his work nor explore all its consequences, I do follow his assumption that discourses are “practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak,” and I agree with his insistence that production of discourses (= “knowledges”) cannot be divorced from the work of power (Foucault 1972: 49). Accordingly, I focus on statements not primarily to analyze their truth-value, their accuracy, or the extent to which they correctly reflect the “beliefs” of their producers; instead, my concern is to consider how propositions are advanced and arguments built; to uncover the ideological devices used and conceptual moves made in this process; and to determine how certain notions about language, culture, community, and history acquire a hard materiality with the circulation and recirculation of such utterances through talk as well as institutional practices. For devotees of Tamil, undoubtedly, tamiḻppaṟṟu is a state of mind, an exemplary habit, a way of life—indeed, the only possible condition of being. It may be all these, but I analyze it as a network of discourses which forms, and reforms, the focus of its attention, the Tamil language.

Further, I also treat tamiḻppaṟṟu as a network of competing “projects.” The concept of “project,” too, has been much-used but little defined in recent scholarship. Like Nicholas Thomas, I find the concept useful, for it draws our attention “not towards a totality such as a culture, nor to a period that can be defined independently of people’s perceptions and strategies, but rather to a socially transformative endeavor that is localized, politicized, and partial, yet also engendered by longer historical developments and ways of narrating them” (1994: 105). As Thomas writes,

A project is neither a strictly discursive entity nor an exclusively practical one: because it is a willed creation of historically situated actors it cannot be dissociated from their interests and objectives, even if it also has roots and ramifications which were not or are not apparent to those involved. And a project is not narrowly instrumental: the actors no doubt have intentions, aims, and aspirations, but these presuppose a particular imagination of the social situation, with its history and projected future, and a diagnosis of what is lacking, that can be rectified.…This imagination exists in relation to something to be acted upon…and in tension with competing…projects, yet it is also a self-fashioning exercise, that makes the maker as much as it does the made. And projects are of course often projected rather than realized.

Not least of the reasons I find such a notion of the project attractive is because it allows me to consider Tamil’s devotees not as mute ciphers but as interested beings grappling with the many new ideas—and some old ones—about their language ushered in with modernity, even as it draws attention to the discursively situated contexts of their articulations and practices.

Religiously Tamil: The Language Divine

Through much of the nineteenth century in many parts of India, the quest for foundational principles for the “reform” of society in the aftermath of colonial conquest led to a retreat into “religion” and “tradition,” imagined as sites outside the sphere of the colonial state, and hence pure and untouched. What followed was a fundamental redefinition of religious identities, the polarization of communities on religious principles, and the yoking of religious traditions to the various political and cultural projects of modernity (K. Jones 1989). These came to pass in the context of a colonial regime which singled out religiosity as the essential, inherent, and eternal trait of the Indian, just as materialism and science were the province of the West. For India, therefore, true modernity “would lie in combining the superior material qualities of Western cultures with the spiritual greatness of the East” (Chatterjee 1986: 51).

Living as they did in the crosswinds of colonial modernity, many of Tamil’s devotees, too, fell victim to the assumption that religious fundamentals would provide salvation to a populace imagined in decline. The means to such a salvation lay in divine Tamil, “the tongue vouchsafed by God to fulfill his purpose in this world” (Devasikhamani 1919: 24). (Re)assertions of Tamil’s divinity (teyvattaṉmai) accompanied a wave of religious revivalism which surfaced in the Madras Presidency in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, primarily centered around a reworking of Shaivism, declared the most ancient and authentic religion of those Tamilians who were not Aryan Brahmans. Neo-Shaivism, as I shall refer to this reformulated religion, began to make its presence felt from around the 1880s through the publishing and organizational activities of some its principal exponents, such as P. Sundaram Pillai, J. M. Nallaswami Pillai (1864-1920), P. V. Manikkam Nayakar (1871-1931), K. Subramania Pillai (1888-1945), Nilambikai Ammai (1903-45), and, most prolific of all, Maraimalai Adigal (1876-1950). These reformers typically hailed from the ranks of the new elites spawned by colonialism everywhere in India: they were educated, urban, middle-class, upper-caste “non-Brahman” professionals and government employees. They may have disagreed with each other on finer points of terminology or doctrine, but they were unanimous in their demand for the removal of “polytheistic” religious practices, claimed to have been introduced into a pristine Shaivism by Aryan Brahmans from the North through their linguistic vehicle, Sanskrit. Their program was puritanical and elitist as well in its advocacy of vegetarianism and teetotalism, and in its call for the excision of “irrational” customs and rituals (animal sacrifices, the worship of godlings, and the like) which were the very stuff of village and popular religion. For the true “Tamil religion” (tamiḻar matam), they insisted, was the monotheistic, “rational” worship of Shiva using pure Tamil rituals based on Tamil scriptures performed by Tamil (“non-Brahman”) priests through the liturgical medium of divine Tamil (Alarmelmankai 1914; Maraimalai Adigal 1930a, 1974b; K. Subramania Pillai 1940; Swaminatha Upatiyayan 1921).

Neo-Shaivism emerged to counter what was perceived as the disparagement of Dravidian beliefs in colonial narratives, as well as in neo-Hindu formulations produced primarily in northern India. Numerous internal contradictions and changes through time notwithstanding, British colonialism operated on the fundamental assumption that India was primarily Hindu, and that Hinduism, in turn, was made up of at least two principal streams which were historically, philosophically, and racially different from each other. On the one hand, there was the high and morally uplifting religion of the “Aryans” locked away in ancient Brahmanical texts written in Sanskrit, which a whole century of Orientalist research had construed as authentic and pure Hinduism. On the other, there were the “aboriginal,” “barbaric,” “material demonologies” of the “pre-” or “non-”Aryan tribals, village folk, and uneducated masses, which, by the 1880s, were increasingly identified by many as “Dravidian.” Dravidian religion was generally caricatured as “fear ridden,” “hideous,” and “wholly degrading, intellectually, morally, and spiritually” (e.g., Elmore 1915: 149-52; Whitehead 1921: 152-58). It was deemed “primitive” because of the absence of recognizable scriptural or philosophical traditions such as those possessed by the “civilized” Aryans, and because of its reliance on shamanistic rituals, animal sacrifices, and animistic ceremonies involving petty village deities and bloodthirsty mother-goddesses.

Such colonial speculations also generated an evolutionary theory of Indian religious history (Inden 1990: 117-20). The dark, feminine, materialistic, and sensual religion of the aboriginal Dravidians was conquered by the philosophically and intellectually advanced, virile, white gods of the Aryans. Over the centuries, it was conceded, the two religions did intermesh, the influence of the superior Aryan modifying the “crude animism” of the primitive Dravidian for the better. This had not happened, however, without taking a toll, for latter-day Hinduism reveals the extent to which a pristine Aryan religion had itself come to be eroded by the superstitious and animistic practices of the Dravidian “sub-stratum” (Caldwell 1856: 518-28; Elmore 1915; Whitehead 1921). Nevertheless, “whatever be their present-day union or interminglement, it is difficult to imagine any original connection of the Aryan Brahmans and their subtle philosophies, with the gross demonolatory of the Dravidian peoples who surround them” (Government of India 1912: 51).

Such a theory was extremely useful for a body of thought that we now identify as “neo-Hinduism,” which struggled to salvage Hinduism from a colonial scrutiny that savagely denounced some of its aspects, while lavishing praise on others. Like colonialism in whose shadows it was forged, nineteenth-century neo-Hinduism, too, reduced “India” to a Hinduism whose pure and authentic manifestations were limited to the Sanskritic scriptural tradition characterized as “Aryan” (Halbfass 1988: 197-262; K. Jones 1989). In many a neo-Hindu narrative, the progressive admixture of the aboriginal Dravidians had caused the “fall” of Hinduism from its glorious Aryan beginnings, a decline that was only further exacerbated with the invasions of the Muslims. Although not all neo-Hindus or Indian nationalists unanimously participated in the denigration of the Dravidian, they nonetheless shared a lasting conviction that India could be saved by returning to the imagined purity of a pristine Sanskritic Aryanism (Leopold 1970).

By the turn of this century, several neo-Hindu organizations had established themselves in the Madras Presidency; one of the most influential among them was the Theosophical Society, which moved its headquarters to Adayar in 1882-83. The society was heavily patronized by English-educated Tamil Brahmans who found its validation of scriptural and Aryan Hinduism, appropriately scientized and modernized, particularly satisfying (Irschick 1969: 26-54; Suntharalingam 1974: 290-311; Mani 1990).[1] While Brahmans all across India generally prospered under colonial rule, Tamil-speaking Brahmans had especially reaped rich rewards. Barely 3 percent of the population, they disproportionately dominated the bureaucracy and various professions such as education, journalism, law, and medicine, as well as associational politics, into the 1920s, primarily by getting a head start in English and university education (Visswanathan 1982). But even more perniciously, Brahman domination was ensured by a colonial legal culture which institutionalized Brahmanical social theory as the very foundations of the Raj (Derrett 1968: 225-320; Washbrook 1989: 241-44). As a consequence, all those caste Hindus who were not Brahman—almost three fourths of the populace of the Presidency—were unilaterally considered “Shudra,” the lowest of the Sanskritic fourfold hierarchy. Such a characterization came to be increasingly resented by the later decades of the nineteenth century by upper-caste “non-Brahman” landholding and merchant elites, growing numbers of whom, especially among Chettis and Vellalas, were also acquiring English education and competing for urban jobs, as well as for political privilege, within a colonial state structure that was undergoing increasing bureaucratization and centralization (Barnett 1976: 22-27; Washbrook 1976: 280-87).[2] So P. Sundaram Pillai, one of the founding fathers of neo-Shaivism, complained thus in 1896 to a fellow Vellala, Nallaswami Pillai:

Vellalas who form the flower of the Dravidian race have now so far forgotten their nationality as to habitually think and speak of themselves as Sudras.…In fact to tell them that they are no more Sudras than Frenchmen and that the Aryan polity of castes was the cunningly forged fetters by which their earliest enemies—the Aryans of the North—bound their souls which is worse than binding hands and feet, might sound too revolutionary a theory, though historically but a bare fact.

Many a Brahman intellectual was quick to respond to such charges. M. Srinivasa Aiyangar, amateur historian and litterateur, countered:

Within the last fifteen years, a new school of Tamil scholars have come into being, consisting mainly of admirers and castemen of the late lamented professor…Mr. Sundaram Pillai.…Their object has been to disown and to disprove any trace of indebtedness to the Aryans, to exalt the civilization of the ancient Tamils, to distort in the name of historic research current traditions and literature, and to pooh-pooh the views of former scholars, which support the Brahmanization of the Tamil race.

Not least of the consequences of the turn-of-the-century culture wars between these elite products of the “new” education and of the colonial bureaucratic and professional systems was that by the 1920s Brahmans as a community were declared enemies of Tamil and of its speakers. Manickam Nayakar, a devotee of Tamil who also claimed that “his best and tried friends are mostly Brahmans,” was compelled to declare in 1917 that “the general disposition of many a Brahmin is to disown his kinship with the rest of his Tamil brethren, to disown his very mother Tamil and to construct an imaginary untainted Aryan pedigree as if the Aryan alone is heaven-born.…[T]heir general trend is to assume that they are themselves Aryans and not Tamilians, and to take as an axiom that Tamil and Tamils owe everything to Sanskrit” (Manickam Nayakar 1985: 75). Indeed, as we will see, although individual Brahmans continued to proclaim their tamiḻppaṟṟu into the 1920s, their devotion was always suspect, tainted as it was by their community’s support of Sanskrit, increasingly deemed alien to Tamil and its culture.

In such a charged climate, the ascendancy of the Brahman dominated Indian National Congress in the early 1900s, and the entry of the Theosophical Society into nationalist politics from 1913, only fueled the growing fears of the Vellala and Chetti elite that under the guise of “nationalism,” Brahmans would hijack the nation and turn it into a Sanskritic, Aryan, and above all Brahman domain. In such a nation, Tamilians who were not Brahmans would continue to be ritually and socially denigrated as “Shudra,” “the sons of concubines” (Maraimalai Adigal 1963, 1974a: 44-45). It is thus not surprising that the earliest efforts to constitute an alternate non-Aryan, non-Sanskritic, and non-Brahmanical religion as the embodiment of all that was truly and originally Tamil were most actively sponsored by these Vellala and Chetti elites. Synecdochically representing the entirety of the “non-Brahman” populace of the region, they vigorously argued that it was only such a “Tamilian religion” that would stem the continuing empowerment of an Aryan-Sanskritic-Brahman-Hinduism which inevitably spelled doom for Tamil and its speakers in the emergent nation. In turn, these “non-Brahman” elites received the support of the colonial state, itself-seeking allies to counter the growing influence of the Congress. The consequence was an informal alliance between them and the colonial administration, which is reflected in the pro-British stance of the Justice Party (founded in 1916-17 to represent “non-Brahman” interests) and in the eulogies of British rule and English that surfaced within neo-Shaivism (Maraimalai Adigal 1967a, 1974a: 45-46).

The Polarization of Tamil and Sanskrit

So, from the turn of this century, neo-Shaivism engaged in a complex set of maneuvers. On the one hand, it had to counter the damaging caricatures of Dravidian religion in colonial narratives. On the other, these very texts also contained much ammunition that could be deployed for its battle against neo-Hinduism and its surrogate, Indian nationalism: the declaration that Dravidian religion far preceded Aryan arrival, not just in the Tamil-speaking country but all over India; the suggestion that Tamil-speaking Brahmans had never participated in this religion; the pronouncement of ancient Tamilian society as egalitarian, untainted by the hierarchical and oppressive caste system of the Aryans; and above all, the possibility that that most important Hindu deity, Shiva, might be Dravidian in origin (Elmore 1915: 13-14; Gover 1871: 1-15). Neo-Shaivism appropriated such colonial propositions, fused them with statements drawn from pre-colonial Shaiva narratives, and proposed the following tenets of the emergent “Tamilian religion,” tamiḻar matam (also called by some, “Dravidian religion,” tirāviṭa matam): Shaivism is the true and original religion of all Tamilians who are not Brahman. It is also the most ancient religion of India, predating Sanskritic Hinduism by many centuries. Its principles are enshrined in the devotional and philosophical texts of divine Tamil, and it would be in vain, therefore, to seek it in the demonistic rituals of the populace (as the colonials were wont to). Further, it was not the Dravidians who corrupted a pristine Hinduism (as neo-Hindus were inclined to suggest); on the contrary, it was Brahmanism and Aryanism that had debased the original Tamilian religion and diverted it from its hallowed path of monotheism, rationalism, and egalitarianism into the “gutters” of polytheism, irrational rituals, and unjust social hierarchies (Maraimalai Adigal 1930a: vii-viii; Savariroyan 1900-1901: 269). The removal of such impurities brought in by Sanskritic Brahmanism would lead to the retrieval of pristine Shaivism, the restoration of a pure Tamilian subjectivity, and the growth of self-respect and pride among speakers of Tamil. And it is for this project that Tamil was enlisted by neo-Shaivism, its divinity reemphasized and popularized in the process. Cleansed of its Sanskritic impurities, the divine language would be the beacon that would throw light on all that was originally Tamil/Dravidian. It would sift and separate the pure Tamil Shaiva texts from all those masquerading as such.

The writings and speeches generated by neo-Shaivism show that this was not an easy or consistent project, not least because there was little agreement over what constituted the original Shaivism, and because it was difficult—in certain cases impossible—to dismantle the complex linkages that had developed between Tamil and Sanskrit over the centuries of their coexistence from the early first millennium C.E. In the early decades of neo-Shaiva activity, from around the 1880s to around 1905, there were few explicit statements against Sanskritic Hinduism per se. The focus instead was on countering the negative characterizations of Dravidian religion by asserting its distinctiveness, its uniqueness, its rootedness in high philosophy, and its parity with the Sanskritic tradition. “Moderate” neo-Shaivism, therefore—as exemplified by the writings of J. Nallaswami Pillai, for instance— visioned Tamilian religion as part of a larger Hindu complex, but oriented around divine Tamil and its scriptures rather than around Sanskrit.

Gradually, however, such assertions gave way to overt antagonism towards Sanskritic-Brahmanical-Aryan-Hinduism, and even to calls for a complete break from the latter by the 1920s. This transformation took place in the context of changes in the curriculum of Madras University, which, starting in 1906, became the site of an acrimonious debate over the compulsory study of Sanskrit and the elimination of the “vernaculars” the growing demand for “Home Rule” by the Besant led factions of the Congress, beginning in 1915; the British promise of “self-government” by stages in 1917; the many attempts after that by the colonial state to play off the “non-Brahman” against the Brahman in electoral politics; and finally, the iconoclastic atheism of E. V. Ramasami (1879-1973) and his followers (Irschick 1969; Nambi Arooran 1980: 35-139; Washbrook 1976: 274-87). In the “radical” neo-Shaivism that crystallized in response to these events, and is perhaps best exemplified by the later religious writings of Maraimalai Adigal, a Tamil-speaking Dravidian “non-Brahman” Shaiva community was clearly posited against Sanskritic, Brahmanical, Aryan Hinduism (Maraimalai Adigal 1930b, 1974b; K. Subramania Pillai, 1940: 45-47). Talk of parity between Tamil and Sanskrit gave way to assertions of the superiority of the former. Legends and stories that had accumulated over the centuries about Tamil’s divine powers were recycled and embellished, and the very legitimacy of Sanskrit was questioned in this process.

One such story, based on an incident in the life of the nineteenth-century mystic Dandapanisami, is especially popular in neo-Shaiva tellings. When challenged by a Brahman who invoked the superiority of Sanskrit because the Vedas were in that language, Dandapanisami declared that unlike them, the Tamil scriptures did not advocate the sacrifice of goats and the consumption of meat. The argument between the two notables continued for a while, and it was finally decided to settle the matter by calling upon the deities. They placed in front of the spear of Lord Murugan three chits with the following messages: “Tamil alone is eminent,” “Sanskrit alone is eminent,” and “Both are eminent.” A virgin maiden was asked to choose among the chits and she picked out the one that declared, unambiguously, “Tamil alone is eminent.” Dandapanisami rejoiced, brushed his eyes reverentially with the chit, and then placed it in his mouth. Subsequently, he composed his famous verse on Murugan which praised him as the lord who himself had declared Tamil’s superiority over Sanskrit. He then went on to write the Tamiḻalanḳāram, a hundred-verse eulogy of Tamil recounting its various miraculous abilities and supernatural powers (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 124-61).[3] In the same vein, another of Tamil’s admirers, years later, narrated a story his mother had told him about one of his ancestors who had had the power to cure the sick and the dying with the help of Tamil hymns. One day, a cobra, with its hood raised, wandered into the room where he sat, offering his prayers in Tamil. It drank some milk and slithered away, leaving him unharmed. “Is it not clear from this that Tamil has supernatural powers!” he asked rhetorically of his readers.[4] Such stories, of which there are many, reminded Tamil speakers that the Tamil scriptures were infinitely superior in their moral and ethical content, and in their salvific potential, to the Sanskrit Vedas. It was a Brahmanical conspiracy that denied the divinity and ritual efficacy of Tamil, designated it as a “Shudra” language, and appropriated all its treasures, including the mighty Shiva himself, for Sanskrit (Maraimalai Adigal 1936a: 105-6; K. Subramania Pillai n.d.: 15-17).

By the time radical neo-Shaivism was under full steam in the 1920s, it was declared unequivocally that Tamil, and not Sanskrit, was the only appropriate ritual language for all pious Tamilians. Indeed, Tamil is the world’s first divine language, and the religion it expounds the most eminent: “In the whole wide world, there is no greater god than Paramashivam [Shiva]; no religion loftier than Shaivism; no land more superior to the Tamil land; no language more divine than Tamil…and no people more auspiciously pure than Tamilians” (Swaminatha Upatiyayan 1921: 20).

Taking advantage of the technologies and communication possibilities generated in the colonial milieu, neo-Shaiva associations and publications took this message of Tamil’s divinity to the public. They urged Tamil speakers to make divine Tamil the center of their renewed religious lives, the core of their (recast) beings. Prior to the neo-Shaiva revival, the cause of divine Tamil and of Shaivism had largely been the purview of religious specialists, temples, and monasteries. Now, lay intellectuals and activists—who were career bureaucrats, lawyers, academics, and even civil engineers—established societies for propagating the message of neo-Shaivism in various cities and towns across the Tamil-speaking parts of the Presidency. They published books and journals, conducted religious and Tamil classes, arranged conferences, and ran local libraries (Nambi Arooran 1980: 20-21; Ramaswamy 1992b: 84-89). Many of these societies as well as their journals were short lived, and suffered throughout their careers for want of support and subscription. Yet there are success stories as well, such as the Tirunelvēli Teṉṉintiya Caivacittānta Nūṟpatippuk Kaḻakam, founded in 1920.[5] Both this organization and its journal Centamiḻc Celvi (founded in 1923) continue to exist today, albeit not without their share of problems. Although neo-Shaiva organizations eschewed direct participation in associational politics, they threw their influence behind many causes dear to tamiḻppaṟṟu such as the demand for education in Tamil, the numerous protests against Hindi, and the movement for renaming Madras state as Tamilnadu, the land of Tamil.

Being Religious, The Tamil Way

Movements for religious reform in colonial India have been extensively studied, and a recent volume clearly shows that spoken, rather than scriptural, languages were the sites of some of the most intense debates and discussion in this regard (K. Jones 1992). Yet, while we have a growing understanding of the recastings of religious doctrines, practices, and conceptions of community, the changes undergone by the languages through which such reconfigurations were attempted have been left largely unexamined. Tamiḻppaṟṟu’s divinization of Tamil to authenticate its project(s) reminds us that the medium itself has to be empowered in order to empower the message, to invoke an overused but nevertheless appropriate cliché. Neo-Shaivism declared that Shaivism and divine Tamil are the two “eyes” with which modern Tamil speakers would regain their lost vision and be redeemed. Divine Shiva and his divine Tamil go together, hand in hand, and cannot be separated: each lends power and authority to the other.

Neo-Shaivism emerged to counter what was perceived as the recasting of India as predominantly Aryan, Sanskritic, Brahmanical, and Hindu by both colonialism and neo-Hinduism. Such a countering was necessary because of the fear that “non-Brahman” Tamil speakers would inhabit such an India only in the fissures: ritually denigrated, socially demoted, and symbolically cast out, as “Dravidians” and “Shudras.” Yet speakers of Tamil had once been the dominant people of the subcontinent, a preeminence they had lost with the arrival of Sanskritic Aryan Brahmanism. In Maraimalai Adigal’s version of this imagined history, “the religion of the land, that is Shaivism, underwent a marked change.” Yet, he wrote, this was a change that was limited to the “outer rim,” for “in its center, it remained as pure as crystal and as impenetrable as a hard diamond. What is bound and true to its core, what is perfect and complete in itself, requires no change, requires no improvement” (Maraimalai Adigal 1930c: iii).

Neo-Shaivism attempted to recover this imagined pure center and use it as the foundation on which to (re)constitute a true Tamilian religious subjectivity untouched by Brahmanism, Aryanism, Sanskrit, and Hinduism. Cleansed of its Sanskritic impurities, Tamil, the language in which its pure and original scriptures were deemed written, was the means through which this center could be reached. The language had perforce to be (re)divinized for this project, for it had to take on and counter the power of divine Sanskrit. Other religious groups in earlier times had advocated the divinity of Tamil, but not always at the expense of Sanskrit, and not in such a sustained and prolific manner using the modern technologies of print and communication (Ramaswamy 1996). In the changed circumstances of the late colonial period, when a devolving state rewarded communities that could establish their timeless distinctiveness and religious autonomy, there was much to be gained by claiming the existence of a unique Tamilian/Dravidian community, bonded together from time immemorial by its own distinctive religious traditions that were embodied in its own sacred language. Such a claim necessarily called for a delegitimization of Sanskrit and a radical distancing from its scriptures and tradition. Such a project also perforce needed the projection of Tamil as divinity, the ranking favorite of the gods themselves.

Civilizing Tamil: The Language Classical

The search for authentic first principles as the foundation on which to rebuild a modern community did not lead all of tamiḻppaṟṟu towards religion and Shaiva scriptures. Instead, with the help of the secular sciences of comparative philology, archaeology, ethnology, and history, a new source for these was located in ancient Tamil heroic and love poems of the so-called Canḳam age of the early centuries C.E. Hitherto completely outside the horizon of contemporary scholarly awareness, these poems were “discovered” and published between the 1880s and 1920 primarily because of the efforts of C. W. Damodaram Pillai (1832-1901) and U. V. Swaminatha Aiyar (1855-1942).[6] The story of this “discovery” in all its fascinating detail has yet to be told, but it is important to register some of its manifold effects on tamiḻppaṟṟu.

Most immediately, with this “discovery,” the antiquity of Tamil literature, dated up until then in colonial histories to the late first millennium, was now pushed back, at the very least, to the early centuries C.E., and in the writings of some devotees to the beginning of time itself. These poems not only deepened the antiquity of Tamil literature, but quite as crucially, within a few years of their being made public, they came to be valorized as the repositories of an ideal and perfect Tamil society, prior to its colonization by either the British or, more enduringly, by the Brahmanical Aryans from the North. They were combed to generate nostalgic portrayals of an ancient Tamil people who were adventurous and heroic; who roamed the high seas in pursuit of gold and glory; who were “hospitable and tolerant in religion,” “egalitarian” and “rationalist,” fun-loving but contemplative and philosophical as well (Kanakasabhai 1966). Most significantly, these poems were tangible proof that Tamilians were speakers of the only “living” “classical” language and the proud possessors of a great “civilization,” the most ancient in the world. Devotional narratives, regardless of their ideological differences and political commitments, are saturated with the pride that their authors experience in being the modern day inheritors of this ancient literature. In his memoirs, S. Ilakuvan (1910-1973), a Tamil college teacher who was imprisoned in 1965 for his participation in the anti-Hindi protests, has this to say about the effect on his young mind when he learned in college about the antiquity of Tamil and the wealth of its literature:

The glories of the ancient Tamil land and the eminence of Tamilians captured my heart. I became convinced that classical Tamil (uyartaṉic cemmoḻi) had to have been the mother of all the languages of the world. I was saddened that our great and glorious Tamil country has today lost its name, and languishes away as a small part of Madras [Presidency]. I resolved that my life’s mission lay in restoring the rights of the Tamil land, and the preeminence of Tamil. The battle for Tamil is the battle of my life.

Similarly, M. P. Sivagnanam (1906-1995), who hailed from an indigent working-class family and could afford only a primary school education, studied these poems on his own when he was in a colonial prison in the early 1940s. He writes of his experience on reading one of the anthologies of the Canḳam corpus, the Puṟanāṉūṟu:

I gained consciousness of belonging to a community called Tamilian when I first read the Puṟanāṉūṟu. Before that, I knew I was a Tamilian. But it was only on reading the Puṟanāṉūṟu that I realized that the Tamil-speaking people had their own unique history, their own unique customs, their own distinctive political traditions, and their own nationality. Tamilians have had their own unique motherland (tāyakam) and its name is Tamilnadu, I realized. Tamilnadu had been ruled for thousands of years by Tamilians. It struck me that no empire from the North had ever subjugated Tamilnadu or Tamilians during the Canḳam period. When I learned that men and women lived as equals in those days, my heart rejoiced. I forgot myself when I read the poems about the heroism of the mothers who sent off their young, innocent sons to the battlefield thronging with spears. I thanked God with all my heart for the good fortune of being born in such a Tamil land.

Again and again, there are similar examples of the wonder and admiration that the poems of this ancient literary corpus elicit from Tamil’s devotees. They have been invoked as models for personal belief and behavior, as inspiration for public and political action, and as the founding charter for an ideal society of the future in which Tamil would reign supreme, once again.

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:

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.

And consider the response by one of Tamil’s devotees, Nallaswami Pillai, to such a characterization:

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 [1948]; 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.

The Contest with Sanskrit

Classicism, too, was concerned, like neo-Shaivism, with demonstrating the antiquity (toṉmai) and primordiality (muṉmai) of Tamil, as well as its uniqueness (taṉimai) and purity (tūymai). These were not established, however, by linking Tamil to the world of the gods, as in neo-Shaivism. Instead, it was argued that Tamil is the first language of the first humans to flourish on the face of this earth, prior to the emergence of any other language or people (Devaneyan 1966; Maraimalai Adigal 1948). Indeed, classicism drew upon the secular science of comparative philology to dispute ancient religious stories (which neo-Shaivism had revived) about the divine origins of Tamil, insisting instead that the language was not bestowed upon the world by Shiva, but emerged to fulfill the need for human communication (P. T. Srinivasa Aiyangar 1985: 13-15; Suryanarayana Sastri 1903: 51-57).[7]

In all such matters, classicism, too, of course contended with the hegemonic influence of Sanskrit, not so much as a “divine” language but as India’s paradigmatic classical tongue. A century of colonial linguistic practice had only reinforced the ancient Sanskritic dogma that all languages (of India) are corruptions of a primordial, eternal Sanskrit. British scholar administrators and their Brahman teacher-assistants based in Calcutta’s Asiatic Society and College of Fort William had declared Sanskrit as the fount of Indian “vernaculars,” the sole generator of high Hindu civilization, and the only language worthy of comparison with the lofty Greek and Latin. This is a story that has been already told many times (Kejariwal 1988; Kopf 1969).

What has been less noted is the resistance to such formulations that arose almost from the beginning of colonial rule among British administrators and missionaries based in South India. Skeptical about the clubbing together of the languages spoken in “their” part of the subcontinent with the northern tongues, these men were especially critical of the characterizations of Tamil or Telugu as “vulgar derivatives” of Sanskrit. This skepticism was first voiced in Alexander Campbell’s Grammar of the Teloogoo Language (1816) and in Francis Ellis’s introduction to that grammar. Tamil and Telugu, it was argued, form “a distinct family of languages, with which the Sanscrit has, in latter times especially, intermixed, but with which it has no radical connection” (Ellis 1816: 2). In the 1840s and 1850s, other philological analyses reinforced such assertions, frequently referring to Tamil in this process as “copious,” “elegant,” “refined,” and “cultivated” (Asher 1968; Singh 1969: 78-88). In 1855, Tamil was even declared “a rival of the ancient Sanskrit” (Bower 1855: 158). All such scattered observations were consolidated in 1856 in Robert Caldwell’s Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages, which used the word “classical” to characterize centamiḻ, “correct Tamil” (Caldwell 1856: 31); authorized the name “Dravidian” to refer to the “family of languages” of South India, distinct from Sanskrit and its Indo-European family of tongues (28-37); insisted that Tamil “can dispense with its Sanscrit altogether if need be, and not only stand alone but flourish without its aid” (31); and suggested that prior to the arrival of Aryan Brahmans, the “elements of civilization” already existed among the Dravidians (77-79).

Tamil’s devout found much that was flattering in Caldwell’s Grammar, which lent the authority of comparative philology (and the West) to the claims of autonomy and distinctiveness of Tamil made in its pre-colonial texts that tamiḻppaṟṟu resurrected. Yet Caldwell’s hallowed status notwithstanding, all his ideas were not wholeheartedly embraced, pace recent scholarly evaluations of the missionary’s impact on Tamil cultural politics (Dirks 1995, 1996; Ravindiran 1996). Indeed, many devotees resented his claim that the term tamiḻ had derived from the Sanskrit words draviḍa or drāviḍa (Chelvakesavaroya Mudaliar 1929: 9; Damodaram Pillai 1971: 3-6, 34-35; R. Raghava Aiyangar 1979: 4-13). Others objected to his attempts to establish affinity between the Dravidian and “Scythian” families of languages, insisting instead that the former was completely distinctive and autonomous (T. Chidambaranar 1938: 5; Devasikhamani 1919: 26). Many also set aside his suggestion that Dravidians had migrated into India, proposing instead an autochthonous origin which placed them in the subcontinent from the beginning of time (T. Chidambaranar 1938: 10). Finally, there were even those who resisted Caldwell’s classification of Tamil as a “Dravidian” language, insisting that the word draviḍa had been used in the past for Tamil-speaking Brahmans alone (Damodaram Pillai 1971: 34-39; Devasikhamani 1919: 9; Somasundara Bharati 1912:1). Their resistance is not surprising, for in spite of some eulogistic portrayals of Dravidian culture in the writings of some colonials (like C. D. Maclean and Gilbert Slater), which the devotees found useful to invoke, the dominant colonial image of the Dravidian, as created through census records, administrative manuals, and district gazetteers, is captured in this unflattering picture of the 1891 Census:

This was a race black in skin, low in stature, and with matted locks; in war treacherous and cunning; in choice of food, disgusting, and in ceremonial, absolutely deficient. The superior civilisation of the foreigner [the Aryan] soon asserted itself, and the lower race had to give way.…The newcomers had to deal with opponents far inferior to themselves in civilisation, and with only a very rudimentary political organisation, so that the opposition to be overcome before the Arya could take possession of the soil was of the feeblest.

In such statements, which were also picked up by many a metropolitan nationalist narrative to pursue the agenda of salvaging Indian pride by taking refuge in Aryanism, the white, virile, civilized, energetic, and superior Aryan is starkly contrasted with the dark, feminine, menial, and aboriginal Dravidian. Correspondingly, the latter’s language, too, is “aboriginal,” uncivilized, and inferior. So the 1901 Census of India observed: “In India, the Indo-Aryan languages—the tongues of civilization…—are continually superseding what may, for shortness, be called the aboriginal languages such as those belonging to the Dravidian, the Munda, or the Tibeto-Burman families.…[I]t may be added that nowhere do we see the reverse process of a non-Aryan language superseding an Aryan one” (Government of India 1903: 248-49). This particular statement in the Census was authored by George Grierson, who headed the ambitious Linguistic Survey of India project for the colonial state (published 1903-28). It is telling that the underlying premise of this authoritative survey was that the “civilized” Aryan languages are inherently superior to the “aboriginal” non-Aryan. So, commenting on the progressive shrinkage in the spread of Dravidian languages, Grierson noted, “Aryan civilization and influence have been too much for [them]” (Government of India 1903: 279). And in the Linguistic Survey, although the “importance” of Tamil is recognized, and the antiquity of its literature noted, it is not unambiguously adorned with the mantle of classicality and civilization, as is Sanskrit (Grierson 1906: 298-302).

All the same, slowly but cautiously from the 1920s on, the colonial state began to concede the antiquity and “copiousness” of Tamil, and its status as a “cultivated” language. Dravidian speakers of today, the Census of 1931 admitted, have “a culture of very great antiquity[;]…speakers of Dravidian languages [were] the ancient inhabitants of Mohenjadaro and perhaps the givers of culture to India” (Government of India 1933: 454-55). The Census was here alluding to the recently discovered archaeological remains of the Indus Valley in Mohenjadaro and Harappa, which pointed to a sprawling prehistoric urban civilization rivalling Mesopotamia and Egypt. To the delight of many a Tamil devotee, this prehistoric civilization was declared to have been possibly Dravidian by some colonial archaeologists. Thus Maraimalai Adigal quoted John Marshall in 1941:

They (the orientalists) pictured the pre-Aryans as little more than untutored savages (whom it could have been grotesque to credit with any reasoned scheme of religion or philosophy). Now that our knowledge of them has been revolutionized and we are constrained to recognize them as no less highly civilized—in some respects, indeed, more highly civilized—than the contemporary Sumerians or Egyptians, it behoves [sic] us to re-draw the picture afresh and revise existing misconceptions regarding their religion as well as their material culture.…The Indus Civilisation was Pre-Aryan and the Indus language or languages must have been Pre-Aryan also. Possibly, one or other of them…was Dravidic.

Maraimalai then proceeded to overwrite Marshall’s tentative conclusion with the following sweeping pronouncement:

If Sir John Marshall had had a first hand knowledge of the Tholkappiam and some other ancient classics of Tamil, he would have easily shown in corroboration of what he stated as regards the pre-Aryan antiquity of one of the Dravidian languages, that Tamil, alone, and not any other, as he vaguely affirmed, must have been the language spoken and cultivated by the pre-Aryan inhabitants of the Indus Valley.

Maraimalai Adigal was not alone in making such a bold assertion. More than a decade earlier, in the late 1920s, soon after Marshall’s report on the Indus Valley excavations was first published, fellow devotees T. R. Sesha Iyengar and M. S. Purnalingam Pillai had already insisted that “future discoveries and dispassionate researches” would confirm Dravidian authorship of the Indus civilization and “the remote antiquity” of Tamil culture (Purnalingam Pillai 1945: 26; Sesha Iyengar 1989: 32-61). They were able to make such assertions confidently, emboldened as they were by the many claims of classicism which challenged the dominant Orientalist wisdom about Tamil’s place in India’s past, and which proceeded to write an alternate script in which history began not in the North with the Aryans, but in the South with the Dravidians.

Opposing Orientalism

Classicism’s status as an oppositional discourse is most apparent in the frequently expressed lament that the achievements of Tamil speakers in India’s history had been totally ignored by scholars, especially those based in the North. As Sundaram Pillai dramatically declared in 1897: “The history of Indian Civilization is the old story of the Giant and the Dwarf. The victories in it are the victories of the vaunting Aryan, while the wounds are the wounds of the bleeding pre-Aryan” (quoted by Nallaswami Pillai 1898-99: 113).[8]

The first step lay in overthrowing this “Aryan bigotry and pride” and rewriting the script of India’s history so as to show how “Dravidian forebears enriched, strengthened and improved the culture of Aryan India” (Sesha Iyengar 1989: 63). Two basic strategies were adopted for such a rewriting. In the one that I call “compensatory,” the aim was to demonstrate that “Hindu” or “Indian” civilization had emerged from a “harmonious commingling of the cultures of the Dravidian and the Indo-Aryan” (Sesha Iyengar 1989: 63). Tamil, it was insisted, “was quite as classical” as Sanskrit, and its literature “is no less ancient, noble, and vast.”[9] Tamil and its literature were thus validated by espousing a parity with Sanskrit, whose value was never questioned. Neither is the divide between “Aryan” and “Dravidian,” seen as distinctive but complementary halves of “India,” nor the legitimacy of the Brahman. As can be expected, compensatory classicism was a strategy that was favored typically, though not always, by devotees who were nominally Brahman, such as R. Raghava Aiyangar (1870-1946), M. Raghava Aiyangar (1878-1960), T. R. Sesha Iyengar, and Swaminatha Aiyar. Their commitment was to a syncretic Indian civilization jointly produced by the “genius” of Tamil and the “genius” of Sanskrit, both of which are necessary and complementary (P. T. Srinivasa Aiyangar 1985: 85).

From the start, but especially by the 1920s, this strategy was challenged by another that I call contestatory, paradigmatic examples of which may be found in the writings of Suryanarayana Sastri, Savariroyan Pillai, M. S. Purnalingam Pillai, Maraimalai Adigal, G. Devaneyan, K. Appadurai (1907-89), and K. A. P. Viswanatham (1899-1994), among others. Contestatory classicism asserted the superiority of Tamil over Sanskrit, rather than the parity of the two. Sanskrit, after all, was a “dead” language in contrast to the everlasting Tamil (kaṉṉittamiḻ). The “barbarian” Aryans had developed into “civilized beings” on coming into contact with the “highly civilized Dravidians” rather than the other way around. For in the ancient past, Tamilians were settled agriculturists, whereas the Aryans had been mere nomadic pastoralists. Tamilians lived in splendid cities and traded with distant lands, while Aryans were still grazing herds. Tamilians were monotheistic and philosophical, whereas Aryans were polytheistic and ritualistic. Tamil had not evolved from Sanskrit, as the Orientalists maintained; on the contrary, classical Sanskrit itself developed under the influence of Tamil (Maraimalai Adigal 1963, 1966; Purnalingam Pillai 1985: 4-5).

Thus contestatory classicism reversed Orientalism’s claim that the true genius of India lay in its Aryan past, asserting instead that it is to Tamil and Tamilian culture that Indian civilization owes all, for, in Sundaram Pillai’s words, “what is ignorantly called Aryan philosophy, Aryan civilization, is distinctively Dravidian or Tamilian at bottom” (quoted by Nallaswami Pillai 1898-99: 112). In the logic of contestatory classicism, Aryan Brahmans had not only been responsible for bringing about the end of the Dravidian golden age, but they had also stolen all that was originally and truly Tamil and passed it off as their own (Maraimalai Adigal 1963, 1966; Savariroyan 1900-1901). Misinformed by such crafty Brahmans, Western scholars had got India’s history all wrong. So instead of beginning in the North and with “the Aryan Conquest,” Sundaram Pillai suggested that the “scientific historian” should begin his study in the South, which was after all, “India proper” (quoted by Nallaswami Pillai 1898-99: 113).

Tamil and the Nostalgia for Civilization

From early in this century, Tamil’s classicist devotees went about the task of setting the record straight. The result has been a new—and, from the devotee’s perspective, an infinitely more satisfactory—script for the Tamil (and Indian) past. In “the hoary past” (going back millions of years ago, in many accounts), there had been an ancient mega-continent (consisting of present-day Australia, Africa, and southern Asia) where Tamil had flourished. This was the land referred to as “Kumarikkaṇṭam” in ancient Tamil texts and attested to as “Lemuria” by Western scientists. Classicism offered brief but nostalgic portrayals of Kumarikkaṇṭam, imagined as the home of the first two Tamil academies that produced countless literary masterpieces. This state of prelapsarian bliss came to an end with a series of floods, which destroyed the original Tamil civilization and which compelled Tamil speakers to fan out and civilize different parts of the world, taking their language with them. “Traces of this wide dispersion are found in Palestine, Egypt, Italy, Scandinavia, and far-off Erin in the names of places with the suffix ur, in the modes of life pursued, in the resemblances of the Tamilian myths to those of Greece and to the northern sagas” (Purnalingam Pillai 1945: 4). So, the urban remains of the Indus Valley and the great poems of the Canḳam age were only the later remnants of a much more ancient Tamilian civilization, established at the very beginning of time. Orientalism had thus got wrong not only the history of India, but that of the world as well, for it was the Tamil-speaking land which was the “cradle” of the “whole human race” and of “human civilization” (K. Appadurai 1975; Devaneyan 1966; Somasundara Bharati 1912).

The consolidation of industrial modernity in the West has frequently sparked nostalgia for a life in nature, away from city lights and urban sprawls, amid fresh fields and rolling pastures. Tamiḻppaṟṟu, I have insisted, is a discourse of modernity. But it was conducted in the milieu of a colonial culture whose own ideology of the civilizing mission deemed that the natives lacked “culture” and “civilization.” Tamil’s modern devotees, therefore, yearn not for nature but for culture and for civilization. The archaeological remains of the Indus Valley and the poems of the Canḳam age, not to mention the antediluvian continent of Lemuria, enabled them to claim that Tamil speakers, too, had “civilization,” just “like the Greeks,” but even earlier. In 1967, C. N. Annadurai (1909-69), a devotee of Tamil who was also the chief minister of the state of Tamilnadu, gave a speech at Annamalai University in Chidambaram in which he extolled the virtues of the Canḳam poems and the antiquity of “Dravidian civilization.” He then called upon the students to carry “the message that our classics contain to the entire world and declare that what was the most ancient here is what is being introduced today as the most modern(quoted in Ryerson 1988: 141-42, emphasis mine). Reversing the logic of Europe’s civilizing mission, tamiḻppaṟṟu thus claimed that Tamil speakers did not need to be granted civilization, for they had possessed it all along, long before any one else, and indeed had bestowed it upon the rest of the world. But such a claim has come with its own costs. For in its anxiety to secure membership in the select club of the civilized, tamiḻppaṟṟu reinforced Europe’s civilizational model of the world. So, ironically, the “uniqueness” of Tamil and its “civilized” state is claimed by demonstrating its similarity with other “civilized” cultures, by insisting Tamil speakers were, after all, “the Greeks of the East” (Purnalingam Pillai 1985: 5-6).

Language and the Nation: Indianizing Tamil

In the 1890s, around the same time that neo-Shaivism and classicism emerged, a third imaginary also surfaced in the discourses of tamiḻppaṟṟu, which I call “Indianist.” Over the next few decades, it moved from strength to strength, gathering reinforcement from metropolitan Indian nationalism as well as compensatory classicism at home. By the 1930s, however, this regime had to contend with the assertions of both radical neo-Shaivism and contestatory classicism against Hinduism, Brahmanism, and Sanskrit, all of which Indianism deemed necessary to Tamil devotion. More contentiously, it locked swords with the Dravidianist regime of tamiḻppaṟṟu that was provoked by the Madras government’s attempt to institute the compulsory study of Hindi in 1937-38. Dravidianism introduced into Tamil devotion the political and cultural philosophy of E. V. Ramasami, C. N. Annadurai, and their populist Dravidian movement, which the Indianist regime branded as contrary to the spirit of Indian nationalism and hence illegitimate.

In contrast to neo-Shaivism and classicism, however, both Indianism and Dravidianism were overtly political projects concerned with transforming the nature of power relations in the Tamil-speaking region. But here the similarity between the two ends. For Indianism, it was British colonialism and English that had to be replaced by the Indian nation with its family of “national” languages, of which Tamil would be the language of the region, while Hindi would be the “official” language of communication with other Indians. For Dravidianism, on the other hand, “India” itself occupied the space vacated by the colonial, whose legitimacy was only ambivalently questioned. Indeed, the Dravidianist’s scathing denunciations of the “imperialism” of India (identified with the North, Aryan Brahmans, Sanskrit, and Hindi) were as passionate as the Indianist’s attacks on colonialism. This important distinction notwithstanding, both the Indianist and the Dravidianist are critically concerned with Tamil as the language of politics, and not merely as the language of religion and ritual, or literature and civilization. Their agenda was to ensure that Tamil ruled (again) within tamiḻakam, “home of Tamil.” Therefore, it was not enough to establish learned academies and publish books which proclaimed the glories of divine or classical Tamil. In addition, its devotees had to fight for its institutionalization as the language of government, education, and everyday public communication. As T. V. Kalyanasundaram (1883-1953) demanded in 1924, “What is the condition of our mother tongue, Tamil, today? Where is Tamiḻttāy? Does she adorn the seat of government? Does she preside over our associations? Does she flourish in our legislative chambers? Can we at least see her in our schools and colleges? Can we spot her in those political bodies that claim to fight for our rights? At the least, is there a place for her in Tamil newspapers?” (Kalyanasundaranar 1935: 19).

Rather than relying on religious or literary revivalism, as did neo-Shaivism and classicism, these regimes therefore encouraged Tamil enthusiasts to aggressively engage state structures and institutions, and to intervene in political processes, for it was in and through politics that Tamil could be empowered. And in turn, empowered by the claims of Indianism and Dravidianism, many devotees of Tamil went on to become state legislators; members of various government committees on language, education, and cultural policies; even chief ministers by the late 1960s. With Indianism and Dravidianism, tamiḻppaṟṟu finally enabled its practitioners to secure power, privilege, even profit.

Indianism’s prime exponents in the devotional community were V. O. Chidambaram Pillai (1872-1936), especially before the 1920s; T. V. Kalyanasundara Mudaliar prior to the 1940s; V. Ramalinga Pillai (1888-1972), R. P. Sethu Pillai (1896-1961), and M. P. Sivagnanam; and Brahmans like C. Rajagopalachari (1878-1972), V. V. Subramania Aiyar (1881-1925), Subramania Sivam (1884-1925), Suddhananda Bharati (1897-1990), and of course, the most paradigmatic of them all, Subramania Bharati (1882-1921). Generally from upper caste, middle-class, middle-income families—Sivagnanam is a striking exception here—they were professional journalists, lawyers, teachers, litterateurs, poets, and politicians; and in their private lives, they were reformed but devout Hindus. In contrast to Dravidianists, who imagined (away) India in very Tamil terms, these devotees framed their concern with Tamil in terms of India. India, in turn, was sometimes an abstract territorial space; at other times, it was personified, like Tamil, as the goddess and mother, Bhārata Mātā, “Mother India.” So, the opening lines of one of Subramania Bharati’s most popular poems on Tamil incorporates the phrase vande mātaram (homage to [our] mother) from the famous hymn that the Bengali Bankim Chandra Chatterjee had composed in honor of Bhārata Mātā:

Long live the glorious Tamil!
Long live the fine Tamil people!
Long live the auspicious Indian nation !
Vantē Mātaram! Vantē Mātaram!
(Bharati 1987: 50)

It is not accidental that the “mother” whom this verse reverenced is not Tamiḻttāy but Bhārata Mātā, for Indianism was driven by the terrible anxiety that tamiḻppaṟṟu would lead Tamil speakers to forget India. Thus Tamilians were chastised in a poem by Ramalinga Pillai first published in 1922:

Intiyattāy [Mother India] languishes in sorrow, and you speak of your own community!
That is disgraceful!
O Tamilian, break the chains that enslave that venerable woman…!
Long live the Tamil land!
May our Tamil language flourish, so that our Intiyattāy who supports us may find fulfillment.
(Ramalinga Pillai 1988: 29)

Negotiating gingerly between loyalty to Bhārata Mātā and devotion to Tamiḻttāy, between the shoals of pride in the nation (tēṣāpimāṉam) and pride in their language (pāṣāpimāṉam), Indianism reminded Tamil speakers that the liberation of Tamil would have to proceed in tandem with the liberation of India. In his reminiscences, the mystic-poet Suddhananda Bharati recalls how as a young man, his passions were directed as much against the emergent Dravidian movement as against the British, and how he and his young friends countered the cry of “Down with Brahman Rule” with the alternate cry of “Vantē Mātaram.” When we are enslaved to the British, what is the point of saying that we are slaves to Aryanism? he asks. “Relinquishing our home to a foreigner, siblings fight with each other over food. Meanwhile, the foreigner seizes all our food and goes away, leaving us with our squabbles” (Suddhananda Bharati 1950: 143-46). In the Indianist vision, therefore, Tamil speakers had to work together with their Indian “siblings” to throw off the shackles that fettered both Bhārata Mātā and Tamiḻttāy, instead of fighting with each other. Swayed by the impassioned rhetoric of the Dravidian movement, they ought not to forget that this was their primary goal, Sethu Pillai reminded them on the very eve of Indian independence: “In fifteen more months, we are going to rule over our own nation. India is going to belong to Indians. Similarly, is there any doubt that Tamilnadu will belong to Tamilians?…Tamiḻttāy in all her former glory and splendor will reign in our hearts” (Sethu Pillai 1968: 1-2).

Not surprisingly, Indianism launched few attacks on Brahmans, Aryanism, or Sanskrit. On the contrary, it produced sympathetic accounts of Brahman contributions to Tamil and its culture, many of whose authors were not Brahmans (Kalyanasundaranar 1935: 37-38; Ramalinga Pillai 1953: 44-48; Sivagnanam 1979: 96-101). Some of its proponents even cast aspersions on (colonial) neologisms such as “non-Brahman” and “Dravidian,” whose very legitimacy and historicity they questioned (Bharati 1988: 229, 263; Ramalinga Pillai 1947, 1953: 40-51; Sivagnanam 1979: 63-68). Further, there was always a place for Sanskrit within Indianism’s economy of sentiments about Tamil: “In Tamilnadu, Tamil ought to be preeminent. All over India, may Sanskrit flourish, as it always has. To accomplish the unification of our Indian nation, everyone should know Sanskrit. Nonetheless, in Tamilnadu, Tamil should flourish with great eminence” (Bharati 1988: 229).

Given this linguistic division of labor, some even recommended that Sanskrit should be the national language of India (Nuhman 1984: 57-59; Padmanabhan 1982a: 274-76; Rajagopalachari 1962: 51). Correspondingly, Indianist prose was also heavily Sanskritized, especially in the hands of its Brahman practitioners. This lack of hostility towards Sanskrit extended to other Indian languages as well. In the Indianist vision, India is a land where, “along with the glorious Tamil, there flourishes Sanskrit and Urdu and Persian, the unique Telugu, Kannada with its sweet words, lofty Marathi, and fine Malayalam, Gurjaram [Gujarati], Hindi, and eighteen such languages” (Venkatesvara Ayyar 1918: 3). This congenial vision, of course, was severely tested after independence with the struggle over linguistic states and the securing of borders with neighbors, as well as over the Indian state’s Hindi policy in the 1950s and 1960s, as we will see.

But in general, Indianism’s strategy was to gloss over all internal sources of contention and difference in favor of closing ranks against the real enemy, the English-speaking colonial. Tamilians were reminded, repeatedly, that it was English—rather than Sanskrit or Hindi or any other Indian language—which was responsible for the current sorry state of their beloved Tamil. Kalyanasundaram thus rebuked the Anglophiles who discarded Tamiḻttāy and worshipped Ānḳilattāy (Mother English) instead. “Their birth mother starves; the other mother is well-fed. What a sign of our times!” (Kalyanasundaranar 1935: 21). In his autobiography, Suddhananda Bharati writes that from early in his life, he had to resist pressures brought upon him by his Brahman family to study English. He asked of them, “Why should I study English in order to be a servant to someone else? I am a Tamilian. I will only study Tamil.” His resistance to English was fostered partly in response to an environment in which he saw so many young men mortgage their family homes and property to chase after an English education, only to wander around jobless afterwards. What did they acquire, he asks, “by giving up their mother and running after the other woman?” All they can say proudly is “ ‘I do not know the Gītā, but I do know Gibbon.…’ Is Tamil not enough for the Tamilian?” (Suddhananda Bharati 1950: 54-69; see also Bharati 1988: 180-85).

The Indianist dilemma is quite apparent in Suddhananda Bharati’s story, however. He tells us that his youthful resistance to English soon gave way to an appreciation for its necessity for Tamilians if they wanted to be citizens of the world (Suddhananda Bharati 1950: 94). Indeed, he soon became “infatuated with English” he often gave public lectures in it, and even taught English to schoolchildren. Even the most anti-English of devotees was aware that English was necessary not just for learning the ways of the West, but also for communicating with other Indians until a suitable national language had been selected. As that latter project ran aground on the reefs of “Hindi imperialism,” many devotees who in their early years wrote passionately against English, like Kalyanasundaram and Rajagopalachari, became its advocates, albeit reluctantly, from the 1940s.

In attempting to persuade Tamil speakers that “India” or its languages would not harm Tamil, Indianism came to rely heavily on the emotive metaphor of the mother. Consider the following statement:

The sons of Bhārata Mātā speak several languages.…Our Indian sons adorn their Intiyattāy [Bhārata Mātā] with these languages. In adorning her thus, is their unity harmed or affected? Those who say that the existence of so many languages is harmful speak from ignorance. Born from the womb of India, these brothers may speak various languages but are united by the same spirit of love and devotion for their nation.…Therefore, the existence of so many languages in the nation is a sign of excellence.

The Indianist logic was the logic of the family, itself reconstituted as the foundational site of unity, cooperation, and harmony. Could siblings, born from the same mother’s womb and reared on her milk, harm each other? So Ramalinga Pillai reminded his fellow speakers that they should not forget: “However many languages there are in the Indian nation, for several thousands of years, the Indian people have been drinking the same mother’s milk, and are members of the same culture” (Ramalinga Pillai 1953: 53).

Indianism, of course, presented Tamil speakers with two mothers, Tamiḻttāy and Bhārata Mātā. It was not a choice between one or the other, as Dravidianism would have it. Instead, in the Indianist imagination, while Tamiḻttāy’s womb and milk unites all Tamil speakers as Tamilians, the womb and milk of Bhārata Mātā transfigures them into Indians, and ties them with other Indians in webs of sibling solidarity. It is through sharing Bhārata Mātā’s womb and milk that Tamilians, the children of Tamiḻttāy, symbolically become part of the Indian body politic.

It is also the logic of the family and of motherhood that generated that very crucial notion that Indianism (and Dravidianism) popularized among Tamil speakers: namely, that Tamil is their tāymoḻi, “mother tongue,” the language of their home and mother. Part of the challenge that Indianism faced, of course, was to reconcile Tamil’s homely status as “mother tongue” with neo-Shaivite attempts to promote its divinity, and classicist efforts to secure its classicality, a task that was not all that easy.

Indianism and Divine Tamil

Like neo-Shaivism, but unlike classicism or Dravidianism, the Indianist regime was willing to accept that Tamil is a divine language (Bharati 1988: 117; Ramalinga Pillai 1953: 13-18). Unlike neo-Shaivism, however, this did not lead it to question the legitimacy of Sanskrit and of Aryan Brahmanical Hinduism. Consider how Tamiḻttāy introduced herself in one of Bharati’s poems published in 1919:

The primordial Shiva gave birth to me;
The Aryan son Agastya saw me and took delight;
That Brahman endowed me with a grammar, complete and perfect.
(Bharati 1987: 529)

All the same, even if Indianism thus upheld Tamil’s divinity, it did not make this into a fundamental part of its own agenda, as did neo-Shaivism. For there was concern that dwelling on Tamil’s divinity would hinder its transformation into a modern language of governance, education, public communication, and politics. As early as 1892, one of its devotees—T. Saravana Mutthu, librarian of the Presidency College, Madras—demanded, “How does it benefit Tamil if we vehemently insist that God created Tamil?” (1892: 3-4). The educationist P. Sivaswami Aiyar similarly suggested in 1917 that “instead of relying on the belief that Tamil was a divine gift and that its vocabulary was copious and its diction rich and self-contained, serious attempts should be made to incorporate into Tamil, from other languages, if necessary, terms that were easy to understand” (Irschick 1969: 304). Recognizing the growing skepticism among many about Tamil’s abilities to communicate the modern sciences of the West, Bharati’s Tamiḻttāy observed to her “children” in 1919:

“Tamil will die a slow death
The languages of the West will triumph in this world.”
So says the simpleton;
Alas! what an accusation!
Go forth in all eight directions!
Bring back here the wealth of all learning!
By the grace of my father, and the penance of our learned scholars, this great taint will be effaced,
With lofty fame I shall last forever in this world!
(Bharati 1987: 531)

It is perhaps not surprising that Bharati saw the task of modernizing and scientizing Tamil as a joint enterprise, made possible through Shiva’s grace and human scholarship, for as he insisted elsewhere, Tamil’s divine origin was not just fantasy but historically attestable (Bharati 1988: 117). Like Bharati, Indianism was ultimately ambivalent about Tamil’s divinity, an ambivalence that is also reflected in its attitude towards religion. As did so many “secular” nationalists in colonial and post-colonial India, devotees of Indianist persuasion upheld the inherent equality of all Indian religions. All the same, Hinduism in particular—in its reformed new “universalist” version which condemned caste hierarchies and irrational rituals, and recommended an action oriented practice of spiritual truths—received special attention. For Bharati, as indeed for others like him, Hinduism was the best religion of the world and Tamil speakers its most eminent practitioners. Correspondingly, a true devotee of Tamil was not exclusively Shaivite (as in neo-Shaivism), nor polemically atheistic (as in Dravidianism), but clearly and proudly a “Hindu.” As Bharati insisted in 1917:

A man who has pride in Tamil (tamiḻapimāṉam) is one who embraces Hinduism (hintu tarmam). That alone will illuminate the path of the devotee of Tamil. For the man who does not care for the Tēvāram, the Tiruvācakam, the Tiruvāymoḻi, the Tirukkuṟaḷ, and the Kamparāmāyaṇam has no claim to be a devotee of Tamil. One who knows these texts will realize that it is through Hinduism that this world will find salvation.

Thus in contradistinction to radical neo-Shaivism, which adopted an oppositional stance towards Sanskritic Aryan Hinduism in the name of a “Dravidian” Shaivism, Indianism linked the cause of Tamil to an inclusivistic neo-Hinduism (Halbfass 1988: 403-18; Ramalinga Pillai 1953: 39). Indeed, to counter Christian missionary influence in schools (and later, the Dravidian movement’s atheism), Indianism advocated a thorough grounding in Tamil and Sanskritic scriptures for Tamil children as part of its “national education” (tēciya kalvi) scheme.

All the same, such an embrace of religiosity brought its own share of problems for Tamil’s devotees, as it did for others in modern India. Indianism did celebrate the existence of diverse religious beliefs among Tamil speakers, although it employed a distinctly Hindu idiom in such a celebration (Bharati 1937: 35-36; Ramalinga Pillai 1988: 28-29). Nonetheless, there was also considerable anxiety that such a diversity itself could, and did, give rise to sectarian divisiveness and tensions. Not surprisingly, in these circumstances, Indianism placed its hopes in Tamil as the bond which would tie together all Tamil speakers, be they Hindu, Muslim, or Christian. In a public speech that he gave in 1928, Kalyanasundaram pointed out: “If we wish to bind the people born in this [Tamil] nation in the net of unity, there is only one instrument, and that is the Tamil language.…We may be attached to different religions, but we cannot forget we are all Tamilians” (Kalyanasundaranar 1935: 25-26).

Kalyanasundaram was able to say this with confidence because he and his fellow devout were simultaneously creators as well as subjects of the founding certitude of tamiḻppaṟṟu: in contrast to caste and religion, which divided one Tamil speaker from another, their language, especially in its incarnation as “mother tongue” and as Tamiḻttāy, bonded them together in the “net of unity,” as firmly and surely as the love of their mother(s).

Indianism and Classical Tamil

In the same manner that it affirmed Tamil’s divinity, Indianism also confirmed its classicality, especially because the burgeoning classicist scholarship was so convincingly demonstrating to Tamil speakers that while their “mother tongue” might not yet be “scientific,” it was certainly more ancient and venerable than English or any other European language being paraded around as a paragon of modernity. So Bharati (1937: 62) declared in 1919 that he had read and appreciated “the exquisite beauties” of Shelley, Victor Hugo, and Goethe, but no “modern vernacular of Europe can boast of works like the Kural of Valluvar, the Ramayana of Kamban and the Silappadhikaram (Anklet Epic) of Ilango.”

Like the other regimes of tamiḻppaṟṟu, the Indianist, too, represented the age of the Canḳams as free of sectarian strife and caste oppression, when the philosophy of “all towns are our towns, and all men are our kinsmen” had reigned (Kalyanasundaranar 1935: 28-36; Ramalinga Pillai 1953: 57-59). Its concern with these poems as with other works of Tamil literature, however, was not so much antiquarian as it was utilitarian. The hope was that these would help modern Tamil speakers liberate themselves from their enchantment with English. If they were exposed to the greatness of their past through the medium of their own language, they would truly appreciate the value of Ilango and Kamban, instead of lauding Shakespeare and Tennyson (Bharati 1937: 62; C. S. Subramaniam 1986: 252-60; Kalyanasundaranar 1919: 122-26). Accordingly, many of Tamil’s Indianist devotees, like Subramania Aiyar, Chidambaram Pillai, and Sivagnanam, undertook the publication of accessible (and in many instances Sanskritized) interpretations of ancient Tamil works, which were also popularized through literary conferences, street plays, and movies (Sivagnanam 1970: 97-104, 109-15).

While there was a general consensus that it was important to stress Tamil’s classicality so as to bolster the pride and self-respect of its speakers today, there was also concern that an excessive emphasis could detract from the equally urgent task of transforming it into a modern language of rule, education, and everyday communication. And this utilitarian thrust to the Indianist project led it to rebuke, even denigrate, “panditic” and scholarly Tamilians who, it was claimed, resisted efforts to help change Tamil into a useful contemporary language, in their single-minded pursuit of its classicality (Bharati 1987: 527-28; Nuhman 1984: 16-33; C. S. Subramaniam 1986: 264-65). For Indianism, a true Tamil devotee was one who made Tamil suitable for school textbooks, and one who would ensure that it was the language used by its speakers in their assemblies and associations. “The Tamil devotee (tamiḻapimāṉi) is one who produces new knowledges, new literatures, and new life in Tamil,” in Bharati’s words (Thooran 1986: 256-57). The absence of modern, scientific literatures in Indian languages, devotees like Bharati insisted, perpetuated Indian enslavement to English through dependence on the Western mastery of the sciences. The aim therefore was to learn as much as possible from English, in order to displace it from its throne and replace it with Tamil, suitably modernized and scientized. Their faith in the inherent greatness of Tamil notwithstanding, many of its devotees wondered about its ability to communicate modern, scientific thought. From the turn of this century, these enthusiasts had to face Anglophile critics who claimed that “wallowing in sentimentalism,” supporters of Tamil were sacrificing the youth of the country to their “superstitious beliefs in the vernaculars.”[10] A contributor to the Educational Review in 1916 insisted, “The fact is that our vernaculars are in a most crude state so far as scientific exposition is concerned. It is no answer to say that we have very good poetry and some grandiloquent prose, in the vernaculars. A language that is well-equipped for poetic expression is not necessarily so for a scientific thesis. Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti may well feel handicapped if they were set to translate a modern elementary textbook of science” (quoted in Irschick 1969: 304-5). The challenge therefore lay in scientizing Tamil, in transforming it from a language of great poetry and piety into one of modern science and technology.

A similar challenge was faced by language reformers and modernizers in other parts of the subcontinent, as indeed in other regions of the world (Fishman, Ferguson, and Dasgupta 1968). But in Tamil India, those committed to the creation of scientific vocabularies had to contend not only with all the problems of colonial modernity (such as borrowing from the West without sacrificing pride in the indigenous, embracing the secular without surrendering the religious, and so on), but also with the many languages that rivalled for attention as the reservoir from which to draw for “improving” Tamil—English, Sanskrit, and classical Tamil being the principal contenders. By the 1930s, devotees of Indianist persuasion came to clash with others on this matter because in their logic, Sanskrit was the one language that had the power to displace English, a contention that gave rise to considerable ire, as we can imagine.

This was not the only problem that Indianist devotees faced, for they also sought to ensure that in the process of modernizing and scientizing Tamil, they authorized a language that could easily be used by “the people,” its principal consumers. Indianism’s clarion call, as captured in Bharati’s exhortation “to write as one speaks,” meant that the Tamil used in textbooks, newspapers, and political speeches ought to be understood, in the words of V. Ramaswamy (1889-1951), by the rickshaw puller on the street. So Bharati’s preface to his famous 1912 poem Pāņcāli Capatam (The vow of Panchali), insisted: “Simple words, a clear style, easy rhythms that can be readily comprehended, and simple tunes that the common folk will appreciate—he who composes a poem along these lines today will be breathing new life into our mother tongue” (quoted in Nuhman 1984: 92). Yet the modern Tamil authorized by Indianism in the name of “the common folk” continued to be Sanskritic in its lexicon, betraying both the upper-caste and upper-class prejudices of its practitioners, as we will see.

Indianism and the “Mother Tongue”

In all these struggles—to counter the excessive influence of Tamil’s divinity and classicality, to wean Tamil speakers away from their infatuation with English, to create new vocabularies for use in scientific education and modern government, to fashion a language that would be understood by “the common folk”—Indianism relied extensively on Tamil’s status as “mother tongue.” In the Indianist regime, as indeed in Dravidianism, the speaker’s relationship to Tamil is cast in the intimate and familiar terms of a child’s interactions with its mother, rather than with some distant abstraction called “the classical tongue” or “the divine language.” Early in this century, Bharati (1937: 29) observed that “nations are made of homes.” For both these regimes, however, the nation is not merely made of homes; symbolically and discursively, it is home, a domain of selfless love and sibling solidarity, a realm of nonpolitics (Chatterjee 1989).

The language of the home acquired potency and validity for Indianism, precisely because it was imagined to be not the language of the colonized, Anglicized, public sphere. Untarnished by the West, it was the language of every Tamil speaker’s heart, mind, and true self, and hence the means through which anticolonial resistance could be launched. The home, however, was also the abode of the mother, imagined as the true bearer of all that was noble and spiritual about Tamil (and Indian) culture. Just as crucially, the mother was also the vehicle through whom Tamil, the “mother tongue,” would continue to be reproduced, even as in the outer, material world, away from the home, Tamil speakers, especially their menfolk, would perforce have to employ English. Not surprisingly, there was much agony among the devout over the alarming escalation in the use of English by women and girls, especially within the intimate and hitherto uncolonized space of the home. Why are we surprised, they asked, that there is no respect for Tamil when “even our women in their kitchens rejoice that they speak English” (Vasudeva Sharma 1928: 18)? An editorial in the nationalist daily Cutēcamittiraṉ (23 August 1917) similarly lamented that if this alarming trend were to continue, “we will be spoiled in every way.”[11]

Although the construct of “mother tongue” frequently erupted in neo-Shaiva and classicist discourses, generating paradoxical formations such as “our divine mother tongue” or “our classical mother tongue,” it was with Indianism from the turn of the century that the term assumed both popularity and political saliency. English, it was argued, would only turn Tamil speakers (and other Indians) into clerks and accountants; their “mother tongue,” however, would transform them into patriots and citizens. As Kalyanasundaram declared in 1924, “The nation in which the mother tongue does not flourish will never achieve freedom.…The first step towards freedom is respect for the mother tongue” (Kalyanasundaranar 1935: 21).

Indianism was particularly concerned that such a “respect” for Indian languages was being denied by the colonial state’s classification of these as “vernaculars”—“the language of the slaves.” Thus S. Satyamurthy, a leading spokesman for the Congress Party, declared to the Madras Legislative Council in November 1928: “Vernacular means the tongue of slaves. I do not think we ought to insult our languages by calling them ‘vernaculars’ or tongues of slaves. Of course, the answer of the Englishman would be, ‘My vernacular is English.’ But he never uses the word ‘vernacular’ in connection with his mother tongue.”[12]

Therefore, where classicism protested the categorization of Tamil as a “vernacular” by seeking recognition for its classicality, Indianism did so by insisting on its status as tāymoḻi (mother tongue)—as the language of the people, of their homes, and of their mothers. Consider the following statement from an essay entitled “Tāymoḻi,” written by Kalyanasundaram, that appeared in his Navacakti in 1924:

Every man reveres the woman who gives birth to him, the nation (nāṭu) where he was born, and the language he speaks, by referring to these as his “mother.” As much as the love he has for the mother who carried him, ought to be his love for the nation that delivers him, and the language that rears him. A man who does not revere his nation and his language is like the sinner who does not reverence his own mother. Indeed, the language that one speaks is the very wellspring of the love for one’s mother, and of devotion to one’s motherland. A man who is not devoted to the mother tongue he speaks is a man who has reviled his own mother and his own nation.

So endemic does the identification of language with motherhood become with Indianist discourse that even when Tamiḻttāy herself was not specifically invoked, Tamil and mothers came to be spoken of in identical terms. In his memoirs Sivagnanam, an autodidact who remembers learning much of his Tamil at his mother’s knee in her kitchen, writes, “As far as I am concerned, when I say Tamil is my ‘mother tongue,’ it is not rhetorical. It is really true. My knowledge of Tamil is my mother’s gift. For that reason, Tamil is my mother tongue” (Sivagnanam 1974: 868). For its devotees, there was nothing more natural than referring to their language as “mother tongue” because it was literally something they acquired from their mothers. It was, as Sivagnanam reminds us, their mothers’ gift.

Indianism and Hindi

From early in the century, in the Madras Presidency as in other parts of the subcontinent, there were many who were concerned with the problem of developing a national language so as to overcome the dependence on English for interregional communication. Hindi was an early favorite candidate among many Tamil speakers, as it was in its own “home” in northern India (Dasgupta 1970). In 1906, in an article he published in Intiyā, Bharati endorsed the view that since Hindi was already spoken by eighty out of India’s three hundred million, Tamil speakers, too, should embrace it. Yet, he lamented, no steps had been taken to promote it in the South (C. S. Subramaniam 1986: 443-44). Soon after, in a 1908 letter to the nationalist Tilak, Bharati wrote that he and his friends had started a small Hindi class in Madras city (Padmanabhan 1982: 48-49; see also Nuhman 1984: 55-61). In subsequent decades, other devotees of the Indianist persuasion backed the cause of Hindi and countered Dravidianism’s demonization of the language by reminding their fellow speakers that supporting it did not necessarily amount to the “murder” of their mother, Tamil (Kalyanasundaranar 1935: 21; Sivagnanam 1974: 136-41). Convinced that the regional Congress Party was dedicated to the twin causes of promoting Tamil at the regional level and Hindi at the national level, devotees inclined to Indianism supported that party.

Yet the promotion of Hindi as key to national unity and integration posed many dilemmas for Indianism, caught as it was between devotion to “Tamil” and “India.” Over the years and especially in the decade following independence, many an Indianist became increasingly suspicious of the Congress Party’s aggressive Hindi policy, which was perceived as endangering Tamil, as Dravidianists had long maintained (Sivagnanam 1974: 138-41, 416-18, 505-7). They came to appreciate the realities of functioning in a multilingual polity in which, contrary to their conviction that all languages are equal “children” of Bhārata Mātā, one of them would be the privileged “imperial state language.” Ramalinga Pillai captured their conflicting sentiments when he wrote that Tamil speakers were famed the world over for inviting other languages into their home and honoring these. However, he asked, to what extent should they let their own language and culture suffer in this process (Thaninayagam 1963: 12)? What would happen to Tamil and its glorious literature, others demanded, if state funds were redirected towards the support of Hindi? For, as Somasundara Bharati, professor of Tamil and a Congress supporter in his early years, insisted, “clothed with prestige and privileges peculiar to an imperial state language, Hindi is sure to become a dangerous rival to Tamil.” Not surprisingly, he wondered if an old “evil,” English, was being replaced by a new one, and whether Tamil would continue to suffer in this process (Somasundara Bharati 1937: 17).

Although opposed to compulsory Hindi education, many Indianist devotees like Kalyanasundaram and Sivagnanam continued to extend their allegiance to the Congress’s policies into the 1940s, in reaction to the powerful anti-Hindi and anti-India demonology of Dravidianism, and in the face of the Dravidian movement’s growing demand for retaining English as the common language. As colonial rule gave way to Congress rule, however, they became convinced that the cause of Tamil would be compromised by the larger cause of the (Hindi-dominated) Indian nation and its needs. Not surprisingly, by the late 1940s, Kalyanasundaram joined forces with the Dravidian movement to oppose Hindi (Kalyanasundaranar 1949). Similarly, in 1946, Sivagnanam formed an interest group called the Tamiḻ Aracu Kaḻakam, “Association for Tamil Autonomy” (henceforth Tamil Arasu Kazhagam), whose main agenda was to put pressure on the Congress to promote the increased use of Tamil in administration and education, to work towards the creation of an autonomous Tamil state out of a composite Madras Presidency, and to ease up on its pro-Hindi policy. As Sivagnanam wrote in April 1947 on the eve of Indian independence, “The Tamilian is prepared to be Indian. However, he is first and foremost a Tamilian. Only secondarily is he Indian” (Sivagnanam 1981: 105). By 1954, his organization was forced to part ways with the Congress, and in 1967, Sivagnanam even entered into an electoral alliance with the Dravidian movement—the same movement against which through much of the 1950s he had conducted so many campaigns (Sivagnanam 1974: 368-69, 535-55). Most indicative perhaps of Indianism’s radical transformation through its dealings with the Hindi question is C. Rajagopalachari’s changing stance. The chief promoter of Hindi who made its study mandatory in the late 1930s in the Madras Presidency, he began to insist “English ever, Hindi never” from the late 1950s, and even made electoral deals with his Dravidianist rivals by the 1960s (Rajagopalachari 1962).

The Congress and Indianized Tamil

In 1967, the Congress, the party that prided itself on delivering India from colonialism and that had ruled Madras for the two decades since independence, suffered a stunning defeat at the polls and has never returned to power in the state since. For many a Tamil devotee, the Congress’s defeat was its just deserts, for had it not shown, over the years, that it was the enemy of Tamil and Tamiḻttāy?[13] Supporters of the Congress have tried to counter such a charge. It was the Congress, more than the non-Brahman elite’s Justice Party, that used Tamil from early in this century in party work and popular mobilization. It was under Congress rule that Tamil was extended as medium of instruction in high schools in 1938, and university education in 1960-61.[14] The Congress government also set up, in 1959, the Tamil Development and Research Council entrusted with producing Tamil school and college textbooks in the natural and human sciences, accounting, mathematics, and so on. It also helped finance a series of children’s encyclopedias in Tamil, “lucid commentaries” on Canḳam poetry, and an “authentic history of the Tamil people” in 1962-63.[15] And finally, in 1956, it was the Congress that passed the law instituting Tamil as the official language of the state (Karthikeyan 1965-66; C. Subramaniam 1962). Yet, as its critics have been quick to point out, few of these measures seemed to have made any difference to life in the Tamil-speaking land. So, Mohan Kumaramangalam wrote in 1965:

In practice, the ordinary man finds that the Tamil language is nowhere in the picture.…In Madras city, English dominates our life to an extraordinary extent.…Corporation property tax, electric consumption and water tax bills are only in the English language; all communications of the Collector are in English; in virtually all trade, including the smallest consumer goods, bills, receipts, etc. are made out in the English language. I think it will be no exaggeration to say that a person can live for years in Madras without learning a word of Tamil, except for some servant inconvenience!

As many of its supporters rightly point out, the Congress government’s record on tamiḻppaṇi, “service to Tamil,” is not as terrible or as bleak as its critics portray it. Nevertheless, it pursued Tamil policies that were largely Indianist in complexion at a time when the growing Dravidianist discourse was very persuasively pointing to “India” as the source of many of the Tamil speaker’s problems, and at a time when even Indianists within the devotional community were turning away from the Congress. Its Indianist predilections meant that the “improvement” of Tamil under Congress rule proceeded side by side with at least tacit support for the Indian state’s Hindi policy. The Congress also resisted a number of devotional demands out of fear that these would open the “Pandora’s box” of linguistic “balkanization”: the renaming of Madras state as “Tamilnadu,” the authorization of Tamil as primary liturgical language in temples, the use of pure Tamil instead of Sanskritized Tamil in school textbooks and administrative manuals, and so on. Above all, Congress policies, like orthodox Indianism’s, were premised on the fundamental assumption that “Tamil” and “India” were intertwined, an assumption that it felt compelled to uphold if only to counter the separatist agenda of the Dravidian movement. It would be sacrilegious to think exclusively of Tamil as deserving the absolute allegiance of all its speakers. Thus the Congress, and even the Indianist regime, were never animated by the spirit of total and unconditional celebration of Tamil that characterized Dravidianism’s attitude towards the language.[16] In the words of one devotee of Tamil whose own sentiments were contestatory classicist and Dravidianist, “None of the Congress Ministers of Tamil Nad was either a Tamil scholar or a Tamil lover. The Congress leaders of Tamil Nad as betrayers of Tamil, cannot represent the State any more. Blind cannot lead the blind, much less the keen sighted” (Devaneyan 1967: 25). In 1967, the Tamil electorate came to the same conclusion.

Language of the Nation: Dravidianizing Tamil

And so, finally, I turn to the Dravidianist regime that crystallized in the 1930s, gained momentum through the 1940s and 1950s, and peaked in the mid-1960s. Its primary terrain of activity was a series of anti-Hindi protests which dramatically drew together diverse elements of the devotional community in opposition to the regional and central governments that sponsored Hindi, itself-caricatured as an evil and demonic force out to destroy pure and sweet Tamil (and its speakers). Contemporaries and participants alike marvelled that the common cause against Hindi threw together religious revivalists like Maraimalai Adigal with such avowed atheists as Ramasami; Gandhians like Kalyanasundaram with men like Annadurai who preached secession from India; university professors and elite antiquarians, such as Somasundara Bharati and Purnalingam Pillai, with populist street poets, pamphleteers, college students, and young men like Chinnasami who immolated themselves. Indeed, the poet Bharatidasan, the paradigmatic Dravidianist, had himself been a self-declared devotee of “India” up until the 1920s, and had published some passionate poems on Bhārata Mātā before his conversion to Dravidianism and anti-Hindi politics by the 1930s (Ilango 1982; Ilavarasu 1990). Other events of these decades—the creation of linguistic states out of the erstwhile Madras Presidency, the securing of appropriate borders with neighboring states, the struggle to rename Madras state Tamilnadu—also compelled devotees otherwise inclined, such as Sivagnanam, to turn to Dravidianism. Dravidianism is thus the crisis idiom of tamiḻppaṟṟu, the regime par excellence for mobilizing—albeit temporarily and sometimes reluctantly—diverse, even opposing, devotees under one umbrella, around events that were deemed to be threatening to the future of Tamil and Tamiḻttāy.

The most passionate and radical of all the regimes, Dravidianism routinely elicited from its adherents declarations of willingness to give up their wealth, their lives, and their souls for Tamil. It also produced some antagonistic, even violent, attitudes towards other languages and their speakers, as for instance in the following verse published by Bharatidasan, which is fairly typical: “Our first task is to finish off those who destroy [our] glorious Tamil! / Let flow a river of crimson blood!”[17] Its emphasis on fierce, public displays of devotion meant that images of battlefields, of blood, and of death proliferate in Dravidianist discourse. True Tamilians are those—like Chinnasami—who show their commitment to their mother/tongue by putting their very bodies on the line, and dying for it, if need be.

More so than the other devotional regimes, Dravidianism’s driving imperative was a vision of the Tamil community as an autonomous racial and political entity (iṉam), even nation (nāṭu), whose sacral center is occupied solely by Tamil, from which all its members claim shared descent. So, where neo-Shaivism constituted Tamilian solidarity around the shared worship of Shiva and divine Tamil, and classicism emphasized a common ancient, literary past, Dravidianism focused on descent and kinship. Tropes of motherhood, siblingship, shared blood, the home, and the like mark its discursive style, as they do Indianism’s. The significant difference between the two, of course, is that Dravidianism made a commitment to only one entity—namely, Tamil. As Tamiḻttāy herself insisted, sometime in the early 1960s: “Do not forget that you are all children who emerged from my womb. I am your mother. The learned call me Tamiḻttāy. You are called Tamilians (tamiḻar). You and I have been inextricably bound together for ever and ever through language. That language is what the good scholars call Tamil.…If we look closely, we have a home. That its name is Tamilnadu gives [me] great happiness” (Pancanathan n.d.: 9).

In this statement as elsewhere in Dravidianism, descent is reckoned solely from Tamil, which is not merely one among a “family” of languages in a putative Indian nation, as it is in Indianism, but is the language of the nation, imagined variously as “Tamilian” or “Dravidian.” No doubt, by the 1970s Dravidianism became more accommodating on the question of India. But the fundamental imperative of this regime continued to be the establishment of the absolute rule of Tamil through the complete Tamilization of the political apparatus and its accompanying ideology, in a territorial space designated as Tamil or Dravidian, which at least into the early 1960s was seen as independent of, and indeed in opposition to, “India.”

The political philosophy of Dravidianism was provided by a broad swathe of ideas associated with “the Dravidian movement” (tirāviṭa iyakkam). This movement made its impact on the Dravidianist regime when the elitist “non-Brahman” associational politics of the Vellala dominated Justice Party (1916/17-44) was supplemented by the populist call for radical social reform by E. V. Ramasami and his Self-Respect League (founded in 1926) and the Tirāviṭar Kaḻakam, “Association of Dravidians” (the DK, established in 1944). Although many Self-Respecters were concerned with Tamil (e.g., Velu and Selvaraji 1989), Ramasami himself was extremely critical of tamiḻppaṟṟu, especially of its valorization of the divinity, antiquity, and motherhood of Tamil. This did not stop Dravidianism from lionizing him and selectively appropriating his ideas of rationalist materialism, iconoclastic atheism, radical anti-Brahmanism, and Dravidian nationalism, for he provided the most polemical and sustained attacks on Indian nationalism, which this regime found useful. Ramasami’s obvious dilemma was that Tamil devotion threatened his vision of a Dravidian nation that would incorporate all “Dravidians” of southern India, and not just Tamil speakers. Such a vision had to contend with the resistance of those putative “Dravidians” who were speakers of Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam. In addition, it was compromised by Tamil speakers who did not necessarily want to participate in a multilingual polity, even if it was “Dravidian.” And indeed, as the Dravidian movement itself split, when Annadurai parted company with Ramasami and his DK in 1949 to found his own party, the Tirāviṭa Muṉṉēṟṟak Kaḻakam or “Dravidian Progress Association” (DMK), the inherent tensions between the alternate conceptions of the “Dravidian” and “Tamil” nation came to the fore. By the late 1950s, as the DMK entered the domain of electoral politics, its agenda was primarily formulated in terms of a Tamil nation (albeit one often referred to as “Dravidian”), confined to the territorial space of a Tamilspeaking area, rather than coeval with the more ambitious nation that Ramasami envisaged comprising the speakers of all Dravidian languages.

Like the Dravidian movement, Dravidianism, too, had to contend with the tensions between an exclusive Tamil-speaking nation and a more inclusive Dravidian nation. It adopted various strategies to deal with this, such as suggestions that “Tamil” and “Dravidian” are the same; that since Tamil is the “mother” of all Dravidian languages, the latter are merely extensions of the former; and so on. So, like the other regimes, Dravidianism had its share of contradictions. Notwithstanding these, as a consequence of its discourse, Tamil comes to be firmly “Dravidianized,” even as the “Dravidian” category, which had been gaining political and cultural visibility in the region since the 1880s, was unequivocally associated with Tamil.

In contrast to neo-Shaivism and classicism, Dravidianism advocated political radicalism and activism as the means to achieve the reign of Tamil: “We have talked enough.…[W]hen are you going to show your sacrifice to [Tamiḻttāy]? We are waiting every moment for the honor of being arrested.”[18] Under the influence of Dravidianism, tamiḻppaṟṟu took to the streets, sometimes quite violently. Petition politics gave way to protest politics, increasingly radical and populist. Antiquarian and elite notions about Tamil and Tamiḻttāy, hitherto confined to learned academies and scholastic journals, came to be invoked in street songs, polemical plays, and political speeches at populist anti-Hindi rallies; they were circulated in daily newspapers and street pamphlets, and plastered across billboards and wall posters. Dravidianism typically catered, like the Dravidian movement itself, to the Everyman, generically designated in its texts as tamiḻaṉ, “Tamilian” (Barnett 1976: 114-15). It attracted its following from devotees who were predominantly from middle and lower castes, and from middle or low-income families with limited or no formal education, like Chinnasami and his fellow self-immolators. At the same time, the DMK’s support of literature and language also attracted numerous well-educated Tamil scholars and academics to Dravidianism. In turn, many DMK leaders have been devotees of Tamil. They have assumed titles—aṟiņar (scholar) Annadurai, kalaiņar (the artist) Karunanidhi, nāvalar (the eloquent) Nedunceliyan—which display both their scholarly aspirations and the close links between populist ideology and high literature in the political culture of the region (Barnett 1976: 56-86). Dravidianism’s paradigmatic exponents were undoubtedly well-known poets and politicians like Bharatidasan, Annadurai, “Pulavar” Kulanthai (1906-72), Perunchitran (1920-95), Mudiyarasan (b. 1920), Karunanidhi, and the early Kannadasan (1927-81). But encouraged by the Dravidian movement’s populism and by Dravidianism’s assertion that Tamil belonged to “the people,” the Everyman, who remained anonymous or relatively unknown, took to writing and publishing poems, short stories, and essays on the language and on Tamiḻttāy. Of all the regimes of tamiḻppaṟṟu, Dravidianism was thus the one that was truly populist, in spirit as well as constituency.

Dravidianism’s fundamental agenda, of course, was to establish the absolute preeminence of Tamil in all spheres of life and being, and to ensure that devotion to the language (and its community) was not diluted by any other passions—for the Indian nation, for the gods of the Hindu pantheon, or even for the families and mothers of individual devotees. For Tamil is everything; it is the life (uyir), breath (āvi), and consciousness (uṇarvu) of every true Tamilian. In its purest form, there were no divided commitments in Dravidianism, no subordination of Tamil to Shiva, to literature and learning, or to India. Tamil was not a means through which to construct something else, be it an alternate religious or civilizational formation, or allegiance to India. In and of itself, it ought to be the very center of everything in the devoted Tamil speaker’s life. Without it, there is nothing. So Bharatidasan wrote in a poem suggestively entitled “Living for Tamil Is the Only Life”:

O Tamil! Homage to you!
Your well-being is ours as well.
Your victories are ours as well.
We may as well be dead if we live for ourselves.
Living for Tamil is the only life![19]

For the Dravidianist devotee, Tamil was so much a part of the Tamilian’s very essence that it would be impossible to separate the language from its speaker. So Bharatidasan insisted:

We can turn mountains into pits;
We can dry up the ocean bed;
We can fly speedily through the skies.
We can even bring the dying back to life.
The Tamilian cannot be separated from Tamil
Even for a moment, by anyone.[20]

This conviction, that Tamil and its speaker devotee had so blended into each other that it would be impossible to separate them, is echoed in other poems as well. Consider this verse by Kannadasan addressed to Tamiḻttāy:

Would I ever forget you? Would I cease to sing about you?
Even if they set me on fire,
In the burning flames of the fire,
The world will see only you, O dear mother of mine!
(Kannadasan 1968: 89)
Elsewhere, in 1954, in lines that eerily anticipate Chinnasami’s immolation a decade later, the poet wrote, “even in death, Tamil should be on our lips. Our ashes should burn with the fragrance of Tamil. This is our undying desire” (Kannappan 1995: 22).

Given such sentiments, Dravidianism was particularly concerned with all alternate objects of passion that might draw its speakers away from Tamil, such as “India,” their gods, and their families. It therefore focused as much energy to convince Tamil speakers of the illegitimacy of these other entities as to emphasize that it is Tamil that sustains their life and consciousness.

Dravidianism and India

While Indianism emphatically asserted that the liberation of Bhārata Mātā and Tamiḻttāy would have to proceed in tandem, Dravidianism, particularly in its early years, and most especially as expressed by its more radical exponents, saw in the very establishment of the Indian nation the downfall of Tamil. A poem that was published in the Tirāviṭaṉ on 31 August 1947, a fortnight after India was officially liberated from colonial rule, declared: “The foreign Bhārata Mātā (aṉṉiyap pāratattāy) has attained glory. / Our own dear Tamiḻttāy has been greatly disgraced.”

Dravidianism, at its peak, portrayed the newly emergent Indian nation as an imperialist formation, as a tool in the hands of Brahmans and Banias (North Indian merchants), and as an instrument with which the material interests of Dravidians would continue to be subordinated to Aryan Indians (Annadurai 1974: 39-48, 1985: 22-23; Pancanathan n.d.; M. S. Ramasami 1947: 5-6, 19-20). Consider the following verse from a 1947 pamphlet revealingly entitled Songs of Separation for the Dravidian Nation:

The Brahmans and Banias have united;
We are all children of Bhārata Mātā, they lie to us[.]
Our own Tirāviṭattāy [Mother Dravida] is our mother;
Bhārata Mātā who belongs to the duplicitous, is a deceitful mother;
If the Dravidians realize this, they will have no trouble.
If we let down our guard, the Northerners will loot and plunder .
(M. S. Ramasami 1947: 14)

Indianism, we have seen, offered Bhārata Mātā to Tamil speakers as a mother who would reproduce them as “Indians.” In the logic of Dravidianism, however, she was clearly a false mother who sought to lure gullible Tamilians away from their true mother with promises of milk, nourishment, and even jobs. So, in 1958, Bharatidasan, who in his early years had waxed passionately on Bhārata Mātā and even declared her his true mother, published a poem in which he ridiculed the Tamilian who is confused about his “real” mother. The poem is addressed to Tamiḻttāy:

“O glorious Tamilian! What is the name of your nation?”
When I ask thus, he sheepishly says “India,” O mother!
How will this child ever improve if he confuses the evergreen
Tamil nation with India, O mother!
Will he ever change, the one who does not recognize his mother as mother, and declares the evil that destroys his motherland as mother, O mother!
Sitting in [his] mother’s lap and nursing on the breast milk of Tamil, how can this child not know [his] mother’s name, O mother!
Tamil is [his] mother tongue, and Tamilnadu is his motherland.
Does not the Tamilian realize this?[21]

So, while Indianism sought to naturalize “India” by presenting it in the familiar terms of the home and the mother, the Dravidianist logic lay in demonizing it as a “deceitful” or “evil” mother, and substituting Tamiḻttāy in its stead as the authentic, sole mother of all true Tamil speakers.

Dravidianism’s antagonism towards India came to the fore in the numerous protests against Hindi, presented in its discourses as a blood-sucking demoness, lowly maid, seductive temptress, and false mother out to destroy the noble, righteous, but endangered Tamiḻttāy. Such Manichean images were deployed to create fear and hatred of Hindi, and to generate sentiments of love, loyalty, and filial piety for Tamil, which its loyal speakers were obliged to protect with life and limb. Just as crucially, the regional state government (in the control of the Congress) and the Indian nation were also rendered into objects that deserved the Tamilians’ deepest opprobrium and the withdrawal of their support, emotional and electoral. Dravidianism thus seized upon the linguistic fact that Hindi was related to Sanskrit, and translated the assertions of radical neo-Shaivism and contestatory classicism against Aryan Brahmanism into political action against the Indian nation. For Dravidianism, the battle against Hindi was not only inevitable and natural, but necessary and morally legitimate; it was a “holy war” (aṟappōr) fought against evil and on behalf of the good and righteous (Ramaswamy, forthcoming). Although Hindi was in effect legislated out of Tamilnadu government schools in 1968 by the DMK, and although all kinds of accommodations with the North have been made since the 1960s, to this day the threat of Hindi has continued to be effectively used to reiterate the autonomy and uniqueness of a Tamil space within a larger Indian whole, to summon up the specter of non-Tamil elements entering the pure Tamil body politic, and to remind Tamil speakers of the dangers that await them if they cease supporting the Dravidian movement and its Tamil cause.

Dravidianism and Hinduism

In the years between the late 1920s and 1950s, when the influence of the iconoclastic and atheistic Ramasami was at its peak and before the DMK actively entered the fray of electoral politics, Dravidianism also sought energetically to dissociate Tamil from all religious affiliations. Like radical neo-Shaivism, it castigated Hinduism as a Brahmanical, Sanskritic, and Aryan conspiracy hatched to destroy Tamil and Dravidian society. So, for Dravidianism, a true Tamilian/Dravidian is one who is emphatically not a Hindu. “A Hindu in the present concept may be a Dravidian, but the Dravidian in the real sense of the term cannot and shall not be a Hindu” (quoted in Harrison 1960: 127). Tamil speakers were therefore repeatedly called upon to destroy all (Hindu) irrationalisms and foolish beliefs, and to rescue themselves from ārya māyai, “Aryan illusion” (Annadurai 1969). Thus Bharatidasan, who in the 1920s had written passionate poems on Hindu deities and continued occasionally to publish religious verse into the 1930s, insisted in the 1950s that “there is no god” and told the Tamilian that his duty lay in weaning away his hapless fellow speakers from their false belief in divinities.[22]

And here is where Dravidianism parted company with neo-Shaivism: for in its attacks on religion, it did not spare either Shiva or the reformed “rational” version of Shaivism that Maraimalai Adigal and others were attempting to popularize (Sivathamby 1978: 30-31; Venkatachalapathy 1990). Neo-Shaivism may have insisted that Shaivism is the authentic Tamilian religion, radically different from Aryan Brahmanical Hinduism, but Dravidianism was not convinced about this. Nor was it ready to brook neo-Shaivite resistance to reforming and rationalizing the Tamil script, believed by many devout Shaivites to be Shiva’s own handiwork (Sivathamby 1979: 71). Dravidianism was also not willing to define the Tamil/Dravidian community as Shaiva, for what would then happen to Tamilians/Dravidians who were nominally Vaishnavas, Christians, and Muslims? So Tamil is the life, the consciousness, and the soul of the Tamilian. It is indeed everything, but it certainly is not “divine Tamil,” for to imagine it as such would entangle it with the irrationalisms, inequalities, and idiocies of Hinduism. Tamil speakers, too, consequently would be subordinated and demeaned in an inherently Brahmanical order of things, and they would lose all their “self-respect.” In a revealing speech of 1944, Ramasami offered the following advice to his fellow Dravidians: “You may well ask, ‘If we give up Hinduism, what religion can we profess to have?’ Have courage and claim that religion which will not demean you as untouchable and lowly in society. If there is objection to this, you may always say you are Dravidian and that your religion is Dravidianism. If you have problems even with that, say that your religion is humanity” (Anaimuthu 1974: 446).

Contrary to Marguerite Barnett (1976: 274), who has suggested that “within the Dravidian ideology there was no coherent alternative to religion or Hinduism,” I would argue that especially within the Dravidianist regime of tamiḻppaṟṟu, various efforts were made to create alternatives to both religion and Hinduism. Given the complex entanglements between Tamil devotion and Hinduism, however, such efforts were not entirely successful, nor were they as autonomous as Dravidianism would have desired. Minimally, those devotees of Tamil who turned to active electoral politics as members of the DMK distanced themselves from Ramasami’s iconoclastic irreverence for Hindu scriptures, gods, and images. By the 1950s, both the DMK and Dravidianism generated a curious combination of agnosticism (“we do not ask whether there is god or not”), monism (“there is only one god and one community”), populism (“god lives in the smile of the poor”), and humanism (“we must develop that kind of outlook which treats all humanity as one”). This medley of diverse beliefs that Anita Diehl (1977: 29) has shrewdly characterized as “pragmatic, agnostic humanism” opened up a space for the steady incorporation of all kinds of elements from popular as well as the devotional religious practices of the region into the ideology of Dravidianism, such as the celebration of the harvest festival, Pongal; the worship of Murugan; and the apotheosis of Valluvar and his Tirukkuṟaḷ (Ramanujam 1971: 168, 175; Ryerson 1988: 108-93).

One other important strategy is followed by Dravidianism in filling up the space vacated by Hindu gods. Consider this 1959 poem by Bharatidasan, addressed to a tampirāṉ, “Shaiva monk preceptor,” in response to the opposition of the orthodox to the growing demand for use of Tamil as ritual language in temples:

Is it religion (camayam) that is important, O tampirāṉ[?]
It is fine Tamil that is indeed eminent, O foolish tampirāṉ[.]
Why do you hate Tamil, O tampirāṉ[.]
Why do you hate your mother, O tampirāṉ[?]
Even if religion is destroyed, Tamilians will flourish[.]
If good Tamil is destroyed, can there be a Tamil community[?]
Do service to Tamil! O tampirāṉ[.]
Tamil is the life of the Tamilian! O foolish tampirāṉ[.]
Is it God who is great[?] O tampirāṉ[!]
It is glorious Tamil that is indeed great[!] O foolish tampirāṉ[.]
Even if God disappears, the Tamil community will flourish[.]
If Tamil dies, its community, too, will die, O tampirāṉ[.]
Do you intend to destroy the Tamil creed (tamiḻneṟi) by invoking Shaivism (caivaneṟi), O foolish tampirāṉ?
Service to Shaivism is not great, O tampirāṉ[.]
It is auspicious service to Tamil that is eminent, O tampirāṉ[.]
Only one thing is greater than [our] mother(s)! O tampirāṉ!
Is that not Tamil, O foolish tampirāṉ?[23]

There are few clearer statements than this of Dravidianism’s attempt to displace conventional gods and the religious beliefs associated with them, and to substitute Tamil in their stead. Indeed, Dravidianism sacralized Tamil, even while refusing to participate, at least overtly and consciously, in its divinization. Dravidianism’s ambivalence towards religiosity and Hinduism notwithstanding, Tamil was offered to its speakers as an iconic object that deserves all the adulation, adherence, and service they had hitherto reserved for their gods. In this process, even within Dravidianism, Tamil was imagined as desired by the gods, and was every now and then deified. So, in his controversial 1945 poem, Tamiḻiyakkam (The resurgence of Tamil),Bharatidasan asked whether Tamil, “which is life itself,” is not dear to the gods (Bharatidasan 1969: 27). On a more personal note, in his autobiography the poet Mudiyarasan, who identifies himself as an ardent follower of Ramasami and Annadurai, asks, “I consider Tamil as god (kaṭavuḷ). How can I be an atheist (nāttikaṉ)?” (Mudiyarasan n.d.: 86-87). A similar sentiment undergirds the DMK government’s institution of the homage to Tamiḻttāy as the state song in 1970. The government may have announced that it was doing this because the song had no “religious or sectarian associations,” an assertion it was able to make because it carefully edited out Sundaram Pillai’s original title, Tamiḻt teyva vaṇakkam, “Homage to Goddess Tamil.” Nonetheless, in its official statement (in English), Tamiḻttāy herself is referred to as “goddess of Tamil,” and the hymn is characterized as “prayer song.”[24]

Dravidianism and the Tamil Family

Dravidianism did not just have to delegitimize the “other mother,” Bhārata Mātā it also had to ensure that flesh-and-blood Tamil-speaking mothers themselves did not pose a threat to the absolute devotion and loyalty owed to the sacralized language. This was a very complicated task, for motherhood was the ground on which both Indianism and Dravidianism constituted tamiḻppaṟṟu. Indeed, Dravidianism was not content with merely establishing similitude between language and one’s mother; more strikingly, it insisted that language is that mother:

When I was a child, you snuggled me and placed me on your lap;
You placed flowers in my hair, and adorned me, and admired my beauty;
You are the sweet mother who protected me, in the shade and in the heat;
O my ancient Tamil! May you live long!
(Ulakanathan 1969: 4)

Similarly, the well-known DMK rhetorician R. Nedunceliyan, who later became a key member of the government, insisted in 1960 that there was no difference between one’s mother and Tamil:

There is no distinction at all between our mother who bore us for ten months, gave birth to us, watched over us, sang lullabies to us, and fed us milk and guarded us, and our Tamil language which taught us about good conduct and tradition, and granted us good values and knowledge, and which is the very reason that we live well and in prosperity. We have the same attachment to our language as we have for our mother; we have the same devotion to our language as we have for our mother; we have the same love for our language as we have for our mother. He who disregards his language…is like he who disregards his mother and forsakes her.[25]

Dravidianism may have invited speakers of Tamil to imagine it as their mother. At its most dramatic, however, it elevated Tamil to a position of absolute preeminence, even transcending the status and authority of one’s birth mother. For instance, the poet Pulavar Kulanthai declared passionately:

I will never refuse to obey my [own] mother's words;
But if harm befalls my precious Tamiḻttāy,
I will not fear to set aside my own mother’s words.
I will chop off the head of [Tamiḻttāy’s] enemy,
Even if [my] mother prevents me.
(Pulavar Kulanthai 1972: 21)
By extension, this kind of loyalty extended to fellow Tamil speakers as well, as is apparent from Bharatidasan’s much-cited declaration: “I will not leave alone the man who scorns the greatness of Tamilians / Even if [my] mother prevents me(Bharatidasan 1958: 5, emphasis mine).

Indeed, Dravidianism even insisted that service to Tamil and to Tamiḻttāy should take priority over the Tamilian’s family—over spouses, children, and parents. So Perunchitran demanded as late as 1975: “Are the troubles of your own mother more important than the terrible suffering of our glorious Tamiḻttāy? /…/ Are the words of your own mother sweeter than our Tamil language, which is like ambrosia?” (Perunchitranar 1979: 109).

Yet in thus subordinating the family to Tamil, Dravidianism only overtly and consciously articulated a sentiment that was widespread in the devotional community as a whole. As we will see later, in the life stories of individual devotees as these are narrated in memoirs and biographies, their families are typically superseded in favor of devotion to the Tamil cause. The family, which is a primary site for cultivating devotion to the language, is ultimately transcended within the regimes of tamiḻppaṟṟu. Such a transcendence is deemed necessary, for not even the family can—or can be allowed to—intervene between the devotee and his language.

The DMK and Dravidianized Tamil

Deriving considerable political capital from its self-appointed role as the guardian of Tamil and from demonizing the Congress as an agent of “evil” North Indian interests during the prolonged anti-Hindi protests of the 1950s and 1960s which it spearheaded, the DMK swept the state polls in 1967. Two days after the party’s victory was assured, its leading newspaper, Nam Nāṭu, carried the headline, “Tamiḻttāy’s Desire of Many Years Fulfilled.” The Muracoli’s front-page cartoon showed Tamiḻttāy, a smile on her face, placing a crown on Annadurai, her “chief son.”[26] And it was declared that Tamiḻttāy’s victory was the fruit of penances undergone by her followers for Tamil’s sake: “In order that Tamiḻttāy be enthroned, in order that Tamiḻttāy should abide with honor, so that Tamiḻttāy may be crowned…so many became prey to gunfire, so many drowned in an ocean of red blood, so many martyrs set themselves on fire, so many great ones passed away. This we know. Today, we see Tamil blooming everywhere. You must all go to the Legislative Assembly. You will hear good Tamil there.”[27]

The DMK takes great pride that so many of its leaders—Annadurai, Nedunceliyan, and Karunanidhi, among others—have been hailed as great scholars of Tamil and of literature in their own right. So, for many Dravidianists, the DMK’s victory finally fulfilled Bharatidasan’s dream, voiced years earlier in 1945, that “only the Tamilian who knows Tamil should rule as the chief minister of Tamilnadu” (Bharatidasan 1969: 19).

Regardless of what its opponents may say or statistics may reveal, the DMK has promoted itself as selflessly dedicated to the Tamil cause. Party literature as well as government publications provided details of the measures that it undertook to promote the language: the increasing use of “chaste” and “good” Tamil in administrative and public facilities; the publication of Tamil encyclopedias, scientific manuals, and textbooks; the increasing support of Tamil scholars and Tamil studies both within and outside Tamilnadu; and so on—programs pursued by the Congress government as well to varying degrees. In addition, under the DMK, Hindi was in effect legislated out of state schools in 1968; steps were taken, although not successfully, to introduce Tamil as the exclusive language of higher education and as medium of worship in high Hindu temples; and the state itself was renamed Tamilnadu, “land of Tamil.” DMK cultural policy also focused on creating a new literary and historical canon, by drawing upon the findings of tamiḻppaṟṟu, especially upon contestatory classicism and Dravidianism. Not surprisingly, the poems of the Canḳam corpus occupy a hallowed place in this canon, Karunanidhi himself offering a new interpretation in 1987 (Karunanidhi 1987a). Similarly, the Tirukkuṟaḷ, the new “scripture” of Dravidianism, is valorized, as is the Cilappatikāram, as exemplars of the “secular,” “egalitarian,” and “chaste” essence of true and pure Tamil culture, free from the influences of Sanskritic Aryan Brahmans with their priestly ways.

Correspondingly, a new pantheon of secular icons surrounding the presiding deity, Tamiḻttāy, has sprung up. It includes Tiruvalluvar, the author of the Tirukkuṟaḷ Kattabomman, who died a martyr’s death during the late-eighteenth-century British expansion into South India, and who is considered a paradigmatic symbol of Tamil heroism (Ramaswamy 1994); and Kannagi, the heroine of the Cilappatikāram, who is imagined as the ideal Tamil woman, renowned for her chastity and wifely fidelity (J. Pandian 1982). Similarly, Ramasami and Annadurai were lionized for giving Tamil speakers their “self-respect,” and many DMK narratives contain laudatory poems on their achievements. And it was under DMK rule that Chinnasami and his fellow devotees who burned themselves alive were immortalized. New mythologies and praise poems on all these figures were written and circulated. Their life stories were narrated and offered as paradigms for Tamil speakers to emulate. Commemorative memorials were set up, and festivals conducted in their honor. In 1968, the government used an academic gathering in Madras, the Second International Conference of Tamil Studies, to treat the populace to a spectacular celebration of Tamil, featuring giant floats of Tamiḻttāy, Tiruvalluvar, and other Tamil icons. The party’s leaders must believe that such acts carry symbolic as well as political capital, for as recently as 1984, its election manifesto chose to present its achievements to the electorate in the following terms:

In order that Tamiḻttāy's jeweled crown should shine,
We built the historic temple to Valluvar whose fame reaches the very skies;
And the world-famous new town of Poompukar with its Cilappatikāram museum, seven stories high!
And a fort in the memory of Virapandya Kattabomman at Panjalamkurichi.
We enabled all these, not just one, not just two, but plenty! plenty!

And yet, as critics as well as supporters of the DMK are quick to ask, have such gestures really helped the cause of Tamil? I quote Sivagnanam, who, despite his recent rapprochement with the DMK, lamented thus:

A museum commemorating the Cilappatikāram and a memorial celebrating Kattabomman have been built. The names of ministers and homes have been changed. Street names have been changed, and so have the names of towns. But Tamil’s fortunes have not changed. Formerly, Tamiḻttāy was worshipped three times a day. Today, she is worshipped six times a day. She is worshipped with great pomp and splendor. But the chains that fetter her arms and legs have not been destroyed.…Tamil will not grow by changing the names of streets, towns, and gardens.

Dravidianism and its Discontents

And this is a lament that we continue to hear to this day, even after about a century of Tamil devotional activity. Sivagnanam’s statement points to a fundamental problem with which the Tamilnadu state has had to contend, especially in the past three decades or so, when it has been under the rule of political parties which are ostensibly dedicated to the Tamil cause. In addition to confronting the crucial issue of which Tamil to promote—“classical” Tamil, “pure” Tamil, the “people’s” Tamil, and so on—there has been growing awareness that the socioeconomic and political realities of Tamil’s status as a regional language within the linguistic economy of a multilingual nation-state, itself embedded within a larger global environment in which English dominates as the world language, preclude the active implementation of public policies that will ensure the supremacy of Tamil in all spheres at all times, the ideal of Dravidianism (on this, see Tamilkudimagan 1990). Strapped by financial and political constraints, it has been easier for the state to indulge in symbolic activities, such as changing street names and instituting official anthems, rather than to ensure high quality education in Tamil studies, or to create job opportunities that would convince Tamil speakers that the study of Tamil is a viable end in itself. Tamil’s devotees undoubtedly recognize the value of the symbolic act, but Sivagnanam’s lament also reminds us that Tamil devotionalism demands much more, especially from a party that claims to be ruling on behalf of Tamiḻttāy. From the start, Dravidianism, like Indianism, placed its hopes in the political process. The establishment of a Tamil state and the Tamilization of the political apparatus, it was proclaimed, would ensure the triumph of Tamil, everywhere and in everything. And yet, this has not happened. This is a tragedy that casts its long shadow not just on Dravidianism, but on the rest of the Tamil devotional community as well.

This has not been the only cross that Dravidianism has had to bear. The Congress’s policies caused the increasing disenchantment of devotees of Indianist sentiment and compelled several to embrace Dravidianism. Similarly, the empowerment of the DMK has accompanied the progressive Indianization of the message of Dravidianism, as its radical separatist vision and its credo that Tamil is everything have been progressively diluted in favor of the Tamil community’s coexistence with India. Numerous compromises made by the DMK government on linguistic and cultural policies may be cited to support this claim, but perhaps the most illuminating here is the sanitized version of Sundaram Pillai’s 1891 hymn that was instituted as the state “prayer song” in 1970.

Of course, the state song is still loyal to Dravidianism’s “secular” recasting of Tamiḻtteyvam, “Goddess Tamil,” as Tamiḻttāy, “Mother Tamil.” The lines from the 1891 hymn that likened Tamiḻttāy to the primordial lord Shiva—which neo-Shaivism kept alive through the next century—are excised, on the grounds that an appropriate prayer song for a modern Tamil community should have no religious or sectarian associations. This significant erasure is not surprising given radical Dravidianism’s antagonism to the divinization of Tamil and to Hinduism. And yet, the government order explicitly refers to Tamiḻttāy as the “goddess of Tamil,” a slippage that is not accidental. For it indexes the progressive accommodation with religiosity that characterizes DMK cultural policy through the 1950s and 1960s. It also reminds us that within Dravidianism itself, Tamil increasingly took on the mantle of conventional Hindu deities, even as it displaced them.

Next, the recast anthem comes close to compensatory, rather than contestatory, classicism’s stance on Tamil, for the government also deliberately excised the much-quoted lines of the original hymn that had referred to Sanskrit as a “dead” language and had declared the superiority of the ever-enduring Tamil (kaṉṉittamiḻ). In his reminiscences, Chief Minister Karunanidhi maintains that these lines were not incorporated into the state prayer song because “it is not appropriate to disparage or ridicule other languages, and to use inauspicious words such as ‘ruined’ or ‘dead’ in a hymn in praise of Tamiḻttāy to be recited at government functions” (Karunanidhi 1987: 233). Yet, as we have seen, both contestatory classicism and Dravidianism built their arguments on the assumption that Sanskrit was a “dead” language whose very presence had sucked the life out of Tamil.

Finally, Sundaram Pillai’s hymn was selected over numerous others precisely because it simultaneously acknowledges the legitimacy of both tirāviṭa nāṭu (Dravidian nation) and paratak kaṇṭam (Indian nation). Indeed, the government insisted that the state’s prayer song would in no way supplant the Indian national anthem: while the former would be sung at the commencement of official functions, the latter—and no other—would be recited at their conclusion. Thus the modern Tamil community—as envisioned by the DMK government in this hymn—has been symbolically framed in terms of its dual “Dravidian” and “Indian” heritages, a position that clearly conforms more closely to the Indianist, rather than to the radical Dravidianist, imagining of Tamil. In what ought to have been Dravidianism’s paradigmatic moment of triumph—the institution of a daily celebration of Tamil and Tamiḻttāy by the DMK—it appears as if it is Indianism, and its vision of Tamil as part of the Indian whole, that wins out.

The Many Faces of Tamil

This chapter has taken its cue from a number of recent studies which claim allegiance to a new area of scholarly inquiry called “language ideology.” As the anthropologists Kathryn Woolard and Bambi Schieffelin note, language ideology provides a “much-needed bridge between linguistic and social theory, because it relates the micro-culture of communicative action to political economic considerations of power and social inequality” (Woolard and Schieffelin 1994: 72). My own analysis here has allied itself with one subset of concerns in this burgeoning field in its focus on “ideologies of language,” those networks of representations and significations about language which emerge within particular literary, social, political, and religious formations. However natural and timeless they might appear, conceptions about a language among its interested speakers are rarely neutral or innocent; they are produced at specific historical moments, they are generally linked to efforts to create or retain power and control, and they change through time. Such conceptions are “partial, contestable, and contested, and interest laden”: disguising their historicity, they present themselves as eternally true; hiding their cultural specificity, they masquerade as universally valid and commonsensical (Woolard and Schieffelin 1994: 58; see also Joseph and Talbot 1990).

I have suggested that the endowing of Tamil with various extraordinary attributes—divinity (teyvattaṉmai), classicality (uyarttaṉicemmai), purity (tūymai), antiquity (toṉmai), motherhood (tāymai), and so on—has to be located within larger social and political projects conducted by its numerous devotees. Other languages in other places—Afrikaans, Arabic, English, Hebrew, to name a random few—have been similarly empowered. But few have been studied in any historical depth to reveal the extent of ideological work necessary to transfer them into sites of privilege, potency, and power (for examples of this, see Alter 1994; Ferguson 1968; R. Jones 1953; Roberge 1992). My analysis of such work done on Tamil suggests that although consensus eventually emerges around such certain key contentions, this is a process that is riddled with contradiction and contrariety. The very importance of Tamil for its adherents has meant that there is much at stake in the manner in which it is constituted, and hence its imaginings are subject to many negotiations within the community united in devotion to it. Tamiḻppaṟṟu is neither a wholly homogenous nor an entirely consensual activity, because the principal entity at its center is itself not conceived in a singular manner. Instead, Tamil’s devotees bring their own varying visions and shifting agendas to bear on their imaginings about their language and its role in their lives. As a consequence, Tamil devotion flourishes as a multifaceted enterprise, fissured by countervailing purposes and contrary passions, as we have seen.

But important questions remain. If the language has been subjected to all these alternate imaginings, as I have suggested, how are its devotees able to mobilize so many of their fellow speakers to rally around it? What is it that led many of them to claim as they did that they lived for its sake, and would die for it? Indeed, what is it that compelled them to speak and write with so much passion and fervor about its state of being—its past glory, its present ignominy, and its future fate? To answer such questions, I turn to the figure of Tamiḻttāy.


1. Neo-Shaiva claims to the contrary, the Theosophical Society published large numbers of books and journals in Tamil relating to religion, philosophy, and national regeneration (Nambi Arooran 1980: 58). The Tamil that was promoted, however, was closely linked to Sanskritic and Brahmanical Hinduism. The society also ran Sanskrit schools and had grand plans for initiating a “national Sanskrit movement” (Suntharalingam 1974: 303). [BACK]

2. For different interpretations of the rise of the “non-Brahman” movement, see Irschick (1969), who presents it as “the articulation of a pre-existing social rivalry between Brahman and non-Brahman” in the context of the spread of western education and competition for jobs; Barnett (1976), who traces it to the social strains and sense of “relative deprivation” suffered by rural “non-Brahman” elites as they moved to colonial cities; Washbrook (1976), who locates it as a direct product of governmental policy and action which interpellated various social groups as “Brahman,” “non-Brahman,” and the like; and Subramanian, who extends Washbrook to emphasize transformations in the “pre-colonial profile and logic of power and status” which shifted the delicate balance of power in the late colonial period in favor of Brahmans. This, he suggests, produced a reaction among “non-Brahman elites” who had hitherto exercised considerable dominance and privilege, but who now found their new “lowered status in the emergent public sphere defined by colonial law and bureaucracy galling” (N. Subramanian 1993: 114, 104). [BACK]

3. See also Centamiḻc Celvi 41 (1966-67): 457-63. [BACK]

4. Centamiḻc Celvi 46 (1971-72): 153. [BACK]

5. Tirunelveli South India Shaiva Siddhanta Works Publishing Society; henceforth Shaiva Siddhanta Kazhagam. [BACK]

6. Indeed Damodaram Pillai’s editorial prefaces to these publications between 1881 and 1892, using Western modes of textual criticism, contain some of the earliest gendered conceptions of Tamil, including tamiḻmātu, “Lady Tamil” tamiḻaṇanḳu, “Goddess Tamil” kaṉṉittamiḻ, “virgin Tamil” and more rarely, tāymoḻi, “mother tongue.” He even suggested that medieval and modern Tamil are the products of the (incestuous) “marriage” between the “virgin” Tamil and the “hero” Sanskrit (Damodaram Pillai 1971: 6, 12, 19, 69, 93-94). [BACK]

7. In a series of essays written between 1890 and 1895, T. Chelvakesavaroya Mudaliar (1864-1921), who taught Tamil at Pachaiyappa College in Madras, dismissed as fable, and contrary to the truths of philology (pāṣātattuvaccāttiram), the belief that Shiva created Tamil (Chelvakesavaroya Mudaliar 1929: 15-16). In another narrative cast in the form of a “dramatic interlude,” a philologist (pāṣainuṟppulavar) attempts to convince traditional pandits that the belief that the languages of the world emerged from different parts of the lord’s body is nothing but fabrication. “God is not necessary for creating a language” (Namasivaya Mudaliar 1910: 60-61). [BACK]

8. Or consider how the nationalist historian Romesh C. Dutt’s much-cited treatise on Indian history, Ancient India (1893), was received by one Tamil devotee: “From his work, it is clear, that he has not studied much about the southern people, their condition, civilisation, literature, and language. Thus his work may be fitly entitled ‘the Ancient Aryans’ rather than ‘the Ancient India.’ Every step that the migrating Aryans took in the Bharata land [India] is described by him as an Aryan Conquest—an expression which has an agreeable sound, but no meaning” (Savariroyan 1900-1901: 106). [BACK]

9. The Light of Truthor Siddhanta Deepika 6 (1902-03): 117-19. [BACK]

10. NNR 11 (1913): 428; 41 (1916): 1739. [BACK]

11. NNR 35 (1917): 2257-58. Another editorial in the same daily (11 February 1916) also insisted that English education “only leads our girls to take to foreign ways of thinking and dressing, and that therefore, instruction should be given to them only through the vernacular” (NNR 8 [1916]: 296). See also exchange of views on this issue in Āṉantapōtiṉi 8, no. 7 (1923): 263-66; 9, no. 6 (1923): 233-235. [BACK]

12. MLCD 45 (1928): 80-81. The Madras Mail, a pro-government newspaper, responded that “the adjective ‘vernacular’ always meant ‘one’s own’ and to extend it to mean ‘a slave’s language’ or even to ‘belonging to a slave’ would be gratuitous” (quoted in Nambi Arooran 1980: 109). In 1934, the Madras Presidency Tamilians Conference passed a resolution which declared, “Instead of referring to Tamil—the preeminent language of the world, fully equipped to transmit all kinds of scholarship—as a ‘vernacular,’ a derogatory term of slavery, we request the university authorities and the government to use the term ‘mother tongue’ ”(Centamiḻc Celvi 12 [1934-35]: 579). In February 1939, the government of India finally abandoned the term for official use (Nambi Arooran 1980: 109). Barely a month later, when a member in the Madras Legislative Assembly used the term to refer to Indian languages, he was chastised by the Speaker: “There is no question of vernacular. The word is tabooed on the floor of this House” (MLAD 11 [1939]: 597). [BACK]

13. Devaneyan Pavanar, a devotee whose works are contestatory classicist, lists the following reasons to account for the “Anti Tamil” biases of the Tamilnadu Congress: “1) Re-Brahmanization of staff in public offices… 2) Introduction of compulsory Hindi in Tamil Nad against the will of the Tamils; 3) Misrepresentation of Tamil language, literature, and culture by Brahman authors and historians; 4) Rewarding of Sanskrit scholars and promotion of Sanskrit studies at the expense of Tamil; 5) Suppression of Tamil with the help of betrayers and venal professors of Tamil in all ways possible; 6) Prevention of orthodox and genuine Tamil scholars from being appointed to responsible posts in the Tamil department, either of Government or of a University” (Devaneyan 1967: 25-26). [BACK]

14. Government of Madras Order No. 562 (Education and Public Health), 5 March 1938; Order No. 2438 (Education), 21 November 1960; MLAD 44 (1961): 545-614, 63 (1965): 627-28. [BACK]

15. MLAD 29 (1960): 268-80. [BACK]

16. That the “common man” in Tamilnadu in the 1960s also came increasingly to believe that only the followers of the Dravidian movement “loved” Tamil is clear from Barnett (1976: 161-236). [BACK]

17. Kuyil, 6 December 1960, 6. [BACK]

18. English transcription of Tamil speech. Government of Madras Order No. 4068 (Home), 23 August 1938. [BACK]

19. Kuyil, 15 April 1962, 1. [BACK]

20. Kuyil, 21 June 1960, 3. [BACK]

21. Kuyil, 17 June 1958, 13. [BACK]

22. Kuyil, 19 May 1959, 5. [BACK]

23. Kuyil, 8 December 1959, 1. [BACK]

24. Government of Tamilnadu Order No. 1393 (Public), 17 June 1970. [BACK]

25. Mālai Maṇi (Inti Etirppu Malar), 7 August 1960, 12 (emphasis mine). [BACK]

26. Nam Nāṭu, 25 February 1967; Muracoli, 25 February 1967. [BACK]

27. Nam Nāṭu, 7 April 1967; see also Nam Nāṭu, 24 February 1967. [BACK]

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