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6. Conclusion

Tamil Subjects

With the analytic of devotion based on the Tamil word paṟṟu, and with the help of Tamiḻttāy, I set out to write the language question in colonial and post-colonial Tamil India differently, as a history that is not a rehearsal of Europe’s linguistic nationalism(s). My attempt to write such a history, organized around the concept of language devotion with attention to notions of love, labor, and life at the service of Tamil, has certainly followed my desire not to hastily empty the culturally specific and contingent into a ready-made narrative of language-and-nationalism. But just as surely, I had to attempt a different history, because Tamil’s own devotees have insisted from the turn of the century that there is literally nothing else in the world like their language; there is no one else like their Tamiḻttāy. Yet, in so insisting, and in conducting a whole range of activities around such a conviction, they recast their language in a manner that robs it of its putative exceptionalism. Tamil’s singularity and uniqueness are constituted by demonstrating that it is a “divine” language, like Sanskrit, and just as “classical” as Greek and Latin. Most important, Tamil is presented to its speakers, for the first time in its long history, as a “mother tongue,” just like the languages of modern Europe. Despite considerable effort to endow her with a distinctive and different persona, even their beloved Tamiḻttāy seems like other modern icons of the nation such as Bhārata Mātā and Britannia, when she does not resemble the mother-goddesses of conventional Hinduism.

Which is why this history of Tamil devotion is almost the same even when it is not quite, to paraphrase Homi Bhabha: in the process of talking and writing eloquently about their love and devotion for their language, Tamil’s devotees, who were colonial subjects after all, began to subscribe to the reigning certitudes of linguistic nationalism. In their narratives, as in those of Herder or Fichte, the state of the language mirrors the state of its speakers; language is the essence of their culture, the bearer of their traditions, and the vehicle of their thoughts from time immemorial. It holds the key to their social solidarity and to their political health and fortunes:

National life and national progress depend upon the development of the language of a people. A study of the language of a nation reveals to us their social status, their moral and intellectual progress, their inner life, their spiritual and religious advancement, their political problems and aspirations, their love of science and arts, their commercial intercourse, their assimilation of foreign ideas and ideals, and finally, among other things, their place in the scale of nations.…[T]he future salvation of our country entirely depends upon our improving our vernacular tongue.[1]

It is clear from this statement that Tamil’s devotees also become subscribers to the patrimonial imagination ushered in by colonial modernity, in which language is constituted as a tangible, material possession of its speakers. Like other kinds of property, its value and worth could be enhanced by not allowing it to decline, by continuing to develop it, and by preventing others from encroaching upon it. The life of Tamil and the lives of its speakers as a community are now imagined as inextricably intertwined in a way that they had never been before in the land in which the language had been spoken for at least two thousand years. Not least, in Tamil India as well as in Europe, this patrimonial imagination was supplemented by the conviction that language is “the improver no less than the improved” (Spadafora 1990: 196). As in other parts of colonial India, many literate Tamil speakers were convinced that their society was in a state of total decline. Taking the cue from their colonial masters, they offered numerous solutions for its “improvement”: most notably, the rationalization of religion; the abolition of caste consciousness; the spread of modern, scientific education; and the “reform” of women. For its devotees, subjects of the modern linguistic imagination, the primary solution lay in their language, identified through their discursive practices as the source of antiquity, autonomy, and authenticity of its speakers, who are imagined as a singular community and a potential nation unto themselves. So, from the turn of this century, Tamil’s adherents offered tamiḻppaṟṟu as a liberating force to their fellow speakers. Energized by their devotion to their language, its speakers would be able to right all wrongs and set themselves on the road to prosperity and well-being.

Though conducted around a language bearing the singular name “tamiḻ,” tamiḻppaṟṟu nevertheless produces an entity that is multiply imagined and contrarily fashioned. In certain contexts, Tamil is constituted in religious terms as a “divine” language favored by the gods themselves; in other cases, it is secularly imagined as a “classical” tongue, the parent of the languages of the world and the progenitor of one of its most ancient “civilizations,” if not the oldest. For the devotional community as a whole, however, Tamil is increasingly “mother tongue”—the language of their mothers, their homes, and their childhood. Even here, there are differences between those who imagine Tamil as part of a larger “family” of “mother tongues,” harmoniously coexisting within the framework of the Indian nation, and those who emphatically assert that it is the one and only mother/tongue to which its speakers owe total and unconditional allegiance, the language of their (Tamil) nation.

Given these varying conceptions, what appeared as a relatively straightforward agenda for “reviving” the language in order to “improve” its speakers splintered into various projects at odds with each other. Thus the “community” of devotees is shot through with difference: there were those who invested their efforts in forming associations, convening revivalist conferences, and running journals that disseminated knowledge about “divine” and “classical” Tamil among the populace; there were others who pragmatically focused on promoting its study as “mother tongue” in schools and colleges, and on its adoption as the language of government, politics, and public communication; and finally, there were the “warriors” in the trenches, willing to give up their lives to protect the integrity of their beloved language. I have also suggested that these varying devotional imaginings about the language frequently clashed with the imperatives of the modern state. In the latter’s bureaucratic rationalist perspective, Tamil is an instrument and tool for governing a modern populace. But as we have seen, for its ardent followers Tamil is not merely an inanimate object but a near and dear person, their personal goddess, their compassionate mother, and their beloved lover. Increasingly from the 1950s, as many of its devotees gained political power, and even held the highest political office in the state by the late 1960s, these very contrary imaginations about Tamil came to a head, producing a series of language policies that can claim some success but are also marked by numerous contradictions, even failure.

The vast scholarly literature on language, nationalism, and modernity has rightly recognized the various strategies through which languages have been linguistically transformed through rationalization and standardization, especially through the interventions of the state and its agencies. But much less attention has been paid to the structures of sentiments in which languages come to be embedded in the new people centered ideologies of modernity. With the analytic of devotion, I have tracked the myriad ways in which Tamil came to be subjected to the love, loyalty, and reverence of those who claimed to be its devotees. Instead of assuming, as its speakers (and scholars) are wont to do, that attachment to a language, imagined in primordial terms as the “mother tongue,” is natural and inevitable, I have argued that it is produced under specific historical conditions, and as such is subject to negotiation and change. Correspondingly, the power that a language exercises over its speakers, as indeed the passions that it elicits, is ideologically produced and historically contingent. Unless we pay attention to such structures of sentiment and regimes of love that coalesce around languages, it is very difficult, even impossible, to explain why and how they acquire the ability to arouse their speakers to rally around their cause, to the point of surrendering body, life, and spirit.

The linchpin in the ideologies of devotion which emerged around Tamil is the construct of “mother tongue,” a label that was appropriated for the language for the first time in the closing decades of the nineteenth century and is an expression of the regimes of mimicry spawned by colonial rule everywhere. And yet, as this most European of terms played itself out in Tamil India, it was subversively taken apart not just to reveal the convergence between “language” and “motherhood” that went into its constitution in the first place, but also to mobilize all the emotive and sentimental powers that had come to be associated with the mother figure by the end of the nineteenth century. Thus one of its devotees asked of his fellow speakers in 1918, “Do you love your own mother? Then you must surely love your mother tongue” (Devasikhamani 1919: 26-27). Another,-speaking to other women in 1938, reminded them that “forgetting [our] mother tongue is akin to forgetting [our] mother” (Nilambikai n.d.: 21). Such statements are not surprising, for Tamil’s adherents insist that they did “not refer to their language as mother tongue for rhetorical reasons” (K. Appadurai 1944: 20); rather, “my knowledge of Tamil is my mother’s gift. For that reason, Tamil is my mother tongue” (Sivagnanam 1974: 868). In the writings of Tamil’s devotees, tamiḻ,tāymoḻi (mother tongue), tāyppāl (mother’s milk), and tāy (mother) all shade into each other. It is in this context that the figure of Tamiḻttāy assumes significance. Neither ubiquitous nor routinized in their discourses, her devotees strategically deployed Tamiḻttāy at crucial moments to draw the attention of speakers of Tamil to the plight of their language: to elicit their passions, filial and otherwise, to cajole them to place their bodies and lives at the service of Tamil. And all such deployments, once again, drew upon the new emotive powers that had come to be invested in motherhood. For, while her devotees may insist that she is an ancient and time-honored figure, I have argued that Tamiḻttāy is essentially a modern being, erupting within the regimes of tamiḻppaṟṟu as a consequence of laminating the domain of “motherhood” onto that of “language” in late colonial India.

As the figure of the mother came to be reconfigured as a sign of the authentic, pure community, and as a metonym for “the people,” and as the language they spoke was configured as the bearer of the true soul, spirit, and genius of the “community” of its speakers within the ideologies of modernity, the motherhood of language was fashioned into a weapon to contend with both British colonialism and Indian nationalism. In repeated circulation through the discursive activities of tamiḻppaṟṟu, the motherness of Tamil acquires a material presence in the life-world of Tamil speakers that has rendered it natural, and hence inviolable. As recently as 1990, schoolchildren in Tamilnadu were told in an essay entitled “Devotion to Mother Tongue,” which appears in their seventh grade textbook published by the government:

“Motherland” and “mother tongue” are concepts that have a relationship to “mother.” Our mother tongue captures our inner sentiments and shows them to us. It is language that distinguishes humans from animals. The mother tongue is the language with which one speaks with the mother who rears and raises us from the time of birth. The mother is the first acquaintance of the child, and it is through her that the child recognizes others as well. Just as the child has great devotion towards its mother, similarly, all of us, too, must have devotion towards our mother tongue.

Statements like these serve to remind its speakers of Tamil’s status as their mother, lest they forgot this in its naturalization as “mother tongue.” Tamiḻppaṟṟu constitutes the motherness of Tamil within a context in which both their mothers and their language had been rendered foundational for the very existence of Tamil speakers as a community.

Today, there are many who continue to lament that a century of devotional activities notwithstanding, Tamil has not “improved” and is far from being the language of prestige, profit, and power that tamiḻppaṟṟu intends for it. In the words of a contemporary poet, Tamiḻttāy continues to wear feathers, not ornaments (Kailasapathy 1986: 49). The rhetoric of decline that marked so many a devotional narrative in the colonial period continues to plague post-colonial discourses as well, as does the lament of critics who insist that Tamil devotion is misplaced to start with, and that “wallowing in sentimentalism” about Tamil is not really going to bring about fundamental transformations in the lives of its speakers (Ramaswamy 1992b: 421-28). And yet, if Tamil’s devotees had accompanied the anthropologist Jacob Pandian in the early 1970s to a high school in Pulicat, outside Madras city, they would have undoubtedly been pleased with the responses of the teenage students there to his questions about their allegiance to Tamil. Early in the century, few had studied Tamil or known much about its history or culture; but these students echoed many of the ideas that the devotional community had been circulating over the past few decades. One of them, a young man of seventeen, even proclaimed, “There is everything in Tamil, and learning Tamil will make me possess everything I require. If any danger threatens my mother tongue, I will give my life to protect it. My life is interwoven with my mother tongue.” Another, age sixteen, maintained that “more than caste, religion, and country I love Tamil. Tamil is one of the greatest languages.” A Brahman student, whose mother tongue was officially Telugu, nevertheless insisted, “I consider Tamil as my mother tongue.…The culture of India is better than any other cultures of the world.…Tamil culture is the greatest in India.” A sixteen-year-old Muslim student similarly said, “I know a little Urdu which is considered the language of Muslims, but I like only Tamil and my love for Tamil is increasing day by day.…[T]he ancient Tamil kings, Chera, Chola, and Pandya protected Tamil as though Tamil was their mother” (J. Pandian 1987: 151-64).

In addition to these young voices, there are other signs that Tamil has left its mark on the political and cultural landscape of contemporary Tamilnadu. Since Indian independence, and especially since the late 1960s, the state has pursued policies that are informed, if only rhetorically, by the devotional belief that Tamil is everything. Districts, cities, urban streets, state corporations, and the like have been renamed over the past decades after Tamil historical figures, litterateurs, and devotees, inspired by Bharatidasan’s lament that “in the Tamil streets of the Tamil land, there is no Tamil,” as well as by Bharati’s demand that “the sound of Tamil ought to thunder in its streets.” Grand state sponsored architectural projects have recreated scenes from the Tamil literary and historical past. Statues of famous poets and devotees adorn city squares, public buildings, and beachfronts. Efforts to Tamilize, following normative models drawn from literature and history, are not limited to the physical landscape of Tamilnadu. In their private lives as well, many Tamil speakers have taken to adopting personal names, conducting marriages and funerals, and celebrating festivals and rituals in what is identified as the authentic Tamil way. Such activities supplement other efforts to Tamilize the public domain: today, the language of government is Tamil; the medium of education in state schools and colleges is Tamil; and television, radio, and other technologies of mass communication are in Tamil. Admittedly, the language does not have sole reign in public—it shares space with both English and Hindi; nevertheless, its presence is by no means insignificant.

Statistics generated by the colonial government in the first half of the century show a steady increase in the volume of Tamil print activity, especially in fields such as literature, religion, and the sciences. The post-colonial state in its annual administrative reports has regularly carried announcements of the steady progress of Tamil in educational and administrative domains; of the establishment of Tamil universities and academies; of the publication of new scientific and administrative glossaries, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and school and college textbooks; and so forth. Indeed, no less a critic than Annadurai was able to declare in 1945 at a public meeting held in Annamalai University: “Today, Tamilnadu welcomes all those poets who labor for Tamil, and sing for it.…[W]herever one goes, one hears Tamil.…Even those who vowed that they would only speak English, now claim that they will only speak in Tamil, write in Tamil, think in Tamil.…[W]e can see Tamil literature, Tamil plays, Tamil music everywhere. Even those who yesterday refused are beginning today to declare that they are ‘Tamilian’ (tamiḻar)” (Annadurai 1968: 12-13).

Why is Annadurai so pleased that speakers of Tamil are at last declaring themselves “Tamilian”? A year later, K. A. P. Viswanatham wrote in an editorial: “Westerners refer to the Tamilian as ‘Black Man.’ His neighbors refer to him as ‘Indian.’ Aryans call him ‘Dravidian,’ and Brahmans, ‘Shudra.’ At the time of the Vedas, he was referred to as ‘arakkar’ [demon]. Members of the Justice Party called him ‘non-Brahman,’ and for the Government, he is a ‘non-Muslim.’…When there is no one to refer to the Tamilian as ‘Tamilian,’ will at least the Tamilian call himself ‘Tamilian’?”[2] Why was this so important for Viswanatham? And why is it that one of the chief government buildings in Madras city carries the message, boldly emblazoned across its facade, “Declare yourself a Tamilian! Stand proudly, your head held high!”? What is at stake in making such a claim?

My attempt to answer this question begins with the proposition that as the language they speak becomes subject to the discourse(s) of tamiḻppaṟṟu, its speakers become subjects of Tamil, their state of subjection reflected in the terms tamiḻaṉ, “Tamilian” (lit., “he-of-Tamil”), or tamiḻar, “Tamilians” (lit., “they-of-Tamil”). Admittedly the category of tamiḻaṉ is an old one, and its presence in literary sources has been traced back by some scholars to at least the late first millennium (Krishnan 1984: 145-46). Nevertheless, I would insist that it assumes significance in political and social discourses only with the consolidation of the people-centered and patrimonial ideologies of language ushered in by modernity. From the turn of this century, discussions of what to do about improving Tamil have been invariably accompanied by the question, “Who is a Tamilian?” or “Who are the Tamilians?” The question is repeatedly posed, and answers repeatedly sought, because at stake is the production and definition of the modern Tamil subject. Today, in the various human sciences, not only is the concept of subject widely deployed, but there is a proliferating literature on what it means to be a subject, on the various processes of subjection, on subjectivity or the state of being a subject, and so on. Paul Smith comments on this state of affairs:

Over the last ten or twenty years [these] discourses have adopted this term, the “subject,” to do multifarious theoretical jobs. In some instances the “subject” will appear to be synonymous with the “individual,” the “person.” In others—for example, in psychoanalytical discourse—it will take on a more specialized meaning and refer to the unconsciously structured illusion of plenitude which we usually call “the self.” Or elsewhere, the “subject” might be understood as the specifically subjected object of social and historical forces and determinations.

It is this last sense of the “subject”—as the “specifically subjected object of social and historical forces”—that I draw upon here in my discussion of the notion of the “Tamilian” in Tamil devotional discourses. Tamiḻppaṟṟu, I suggest, divides the world into two: those who are Tamilians and those who are not. Speakers of Tamil are evaluated, and then transformed—if they qualify—through the discursive practice(s) of tamiḻppaṟṟu into tamiḻar, “Tamilians,” their beings and subjectivities inevitably and necessarily bound to the language. This process of subjection, moreover, proceeds categorically, epistemologically, and ontologically.

Categorically-speaking, the tamiḻaṉ is the entity who is cajoled, even compelled, into being, as we see in the statements of Annadurai and Viswanatham, by tamiḻppaṟṟu. He—and it is always “he” the term itself is gendered masculine—is the principal addressee and interlocutor in all its regimes. Minimally, a tamiḻaṉ is one whose “mother tongue” is Tamil. But it is a measure of the multiplicity of conceptions about the language that reigns among its devout that no single definition of the tamiḻaṉ prevails, either. For radical neo-Shaivism, all those Tamil speakers adhering to a (reformed) Shaiva religion and who are not Brahman are the true Tamilians; in classicism, Tamilians are those who are racially Dravidian and historically “the lineal descendants of the original and highly civilized Tamils of pre-Aryan times” (Maraimalai Adigal 1974b: 14). Dravidianism admits into the category all those who claim Tamil as their “mother tongue” and disavow attachment to any other language, especially to Sanskrit and Hindi. Indianism has perhaps the most ambitious logic of subjection at work and admits, like Dravidianism, that Tamilians are those who claim Tamil as their “mother tongue”. All the same, it also insists that those who maintain that the Tamil land is their home—“even though their mother tongue may be another”—are also Tamilians (Kalyanasundaranar 1935: 37; Ramalinga Pillai 1953: 55-56; Sivagnanam 1974: 387). Indeed, for some devotees of Tamil, one does not even have to be born a Tamil speaker to become “Tamilian”: all those who show desire for Tamil are Tamilians; all those who are devoted to it are also transformed into subjects of Tamil. Thus K. Appadurai refers to the missionary devotees, Caldwell and Pope, as veḷḷait tamiḻar (white Tamilians), and writes:

I wish to declare that all those who show devotion to Tamil ought to be considered tamiḻar. It gives me great pleasure to include amongst Tamilians all those who come to the Tamil land and learn and use Tamil and turn into devotees of Tamil.…If asked who are the Tamilians, we could easily say that they are those who reverence Tamiḻttāy. If asked who are the friends of Tamilians, they are the speakers of other languages who wish they could have been borne by Tamiḻttāy’s womb.

By the same token, one could be born a speaker of Tamil yet spurn the language, chasing after Sanskrit, English, or Hindi, and hence be disqualified as a Tamilian. This is the plight, of course, of the Brahman, who is not reckoned to be a Tamilian by neo-Shaivism, contestatory classicism, and Dravidianism, which chastise him for not being devoted to Tamil.

Categorically-speaking, the modern Tamil subject has also been produced through a disavowal of alternate selves, contrary allegiances, and prior commitments. Tamil’s devotees repeatedly insist that a tamiḻaṉ is one who, regardless of whether he is Hindu, Muslim, or Christian, claims Tamil as his mother tongue:

Wherever you may be, whether in Burma, Malaya, Durban, Lanka, or Fiji, you are a Tamilian. Your mother tongue is Tamil. You may be a Hindu, a Muslim, or a Christian at home, in your temples and mosques and churches. There is no objection to that. But in public and on the streets, when asked, “Who are you?,” do not say that you are a Brahman or Vellalan or Pillai or Mudaliar or Naidu or Servai, or that you belong to this or that religion. Do not speak with a sectarian mind. “I am a Tamilian. Tamilnadu is mine. Wherever I am, I belong to the Tamil populace.” Say so proudly with your head held high!

Thus, in the process of producing the tamiḻaṉ, preexisting allegiances are recognized and set aside—in some sectors of the devotional community, even discredited—in favor of declaring one’s primary loyalty to Tamil. As Kalyanasundaram reminded his fellow speakers in 1928, “If we wish to bind the people born in this [Tamil] nation into 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). Similarly, a decade later, Shaktidasan Subramanian, a Brahman devotee and who also edited the nationalist newspaper Navacakti, insisted: “There is only one jāti [lit., “caste”] in Tamilnadu, and that is the Tamil jāti. Think of yourself as tamiḻaṉ(S. Subramanian 1939: 5).

As all manner of differences are thus dissolved, and other allegiances rendered illegitimate, the name of the collectivity—tamiḻar—becomes one’s name, tamiḻaṉ individualities are collapsed into a shared linguistic identity: “If they ask me ‘Who are you?,’ instead of referring to myself in terms of this or that caste, or this or that religion, I will declare proudly, ‘I am a Tamilian.’ I will not hate any other Tamilian. Even if another Tamilian hates me, I will transform him through my love” (Suddhananda Bharati 1938: 103-4).

But a tamiḻaṉ is a being who is asked not just to set aside his individuality, and contrary allegiances, in favor of being a part of the collectivity of Tamilians; he is also asked to submit himself to the regime of tamiḻppaṟṟu, to become a devotee of Tamil. Suddhananda Bharati invited the Tamilian to take the following oath:

I am a Tamilian; Tamil is my mother tongue. I live only for the betterment of Tamil, of Tamilians, and of Tamilnadu. All my deeds will contribute to the glory of Tamil, of Tamilians, and of Tamilnadu. I will oppose and conquer anything that harms Tamil, Tamilians, and Tamilnadu. I may forget my life, but I will not forget Tamil. They may destroy my body, but I will not forsake Tamil.…I live so that I may restore my mother back on her throne as the queen of languages.

The Tamil speaker thus (re)emerges in this discourse with his entire life project rewritten in terms of Tamil. He is repeatedly called into being, told to arouse himself from his “sleep” and serve his mother/language by Tamilizing himself: by adopting a Tamil name, by-speaking and writing and thinking only in Tamil, by marrying only a Tamil woman, by raising his children as true tamiḻar. His life is the life of Tamil and, correspondingly, Tamil’s life is his life. For, as Bharatidasan reminded his fellow speakers in 1945:
The progress of our glorious Tamiḻttāy is your progress.
You should realize this and arouse yourself!
O young Tamilian, open your eyes!
Every victory that she attains is your victory!
Know this! The evil that befalls Tamiḻttāy befalls you as well!
(Bharatidasan 1969: 9-10)
Thus, as far as the ardent devotee of Tamil is concerned, the tamiḻaṉ has no existence outside and beyond his mother/tongue, a point I will return to shortly.

The transformation of speakers of Tamil into subjects of Tamil, tamiḻar, also takes place epistemologically, as they come under the scrutiny of various modern knowledge practices which provide them with their “history,” tell them about their true “culture,” find a place for them in the evolution of human “civilization,” establish their relationship to other language speakers of the world, and so on. The discourses of tamiḻppaṟṟu, as I noted earlier, liberally draw upon the various human sciences of philology, history, ethnology, and archaeology in constructing their structures of devotion to the language. In recent years, there has been considerable discussion of the part played by these sciences in transforming men and women into objects of knowledge, and of the complicity between these (European) knowledge practices and the exercise of colonial power and control (Said 1978). In India, with colonialism came not just the English language and new linguistic habits and cultural dispositions, but new concepts for imagining the world and for securing one’s place in that world. At the same time, there was a vigorous renewal of the ancient and the authentic, a revamping of “tradition” which accompanied what Thomas Metcalf (1994) has adroitly characterized as the complex interplay between essential similitude and the enduring difference between themselves and the “natives” that the colonial masters stressed in their various ideologies and institutions of rule. The colonized subject’s being is in turn shot through with traces of the archaic and the new, of the “West” and the “Orient,” of “tradition” and “modernity.”

In producing the Tamil subject who is similarly a melange of the old and the new, Tamil devotionalism thus continues and extends a process already well under way under colonialism. In the (colonizing) knowledges which Tamil’s devotees inherited (or appropriated, as the case may be), the Tamilian had already been incorporated into an European and colonial economy of significations that assigned him a linguistic label and a racial category, decided whether he possessed a “history,” and determined whether his “culture” was worthy of being classified as a “civilization.” In engaging such knowledge practices, if only to counter their assertions, tamiḻppaṟṟu further ensnared the Tamilian in this colonial economy of meanings in which it mattered—politically, economically, and psychologically—whether one’s language was a “classical” tongue or a mere “vernacular” whether one’s religion was “rational” or “idolatrous” and whether one possessed “civilization” or was “primitive.”

Perhaps nothing illustrates this process of ensnarement better than the troubling category of “Dravidian” to which the tamiḻaṉ has been subjected in colonial ideologies, as well as in the discourse(s) of Tamil devotionalism. As I noted earlier, not all of Tamil’s devotees agree to the use of the term “Dravidian” to refer to the Tamilian—and it is important to register the resistance, if only scattered and muted, to the global hegemony of European meanings. Some worried over it because of the negative connotations it had picked up in colonial usage; others insisted that the tamiḻaṉ should be identified by a term that indicated his attachment to his language; still others protested that this was not a “Tamil” term at all and that it was foisted on the Tamilian by his colonial masters. Such protests notwithstanding, the notion that the “Tamilian” is a “Dravidian,” and distinct from the Sanskrit-speaking “Aryan,” has had a long and enduring life in the cultural and political discourses of the region up until today. Most ironically, this has meant that for much of this century, the tamiḻaṉ has been subjected to a category that is a Europeanization of a Sanskrit term used in pre-colonial times to refer, often in a derogatory sense, to the peoples of southern India, Brahmans included (M. Srinivasa Aiyangar 1914: 1-6). To paraphrase Kwame Appiah, the overdetermined course of cultural nationalisms in India has been to make real the many imaginary identities to which Europe has subjected it (Appiah 1992: 62). The Dravidianization of the tamiḻaṉ, however much it may have been a strategy of empowerment for the disenfranchised and the marginalized, is very much an instance of such an overdetermination.

Last but not least, the tamiḻaṉ has been transformed into a subject of Tamil ontologically as well, his very being suffused with the language. Tamil is not just a language that determines his categorical existence and life project from without, but it is also the very life force (uyir) that animates him from within. So, Shaktidasan addresses the young tamiḻaṉ and asks him to remember: “My mind is filled with Tamil; my life is Tamil; my pulse is Tamil; my veins are Tamil; my blood is filled with Tamil; all my flesh is Tamil” (S. Subramanian 1939: 4). Another devotee echoes this sentiment in verse:

Tamil abides in me,
as my flesh
as my life
as my life force.
(quoted in K. Appadurai 1944: 29)

As the language itself is thus corporealized, its speakers come to be Tamilized. The tamiḻaṉ is (re)produced substantially as the language becomes part of his very life essence, feeding his consciousness and his spirit. Incorporated as it has been into the body of the tamiḻaṉ, and blended as it has with his very life and consciousness, it is impossible to separate Tamil from his being:

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.[3]

This incorporation of the language into the very being of the tamiḻaṉ carries tremendous consequences, for in its most passionate moments, tamiḻppaṟṟu certainly instructs Tamil speakers that devotion to their language should supersede devotion to their parents, their spouses, and children; but it also tells them that devotion to their language should transcend attachment to their own bodies and to their own lives. Even when thrown into prison for his participation in the anti-Hindi protests in 1965, the poet Perunchitran was willing to declare:

When they tell me that
This body, and all the blood and sinews and feelings that it contains, belongs to Tamiḻttāy and to other tamiḻar,
I lose all my fatigue!
(Perunchitranar 1979: 66)
And decades earlier, the mystic poet Suddhananda Bharati insisted, “I may forget my own life, but I will not forget Tamil. They may destroy my body, but I will not forsake Tamil” (Suddhananda Bharati 1938: 103).

The subjection of the tamiḻaṉ to Tamil is complete when he willingly agrees thus to surrender his body, his life, and his soul to his mother/language. And so it came about that in the cool dawn of a January morning in 1964, young Chinnasami burned himself alive, leaving behind a letter in which he declared, “O Tamil! In order that you live, I am going to die a terrible death!” In order to enable Tamil to live and flourish, tamiḻppaṟṟu transforms its speakers, who ought to have been masters of the language, into its subjects, a critical reversal of the patrimonial imagination it inherited from European modernity. Their dearest possession, their language, ends up by possessing its devotees, compelling them to sacrifice to it their body, life, and spirit. It is only fitting that one of Tamil’s own has the last word:

There is nothing more precious than life.
However, if any evil befalls you, my glorious Tamiḻttāy!
I will not think that life is precious;
To put an end to your suffering,
I will give up my life.
(Pulavar Kulanthai 1972: 21)


1. The Light of Truth or Siddhanta Deepika 6 (1902-03): 93. [BACK]

2. Tamiḻar Nāṭu 2 (1946): 3. [BACK]

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

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