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The Woman Devotee

From the time of Vedanayakam Pillai’s 1879 novel Piratāpa Mutaliyār Carittiram through Bharatidasan’s numerous plays in the 1940s and 1950s, to Mudiyarasan’s 1964 epic poem Pūnḳoṭi, the Tamil reading public has been offered the image of the ideal Tamil woman as an enthusiastic devotee of Tamil. It is Vedanayakam’s spirited heroine, Gnanambal, rather than the hero of his novel, who mounts a fiery attack on the infatuation with English among lawyers of her time, producing in that process one of the earliest passionate eulogies of Tamil in devotional discourses (Vedanayakam Pillai 1879: 279-90). In a radical departure, Mudiyarasan’s heroine Poonkodi even rejects marriage and motherhood, dedicating her entire life to the service of Tamil. Mudiyarasan yearned to see a woman who gave herself up to the Tamil cause, like Manimekhalai, the nun who dedicated her life to Buddhism in the ancient epic poem Maṇimēkalai (Mudiyarasan n.d.: 94-95). Like Manimekhalai, Poonkodi, too, spurns a life of pleasure and comfort, refuses to marry her ardent suitor Komagan, immerses herself in a passionate pursuit of Tamil learning, and even goes to prison to save her beloved language from its enemies. On her deathbed in prison, Tamiḻttāy appears to her in a vision, praises her for her services, and offers her blessings to her selfless daughter (Mudiyarasan 1964).

Mudiyarasan’s image of the woman devotee who is not wife and mother is comparatively rare in (male) devotional discourses. In general, as custodians of Tamil, women are celebrated less for their achievements in their own right as poets, authors, or thinkers, and more for their role as the heroic mothers (vīrattāy) of Tamiḻttāy’s children, especially her sons (Ramaswamy 1992a; see also Anandhi 1991b; Lakshmi 1990). In the writings of Tamil’s devotees, the Tamil-speaking woman is recast as a surrogate Tamiḻttāy. So M. Kathiresan Chettiar (1881-1953), professor of Tamil at Annamalai University, introduced Tamiḻttāy to his readers thus: “Who is Tamiḻ Aṉṉai [Tamiḻttāy]? Our mothers, too, are Tamiḻ Aṉṉai. All mothers who speak Tamil are Tamiḻ Aṉṉai…[at the same time], the Mother who instructs all the mothers of the world in speech and is the very embodiment of the sweetness that we call ‘Tamil’—she is the person we call Tamiḻ Aṉṉai” (Kathiresan Chettiar 1959-60: 169).

Here, as in numerous other instances, the Tamil woman perforce came to be figured as the visible and substantial presence of intangible abstractions—the language, and the community imagined around it. As the living embodiment of Tamil, she is charged with the responsibility of reproducing (literally, as well as metaphorically) Tamil society and culture, most especially the language. Modelled on the “new woman” who emerged in middle-class imaginations everywhere in colonial India, she is appropriately educated to run a neat, disciplined, and efficient home where she nourishes her children on her pure Tamil milk, raising them to be heroic sons who would willingly go into the world to work for Tamil’s welfare and fertile daughters who would become good, educated mothers themselves. Devotional writings spur women on to embrace this vision by dredging up images of the heroic mother of the Canḳam poems, who rejoices on the day she learned that the son whom her womb had given birth to, and her milk had nourished, now lay dead on the battlefield, having fought honorably for lord and land—and by extension, of course, for his language (Bharati 1988: 318-20; Nilambikai 1960: 82-91; M. Raghava Aiyangar 1986; C. S. Subramaniam 1986: 397-99).[4]

Its female devotees did not reject either the motherhood of Tamil or their own in their writings. On the contrary, rather than seeing motherhood as “a strategy of containment,” as some feminist scholars are wont to do today (Visweswaran 1990: 66; see also Lakshmi 1990), Tamiḻttāy’s daughters saw it as an opportunity for self-empowerment. They pursued this opportunity through appropriating the figure of Tamiḻttāy, even though such an appropriation necessarily took place in the crevices of the patriarchal structures that were relegitimized by tamiḻppaṟṟu itself. Almost without exception, its female devotees maintained that because Tamil is woman and mother, they, as women and mothers, have a better understanding of Tamiḻttāy’s plight and needs. They insisted that women ought not to just passively participate in Tamil devotional activities initiated by men, but ought to lead and march ahead of them (Ramaswamy 1992a: 46-48). Although such an empowerment was necessarily premised on the essentializing of the woman as mother, in this deployment of Tamiḻttāy her female devotees replaced the docile mothers of male devotional discourses, who are followers, with mothers who are leaders.

In a recent essay, Janaki Nair rightly notes: “the question of female agency in history, whether that agency takes the form of consent, transgression, or subversion, can neither be wholly contained within a delineation of structures of oppression nor exhausted by accounts of female presence in history, but must be posed within specific contexts and placed along a continuum where various forms of agency may coexist” (Nair 1994: 83). And indeed, in the stories of women devotees that are circulated within the devotional community, there is a continuum which ranges from Nilambikai’s conservative advocacy of women’s responsibility in educating their children to Thamaraikanni’s spirited call for militant warriors to battle for the Tamil cause. And in the stories of those women who during the anti-Hindi protests of the 1930s and 1940s took to the streets, organized protest marches and conferences, and even went to prison, the radical female devotee resembles the male, as she transgresses the function of the domestic paragon that has been assigned to her. These stories, even when we hear them through male voices, remind us that these women contested and subverted the patriarchal demands of tamiḻppaṟṟu, while simultaneously appearing to give their consent to the confinement to marriage and motherhood that it demanded (Ramaswamy 1992a).

Nilambikai has been described in the biography written by her brother as a woman who came into this world solely for the purpose of serving Tamil: “she embodies tamiḻppaṟṟu; her life is the life of Tamil; she cannot be pried apart from Tamil” (M. Tirunavukarasu 1945: 50). Born in 1903, Nilambikai’s life and future as a Tamil devotee was overdetermined. The favorite daughter of Maraimalai Adigal, she was raised on the shoulders and laps of other well-known devotees such as Arasan Shanmugan (1868-1915) and Pandithurai Thevar (1867-1911), who were her father’s friends and patrons. Her father appears to have taken great pride in her love for Tamil, even making her memorize, when she was thirteen, one of his essays on the duties of motherhood, which she publicly recited at a scholarly meeting in Madras. So impressed was he with his young daughter, her brother tells us, that Maraimalai Adigal declared passionately one day, “Nila’s face resembles that of Shelley and Shakespeare and other great savants” (M. Tirunavukarasu 1945: 8-12).

In the devotional community, Nilambikai occupies a special niche for her role in spurring her famous father into launching his pure Tamil movement in 1916. Her brother recalls that Nilambikai bestowed pure Tamil names upon her siblings, and would use only those; she would speak and write as far as possible in pure Tamil; and she would correct anyone who used a foreign word when-speaking in Tamil (M. Tirunavukarasu 1945: 14-15). Soon after, in 1918, when she turned sixteen, Nilambikai met the twenty-eight-year-old Tiruvarangam Pillai (1890-1944), who a few years later was to set up the famous Shaiva Siddhanta Kazhagam. Her brother remembers that his entire family had come to see Tiruvarangam as a godlike figure, their father’s savior and patron. It is perhaps not surprising that young Nilambikai fell in love with him, although she was not allowed to marry him for almost ten years (M. Tirunavukarasu 1945: 21-35).

Intertwined though her life may have been with those of these famous devotees, Nilambikai nevertheless strived to serve Tamil on her own as well. By the time she was in her early twenties, she had published numerous essays on the virtues of taṉittamiḻ in the face of considerable opposition to the pure Tamil movement (Nilambikai 1960).[5] She followed this up in 1937 with a dictionary, the first of its kind, which demonstrated the existence of pure Tamil equivalents for seven thousand Sanskrit words that had swamped Tamil (Nilambikai 1952). She also taught Tamil in girls’ schools; spoke at various Shaiva conferences; and wrote extensively on the revival of Tamil, the spread of Shaivism, and the improvement of women. By all accounts, she was alarmed by what she saw as an absence of interest in Tamil among its female speakers, a concern that she voiced especially strongly in her inaugural address to the Tamilnadu Women’s Conference summoned in November 1938 to register Tamil women’s protest against Hindi.[6] Of course, Nilambikai’s vision for how women should help their language fell within the parameters of middle-class motherhood. They should establish taṉittamiḻ women’s colleges and bookstores, encourage widow education, and become Tamil teachers. But such public services should never compromise their primary function as educated homemakers who raised their children to be well-read, disciplined, and pure Tamil speakers (Nilambikai n.d.). She wrote and spoke ardently on such matters in spite of poor health, and in spite of having to take care of her own eight children. At least by her brother’s account, she took great pride in her own motherhood, raising her children to be devout Shaivites and Tamil speakers (M. Tirunavukarasu 1945: 38-43). But it is hard to deny that the birth of eleven children over a period of about fifteen years must have taken its toll on her health, and she was only forty-three when she died in 1945, a year after her beloved husband and fellow devotee had passed on.

At the 1938 Tamilnadu Women’s Conference which Nilambikai addressed, another woman spoke with great passion about the need for Tamil women to “rise up in anger” and step forth to help their ailing mother, Tamiḻttāy. Her name was V. P. Thamaraikanni (1911-71). Named Jalajatchi at birth, she was raised in a family of musicians and patrons of Tamil, and later Tamilized her given (Sanskritic) name. An author of many essays and novels, she did not get actively involved in politics, because both her father and husband were government employees (Lakshmi 1984: 77-78; Rajagopalan 1989: 5-7). By the late 1930s, however, she aligned herself with Ramasami’s Self-Respect movement and was a key speaker at many anti-Hindi conferences organized in Madras, Salem, Velur, Nagapattinam, and elsewhere. In 1938, she also published a short story called “Punitavati Allatu Tamiḻar Viṭutalaip Pōr” (Punithavathi, or the Tamilian fight for freedom), which features a heroine, Punithavathi, who forsook her husband and her young daughter to help Tamiḻttāy, and was arrested in this process (Ramaswamy 1992a: 53-56). Thamaraikanni’s spirited heroine asks, “What is the use of wealth, of freedom, and of human relationships, when I can be in the front ranks of those who serve Tamiḻttāy?” (Thamaraikanni 1938: 21).

Thamaraikanni herself did not go to prison on behalf of her beloved language. But many other women did, following her impassioned speech at the November conference. This was the first time women—anywhere in the world, by some reckoning—had ever taken to the streets to battle on behalf of their “mother tongue,” it is proudly claimed. By February 1939, the battle against Hindi had intensified, and official figures show that thirty six women, nine of them described as “ladies with children,” were arrested and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment; these figures almost doubled over the next few months (Ramaswamy 1992a: 56-57). Prison records show that many of the women had distinctly Tamil names; their ages ranged from eighteen to seventy; they were mostly illiterate and unemployed, and hailed from different parts of the Presidency. Devotional stories collapse their individuality into a larger narrative of Tamil devotion. Many of them are identified as daughters, wives, or daughters in law of well-known (male) anti-Hindi activists; as mothers, many of whom went to prison with their infant children; and as women who took pride in informing their sentencing judges that they were protesting against Hindi for the sake of their language and for the future of their children (Ilanceliyan 1986: 143-48).[7]

Two of these women stand out. One of them is “Doctor” Dharmambal (1890-1959), who was honored in 1951 with the title vīrat tamiḻaṉṉai, “heroic Tamil mother,” for her various services to Tamil and to women’s causes. Born in the small town of Karuntattankudi near Tanjavur, Dharmambal learned Tamil from Tamil scholars like Panditai Narayani Ammal when she moved to Madras. Prior to her involvement in the anti-Hindi movement, she had already made a reputation for herself as an activist concerned with women’s issues, especially education, and as a practitioner of siddha medicine (hence her title “doctor”). In addition to leading the anti-Hindi women’s protests in Madras in November 1938, she was also actively involved in the demands for better remuneration for Tamil teachers, and she spearheaded the Māṇavar Maṉṟam (Student’s Association) which cultivated tamiḻppaṟṟu among the city’s Tamil-speaking youth. Along with Dharmambal, two of her daughters in law, Saraswati and Sita, were arrested for participating in the protests against Hindi (K. Tirunavukarasu 1991: 200-213).

And then there was Ramamirtham (1883-1962), a native of the small village of Moovalur near Tanjavur, who was raised in a devadasi (temple dancer) family. With no formal education, much of Ramamirtham’s life, prior to her involvement in the anti-Hindi cause, had been devoted to the abolition of the devadasi system. In 1921, she joined the Congress and allied herself with its radical faction headed by Ramasami. When the latter quit the Congress in 1925-26, she followed him, became a member of his Self-Respect movement, and continued her struggle for various women’s causes, encouraged by Ramasami’s own radical ideas on the subject (Anandhi 1991a: 741-42). Although there is little to indicate that she joined the anti-Hindi movement because she was a devotee of Tamil, she certainly threw herself into it with great enthusiasm, even though she was in her fifties. She played a key role in organizing the Tamilian Brigade, which marched on foot from Tiruchirapalli to Madras in August-September 1938, and was in charge of providing food for the protesters on their six-hundred-mile journey. On their reaching Madras, she joined in the picketing of the Hindu Theological School along with Dharmambal and others, and she was thrown into prison for six months beginning in November 1938 (K. Tirunavukarasu 1991: 168-78). Ten years later, she spoke out against Hindi again, at the 1948 anti-Hindi conference organized in Madras. While not asking them to reject their responsibility as educated mothers, she nevertheless called upon the women gathered there to take to the streets and, like their menfolk, march against Hindi. Unlike men, she suggested shrewdly, women would be treated much more benevolently by the government, and hence could be more effective in the campaign to save Tamil. Women, she claimed, have the capacity to create as well as destroy. Therefore, Tamil women should now rise up and destroy the scourge of Hindi. Her commitment to Dravidianism notwithstanding, Ramamirtham invoked the mythical epochs of Sanskritic Hinduism as well as its archetypical heroines, declaring that Sita had destroyed the trēta epoch and Draupadi had brought an end to the dwāpara age; today, Tamil women would rise and destroy the kali epoch created by Hindi, she asserted.[8]


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