Preferred Citation: Ramaswamy, Sumathi. Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.

Feminizing Language

3. Feminizing Language

Tamil as Goddess, Mother, Maiden

Tamil’s devotees do not merely relate to it as their language. They are able to breathe so much life and inject so much passion into practicing tamiḻppaṟṟu because Tamil to them is more than an intangible abstraction. Instead, embodied in the figure of Tamiḻttāy, it is a near and dear being—their personal goddess, their devoted mother, even their beloved lover—who commands their veneration and adulation, and deserves their love and loyalty. Yet, like the language she embodies, Tamiḻttāy appears differently to different devotees at different moments in their lives, and is thus variously represented as teyvam, “goddess” tāy, “mother” and kaṉṉi, “virgin maiden.” Consequently, she does not have a singular persona. Indeed, this is how Tamil devotion, fundamentally a network of patriarchal discourses conducted largely by men, solves the “problem” of having a female figure enshrined at the very heart of its enterprise. She is first isolated and abstracted from the “real” world in which Tamil-speaking women of all shades have been disempowered through much of this century; she is then endowed with a plenitude of powers and possibilities which transform her into a strikingly exceptional Woman, not readily confused with the flesh-and-blood women on whom she is also obviously modelled. Though she may be thus empowered, her potential to exceed the control of her (male) creators is contained through her fragmentation. The plethora of multiple personae that she is endowed with works to prevent her consolidation as a threatening, all-powerful being, even as it simultaneously opens up the possibility that her various selves may be deployed in contradictory ways for the different projects of her devotees.[1] Tamiḻttāy thus is yet another classic example of the objectification of woman as a thing “to be appropriated, possessed, and exchanged in the social relations of cooperation and competition among men” (Uberoi 1990: 41). Although we will see later that some Tamil-speaking women have their own way with her, Tamiḻttāy, like other exemplary female icons, is far from cutting a feminist figure in her guise as tame goddess, benevolent mother, and pure virgin. Visible and valorized she may be, but she is very much a figment of the patriarchal imaginations of modernity in colonial and post-colonial India.

The Poetics and Politics of Praise

The founding narrative which popularized the habit of imagining Tamil as goddess, mother, and maiden is P. Sundaram Pillai’s 1891 hymn, “Tamiḻt teyva vaṇakkam,” “Homage to Goddess Tamil.” Sundaram Pillai, of course, occupies a hallowed niche in the pantheon of tamiḻppaṟṟu as a truly loyal son of Tamiḻttāy. As his fellow devotees exclaim, was it not remarkable that although he lived all his life in Kerala, a non-Tamil-speaking region, he confessed to Tamiḻttāy, “I may reside in [the land of] Malayalam, but I think of [only] you as my mother” (Sundaram Pillai 1922: 23)? Born in 1855 in Allepey into a middle-income Vellala family of traders, Sundaram Pillai had a master’s degree in philosophy. Aside from a brief bureaucratic stint as commissioner of separate revenues for Travancore (1882-85), he taught history and philosophy at the Maharaja’s College in Trivandrum until his death in 1897. His historical researches on Tamil literature secured for him membership in the Royal Asiatic Society and the coveted title of Rao Bahadur from the colonial state (Pillai et al. 1957).

In writing his hymn on Tamiḻttāy, Sundaram Pillai took great care in locating it within a prior Shaiva tradition of deifying Tamil (Sundaram Pillai 1922: 9; Kailasapathy 1970: 102-9). Like his seventeenth-century predecessor, Karunaiprakasar, he refers to Tamil as deity and even boldly establishes a parity between the mighty Shiva and his Tamiḻtteyvam, both of whom are deemed “primordial,” “everlasting,” and “boundless.” Nonetheless, Sundaram Pillai was indeed inaugurating a new sensibility when he explicitly feminized Tamil as goddess, mother, and maiden. Aside from a few verses, the feminization of the language was quite underdeveloped prior to his hymn, but since then it has gained an immense following. Furthermore, large numbers of subsequent poets, especially those influenced by the Dravidian movement, have abandoned the conventional practice of beginning their works by calling upon the traditional Hindu deities to shower their benedictions on them. Instead, they more typically appeal to Tamiḻttāy as their sole muse and guardian deity (Kailasapathy 1970). In doing so, they broadcast their allegiance to the Tamil cause and secure membership for themselves in the Tamil devotional community, even as they elevate the language to a status commensurate with that of the gods.

Equally striking, since Sundaram Pillai’s time many devotees have not just been content with short invocatory verses on Tamiḻttāy; instead they have also produced long and elaborate praise poems on her, many of which have been—and continue to be—published in literary journals and popular newspapers, or printed in anthologies (e.g., Nagarajan 1980; Somasundara Pulavar n.d.; Velayutam Pillai 1971). Indeed, praise poetry is one of the principal technologies through which devotion to Tamiḻttāy is produced and circulated. For while there are a number of devout prose writings in which Tamiḻttāy figures, it is praise poetry written in Tamil that is her favored niche.

Praise poetry has a long history in the literary cultures of the region, and it may be traced back through the devotional verses of the second millennium to the royal panegyrics of the ancient Canḳam corpus. Most such praise poems focused on deities, sovereigns, and spiritual notables, although occasionally other subjects of praise, like Tamil itself, materialized (Krishnan 1984; Ramaswamy 1996). As literary practice, praise poems enabled poets to articulate sentiments of love and adulation for their chosen subjects, to recount the salvific powers and glorious actions of the deity or the sovereign, to dwell lovingly upon his or her beautiful form and appearance, and the like. Many conventional genres of praise—such as the tirupaḷḷiyeḻucci, the tirutacānḳam, the piḷḷaittamiḻ, the tūtu, and so on—have been extremely productive over the centuries, offering standardized templates that a poet could readily deploy in the praise of a chosen subject or patron (Zvelebil 1974: 193-219).

Remarkably, such genres, which were predominantly reserved for deities or sovereigns in the premodern praise literature, are used from the early decades of this century to laud Tamil. Thus, there are many examples of Tamiḻttāy paḷḷiyeḻucci, “the awakening of Tamiḻttāy from sleep” Tamiḻttāy tirutacānḳam, “the ten constituents of [the kingdom of] Tamiḻttāy” and of Tamiḻttāyppiḷḷaitamiḻ, “Tamiḻttāy as extraordinary child.” There are innumerable versions of Tamiḻttāymālai, “garland of Tamiḻttāy” at least two poems written in the ancient āṟṟuppaṭai, “guide,” genre in which poets direct their fellow speakers to the presence of a glorious and bountiful Tamiḻttāy whom they had forgotten; and two poems featuring Tamil as messenger, tūtu (Amirtham Pillai 1906; Arangasami [1977]; Parantama Mudaliar 1926; Somasundara Pulavar n.d.: 8-10, 35-43; Sundara Shanmugan 1951; Velayutam Pillai 1971: 56-61, 83-84; Pekan 1986). Additionally, popular and folk genres such as the kuṟavaņci and the villuppāṭṭu have also been appropriated in narratives such as the Tamiḻaracikkuṟavaņci (The fortuneteller song on Queen Tamil) and Tamiḻ Vaḷarnta Katai (The story of Tamil’s growth) (Navanitakrishnan 1952; Varadananjaiya Pillai [1938]). At the very least, all this suggests the energy with which modern devotees of Tamil have colonized high as well as popular forms, so that a space may be cleared for their chosen one among the more conventional objects of adulation in the Tamil life-world. Through the deployment of such poetic genres and praise strategies, they have endowed their language with the powers and charisma that have gathered around gods, sovereigns, and notables over the centuries—the right to command allegiance, demand loyalty, and mobilize followers. In turn, her devotees are encouraged to relate to Tamiḻttāy as they have interacted with these figures—with a mixture of adulation, reverence, and deep love.

Praise, Arjun Appadurai suggests, is a “regulated, improvisatory practice” that creates a “community of sentiment involving the emotional participation of the praiser, the one who is praised, and the audience of that act of praise” (A. Appadurai 1990: 94). The praise poem on Tamiḻttāy personalizes the language, presenting it to its devotee as a tangible being who is familiar, even intimate—a personal god, patron sovereign, guardian muse, object of desire, and increasingly, mother figure. The praise poem also knits together the language and its devotees into a community of adulation and worship, each act of praise allowing them an opportunity to dwell lovingly upon the wonders and powers of their beloved Tamil. Finally, the praise poem allows its authors to renew their faith in themselves and in each other as devotees of Tamiḻttāy. The praise of Tamiḻttāy through poetry thus is more than just a literary or political gesture, signifying one’s adherence to Tamil; it is, also, crucially, a ritual act through which tamiḻppaṟṟu is continually renewed and reaffirmed. It is therefore not surprising that many such praise poems, particularly by hallowed devotees such as Sundaram Pillai, Subramania Bharati, or Bharatidasan, are recited over and over again in devotional circles, especially at times that call for a heightened demonstration of piety and loyalty.

All this is not to say that poetry is the only form of expression in Tamil devotion. Certainly, its devotees wrote a great deal about Tamil in prose, especially on matters relating to language and cultural policy, on the promotion of Tamil in education, government, and public activities, and so on. In such prose narratives, however, especially when they were written in English, it is comparatively rare to find Tamiḻttāy. Instead, Tamil generally appears in prose as a nonpersonified language—not as an animate being, as it frequently does in its poetry. This in itself is perhaps not surprising, for prose narratives on Tamil were often produced for the consumption of the state, in the process of petitioning the government for various favors. In contrast, poetry on Tamiḻttāy is typically generated for the consumption of its speakers. Indeed, especially in the colonial period, the state appears to have been remarkably disinterested in this whole sphere of activity that was so prolific and widespread among Tamil’s devout. So the striking dependence on poetic discourse in Tamil devotional circles was more than just a literary habit, dictated by the norms of a culture in which poetry, rather than prose, was until fairly recently the privileged mode of literary expression. Rather, the recourse to Tamil poetry was also a strategic practice through which its devotees expressed and constituted their devotion to their language through a medium (Tamil) that is considered their very “own,” through a form (poetry) that is deemed authentically and deeply “Tamil,” and through forums (such as community based literary and revivalist activities) that were outside the interests of the state. Poetry made possible intimate, even veiled, discourse about the language, allowing participation only to those who were familiar with its imagery, meters, rhetorical nuances, and so on. Thus poetry enabled Tamil’s devout to practice what I would characterize as “intimate politics” in which affect and passion were deployed to establish the boundaries of a community united in devotion to the language.

And yet, although poetry had been the preferred mode of pre-colonial literary work, with the onset of modernity and its privileging of prose as rational, objective, and scientific, poets were increasingly pushed to the margins of social prestige and economic well-being in many parts of colonial India, and certainly in the Tamil-speaking region. Paradoxically, this itself may account for poetry’s popularity as a discursive form among Tamil’s devotees. Because prose, especially prose in English, was so closely associated with the existing power structures, poetry, I suggest, emerged as the favored form for the disenfranchised and the disempowered. Concomitantly, poetry also presents itself as a form of expression for those who want to oppose the existing system and the dominant ideology. In her marvellous ethnography on the ideology of poetry in Bedouin society, Lila Abu-Lughod suggests as much and notes that among the Bedouins, “poetry is, in so many ways, the discourse of opposition to the system[,]…[a] symbol of defiance” (1986: 233-59). I appropriate her suggestion, applying it as well to the production of poetry by tamiḻppaṟṟu, which has clearly been a discourse of opposition conducted around sentiments of decline, loss, and disempowerment. On the one hand, poetry is widely believed to encapsulate the best of Tamil’s literary tradition; it is associated with the Tamil past, especially the past of the ancient Canḳam age when poets, we are repeatedly told, commanded even kings. Poetry, it is nostalgically believed, is a deeply and authentically Tamil form. On the other hand, at least in the past century or so, its very subordination to prose within the regimes of colonial modernity meant that it emerged not just as a means but as a site of resistance to dominant ideologies, as well as to the new literary and linguistic forms that threatened what was perceived as authentically Tamil. For all these reasons, when Tamil’s devotees want to write most passionately, intimately, and fiercely about their language, they turn to poetry.

In the praise poetry on Tamil and Tamiḻttāy since the time of Sundaram Pillai, there is no singular conception of paṟṟu, “devotion,” that reigns. Instead, like the language and like Tamiḻttāy, devotion, too, is multifaceted, and here I examine three of its modalities. In what I wish to call its “pietistic” mode, it is Tamiḻttāy’s persona as teyvam, “goddess,” that is foregrounded, and the devotee casts himself as a pious worshipper. The predominant sentiment of this modality is reverence for a divine being, the relationship between the language and its pious devotee modelled on the ritual relationship between an omniscient goddess and her subordinate worshipper. I characterize the second of the modalities as the “somatics of devotion.” Here, the emphasis is on Tamiḻttāy’s persona as tāy, the “mother” of her devotees, who correspondingly cast themselves as her “children.” In this modality, the relationship between the language and its filial devotee is biological and corporeal, modelled on the genealogical and familial bonds that tie a mother to her child. Here, devotion takes on a distinctly filial flavor, predominantly expressed in the domestic idiom of the family and the home. And then, there is a third modality that I characterize as the “erotics of devotion.” Here, it is Tamiḻttāy’s persona as woman that is highlighted, the devotee casting himself as a desiring man. In this modality, the relationship between the language and its desiring devotee is charged with eroticism, although Tamiḻttāy’s status as kaṉṉi, “virgin maiden,” obviously complicates an already ambivalent situation. I have analytically distinguished these modalities of devotion (pietistics, somatics, and erotics), these three aspects of the devotee (pious, filial, and desiring), and these three personae of Tamiḻttāy (goddess, mother, and maiden). But in much of the discourse of tamiḻppaṟṟu, they are all quite intertwined, making Tamil devotion a very fraught and complicated affair indeed.

Tamil as Deity: Pietistics of Tamil Devotion

In Sundaram Pillai’s founding hymn, Tamiḻttāy figures prominently as a goddess, variously invoked as teyvam,aṇanḳu, and tāy.[2] Poems featuring Tamiḻttāy as deity are generally more frequent in the religious and Indianist regimes of tamiḻppaṟṟu (Bharati 1988: 117; Ramalinga Pillai 1988: 19, 474; Velayutam Pillai 1971), although many a Dravidianist poet who vigorously challenged the divinization of the language also occasionally slipped into this imagery. Consider a poem by Mudiyarasan entitled “Tamiḻ Eṉ Teyvam” (Tamil is my deity). A dedicated Dravidianist, the poet consciously distances himself from religiosity in his personal reminiscences, but he did not hesitate to write about Tamil thus:

Residing in my heart that is your temple (kōvil), offer me grace;
Adorned in your garland of poetry, offer me protection;
Resting on my tongue, grant me good sense;
In verse and word, I will be strong.
I worship you every day and talk about your fame everywhere;
The world deems me a mad fellow (pittaṉ), a fanatic (veṟiyaṉ);
Don’t you see?
(Mudiyarasan 1976: 27-28)
There are clear resonances here with the rhetorical modes and vocabulary of (Hindu) religiosity, so that even in a poem produced under the ideological mantle of the Dravidian movement, the relation between the language and its devotee is one of divine piety and reverence.

In this modality, Tamiḻttāy may be a goddess, but she is not imagined as a transcendent remote divine being. Instead, true to the spirit of the devotional, bhakti Hinduism of the region, she is an immanent figure who is intimately and personally connected with the lives of her devotees. Indeed, one of the most striking features of the pietistics of tamiḻppaṟṟu is the immediacy of bonds between the goddess and her worshippers; the truly devout can not only feel her presence, they can also see her, even touch her. Further, as in bhakti Hinduism, she is not only god to her pious devotee, but she is also his parent, guide, sovereign, friend, lover, and child. At different moments in his life as her pious worshipper, she may manifest herself to him in these various roles. As such a worshipper, Navaliyur Somasundara Pulavar (1878?-1953), a Tamil teacher at the Vattukottai school in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, declared:

Like [our] mother, shes gives us food;
Like [our] father, she gives us learning;
Like our wife, she creates pleasure at home;
Like our child, she gives sweet words pleasant to our ears.
(Velayutam Pillai 1971: 86)

This multiplicity in her persona as teyvam notwithstanding, Tamiḻttāy is above all a personal god, and the pious devotee relates to her on those terms. When he contemplates her, he does so oblivious to the presence of any other deity or being. Many praise poems are replete with references to actions (vaṇanḳutal,parāvutal,pōṟṟutal) that are typically used in the reverencing of Hindu divinities: “so that we may attain well-being, let us place on our head the flowerlike feet of our youthful goddess Tamil (paintamiḻtēvi),” or “let us bow at the feet of our ancient goddess Tamil” (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 34-35). Tantalizing as these utterances may be in indexing an attitude of worshipfulness, it is not clear if the pious devotee actually offered pūja, that paradigmatic Hindu act of divine worship, to his goddess Tamil, thus casting into doubt whether Tamiḻttāy, even in her overtly divine manifestation, is ever treated unambiguously as a Hindu divinity within tamiḻppaṟṟu.

Crucial to the pietistics of devotion is the deliberate adoption of strategies of archaization and “subterfuges of antiquity” (Kaviraj 1993: 13). Although there are certainly ancient precedents to her present incarnation, Tamiḻttāy is clearly a modern creation, not older than a century or so. But this is not what her pious devotee maintains. He claims that like the language she embodies, Tamiḻttāy is a primeval deity. And the poems about her only support such a claim, so striking a throwback are they to ancient literary forms of veneration and adoration in the baroque motifs they use, their aesthetic structure, and their rhetorics. Through such strategies of archaization, her pious follower certainly establishes his own literary reputation as a skilled, learned poet; but just as crucially, he bestows a halo of venerable and formidable antiquity upon Tamiḻttāy herself. And in a culture where the aura of primordiality carries with it a power that is as immense as it is intangible, this itself contributes towards the power of the goddess.

Tamiḻtteyvam: Portrait of a Goddess

So what are the various ways in which Tamiḻttāy has been constituted as primeval deity, the beloved of the gods, and the most bountiful of all beings?

“You were there, even before the mighty Himalayas emerged, and Kumari Nadu submerged!”

A fundamental strategy for establishing the antiquity of Tamiḻttāy is by placing her in the company of the gods, as their companion, confidante, and friend. For some of her pious following, she, like the gods themselves, has no beginning. Sundaram Pillai hinted at this by comparing her with the primordial Shiva. Somasundara Bharati, too, referred to her as mutalilaḷōr, “one who has no beginning,” and mūppumilaḷ, “she who is ageless” (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 23). Abstracted from the vagaries and contingencies of secular time, Tamiḻttāy thus lives in cosmic time. Yet, being a modern himself and very much aware of the power of historical memories, the pious devotee also links her to ancient historical personages of the Tamil-speaking countryside. So he fashions for her a biography assembled from stories and legends of the Shaiva canon and from the newly emerging “facts” of ancient Tamil history. Tamiḻttāy was created by Shiva (sometimes with the aid of the goddess Earth, but at other times single-handedly), and delivered to the world (through the intervention of that paradigmatic Tamil god, Murugan, in some versions) by the mythical sage Agastya. From his abode in the Potiyam mountains (in the Western Ghats), Agastya adorned her with her very first “jewel,” the legendary grammar called Akattiyam. Subsequently, she matured as a child in the antediluvian academies of the Pandyan kingdom, which flourished under the benevolent patronage of Shiva himself. She slowly moved out of cosmic time into history as she came of age in the last of the academies in Madurai, proudly fostered by the “triumvirate” (mūvēntar), the famed Pandya, Chera, and Chola kings celebrated in the Canḳam poems. From then on, as an ever-virginal maiden, she enjoyed the patronage of various Tamil rulers. During this time, she was gifted with some more spectacular “ornaments” which adorn her body—the five great epic poems (paņcakāviyam), the Tirukkuṟaḷ, the Tiruvācakam, and so on. This is, of course, a biography with no end, for, being a deity, she has no end.

“There is no one like you! This is indeed the truth”

Not only is Tamiḻttāy the most ancient and primordial of all beings, she is also incomparable. “O goddess Tamil! There is no other deity like you,” declared Somasundara Pulavar (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 87). Incomparable she may be, but the pious devotee does invoke her likeness to the five elements (fire, water, earth, air, and ether), to the everlasting karpaka tree, to the sun and the moon, and so on. He also compares her to tasty fruits, beautiful flowers, and flavorful foods. So, Tamiḻttāy is hailed as “the sea of ambrosia,” as “the golden creeper, ripe with sweetness,” as one “who shames the sweet sugarcane.” In early medieval religious poetry where gods are routinely praised thus, it has been suggested that such visual and taste-oriented metaphors exemplify the devotee’s intimate sensory experience of the divine presence (Cutler 1987: 199). This may also be true for Tamil’s pious devotee, who yearns to capture Tamiḻttāy’s wondrous qualities and present these to his fellow speakers in terms both familiar and desirable. But more often than not, he declares helplessly that words are inadequate to capture her greatness, her fame, and her beauty. “O mother, who will find it easy to talk about all your excellent virtues?” asked A. Venkatachalam Pillai (1888?-1953), chief poet of the Karanthai Tamil Sangam and first editor of its Tamiḻp Poḻil. And Thudisaikizhar Chidambaram (1883-1954), who worked for a while in the colonial police service, a job he gave up to dedicate himself to Shaiva revivalism, wondered plaintively, “Is it even possible for someone like me to sing your greatness?” (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 11, 66).

“She encircles the resounding world”

Flourishing as she has from remote antiquity, Tamiḻttāy is also sovereign of the world, and of all the peoples who live in it, and of all the languages they speak. For had she not preceded all of them, and indeed, was she not responsible for their creation? So, the eight cardinal directions echo to the sound of her victorious drums and the songs of her fame (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 78-80). In picture posters produced by organizations like Kampaṉ Kaḻakam in Karaikkudi (henceforth Kamban Kazhagam) and by notables in Annamalainagar, as well as on the covers of magazines like Tamiḻ Vaṭṭam (1967), Tamiḻttāy thus appears seated on a globe, her “throne” (figs. 1-3). From early in the century, tamiḻppaṟṟu had claimed that since Tamiḻttāy had formerly ruled the world, there was little doubt that she would reign supreme, once again, in the future. For her devotees seeking to mobilize their fellow speakers around the cause of Tamiḻttāy, such an imagining of Tamil as an ecumenical language of the world served to keep alive the aura of its ancient sovereignty in an age of disenchantment and decline.

“You are sovereign of the fine Tamil world”

In the spirit of divine and kingly cultures of the region in which gods are kinglike, and sovereigns are godlike, Tamiḻtteyvam is also imagined as Tamiḻ Araci, the queen of the fine Tamil world (naṟtamiḻulakam), the empress of the entire Dravidian land (Vedanayakam Pillai 1879: 285). Poems composed in the tirutacānḳam (the auspicious ten limbs) genre enumerate the ten “royal limbs” of her kingdom—her sovereign title, land, capital city, river, mountain, vehicle, army, drum, garland, and banner. Tamiḻttāy’s “army” is the might of her poetry; her “royal mount,” the tongue(s) of her glorious poet(s). The three branches of Tamil—literature (iyal), music (icai), and drama (nāṭakam)—make up her “royal drum” she wears Tamil poems around her neck as her victorious “garland” her “royal banner,” appropriately enough, is the flag of knowledge made up of all the goodness of the incomparable Tamil; and so on (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 83-84). Yet Tamiḻttāy is clearly conceived by her admirers to be more than a goddess of learning and knowledge. The Herderian notion circulated through colonial knowledges, that language provides the legitimate foundation for distinctive nation-states, is enrolled into her constitution as a goddess of polity as well, as a queen who rules over the Tamil land and community. Most typically, Tamiḻttāy’s “kingdom” extends from the Venkatam (Tirupati) hills in the north, to Cape Kumari in the south, and from coast to coast, the traditional tamiḻakam (Tamil home) of the ancient Canḳam poems. Some devotees, especially of contestatory classicist inclination, were more ambitious and maintained that she was queen of all of India. Thus in the Kamban Kazhagam poster (fig. 2) as well as in the frontispiece of the 1947 edition of Velayutam Pillai’s anthology, Moḻiyaraci (Queen of languages), Tamiḻttāy is seated on a map of (prepartition) India. In such visuals, she clearly challenges the authority of Bhārata Mātā, who is generically shown standing on a map of India with her arms stretched out to encompass the east and the west, her head in the Himalayas, her feet resting in the South (fig. 4). For contestatory regimes of tamiḻppaṟṟu, it is Tamiḻttāy, however, who should legitimately occupy the land now appropriated for Bhārata Mātā.

At the same time, her pious devotee also takes care to establish Tamiḻttāy’s intimate connections with the Tamil-speaking landscape. So, rivers like the Tamaraparani and the Kaveri are imagined as ornaments that snake their way across her body; the two mountain ranges (Western and Eastern Ghats) are visualized as her arms; the cool and fragrant southern breeze (teṉṟal) is likened to her sweet breath; and so on. A sacred geography thus emerges around her persona: Potiyam, the mountain home of the sage, Agastya, is hallowed as her “birth” place; Madurai, that seat of Tamil learning, is where she reigned as queen; the Vaigai River is where she performed many of her miracles that demonstrated her supernatural powers; and so on. Like Tamil itself, the land where it is spoken and over which Tamiḻttāy rules is sacred as well (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 73-98).

“You are knowledge itself”

Her pious devotee also insists that Tamiḻttāy’s “kingdom” is not just the earthly spread of the Tamil land (or India, or the whole wide world). Instead, she is queen of something even more superior, the kingdom of knowledge. In the words of R. Raghava Aiyangar, a leading member of the Madurai Tamil Sangam and the first editor of its journal, Centamiḻ:

O sweet Tamiḻttāy! May you flourish forever here and offer grace to your devotees!
You produced the poetry of Kapilar and other poets of the good academy in the southern land.
You fed the world with the Kuṟaḷ of Valluvar.
You destroyed darkness with mighty Kamban.
You stand as source of all learning.
You caused learning to grow among women.
You created scholars to nourish our minds.
O fine Tamiḻttāy! Look at all you have accomplished!
(Velayutam Pillai 1971: 41-42)

The world’s best knowledge, of course, is in Tamil; its poets are the finest, and so is its literature. The more contestatory devotee insists that Tamiḻttāy’s learned productions are far superior to anything that other languages, especially Sanskrit, can offer. Sundaram Pillai himself set the tone in his paradigmatic 1891 hymn when he asked polemically why should the (Sanskritic) Manusmṛti, which advocated a different norm for each caste, be forced upon Tamil speakers when they have their own Tirukkuṟaḷ? Why do we need the Veda when we have the Tiruvācakam, which melts the stoniest of hearts (Sundaram Pillai 1922: 22-23)? Since his time, of course, others have continued to declare that their Tamiḻttāy’s auspicious words are more glorious than the words of the Veda, the Vedānta, the BhagavadGītā, and other such hallowed texts of Sanskritic Hinduism.

For the less contestatory devotee, however, Tamiḻttāy appears to have been a Saraswati-like figure. Indeed, that paradigmatic Sanskritic goddess of learning and wisdom is sometimes portrayed as Tamiḻttāy’s friend, who commands poets to sing to her in Tamil so that she, too, may enjoy that wondrous language (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 89). At other times, Tamiḻttāy is herself referred to as kalaimakaḷ (= Saraswati), and in many a visual and iconographic representation, the similarity between the two goddesses is quite striking. Given the antagonism towards Sanskritic Hinduism that characterizes so many of the regimes of tamiḻppaṟṟu, Tamiḻttāy thus appears to displace Saraswati in the affections of many a pious devotee. As such, she, and not Saraswati, was the fount of all learning, the mother of all languages, and the inspiring muse for scholar and devotee alike.

“She is the goddess who commands the gods who guard us”

Nothing more clearly suggests the desire of her pious devotee to move Tamiḻttāy into the space occupied by his traditional gods than the many verses in which she is credited with performing various miraculous deeds conventionally attributed to Shiva, Vishnu, and other deities of the Hindu pantheon. So Chidambaram declared that Tamiḻttāy, too, performed the three cosmic deeds of creation, maintenance, and destruction for which Shiva is famed (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 66). C. Venkatarama Chettiyar (b. 1913), who taught Tamil at Annamalai University, wrote that the three branches of Tamil embodied “this precious world which was formerly spanned by the three steps of that lofty Lord of Lakshmi [Vishnu]” (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 44). That her pious devotee could go to great lengths to make such claims is clear from a long poem in which Chidambaram addresses Tamiḻttāy:

You dispatched the Lord of all devotees as messenger!
Is there anything more to be said of your greatness?
You transformed poison into ambrosia!
You made the rock thrown into the ocean to float as a raft!
You coaxed the murderous elephant to bow down to that great devotee!
You transformed a mere pile of bones into a woman!
You caused palm-leaf manuscripts to float on the floodwaters! you protected them from being scorched by the worst of fires!
You opened the doors [of the temple] of Tirumaraikadu!
You cured the hunched back of the great Pandyan!
You taught the heretical Jains to learn the wonders of the great Shiva!
My! My! What greatness! What wonder!
(Velayutam Pillai 1971: 66-67)

These lines may sound arcane and esoteric, but they remind us, once again, that the power of Tamiḻttāy in this modality is constituted by deliberately archaizing her, by placing her in another time, in a world of mysterious but wondrous acts and beings. They also confirm what every pious devotee would like to hear, that his goddess would do anything for those who were devoted to her—quench the anger of a murderous elephant who was threatening to kill one of her adorers, cure the chronic fever of another, even play the role of a lowly messenger so that the love life of one of her worshippers would thrive. Indeed, this is a fundamental aspect of the structure of piety that is constituted around the divine Tamiḻttāy: in return for services rendered to her by her devotees, she would protect them, grant them miraculous favors, and shower wealth and grace on them. In short, she would do anything for those who were truly her adoring dependents.

But most crucially, these lines recall incidents from the life stories of famous devotees of Shiva in which the latter tests the devotion of his followers to punish those who were cruel to them, to reveal to them his compassion, and to grant eternal bliss to his truly devout (Peterson 1989). And yet, these same incidents are invoked in the modern discourses of tamiḻppaṟṟu with a significant, even cosmic, difference. For here, Tamiḻttāy is the inspiring force behind Shiva’s activities, the true author of these wondrous deeds, and the paradigmatic savior of the world.

“The supreme one who has no beginning and no end, ardently desires you”

Although her pious devout, especially orthodox Shaivites, are careful to not let Tamiḻttāy’s powers overtly challenge Shiva’s, some of them do not hesitate to point out that not only Shiva but also Vishnu and the other gods are at her bidding, enthralled as they are by her beauty, virtue, and learning. They declared that “in order to see [her], the lord Vishnu himself, with the northern Vedas in tow, followed [her],” and they reminded each other that Shiva’s cosmic weariness flees when Tamil sounds fill his divine ears with pleasure. Shiva may be Tamiḻttāy’s father-creator, but that great lord may also desire her. So filled was he with longing to hear her words that he left his celestial abode and came down to earth to preside over the Tamil academy of Madurai. So eager was he to have her near him that he ordered the recital of Tamil hymns every day, not finding comfort in the Sanskrit Vedas (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 4-6, 66-68, 108-15).

Because she is the beloved of the gods, her pious devotee calls upon the more established divinities to protect her, or prays to them to grant grace so that he himself could serve her better. Thus the opening invocatory verse to the Moḻiyaraci anthology declares, “I pray to Murugan who dwells in the grove, so that I may be born in the Tamil land where words flourish.” The pietistics of tamiḻppaṟṟu thus appears to have a curious contradiction. On the one hand, her pious adorer imagines Tamiḻttāy as a supreme, omniscient being who is not just the beloved of the gods, but even commands them and inspires them to perform their various godly deeds. On the other hand, because many who participated in this modality were also for the most part quite religious themselves, they never do totally abandon their faith in the established gods of the Hindu pantheon. Instead, they continue to pray to them so that their own personal goddess, Tamiḻttāy, may also benefit from the good will of those great beings.

“I am your devotee; you are my refuge”

For the pious devotee for whom she is his personal deity, Tamiḻttāy is the source of everything in this world—of knowledge and happiness, of wealth and prosperity, of bliss and light, indeed of life itself. She is the destroyer of darkness and of false illusions. She cures her followers of anger and jealousy, and grants them true vision. She cures them of afflictions and weeds out their troubles. At her feet, even the worst sinners find salvation. By her very presence, she destroys the sins of her devotees. She is indeed their ultimate refuge. A. Kantasami Pillai (1885-1969), a professor of Tamil, declared:

O Tamiḻttāy, may you flourish blissfully as a sovereign queen!
You gave birth to us, and embracing us, fed us nectar from your beautiful breasts;
You taught us to speak as infants, and also the full meaning of numerous words;
You caused our evil habits to flee, and firmly established in their stead good conduct that is dearer than life and fame. . . .
You taught us to respect ourselves, and teaching us about the experiences of the past and the present,
You have shown us the road to eternal release!
(Velayutam Pillai 1971: 4)

Similarly, R. Raghava Aiyangar wrote eloquently that “with the help of [your] divine ladder of priceless books, we can climb straight up to the heavens” (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 41). Even more dramatically, for Somasundara Pulavar there was only one cure for the endless disease that is life, and it lay at the feet of his noble Tamiḻttāy (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 93). The pious devotee is indeed convinced that Tamiḻttāy may be the most omniscient of gods, and the most powerful of sovereigns, but she has the compassion and the tenderness of one’s own mother. She therefore never forsakes even the most humble and most lowly of her adherents. She is infinitely forgiving—even overlooking the faults of those who turned their backs on her, so benevolent and compassionate a being is she (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 12). There is little doubt, therefore, as A. Varadananjaiya Pillai (1877-1956), a member of the Karanthai Tamil Sangam and author of several praise works on Tamiḻttāy, insisted, that it was she who was going to abide with them for ever and ever, even accompanying them to the world beyond the present one (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 26-28).

Tamiḻttāy is thus both the means to their salvation and salvation itself. By constituting her in such terms, these pious devotees were only expressing in religious terms the foundational message of tamiḻppaṟṟu that Tamil is everything to its speakers—their body, their life, their spirit, and, ultimately, their soul itself.

Profiling the Pious Devotee

So, who are the true adorers of Tamil? For this modality, they are those who think of Tamiḻttāy as their teyvam and have faith and confidence in her divinity, her compassion, and her supreme abilities. The pious devotee chastises his fellow speakers for failing to reverence Tamiḻttāy, or for ridiculing and scorning her. “There are base people who do not know about the depth of your excellence! Grant me grace, so that I do not become one of them.” Because her detractors’ minds were filled with confusion, they say harsh things about her. “What indeed is the worth of their knowledge?” her adorers demanded (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 61-62).

Since her pious devotee believes that Tamiḻttāy is an omniscient being, the source of his life and wisdom, and his ultimate refuge, he is also convinced that his salvation, and that of his fellow Tamilians, lies in securing her grace (aruḷ). Her aruḷ would cure Tamil speakers of laziness and sloth, and grant them manliness and courage; it would destroy all illusions and rid them of all sins, past and present; and it would release them from the cycle of births. So her devotee beseeches her to open her eyes and grant him grace. Indeed, one of his favorite poetic genres is the tirupaḷḷiyeḻucci (the awakening [of the lord] from sleep), for he is convinced that ignored by her followers, Tamiḻttāy has gone to sleep, and thus no longer offers them grace. As Diana Eck notes, “In the Hindu view, not only must the gods keep their eyes open, but so must we, in order to make contact with them, to reap their blessings” (1985: 1). Thus, crucial to the structure of piety that develops around Tamiḻttāy is the belief that both she and her speakers must “awaken” and “open their eyes” it is only then that she would be able to grant grace, and they could receive it. All would then be well with the (Tamil-speaking) world.

Just as he longs to receive her aruḷ, the pious devotee also yearns to experience her, with his mind, heart, and all his senses. So he imagines her as residing on his tongue. He longs to “immerse” himself in her and blend with her very being (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 61-62). There is an erotic subtext to the piety of the devout in tamiḻppaṟṟu, as there is in so much of devotional Hinduism. Indeed, some of her adorers are so overcome when they contemplate her beautiful and splendid form that, they confess, “[Our] bodies brim with ecstasy; our hair quivers in excitement; [our] tongues stammer with love; and [our] bones melt” (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 68; see also Sivalinga Nayanar 1940). In Varadananjaiya Pillai’s words:

Our hands in prostration, our minds throbbing with joyousness,
the hair on our bodies quivering in excitement,
Brimming with ecstasy, we offer you our prayer!
May you live long, O Tamiḻttāy! O mother of ours!
May you flourish for ever and ever and ever.
(Velayutam Pillai 1971: 82)

This kind of ecstatic piety supplements the more overt but secular sexual economy of the erotic modality of Tamil devotion, as we will see. Increasingly, as the imagining of Tamil as a familial mother figure came to dominate tamiḻppaṟṟu, desire for Tamiḻttāy could only exist in the interstices. But within the modality of pietistics, erotic sensibilities were granted some latitude, for divine sexuality continued to have a kind of currency that was not so readily conceded to maternal sexuality within the new bourgeois codes of morality that were put in place in colonial South India.

The Ideology of Pious Devotion

At its heart, the structure of piety produced by this modality turns around a dyadic relationship between the language, imagined as a benevolent, bountiful, and omniscient goddess, and its devotees, who cast themselves in the role of pious, submissive, and helpless worshippers, totally dependent on her for succor, inspiration, and salvation. She is the protector, and they are the protected; she is the muse who inspires, and they are the poets who breathlessly yearn to be inspired. Imagined thus as an omniscient perfect being, the language she embodies is correspondingly omniscient and perfect as well. This modality is therefore particularly favored by the religious regime of tamiḻppaṟṟu that treats Tamil as a perfect, complete language of plenitude which had unfortunately fallen on hard times, because of the evil ways of other languages, because of being ignored by its own speakers, and so on. The principal agenda of this regime, as of classicism, is the restoration of all of Tamil’s “wealth” (celvam) that had been tainted or lost over time. There is less concern here with renovation, as there is in Indianism and Dravidianism, for how could one improve something that was already so perfect?[3]

Perhaps the most striking feature of this modality is the passion and fervor with which her pious devotees appear to believe that in their Tamiḻttāy, they are faced with a divine presence so perfect and so powerful that they themselves could do nothing but sing her praises and spread her word. It is she who has to give them grace and lead them to salvation; it is she who is the agent, the active principle. Tamil’s devotees, I have repeatedly emphasized, are clearly moderns, living in a century when they have been exposed, in varying degrees, to all kinds of modern technologies, knowledges, and ways of being. Yet, when writing about their language in this mode, they consciously deny to themselves the most modern and secular of all attitudes, that of placing themselves as the center of their cosmos. Instead, they choose to insert their divinized language into that spot, throw themselves at her mercy, and await her grace.

Tamil as Mother: Somatics of Tamil Devotion

“Is there anything comparable to the mother’s love?” So asks Sivagnanam in his reminiscences (1974: 30). Not really, as far as Tamil’s devout were concerned, and in their imaginings, the incomparable Tamil was increasingly likened to their incomparable mothers. The representation of Tamil as mother, variously invoked as tāy, ammā, mātā, and aṉṉai, was particularly acute in the modality of somatics which gained ground as the Indianist and Dravidianist regimes gathered momentum from the 1920s on. Although Tamiḻtteyvam is also hailed as ammā and tāy (not surprisingly, considering that goddesses and mothers are symbolically and emotionally intertwined in the Hindu life-world), the mother who figures in the modality of somatics is essentially a familial, domestic, and secular being. Rhetorically and aesthetically as well, the modality of somatics was populist rather than archaizing, relying on the imagery of the quotidian and the vocabulary of the spoken language rather than on the high literary Tamil typically used by the pious devotee.

Within the discourses of tamiḻppaṟṟu, the confluence of “language” and “motherhood” may be traced back to the late nineteenth century. So, in 1879, S. Vedanayakam Pillai (1826-89), author of the first Tamil novel, unambiguously declared, “Tamil gave birth to us; Tamil raised us; Tamil sang lullabies to us and put us to sleep” (Vedanayakam Pillai 1879: 285). A few years later, in the 1887 foreword to his edition of the Canḳam anthology, the Kalittokai, Damodaram Pillai pleaded with his readers to financially help him salvage ancient manuscripts, asking of them, “Is not Lady Tamil (tamiḻ mātu) your mother?” (Damodaram Pillai 1971: 69). In 1891, Sundaram Pillai dedicated his play, Maṉōṉmaṇīyam, with its well-known invocatory hymn on Tamiḻttāy, to his tamilmātā, “Mother Tamil” (Sundaram Pillai 1922: 12). A year later, T. Lakshmana Pillai wondered if those who considered Tamil as their mātā and tāy (mother) would come forward to honor her, and Suryanarayana Sastri insisted that his Tamil could not be compared to a barren mother (malaṭi tāyār) (Lakshmana Pillai 1892-93: 154, 185-86; Suryanarayana Sastri n.d.: 59). As the next century advances, this occasional practice of referring to Tamil as “mother” coalesces into a well-entrenched linguistic and cultural habit. Increasingly, the analogy between language and motherhood is displaced by the convergence of the two domains, so that Tamil is the mother of the filial devotee. In essay after essay, poem after poem, devotees speak and write about their beloved Tamil as they would about their mothers, and vice versa (Maraimalai Adigal 1967b; Purnalingam Pillai 1930: 56-58; see also Ramaswamy 1992a).[4]

In the modality of somatics, the language and its devotee are held together not so much through the supernatural powers of a divine being as through the emotional powers invested in the maternal body. Where the pious devotee praises her miraculous abilities and awe inspiring deeds to elicit the devotion of the Tamil speaker, the modality of somatics relies instead on various parts and substances of Tamiḻttāy’s body: her fertile womb, her nurturing milk, her pitiful tears, her scarred face, and her fettered limbs. In contrast to the modality of pietistics, where the bond between the language and its devotee is registered in intangibles such as the granting of aruḷ (grace), the filial devotee emphasizes the sharing of corporeal substances like milk and blood. Thus he insists that since Tamiḻttāy’s womb had given birth to speakers of Tamil, and her milk had raised them, in return her “children” ought to serve her by putting their own bodies at her disposal. In turn, those bodily parts and substances that foreground such bonds of birth are the most frequently invoked. While the pious devotee expresses his devotion on a religious terrain, the filial devotee registers it in uterine terms. Speakers of Tamil are Tamilians not necessarily because they worship Tamiḻttāy, but because they have been borne by Tamil, and nurtured and raised on it. They are all thus “siblings,” because they have shared the womb and milk of Tamil. Occasionally, Tamiḻttāy appears as cevilittāy, “foster mother.” But more often than not, she is explicitly identified as the birth mother, īṉṟatāy. So the intimacy between the language and its speakers in this modality is constituted by bringing Tamiḻttāy right into their homes, as their mother who gave birth to them and raised them to be loyal and devoted Tamil speakers.

In maternalizing Tamiḻttāy thus, her filial devotee drew upon the model of the “new mother” produced in bourgeois imaginations in so many regions of colonial India. She is a domestic paragon, furnished with a modern education but still retaining a modicum of religiosity and presiding over her neat and disciplined home, and her by now largely nuclear family (Chatterjee 1989; R. Kumar 1993: 32-52; Ramaswamy 1992a). In pre-colonial Tamil literature as well as in modern folklore, mothers are benign as well as threatening, nourishing as well as destructive, compassionate as well as fierce and malevolent (Shulman 1980: 223-67; Trawick 1990). In the discourses of tamiḻppaṟṟu, however, Tamiḻttāy is unambiguously compassionate, nourishing, pacific, and benign. This may seem surprising because she is always represented as a virgin, and the virginal or single mother/goddess, it has been suggested, frequently displays vengeful, punitive behaviors (Erndl 1993: 153-58). For both Indianism and Dravidianism, however, with their agendas of transforming Tamil speakers into a productive, enlightened, and educated community imagined as a harmonious and united family, an uncontrollable, threatening, and violent mother figure was not only embarrassing but counterproductive as well. Great care was therefore taken not to cast Tamiḻttāy in the image of the many fierce mother-goddesses that her filial devotee was undoubtedly familiar with from both high and popular Hindu religious practice. Instead, she was modelled on the “new” mother who they hoped would eventually come to reign in Tamil-speaking homes—disciplined but compassionate, educated but modest and feminine, and respectable and virtuous.

All the same, the empowering of Tamil by appropriating the figure of the mother has had its advantages and its disadvantages for tamiḻppaṟṟu. On the one hand, Tamil’s filial devotee is only too pleased to tap into the enormous reservoir of affective powers associated with motherhood in this region, especially since that reservoir had been significantly replenished in a colonial culture where mothers were constituted as the custodians of the authentic, pure, and uncolonized community. On the other hand, the devotee also had to be careful that his beloved language, in thus benefitting from its association with the mother, would not be entirely consumed by that very crucial figure of the life-world of its speakers. Increasingly, as the century wears on, the filial devotee was inclined to declare the superiority of Tamiḻttāy’s motherhood over that of his human mother. Tāyiṉum ciṟantat Tamiḻ, “Tamil that is superior to [our] mother,” is a sentiment frequently encountered in devotional discourses from the 1930s on, especially in the Dravidianist idiom. As Margaret Trawick (1990: 156) rightly notes, “Many children in Tamilnadu grow up with more than one ‘mother’ and experience more than one household as home.” The filial devotee, however, had to ensure that Tamiḻttāy and her “home” were never just one among many for his fellow Tamil speakers, but the most important of them all.

Tamiḻttāy: Portrait of a Mother

Filial anxiety and concern lace the sentiments of affection, love, and admiration for Tamiḻttāy in the modality of somatics. Typically, she is featured as a once-glorious but now-endangered mother—frail, pitiful, and in desperate need of help from her sons: “O young Tamilians! What is the condition of our Tamiḻttāy today? She stands without jewels and gems; she has lost her radiance; her crown has vanished; her fragrance is gone; she stands dejected and in tears; she grieves in sorrow; she is emaciated” (S. Subramanian 1939: 1).

Both Indianism, in its struggle against English and British colonialism, and Dravidianism, in its battle against Hindi and North Indian imperialism, circulated various images of Tamiḻttāy as abandoned and desolate, the pitiful state of her body calling attention to the endangered state of Tamil. Consider the following poem by Bharatidasan, published in 1960:

O Tamiḻttāy, you struggle for life in an ocean of grief
Grasping at the smallest stick, seizing it as if a giant raft!
O Tamiḻttāy, buffeted around by fierce storms,
you clutch at worms in the soil, as if at roots!
O Tamiḻttāy, writhing in the scorching heat,
You hurry to the stagnant pool as if to a waterfall.[5]

Such images of a suffering Tamiḻttāy are also supplemented by allusions to her decaying, diseased body. Sivagnanam exhorted his listeners at an anti-Hindi rally held in Madras in 1948: “It is Tamiḻttāy who gave birth to us. When we were infants, it is in Tamil that we would have called out to our mothers, ammā,ammā. If such a loving mother’s face is scarred by pox marks, and if we have the strength to prevent this, do we stand by doing nothing?”[6] Years earlier, in a public talk he gave to the Karanthai Tamil Sangam in 1927, Maraimalai Adigal, too, pleaded, “Do not allow the pox marks of Sanskrit to scar Tamiḻttāy’s fine body.”[7] His plea was greeted with loud claps and cheers of “Long live Tamil! Long live pure Tamil! Long live Tamiḻttāy! Long live Maraimalai Adigal!” (M. Tirunavukarasu 1959: 527). The modality of somatics thus thrives on the patriarchal imagining of the woman-as-passive-victim, dependent on her male kin to protect, honor, and save her.

The Violated Body of Tamiḻttāy

Most potently, aiming to provoke the filial passions of Tamil speakers, her devotees circulated stunning images of Tamiḻttāy being violated. She is incarcerated in dark dungeons; her golden body is trapped in iron manacles; her enemies suck up her blood; they hurl spears at her breast; they threaten to decapitate her, and so on. In the late 1940s, for instance, as the tensions over the creation of linguistic states out of Madras Presidency escalated with the impending loss of chunks of Tamil-speaking border areas to neighboring states, Sivagnanam ended his editorial in his journal Tamiḻ Muracu on 15 April 1947: “O Tamilians! P. N. Rao’s plan hangs like a sword over our Tamiḻaṉṉai’s [Tamiḻttāy’s] head. The Malayalees with their craving for land are waiting to chop off her feet. If we do not hasten, Tamiḻaṉṉai will certainly be murdered. After we lose Venkatam and Kumari, our Tamil land will look like a mother with both her head and feet amputated” (Sivagnanam 1981: 112).

Being moderns, of course, her filial devotees are very much aware of the power of mass media and the visual image. Numerous cartoons published in Dravidian movement newspapers during the anti-Hindi protests of midcentury presented the reading public with striking visual enactments of various acts of violation of Tamiḻttāy’s body. One such cartoon, printed in several key Dravidian movement newspapers and magazines, showed the premier of the Presidency, Rajagopalachari, the archsupporter of the Hindi cause in the 1930s, attacking with a dagger a bejeweled Tamiḻttāy, who stands undefended, carrying in her hands the ancient literary texts, the Tirukkuṟaḷ and the Tolkāppiyam (fig. 5).[8] Another, published in the 1950s in the DMK paper Aṟappōr, depicts a man personifying “North Indian Hegemony” cutting off a weeping Tamiḻttāy’s tongue with a sickle. Yet others showed Tamiḻttāy locked up in prison, or shedding tears over the bodies of her children shot down by the police during anti-Hindi demonstrations.[9]

Perhaps the most dramatic of these cartoons was published in Kuṭi Aracu in 1937 on the eve of the first major anti-Hindi protests (fig. 6).[10] Entitled “Āccāriyār Sākasam: Tamiḻaṉṉai Māṉapanḳam,” “Rajagopalachari’s Bravado: The Dishonoring of Tamiḻttāy,” it depicts a woman of obvious distinction, wearing a crown and a halo, and carrying a scepter. She stands with tears flowing down her face, surrounded by a group of men, one of whom, clearly identifiable as the premier, Rajagopalachari, is attempting to disrobe her. The accompanying text tells the reader that although many of her venerable sons in the Madras Legislative Assembly watched with growing anger as Tamiḻttāy was being thus treated, they were too cowardly to do anything about it and stood by with their heads hanging in shame. The text ends on an appeal: “O true Tamilians! What are you going to do now?” The cartoon revived, of course, the well-known incident recounted in the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahābhārata, of the disrobing of Draupadi by her Kaurava cousins as her Pandava husbands look on helplessly. A few years earlier, Subramania Bharati, in his poem Pāņcāli Capatam (Draupadi’s oath; 1912-24), had drawn upon the story to allegorize the dishonoring of the nation/mother (Bharati 1987: 193-309).[11] Given the antipathy to Sanskritic Hinduism within the Dravidian movement which spearheaded the anti-Hindi protests, the plot here follows a different course: rather than the lord Krishna coming to Tamiḻttāy’s rescue, as he does with Draupadi, it is the vastness of her own learning and the respect of her people that ultimately save her honor in the cartoon.

Of the many messages packed into this cartoon, the most striking is the act of māṉapanḳam, “dishonoring,” carried out through the disrobing of Tamiḻttāy in a public space as hallowed as the state’s legislature. This is not the singular instance of the use of this theme in tamiḻppaṟṟu, although it is unique in the explicitness with which it singles out a man, and a very identifiable public figure at that, as perpetrating the crime. A year after the publication of the cartoon, at the Velur Women’s Conference held on 26 December 1938, Narayani Ammal, a Tamil scholar who would be incarcerated for participating in the anti-Hindi protests two months later, reminded the assembled women that like Draupadi of yore, Tamiḻttāy was in danger of losing her honor to Dushasana (Sanskrit and Hindi). “I hope her screams reach your ears,” she concluded.[12] More unusually, in a poem by Vanidasan (1915-74), a disciple of Bharatidasan, Hindi is identified as a vēci, “(female) prostitute,” and charged with the offense of “snatching away the mother’s garment.”[13] In general, however, her devotees leave ambiguous the gender or the identity of the entity which disrobes Tamiḻttāy. Consider this excerpt from the proscribed text Iṉpat Tirāviṭam (Sweet Dravidian land), particularly striking because its author, Annadurai, did not generally employ the gendered vocabulary typically used by many of his fellow Dravidianists. Addressing the disloyal son who has turned his back on his “dishonored” mother (here signifying the Tamil land rather than language), Annadurai wrote: “How can you stand by and watch [our] enemy turn your motherland (tāyakam) into a veḷḷāṭṭi [maid/concubine]? Does not your blood boil when you see [him] uncoiling her braid, rubbing off the vermilion on her forehead, peeling off her clothing, and kicking her with [his] feet?” (Annadurai 1989: 91).

These lines are particularly dramatic for the care with which they systematically specify the manner in which the mother’s body is violated and dishonored, stopping just short of suggesting actual rape. Indeed, it is important—but heartening—to emphasize that in none of the narratives I have collected on Tamiḻttāy is there any explicit description of her rape.[14] Although one could argue that the very possibility of rape that such vivid imagery suggests is just as threatening, its explicit absence contrasts with the reality of rape that has haunted women’s lives in colonial and post-colonial India, as well as with allusions to the “rape” of a feminized land or nation in other parts of the world (Kolodny 1975; R. Kumar 1993: 127-42; Montrose 1992). Given the enormous emphasis that her devotees place on their Tamiḻttāy being a virgin, and given the ritual and symbolic power accorded to the sexual purity of the woman, the rape of Tamiḻttāy would have been both inappropriate and unproductive, for it would render the figure unavailable, even useless, for continual deployment within the sexual and patriarchal economies of tamiḻppaṟṟu. Instead, even while hinting at the potential for rape that lurks behind the disrobing of Tamiḻttāy, her devout followers deploy the sentiments of shame and outrage associated with the violation of the mother’s body. The image of disrobing is particularly effective in a culture where such a high premium is placed on honor, and where women’s sexual purity and virtue underwrite the honor of their male kin in particular. The dishonor associated with public disrobing is especially heightened in this case because it involves the hallowed figure of the mother. The mother’s public disrobing suggested not just the dishonor inflicted upon her individual self but, more damagingly, the dishonor visited upon all those who shared her flesh and blood—namely, her Tamilian “children,” most especially her sons. So, the poet Vanidasan wrote in 1948, “The mother’s honor is the Tamilian’s honor. Think of saving yourself!”[15] It is telling that in all such instances, as has been noted by Radha Kumar in another context, the violation of the female body is not specifically presented as an act of violence against women (R. Kumar 1993: 37). It is instead, very quickly, translated into the violation of the community and its honor.

The Fertile Womb of Tamiḻttāy

Because the modality of somatics constructs its structure of devotion on the terrain of uterine bonds, the womb of Tamiḻttāy is of particular importance to the filial devotee. So wrote a poet named Tamilkkovan in a poem entitled “My Life Is Yours”:

O beautiful Tamiḻttāy! The other day, I was born from your womb!
I am your son who brings you victory!
O mother, if someone scorns you
Of what use is my birth and life?[16]

Her womb, of course, produced not just Tamilkkovan but all other speakers of Tamil as well, who are therefore transformed into each other’s “siblings” by virtue of this somatic fact. It is her womb that unites them all as members of one “family.” So Suddhananda Bharati (1938: 104) reminded his fellow speakers that wherever they may be and in whatever state, they ought to remember that “they are children of one mother’s womb (vayiṟu).” Tamiḻttāy’s womb thus functioned as a mnemonic device, reminding all speakers of Tamil of the bonds of birth that tied them to their language which had laboriously and patiently borne them all. As Tamiḻttāy herself reminded them, “Do not forget that you are all children who emerged from my womb (maṭi). I am your mother.…You are all called Tamilians” (Pancanathan n.d.: 9). In turn, one of her devotees, Viracolan, reiterated, “O mother, in embryonic form conceived, in fetal form enlivened, we were firmly planted in your womb (vayiṟu). Then we were delivered to the world.”[17] So, her womb in this discourse serves somatically to confirm the facticity of birth as speakers of Tamil and as constituent members of the Tamil “family.”

Her womb is also deployed by her devout to eliminate other mothers—such as Bhārata Mātā or Ānḳilattāy (Mother English) or Hindi—who may offer nourishment to Tamilians, raise them up, or secure them jobs. Nevertheless, the fact that their wombs had not given birth to Tamil speakers meant that their motherhood was, at worst, false and, at best, inferior to that represented by Tamiḻttāy.[18] For Indianism, obviously, Bhārata Mātā’s womb mattered just as Tamiḻttāy’s. As Bharati insisted in his 1907 poem “Vantē Mātaram” (Homage to Mother [India]): “Those who are born from the same mother’s womb / Are they not brothers though they may squabble with each other?” (Bharati 1987: 51).[19]

Years later, Ramalinga Pillai reminded his fellow speakers:

This venerable Intiyattēvi [Bhārata Mātā] gave birth to three hundred and thirty million children!
For how many days did she carry us?
How many troubles did she face for us?
We forgot all her difficulties; she endured all our faults!
Millions and millions of foreigners came here to plunder;
She put up with millions of them, and took care of her children!
Such a noble lady we forgot.
Will not her womb that gave birth to us burn?
Will not her tender heart grieve?
When her own children to whom she gave birth forsake her, how can a woman endure that?
(Ramalinga Pillai 1988: 309-10)

In the logic of Indianism, Bhārata Mātā’s womb enables Tamil speakers to be reborn as “Indians.” In that capacity, they owed her filial duty and love. To forget this meant the “betrayal of the mother’s womb,” causing it to “burn” and allowing it to be “violated” (Ramalinga Pillai 1988: 303-16). The maternal womb becomes the ground on which contrary allegiances thus come to be negotiated, with Dravidianism making a commitment to only Tamiḻttāy’s and Indianism to Bhārata Mātā’s as well (see also Lakshmii 1990).

Tamiḻttāy (as indeed Bhārata Mātā) may be a virgin, but her womb was immensely fertile and fruitful. In the imaginations of some of her more ambitious devotees, her womb had given birth to not just Tamilians but to other languages and their speakers as well. Perhaps the earliest use of this notion was Sundaram Pillai’s famous hymn, which declared that Tamiḻtteyvam’s utaram, “womb,” had given birth to the four other Dravidian languages: Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, and Tulu (Sundaram Pillai 1922: 22). By 1891, when Sundaram Pillai published this hymn, many of Tamil’s devotees were familiar with Robert Caldwell’s assertions that Tamil was the oldest and most cultivated member of the Dravidian “family” of languages. Yet Caldwell also insisted that Tamil was one “dialect” among the many Dravidian dialects, and not “the original speech” from which they had all descended. It certainly was not, in his reckoning, the “mother” of the Dravidian family (Caldwell 1856: 26, 52, 61). Sundaram Pillai, however, not only so declared it but even used that most maternal of somatic parts, the womb, to secure this claim. Since his time, of course, the notion that Tamil’s womb generated all Dravidian languages has acquired an enormous materiality, especially in Dravidianism, whose more ambitious exponents stake a claim on the bodies of all Dravidians (and not just Tamil speakers) on the ground that they are after all Tamiḻttāy’s children and owe loyalty to her (e.g., E. V. Ramasami 1948: 30).

The Nourishing Milk of Tamiḻttāy

For her filial devotee, Tamiḻttāy’s milk (pāl) is just as significant as her womb. As early as 1879, Vedanayakam Pillai described Tamil as “the language which our mothers and fathers fed us along with milk” (Vedanayakam Pillai 1879: 285). In 1891, Sundaram Pillai’s Maṉōṉmaṇīyam featured a dramatic monologue in which the hero, Jeevakan, declared that it is through mother’s milk that pride in one’s language and one’s land is imbibed. By the turn of this century, the assumption that Tamil was mother’s milk had become so naturalized that in 1913, when the senate of Madras University proclaimed that the “vernaculars” would no longer be compulsory for students, the Ņāṉapānu protested by comparing this resolution with one that would dictate that it was no longer mandatory for mothers to raise their children on their own milk.[20] And in 1914, V. V. Subramania Aiyar, an Indianist devotee of Tamil, insisted that it would be impossible for anyone to produce great works of literature in a language that had not been taken in with the mother’s milk (Subramania Aiyar 1981: 20). Over and again during this century, Tamil has been invoked by its devotees as “the milk of our youth,” the “fine milk,” “the glorious mother’s milk,” and the like (Ramaswamy 1992a: 49-51). The 1931 Census even lent the blessings of the colonial state to such an imagining by defining the “mother tongue” as “the language which [one] had taken in with mother’s milk” (Government of India 1932: 287).

Sometimes, Tamil is imbibed through the human mother’s milk, a suggestion that has had important, even conservative, implications for Tamil women’s identity (Ramaswamy 1992a; see also Lakshmi 1990). But more often than not, her filial devotee insists that it is Tamiḻttāy herself who raises her children on her nourishing milk. Thus, borne by Tamiḻttāy’s womb, and having shared her milk, Tamil speakers are rendered “siblings,” members of the same “family.” By midcentury, so entrenched were such assumptions that Ramasami’s rationalist attack on the feminization of Tamil was launched under the title Tāyppāl Paittiyam (The madness over mother’s milk) (E. V. Ramasami 1962: 7-17). This powerful attack, however, has not detracted either its devotees or others from continuing to compare Tamil to mother’s milk, a hit song from the recent film Aṇṇāmalai (1992) being a case in point.

If Tamil is mother’s milk, then foreign languages, like English, are likened to “bottled milk,” even “tonics.” Their virtues are infinitely inferior to those of mother’s milk/Tamil, which they may supplement but never replace. So, in 1956, during the debate in the Madras Legislative Assembly on replacing English as the official language of the state with Tamil, one of the members passionately declared: “Today our mother tongue reclines royally on the throne of government. For a child, its mother’s milk is far more necessary than bottled milk. Even if the children who grow up on bottled milk survive, there are excellent substances (cattu) in their mother’s milk. Children who drink their mother’s milk have fine dispositions as well.”[21]

It is interesting that the legislator, P. G. Karuthiruman, used the Tamil word cattu to refer to the substances contained in mother’s milk, for some of the meanings of that word are truth, virtue, goodness, and moral excellence. These are precisely the fine qualities that every true speaker who was reared on Tamil is supposed to imbibe. Accordingly, the filial devotee insists that it is Tamiḻttāy’s milk that cultivates in the Tamil speaker moḻippaṟṟu (devotion to language), nāṭṭuppaṟṟu (devotion to nation), āṇmai (manliness or courage), and taṉmāṉam (self-respect) (Iyarkaiselvan 1959: 8).[22] Not surprisingly, Tamil’s enemies (like Sanskrit or Hindi) were characterized, especially in Dravidianism, as languages that poison the purity of Tamiḻttāy’s milk (Bharatidasan 1948: 4; Perunchitranar 1979: 57).[23]

In premodern Tamil literary culture, mother’s milk was typically associated with purity, coolness, and creativity (Shulman 1980: 93-104). In her ethnography of contemporary Tamil family life, Margaret Trawick (1990: 93-94) has suggested that the importance of mother’s milk derives from the belief that it is the substantial repository of mother’s love (aṉpu). These are all characteristics that her filial devotee would readily associate with Tamiḻttāy’s milk. But there are also ideological uses to which the mother’s milk has been put in the discourses of Tamil’s modern adherents. For one, imagining Tamil as mother’s milk enables the language to be symbolically incorporated into the bodies of its individual speakers to become part of their very essence. As such, it would be impossible to separate the language from its true and loyal speaker, as Bharatidasan declared on many occasions. Equally important, the inscription of Tamil as mother’s milk allows the filial devotee to remind his fellow Tamilian of the duty (kaṭamai) he owed Tamiḻttāy, as in the following call issued during the 1938 anti-Hindi protests by C. Velsami: “When one sees Tamiḻttāy suffering, can any heroic Tamilian who has been born in Tamilnadu, and raised here, and has joyously drunk her sweet milk—can he have the heart to watch her suffering?”[24]

Like the mother’s womb, the mother’s milk, too, serves simultaneously as a mnemonic device that somatically reminds all Tamil speakers of the facticity of birth into the Tamil community and as a mobilizing device—aṉṉaiyiṉ pāl kaṭamai, “obligation to mother’s milk”—that seeks to arouse them into taking action out of recognition of this “fact.”[25]

The pitiful Tears of Tamiḻttāy

Finally, I turn to the tears of Tamiḻttāy, which, of all her bodily parts and substances, most clearly indexed her current state of utter distress. Especially from around the 1930s on, discourses of tamiḻppaṟṟu abounded with allusions to the weeping Tamiḻttāy, to the tearful Tamiḻttāy appealing to her children to help her, to Tamiḻttāy sitting in a corner, wailing away, and so on. Soon after the self-immolation of Chinnasami, Aranganathan, and Sivalingam in 1964-65, a DMK newsmagazine, Muttāram, carried a striking cover with the faces of these youths in the foreground. The backdrop is the close up of the face of a woman—most likely, Tamiḻttāy—with large drops of blood-red tears flowing down her cheeks (fig. 7).[26] That Tamiḻttāy’s tears are meant to not just create affect, but also to incite and mobilize is clear from the following passage from Karunanidhi’s memoirs in which he describes the first large-scale political protest spearheaded by the DMK against the Congress and its Hindi policy. In 1953, the DMK called upon the Congress government to change the name of a town called Dalmiapuram in Tiruchi district (named after a North Indian cement magnate) to its Tamil original, Kallakudi. So, on 15 July, Karunanidhi and a group of his DMK followers reached the railway station of Dalmiapuram, erased the Hindi name on the station board, and painted the Tamil name of Kallakudi in its stead. They then proceeded to lie down on the railway tracks; in the resulting altercation between the police and the protesters, two men lost their lives, and many were severely wounded. Consider how Karunanidhi represents this event to his readers:

We have reached the battlefield. We have reached the place where our glorious Tamiḻttāy stands insulted. We have reached the place where our once magnificent mother now stands, shedding tears. Our wonderful mother who nurtured and raised us on glorious Tamil…huddles wearily, her limbs fettered in the enemy’s chains. They have put up a railing of guns around her shackles which we came to destroy. Our mother stands shaking and weeping! “Look at her from afar. Do not touch her. Savor her suffering form,” so says the government.

Having set the stage thus, Karunanidhi turns to describe the death of the first young man, Natarajan:

O mother! O Tamiḻttāy! Look at your son Natarajan to whom you gave birth. You used to be adorned with gold and jewels once upon a time! Today, you are adorned by the corpses of your martyred sons. Is this fair? Look at his corpse which soaks your lap with blood. You gave birth to millions of children. Now you have the fate of lighting their young bodies on their funeral pyres.…O mother! Weep! Cry out! It is only if you cry, it is only if you shed your tears that we can gather together an army that will bring down the reign of cowards.…Weep, mother, weep. O glorious Tamiḻttāy, you once upon a time wore a smile; now you shed tears of blood.…But your tears will not be in vain.

“Your tears will not be in vain”: in the logic of Tamil devotion, especially Dravidianism, on reading (or hearing) statements like these which were circulated through street poetry and political speeches at anti-Hindi rallies, her “children” would rush to the rescue of their mother, wipe away her tears, and restore her, and the language she embodied, to well-being. The tears of Tamiḻttāy came to somatically index the sad state of the body politic in Tamil devotion. Indeed, in neighboring Sri Lanka, where Tamil nationalism has been driven by a rather different set of imperatives, a 1977 pamphlet on the suffering of Tamil speakers on the island under Sinhala domination is entitled The Tears of Tamiḻttāy (Tamiḻttāyiṉ Kaṇṇīr). Nowhere does the work mention Tamiḻttāy, yet it is clear that for its author, her tears were enough to recall for his readers the state of utter desolation of Tamil speakers in Sri Lanka (Puttoli 1977).

Profiling the Filial Devotee

More than the modality of pietistics, the modality of somatics has a conscious mobilizing agenda—not surprisingly, since it was the mode most favored by Dravidianism with its militant stance on tamiḻppaṟṟu. So, images of the distressed, diseased, and violated mother were circulated not just for rhetorical effect but also to incite her “children” to take up arms and come to her rescue. Tamiḻttāy herself implored thus in 1965:

O Tamilian, my dear son to whom I gave birth!
Where have you gone, leaving to suffer your mother who bathed you, fed you, sang lullabies, nurtured you, showered you with love?
Your mother has been cast into prison!
Will you not rescue her from there?
Your mother has been shackled!
Will you not break her chains?
Did I not feed you fine food?
Was not the milk that you drank heroic milk?
O son who has forsaken me! O Tamil son who has gone off to sleep!
Your mother is calling out to you! Can you not hear her whimpers and
see her tears?
Are your ears deaf? Are your eyes blind?
Where are you, my son! Where are you?[27]

Those Tamil speakers who refused to respond to such an impassioned plea laid themselves open to charges of betraying their own mother, even matricide (E. M. Subramania Pillai 1951-52: 161-63). During the anti-Hindi protests of 1938, Suddhananda Bharati declared: “The Tamilian who rejects Tamil rejects his own mother. The Tamilian who does not reverence Tamil has forgotten his own mother. Can you ever forget the mother who gave birth to you? Our ancient mother stands in dishonor among the languages of the world, and sheds tears. Will not her sons come forth and wipe away their mother’s tears?” (Suddhananda Bharati 1938: 110). Equally dramatically, the poet Pulavar Kulanthai insisted that “the murder of Tamil is like the murder of one’s mother” (Pulavar Kulanthai 1972: 35). In this modality, it was not enough for Tamil speakers to put their literary and scholarly talents at Tamiḻttāy’s disposal; they had to be prepared to surrender their bodies as well. In its economy of devotion, along with the sharing of the mother’s womb and milk, the shedding of the son’s blood has a great deal of currency. So, Perunchitran was willing to declare in 1965 in a poem he wrote in a Kadalur prison:

When they tell me
This body, and all the blood and sinews and feelings that it contains, belongs to Tamiḻttāy and to the Tamil people,
I lose all my fatigue!
(Perunchitranar 1979: 66)
Similarly, an essay published in the Āṉantapōtiṉi, a literary journal that was largely Indianist in sentiment, asked, “O youthful Tamilian! Does not your mother’s Tamil blood run in your heart? Do you not love your mother?…Wake up.…Let your Tamil blood boil over and rouse you” (Mutthu 1938: 336).

Such statements, of which there are innumerable examples, graphically illustrate the extent to which the somatics of devotion operated, discursively and symbolically, at a gut level. Seeing Tamiḻttāy in tears, the Tamil son is reminded of the mother whose womb had borne him, whose milk had nourished him, and whose blood runs in his veins. This memory leads him to shed his own blood to prove his tamiḻppaṟṟu:

I will push back the hostility of other languages beyond the oceans
“May the Tamilians stand loftily! Long live Tamil!”
I will thus beat my drum.
Even as I am being cut down, and as the blood spurts out from my fierce wounds,
I will fall down on my Tamil soil, crying out “Tamil!” “Tamil!”
(Pulavar Kulanthai 1972: 11-12)

Her impassioned devotee is of course ready to shed not just his own blood but also that of the numerous enemies of his Tamiḻttāy. So declared a twenty-three-year-old youth at an anti-Hindi rally in Madras city in 1938: “If the Tamilians have any heroism, the blood of several thousands of members of the Aryan race must be shed. The blood of the Aryans must be shed and a river of blood should flow in this country. The leaders may not have faith in violence, but we have faith in violence.…[T]housands of youths will arise for planting our red flag, and giving up their lives for the sake of Tamil.”[28]

Tamil devotion has certainly contributed to literary and linguistic efflorescence in Tamilnadu and undoubtedly helped the political empowerment of the disenfranchised and the colonized. All the same, it has also underwritten an economy of violence and death, an economy in which dying for Tamil and Tamiḻttāy is superior to living without her. That such an economy did not exist merely in the discursive spaces of devotional narratives but actually came to touch the lives of Tamilians, especially in the 1960s, is apparent from the stories of Chinnasami and numerous others who sacrificed themselves in the battle for Tamil. Further, in its somatic mode, tamiḻppaṟṟu relied heavily on regimes of violence directed against the female body in order to elicit the allegiance and loyalty of the Tamil speaker to Tamiḻttāy. Indeed, Tamil devotion in this mode appears to need such images of the violated female body for the particular strategies of persuasion and incitement that it employed to whip up the passions of the “sleeping” Tamilian. Figures of the violated mother are deployed again and again, not so much to draw attention to acts of violence against women as to highlight the plight of the language and the dishonor wreaked upon the community of its speakers.

The Ideology of Somatic Devotion

In contrast to the pietistics of tamiḻppaṟṟu, in which Tamiḻttāy reigns as an all-powerful sovereign goddess holding in thrall her worshippers, in the modality of somatics she is a diseased and powerless personage, helplessly dependent on her children for restoring her to her former state of health and glory. She is no longer the protector and the patron of her devotees; instead, it is they who have to come to her aid. This difference in the manner Tamiḻttāy is imagined in the two modalities captures in turn the difference in the way the language and its devotees related to each other in the religious and classicist regimes, as opposed to the Indianist and Dravidianist imaginaries. The latter two were essentially populist and pragmatic, concerned with improving the language, revamping it with new vocabularies and new genres, and closing the gap between its literary and spoken forms. In spite of their inherent faith in Tamil, devotees who participated in these regimes were aware that much had to be done to transform Tamil to make it a suitable language for politics, education, and modern communication; and they were particularly anxious that invocations of its ancient greatness and wonders often detracted their fellow speakers from this all-important task. They were also painfully aware that rather than just relying on the talents of literary pandits and great Tamil scholars, Tamil would only improve if every Tamil speaker in every Tamil-speaking home joined the cause. For all these reasons, for devotees who were of Indianist or Dravidianist persuasion, the image of Tamil as an endangered, emaciated, and powerless mother was much more appropriate than that of Tamiḻttāy as a glorious, perfect, and all-powerful goddess queen.

Moreover, the pious devotee cast Tamiḻttāy as an all-powerful goddess who is the primeval generator of thought, of the arts and the sciences, and of civilization itself. In contrast, in the somatics of devotion, such a Tamiḻttāy is replaced by a mother figure, celebrated for her reproductive and domestic role in the idealized Tamil family. Consider the following from an essay on Tamil published in 1938 during the first wave of anti-Hindi protests:

Who is the woman who comforted you with her sweet words when you were young and tired? Who is the glorious woman who assuaged your hunger with milk when you were infants? Who is the fine woman who rocked you to sleep in your cradles with her sweet words? Who is the woman who taught you to speak your first words so that your parents and kinsmen rejoice? Who is the woman who guided you and helped you when you played happily in the streets?.…She is indeed the fine and incomparable Tamiḻ Aṉṉai [Tamiḻttāy].

Here, in contrast to the pietistics of tamiḻppaṟṟu, the language is celebrated for its biologically reproductive role as collective mother of Tamil speakers—for parenting, rearing, and nourishing them—rather than for its culturally productive role as the fount of literature and high civilization. Thus goddesses and queens, who provided the dominant models for imaging the language in the elite religious and classicist regimes (and in the modality of pietistics), were displaced by the Tamil woman, celebrated as an ever-youthful, fertile mother who confirmed that all Tamil speakers were each other’s “siblings” and members of the same “family” because they had shared the same womb and drunk the same milk.

Indeed, the somatics of tamiḻppaṟṟu reminds us that identity claims in modernity do not rest merely on abstract formulations or on symbolic statements of fraternity, solidarity, and unity. They also crucially rely upon sensory symbols and visceral entities that call attention to the bonds of birth, to the sharing of substances, to the very commonalties that emerge from belonging to what Benedict Anderson has so persuasively characterized as the “imagined” community. In Anderson’s formulation, the nation is one such imagined community “because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the very image of their communion” (Anderson 1983: 15). Extending Anderson, I would propose that bodily images of shared womb and milk, of the blood and tears of the members of the community, and indeed of the mother figure herself are devices that are deployed to enable this act of communion that so critically and intimately binds together all members of the imagined community as one “family.” Even as such bodily metaphors, images, and substances determine membership in the community, they also serve as boundary maintaining devices by identifying those who are not in the community. So, it is clear that for Tamil’s devotees, those who did not recognize that they were born from Tamiḻttāy’s womb and raised on her milk, and those who were not moved to come to her aid when they saw her shackled body or her tears of sorrow, were emphatically not Tamilian. They were discursively written out of the Tamil community and symbolically cast out.

Tamil as Maiden: Erotics of Tamil Devotion

Like so many other love stories, Tamil devotion, too, has its triangle of desire constituted by three protagonists: Tamiḻttāy, imagined as a beautiful, desirable, but emphatically virginal mother; the male devotee, typically portrayed as young, heterosexual, virile, and desiring; and the female devotee, young and heterosexual like her male counterpart, beautiful and desirable like her mother/language, but destined to be a married mother entrusted with the task of reproducing the language and its community. By virtue of being constituted as a hallowed mother figure to whom absolute devotion and loyalty is owed, Tamiḻttāy obviously does not enter the field as an equal player, and she frequently interrupts the sexual and familial bonding of her human devotees. Nevertheless, the devotional triangle is not just disruptive but productive as well, which is not least of the reasons that it flourishes. For the circulation of desire among the three protagonists, however complicated and conflictual it may seem on the surface, only ensures that the language and its devotees are indelibly interlocked in structures of pleasure and service which further increases their longing for each other. The work of the modality of erotics reminds us that Tamil devotion is not just about loss, pain, suffering, and death, but also about enjoyment and pleasure. Passions of the tongue may be pious and filial, but they are erotic as well.

At the core of the structure of sentiment that is constituted by the modality of erotics is the desiring male devotee’s undiluted pleasure in Tamil and in Tamiḻttāy, rather than his awed reverence or filial anxiety. The Tamil word that is generally used for expressing this pleasure is iṉpam (and its cognate, iṉimai). This polysemic word means joy, delight, sweetness, and bliss, but in a large number of contexts, it signifies sensual pleasure and romantic love. So, the numerous verses and essays entitled iṉpattamiḻ, “sweet Tamil,” or tamiḻiṉpam, “pleasures of Tamil,” are certainly replete with images of Tamil’s innocent beauty and delights, the pleasures of hearing its mellifluous sounds, the joy of-speaking the language and reading its literature, and so on (Bharatidasan 1986: 87-89, 94; Sethu Pillai 1968). But consider the following 1938 verse by Bharatidasan, recited during the anti-Hindi protest marches of that year:

Our bodies, our wealth, our very breath,
We will surrender to our sweet Tamil (iṉpattamiḻ)!
Even the pleasures woman alone gives do not compare to our
great Tamil!
We will declare!
(Bharatidasan 1948: 9)

This explicit comparison by the poet of the pleasures (cukam) offered by a woman and by Tamil is not fortuitous, as evidenced in several poems written by male poets with titles such as “Tamiḻ eṉ Kātali” (Tamil is my beloved) and “Tamiḻ Eṉ Maṉaivi” (Tamil is my wife) (Mudiyarasan 1976: 34-39; Nagarajan 1980: 26-34). Thus, in “Tamil is my beloved,” Mudiyarasan, one of the better-known poets of the Dravidian movement, declared passionately:

In order to acquire you, I wander all around;
If you reject me, how can I endure this life?
Is it not your sweet passion that drives me to frenzy?
O delicious language of mine! Gather me up and embrace me!
(Mudiyarasan 1976: 35)
Or consider this verse in which there is a striking slippage from Tamil as “mother” to Tamil as “wife”:
[You] are the mother who fed us milk;
You are the food that sates our hunger;
You are the song that gives so much delight (iṉimai);
You are the light we bring into our Tamil homes with the bond of marriage (tāli);
O Mother/Goddess Tamil (tamiḻaṇanḳē)![29]

So, just as Tamiḻttāy comes to occupy a space inhabited by their conventional gods and human mothers, she also competes, as a woman, with their human spouses and lovers in the imagination of many a male devotee. The desiring devotee dwells on her physical attributes as a beautiful, sensuous woman, praising her “glorious, golden body,” “abundant breasts,” “lustrous lips,” and so on. He rejoices that her “dark spear-shaped eyes” beckon him, that her “glowing face” rivals the luster of the moon, that her “narrow waist puts lightning to shame,” and the like. He pronounces ecstatically that “his heart surges with the nectar of pleasure” when he beholds her, and that the pleasure (cukam) she gave him when she embraced him in the moonlight caused him to tremble (Mudiyarasan 1976: 34-36; Velayutam Pillai 1971: 84-89). Many such statements are highly stylized, of course, and follow the conventions of erotic Tamil literature. However, occasionally we also get more personalized glimpses of the devotee’s desire for his beloved Tamiḻttāy. T. K. Chidambaranatha Mudaliar (1882-1954), a well-known Tamil scholar and expert on the medieval poet Kamban, recalls that as a young boy studying in high school in the 1890s, he heard a public lecture by Swaminatha Aiyar at a local college in Tiruchirapalli. The lecture was on the glories and greatness of Tamil. Chidambaranathan remembered it well in 1935:

The reverend Aiyar listed the beautiful jewels worn by our Lady Tamil (tamiḻmakaḷ):

The Cūḷāmaṇi adorns her head;

The Cintāmaṇi is on her breast;

The Kuṇṭalakēci hangs from her ears;

The Vaḷaiyāpati encircles her arms;

Her waist wears the Maṇimēkalai;

And her ankles are adorned with the Cilappatikāram.

As soon as he recited this, I became completely entranced (mayanḳip pōyviṭṭēn). That night, all I could do was dream about this—that Lady Tamil (tamiḻaṇanḳu) was approaching me, and bewitching me with her every step and turn with the beauty of her jewels.[30]

Yet Chidambaranathan and his fellow male devotees could only dream of Tamiḻttāy as such, for their desire for her, however passionate, could never be consummated, lurking as it had to in the interstices of the two dominant structures of imagining their beloved: she was their mother, and she was a perpetual virgin. Indeed, one of the most frequent ways in which Tamiḻttāy is described in Tamil devotional discourses from its very inception is as kaṉṉittāy,“virgin mother,”[31] a deliberate contradiction which only emphasized her extraordinary exceptionalism (K. Appadurai 1944: 28-29, 33; Kathiresan Chettiar 1959-60: 170; Pancanathan n.d.: 25; Sharif 1990: 8-9; S. Subramanian 1939: 36-37). Tamiḻttāy’s bodily intactness underscored the inviolability of the language she embodied, its purity and autonomy as well as its self-sufficiency, even its divine wholeness. Immensely fruitful though her womb may be, the insistence that she is a virgin meant that her sexual purity (tūymai) is not compromised by her fertility and productiveness (vaḷamai). As one devotee proudly noted, “Our Tamiḻaṉṉai [Tamiḻttāy] flourishes as a virgin, as queen of chastity (kaṟpu)” (Tamilmallan 1984: 62). Cast as an asexual figure confined to perpetual virginity and hallowed motherhood, Tamiḻttāy is rendered sexually “safe,” an object of filial longing at best, of unconsummated desire at worst. The dilemma this poses for the desiring devotee is best expressed by Ramalinga Pillai in a poem suggestively entitled “Kaṉṉit Tamiḻ,” “Virgin Tamil”:

She came towards me, adorned with blossoms,
Filling me with such delight (iṉpam);
Transported to the world of gods, I rejoiced;
O, how can I describe my bliss!
Gold and gems she may not have;
Even so, she was filled with beauty;
With her sweet gentle smile,
she filled my mind with pleasure (iṉpam).
Enchanted by her virginal beauty,
I reached forward to tightly embrace her!
Seeing then that she was my mother, I shrunk back, and fell at her feet, my body doubled up in shame!
“Filled with alien thoughts, I totally forgot the mother who gave birth to me.
Alas! I lost my mind.”
So I grieved in distress.[32]
Underlying the medley of ambivalences here—of shame and guilt, of desire and revulsion, of grief and joy—is the (sexual) unavailability of Tamiḻttāy, however desirable she may be. Her state of perpetual virginity transforms Tamiḻttāy into a passive, undesiring female herself, erasing all traces of active sexuality from her being, but it also meant that the male devotee’s desire for her went unrequited. It remained as fantasy, never to be consummated. In Tamil devotion therefore, as indeed in so many ideologies, female virginity proves to be both disempowering and empowering: disempowering because it marks the female body as undesiring; empowering because it suggests impenetrability, self-sufficiency, and unavailability.

The emptying of active sexuality from Tamiḻttāy’s being is critical to the work of the devotional triangle of desire, for this is what allows the Tamil-speaking woman to enter the male devotee’s regimes of pleasure. As the flesh-and-blood embodiment of Tamiḻttāy, she acts as her surrogate but without the imperative to maintain a virginal status. In fact, the very reproduction of Tamil required the woman to abandon her virginity through a chaste monogamous marriage to the male Tamilian (Ramaswamy 1992a). All the same, because the male Tamilian is also devoted to Tamil in these narratives, there is a concern that the primary commitment to Tamiḻttāy should not be compromised by the necessary sexual bonding with these human surrogates. So, in a long poem published as recently as January 1993 in a daily newspaper, the hero declares to his beloved that only after he had destroyed Hindi, which was threatening to enslave and wipe out Tamil, would he even “think about [her] beautiful breasts, and caress and enjoy [her]!”[33] Similarly, years earlier, during a December 1956 debate in the Madras Legislative Assembly on instituting Tamil as the official language of the state, one of the members burst into a story about two lovers, in which the woman waits impatiently for the arrival of her beloved only to find out that he had been delayed on his way over to meet her. The hero tells her: “I was hurrying along thinking about you. At that time, I heard someone making a speech in sweet Tamil (iṉpattamiḻ); hearing that, I forgot myself and stayed on.”[34] The legislator, V. Balakrishnan, goes on to tell his (predominantly male) audience that this is why we have been told that iṉpattamiḻ, “sweet Tamil,” has more kātal, “(romantic) love,” to offer us than even our kātali, “female lover.” The explicitness of the analogy here between the woman and Tamil as kātali is all the more remarkable because it is made in the state’s legislative chambers and in the context of promoting the cause of Tamil as official language.

Caught between his language/mother and his wife/lover, the male devotee looks for ways in which he could have them both. One solution for accomplishing this, which Bharatidasan offers in one of his poems, is for the male devotee to work together with his beloved in serving Tamil. So the hero tells his lover:

I have been born for you, truly, my beloved!
You have been born for me, O cuckoo bird, my shining beam!
I gave myself to you. . . .
You gave yourself to me. . . .
[My] mother hailed me. . . .
She hailed you. . . .
Our mother’s land, our Tamil
We have to rescue from ruin!
This is iṉpam! This is iṉpam!
What else do we desire but this?[35]

Thus the male devotee calls upon his beloved to give up their mutual pleasure in each other for the sake of Tamiḻttāy. Here, we see that the devotional triangle works not so much to disrupt the dyadic relationship between the male and female devotee as to rewrite the very meanings of “pleasure” and “desire” themselves: the poem begins with a celebration of the sexual union of the male devotee with his beloved and ends with a call to jointly sublimate that pleasure in each other in service of the language. Through such an act of sublimation, the language and its devotees, male and female, come to be ever more tightly bound to each other through bonds of pleasure and desire—fueled, denied, and rekindled.

This is of course not the only way out. The male devotee also confesses that if he indeed had to abandon himself to a sexual relationship with a human lover, it could be with none other than a Tamil-speaking woman, imagined as the very living embodiment of Tamil—a surrogate Tamiḻttāy cast in her image, but without the ambivalent burdens of virgin motherhood. Many poems suggest this, some even maintaining that it would be an act of betrayal and disloyalty for the Tamilian male to marry anyone other than a “true” and “pure” Tamilian woman, but there is one text I want to focus upon here, entitled Kātalikku (For my beloved). Published in 1961, the work is cast in the form of a series of letters written by an ardent male adorer of Tamiḻttāy to his human beloved, who appears to be severely vexed over his intense attachment to the language/mother which frequently takes him away from her side. The purpose of the letters appears to have been not only to convince her of the worthiness of his work for tamiḻppaṟṟu but also to convert her to its cause, because only then, it is clear to him, could he consummate his relationship with his beloved. So, in the penultimate letter he declares in response to her question, “Do you want me? do you want Tamil?”: “Dearest! I need you; I need Tamil as well; I need both you and Tamil. I need you as one who has herself blended with Tamil.…Dearest! For me, you are sweet Tamil (iṉpattamiḻ).” He then goes on to compare different parts of his beloved’s being and body to the different aspects of Tamil and its literature, writing, “In your youth—your beauty—your dark eyes—your fine brow—your eyelids—your black hair—…in the very movement of your limbs, I see only precious Tamil.…[Y]ou are living Tamil. I want you. I want only you as the very embodiment of Tamil (tamiḻ kalanta nī tāṉ vēṇṭum)” (Arulsami 1966: 80-86).

In this narrative as well, the work of the devotional triangle is productive. The hero is an ardent devotee who, passionately dedicated as he was to the cause of Tamil, is drawn to the Tamil-speaking woman precisely because in her, he sees the flesh-and-blood embodiment of his dear Tamiḻttāy. The narrative also works to successfully constitute him as an object of desire of the female Tamil speaker: she starts out as a reluctant lover, not entirely enchanted with either him or tamiḻppaṟṟu. By the end of the narrative, in the final letter of this exchange, his narration of his work for Tamil wins her over to him and to its cause (Arulsami 1966: 87-88).

These fascinating instances clearly suggest that Tamil devotion cannot be confined to its more obvious pious and filial manifestations alone. The modality of erotics, however, exists only in the interstices of tamiḻppaṟṟu, erupting every now and then, tantalizingly, in the writings of Tamiḻttāy’s desiring devotee(s). This may seem surprising in light of the vigorous traditions of pre-colonial erotic poetry in the Tamil-speaking region as indeed in other parts of India. But these traditions did not fare particularly well with the introduction of new Victorian and bourgeois norms of sexual morality which took deep root in colonial India, under the scathing missionary, Orientalist, and colonial scrutiny of “Hindu” sexuality (Metcalf 1994: 92-105; Sinha 1995). This colonial scrutiny was itself reflective of a major realignment in notions of respectability and “correct” sexuality within ideologies of nationalism from the early decades of the nineteenth century in modern Europe (Mosse 1985). For twentieth-century South India, the conflicts between older forms of sexual expression and its newer, more “respectable” bourgeois manifestations have scarcely been documented. But it does appear that the colonial critique only heightened puritanical norms and sexual ethics that the upper castes of the region routinely supported in pre-colonial times. The Dravidian movement, in its own attacks on Brahmanism, celebrates what it identifies as the authentic Tamil form of premarital love and sexual union, kaḷavu, which is held up as the desirable alternative to the “arranged” intra caste marriage dictated by Brahmanical norms. At a rhetorical level, the movement certainly promotes freer expressions of love and sexuality. Nevertheless, it too practices its own politics of virtue in which the chastity, modesty, and sexual fidelity of the Tamil woman underwrite not just the honor of the Tamil man but also the purity and honor of Tamil culture, land, and language (Lakshmi 1990; M. S. S. Pandian, Anandhi, and Venkatachalapathy 1991). So M. Rajamanikkam declares, “As we safeguard the purity of women, we ought to guard the purity of [our] language” (quoted in Tirumaran 1992: 159). Caught between the new norms of bourgeois respectability and older, deeper conventions of female chastity and sexual virtue, the modality of erotics has a troubled and shadowy presence in the discourses of Tamil’s devotees. Consequently, the erotic and sensuous persona of Tamiḻttāy is displaced by the compassionate and nurturing image of de-sexualized and spiritualized motherhood.

On the Feminization of Language

Its devotees may empower their language by drawing upon three different models of femininity—an all-powerful goddess, a compassionate but endangered mother, and a desirable but unattainable maiden. But eventually and hegemonically, it is the maternal image that came to dominate devotional imaginations, overwriting the divine and the erotic. Why? And why feminize the language at all? In the pre-colonial poetic traditions to which Tamil’s modern devotees are indebted in myriad ways, the feminization of Tamil was largely underdeveloped, although not entirely absent. And the language was not associated with motherhood. In the rare instances when it was personified, its gender was either unspecified or even male.[36] Yet, from the late nineteenth century on, the personification of Tamil relied extensively on the female form, and especially on the female form clothed in maternal garb. Such a feminization of the language, however, was neither idiosyncratic nor exceptional, but symptomatic of a fundamental regendering of culture and community under colonial rule and modernity. Two complex imaginaries converged to provide the terrain on which this took place: a dominant colonial identification of all things Indian as feminine (or effeminate); and bourgeois nationalist discourses of modernity conducted around the hallowed figure of the mother.

Their many contrary impulses notwithstanding, colonial discourses fundamentally contrasted the natural “masculinity” of British imperial culture with the inherent “femininity” of (Hindu) India, the former being preordained to rule and command, the latter to obey and follow. This in turn was the gendered expression of the Orientalist imaginary that undergirded colonial rule, in which the natural and inherent superiority of the rational, secular, industrious, progressive (masculine) West prevails over the irrational, spiritual, passive, and unchanging (feminine) East (Metcalf 1994: 92-112; Said 1978; Sinha 1995). It was not only India that was feminized thus. At least since the time of James Mill, the Indian woman, too, metonymically came to represent “Indian” culture and civilization, just as, in another context, the (white) European woman was a sign of her culture and civilization. Identified as it was in colonial discourses as the site of the authentic India, the female domain assumed a new significance in anticolonial and countercolonial discourses which mounted their resistance on the same terrain. When imagined as the repository of all that was uncolonized, Indian women became the embodiment of all that is truly and purely Indian. Correspondingly, all that is deemed authentic, true, and pure is by definition feminine, domestic, and private, for the male, public world was tainted by its association with colonialism (Chatterjee 1989).

The language of that public world was of course English, whose very dominance had consigned India’s languages to the inner, private domain of the home and the family—the domain of the woman. Inhabiting the same domain as the woman, India’s languages, too, were perforce feminized in the discourses of the colonized. Like the woman with whom they now shared space, they became embodiments of all that was imagined to be authentically Indian. Sivagnanam best captured this transformation, although he confined his remarks to Tamil, in a speech he gave to an anti-Hindi conference in Madras in 1948, soon after Indian independence: “Formerly, when the British empire sought to destroy Tamil by introducing English, men took to its study for jobs and status. At that time when Tamil was neglected and relegated to the kitchen, it was Tamil women who guarded it with their own arms. Now that English rule has come to an end, our women who have hitherto been protecting Tamil are now returning Tamiḻttāy back to us.”[37] The easy slippage in the last sentence from “Tamil” to “Tamiḻttāy,” from Tamil as language to Tamil as woman, is possible because in Sivagnanam’s imagination, as in that of numerous other Indians like him, it is women who are the “custodians” of India’s languages, watching over them until they could be reclaimed and restored to their former glory (by men).

And yet Indian women themselves—as indeed women in so many other parts of the world—had been radically reconfigured by bourgeois discourses of modernity, for if woman was idealized as the repository of all that was glorious and wonderful in one’s culture, she was also firmly put into her place, in the home and amid her family as “mother” (Mosse 1985: 90-91). Many studies have demonstrated that the consolidation of nationalist ideologies in different regions of the world was accompanied by an “extravagant celebration of motherhood” (Margolis 1984: 28). This was especially true in western Europe, which provided the model for so many ideologies that crystallized in colonial India. There, bourgeois nationalist discourses were marked by the discursive and symbolic separation of the “home” from “work,” and of the “nation” from the “world.” The home and the nation were hallowed as noncompetitive, depoliticized arenas, and as sacral repositories of moral values and virtue. The reproduction of these arenas, as such, was ensured by insisting that women are “by nature” self-sacrificing, virtuous, unambitious, and nonpolitical beings, destined to be child bearers and nurturers. As George Mosse notes (1985: 97), “Women as national symbols exemplified order and restfulness. Woman was the embodiment of respectability; even as defender and protector of her people, she was assimilated to her traditional role as woman and mother, the custodian of tradition, who kept nostalgia alive in the active world of men.” Such a representation was only further consolidated within nationalist ideologies seeking to put the nation on a pedestal as an iconic object of platonic affection and unconditional devotion, for how much more successfully could this be done than by recasting the nation itself as a selfless, compassionate, and de-sexualized Mother, disaggregated from the public realms of politics, self-interest, and sexual competition (Badinter 1981; Davin 1978; Margolis 1984; Poovey 1988: 1-23)?

In colonial India as well, at different times in the nineteenth century, the “woman’s question” loomed large in the writings of newly westernized and middle-class (Hindu) elites. Mostly centered in the urban hubs of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras, they sought to counter the colonial censure of Indian culture and tradition by “reforming” their women and transforming them into virtuous, educated “companions.” By the turn of this century, this reforming zeal yielded to a “new” nationalist patriarchy, as the nation came to be valorized as a “home” and “family” whose health could be guaranteed by ensuring the re-signification of largely middle-class women as the educated mothers of its future citizens (Chatterjee 1989; R. Kumar 1993; Lakshmi 1990).[38] The woman-as-wife or sexual being was subordinated to the woman-as-mother or reproductive being, for as one Swami Jagadiswarananda insisted in 1933, “motherhood is the fulfillment of wifehood” (quoted in Visweswaran 1990: 67). As Visweswaran rightly notes, motherhood emerged as “a strategy of containment” that was both oppositional and hegemonic: “Oppositional because it resisted the British ‘sexing’ of all Indian women as potential ‘wives,’ opting for a spiritual, de-sexualized woman, ‘the mother.’ Hegemonic because the other side of the British equation of the sexual Indian woman, was the asexual, spiritual Victorian woman” (Visweswaran 1990: 66).

Thus, in Indian nationalist discourses, while the home is presided over by the woman as mother, the nation as home is presided over by her archetype, Bhārata Mātā, a nationalist icon like Britannia or Marianne, but one who also embodies the difference of Indian spirituality and tradition. For nationalist thought in Tamilnadu, Subramania Bharati’s statement in his essay “The Place of Woman” marks this convergence of the woman in her guise as mother and India as Bhārata Mātā:

Nor is it without significance that the country of spiritual liberation, India, should, at this hour of her mighty awakening, have adopted as her most potent spell, the words “Vande Mataram,” i.e., “I salute the Mother.” That means that the first work of a regenerated India will be to place the Mother, i.e., womankind, on the pedestal of spiritual superiority. Others speak of their Fatherlands. To us, the Nation is represented by the word “Mata” [mother].

In projects like tamiḻppaṟṟu, which were conducted in the outlying regions of the emergent nation, this nationalist valorization of India as mother was supplemented by the celebration of language as mother, itself at odds with Bhārata Mātā in the Dravidianist imagination, as we have seen. Given the cultural politics of Tamilnadu, where a large number of Tamil’s devout asserted that they were victimized not just by British colonialism but by North Indian “imperialism” as well, the Tamil-speaking home and its mother—and their language—were doubly burdened. They not only had to define authentic Tamil subjectivity against the colonial West; in addition, and even more urgently in the decades following Indian independence, they were enrolled into the project of guarding the purity and fidelity of Tamil speakers from what in many accounts was considered a more enduring enemy, the Aryan Sanskritic Brahmanic North.

So, the representation of the language as Tamiḻttāy; as tāymoḻi, “mother tongue” tāyppāl, “mother’s milk” or simply tāy, “mother” surfaced in a late colonial situation in which motherhood came to be privileged, not only as the sine qua non of women’s identity but also as the foundational site on which pure and true subjectivities and communities could be imagined and reproduced. In the fractured colonial context in which the (Tamil) male was increasingly tainted by his association with the outer, non-Tamil-speaking colonized public domain, the home-family-domestic nexus was imagined as the site where an essential “Tamil” unity, spirituality, and wholeness continued to be maintained. As the woman in her incarnation as “mother” came to be marked as the very human embodiment of this wholeness, spirituality, and unity, the (Tamil) language she spoke (= “mother tongue”) correspondingly also found itself reconstituted in her image, taking on her persona of femininity, spirituality, and de-sexualized motherhood. Of course, given the powerful anti-Hindu and even antireligious sentiments of many of her devotees, great care was taken—although not with unconditional success, as we may recall—not just to de-sexualize Tamiḻttāy but to de-spiritualize her as well. So the image of Tamiḻttāy as deity and desirable maiden is progressively overshadowed by her reincarnation as a familial and secular tāy, “mother.”

Its devotees themselves offer two kinds of explanations for why they have imagined Tamil as mother. It is customary, they tell us, to think of one’s language as one’s mother; it is “ancient Tamil tradition” (Government of Tamilnadu 1990: 49; Purnalingam Pillai 1930: 56-58). As we have seen, however, this “tradition” was neither ancient nor customary. The devotees also insist that their language, like their mothers, gives birth to Tamil speakers, and nourishes and raises them. Like their mothers, their language, too, abides with them for ever and ever. In a world where there was nothing more assured than the love of a mother for her child, K. Appadurai asked what could one say about “the love of the mother of all of Tamilnadu who bore not only our bodies, but also bore the mothers who bore us, and bore the mothers of the mothers who bore us?” (1944: 20). For Tamil’s devotees, it was natural to valorize the one bedrock of their existence as a community, that is, their language, by assimilating it to that foundational figure which they claimed guaranteed their existence as individuals, namely, their mother.

The new ideologies of motherhood that confirmed motherly love as foundational were thus enrolled in reinforcing the new ideologies of modernity in which language was seen as foundational to community and nation. In the discourses of tamiḻppaṟṟu, there are multiple roles played by this foundational metaphor of the nourishing and compassionate mother. It familiarizes and familializes the relationship between Tamil speakers and their language by couching it in the comfortable everyday terms of the home and the family. The metaphor also naturalizes this relationship by constituting a sense of originary and selfless love that Tamilians, as her “children,” necessarily and naturally owe to their language/mother. It de-historicizes the bonds between the language and its speakers by presenting them as timeless, essential, and beyond the vagaries of history. Above all, it depoliticizes the relationship by enabling the abstraction of the community of speakers of Tamil from politics, and by re-signifying it as a “family” whose members were united as harmonious siblings bonded together through sharing Tamiḻttāy’s womb and milk.

Visualizing Tamiḻttāy

The struggle over the multiple linguistic imaginings and the many conceptions of femininity that have gone into the constitution of Tamiḻttāy came to the fore when the devout attempted to fashion for her a consistent and credible iconographic presence. In January 1981, almost a century after her first appearance in the poetry of her admirers, a statue of Tamiḻttāy was officially installed in Madurai, on the occasion of the Fifth International Tamil Conference, by the Tamilnadu chief minister, M. G. Ramachandran. One critic scoffed at the government’s attempt to pass off an archaic female figurine as Tamiḻttāy (Ilantiraiyan 1981: 67-68). Another wrote:

It is a matter of great sorrow that they have made a statue, called it Tamiḻttāy, and have even conducted an inauguration ceremony around it. There cannot be anything more foolish than this. In these days when we say that we should not have any statues of even our gods, they have turned what is merely imagination into solid form. They have sown the seeds of great danger for future generations who will come to believe that all this is true. This is foolishness of the highest degree. Formerly, during the nationalist movement, this is how the Congress wove its lies around figures such as Cutantira Tēvi [Goddess Freedom], Bhārata Mātā, and so on, by creating statues for them and painting their pictures. There is nothing wrong in imagining that Tamil, or our nation, is our mother, and in praising them as such. But to then turn around and create statues for them is not very rational.

This critic objected not so much to the feminization of the language as mother as to the transformation of “mere imagination” into concrete reality. That such an objection should have emerged is perhaps not surprising, for it is hard to miss the irony of an overtly material form of Tamiḻttāy receiving the blessings of a government that was putatively dedicated to implementing the ideology of the Dravidian movement. At least since the 1920s, that movement had attacked the rationality and sensibility of a Hindu culture that generated multilimbed, multiheaded material manifestations of what ought to be a singular, formless godhead (Annadurai 1969: 42-43; Ryerson 1988). Thus Ramasami asked every true Dravidian to solemnly pledge, “I will not worship images anymore; I will not go to temples where images of divine forms are placed” (Anaimuthu 1974: 317). And Bharatidasan declared, “God has neither figure nor name.…It is not a Tamil principle to worship stone or copper” (quoted in Ryerson 1988: 82-83). Yet, and the irony continues, some of the earliest material and visual manifestations of Tamiḻttāy appeared during the anti-Hindi protests of the late 1930s that were spearheaded by Ramasami and his Self-Respect movement. In 1938, Dravidian movement newspapers carried visuals of Tamiḻttāy being assaulted by C. Rajagopalachari (figs. 5, 6).[39] And when Ramasami himself was arrested in 1938, thousands of his followers protested by carrying in a procession a giant statue of Tamiḻttāy in a posture of mourning through the streets of Madras (Visswanathan 1983: 236).

Indeed, it was not until the 1930s that the verbal habit of imagining Tamil as Tamiḻttāy was supplemented by visual practice. By that time, visual and material representations of Bhārata Mātā were fairly common, even in Tamilnadu (Baskaran 1981). Occasionally, drawings of Tamiḻttāy began to appear in literary magazines, often accompanying poems or essays on her; on mastheads of Tamil devotional journals; and sometimes in advertisements for shops or publishing houses that carried her name (fig. 8). Consumption of these visuals, as of the journals that they appeared in, would have been by a largely urban, scholarly elite, interested primarily in Tamil literature and poetry and hence by no means a popular audience. More recently, she has also been featured on covers of books on language issues and on Tamil poetry (Bharatidasan 1992; Govindarajan 1988; Nagarajan 1980; Sivagnanam 1978). And, over the years, many Tamil revivalist and literary organizations as well as individual devotees—the Kamban Kazhagam in Karaikkudi; a group of notables headed by Professor A. Alagappan of Annamalai University; and, more recently, the Tamilnadu state—have printed and circulated large color posters, very much like the posters of Hindu goddesses and popular personalities that one frequently encounters in modern homes and public spaces everywhere in India (figs. 1, 2, 9) (Guha-Thakurta 1991). Statues of Tamiḻttāy are less frequent. Giant floats carrying Tamiḻttāy’s statue were part of the grand state-sponsored public processionals of the Tamil conferences held in Madras in 1968 and Madurai in 1981.[40] A statue in wood adorns the entrance foyer of the library of the Tamil University in Tanjavur. Large stone statues of Tamiḻttāy may be found in Madurai and Karaikkudi. Significantly, there are no statues of Tamiḻttāy in Madras, the political capital of the region. This in itself is a sign not just of the state’s ambivalence towards religious and female iconography, but also of its very different attitude towards language and Tamil devotion, as we will see later.

These statues and pictures show clearly that Tamiḻttāy’s iconography as generated by tamiḻppaṟṟu is a melange of traditional and nouveau forms, of conflicted dependence on religious and secular imagery, and of an ambivalent reliance on old esthetic devices to iconize what is after all a brand-new personage. Their best efforts to the contrary, her devotees have found it often difficult to escape the vise of Hindu religious as well as Indian nationalist imagery. For one thing, unless she is clearly identified as “Tamiḻttāy,” it is very easy to confuse her visually with the hundreds of other goddesses and female divinities that are popular in this region. For another, in the cartoons in which she was featured in the 1960s, she could easily be mistaken for—or deliberately be read as—an everyday Tamil woman (fig. 10). While in quite a number of the visuals that are printed in magazines and journals she is left unnamed, leaving it to the reader to figure out from context who she is, in a large majority of cases she is named specifically as Tamiḻttāy. The fact that her devotees have to regularly resort to identifying Tamiḻttāy through inscribing her name suggests, at the very least, that no iconographic canon has as yet crystallized around her, as it has around well-known deities such as, say, Lakshmi or Ganesha who arguably do not need to be identified as such. At the same time, given the low literacy rates in the region, the use of writing to identify her visuals has obvious implications for who has, and who does not have, ready access to Tamiḻttāy.

Naming is not the only strategy that her devotees have used to identify their Tamiḻttāy visually. They have also tried, with mixed success, to generate a repertoire of distinctive iconographic features that would give her a visual presence that cannot be readily confused with other well-known goddesses. First and most clearly, an important feature of Tamiḻttāy’s iconography is that she is almost invariably shown carrying a sheaf of cadjan leaves in her left hand. Ironically, given the important role played by print capitalism in disseminating the assertions of Tamil devotion, there are very few visuals which show her with a printed book. The use of cadjan leaves instead of the printed book underscores the archaizing strategies in devotional poetry, conveying to the viewer the impression that she is an ancient and hoary figure. At the same time, when the leaves are left unnamed, as they are in a large number of cases, Tamiḻttāy could be easily mistaken for Saraswati, whose iconographic tradition also has her holding such palm-leaf manuscripts. In a number of cases, however, the leaves in Tamiḻttāy’s hand are identified specifically as the Tirukkuṟaḷ. Additionally, the Annamalainagar poster of Tamiḻttāy (fig. 1), as well as pictures of her published in journals like Tamiḻt Teṉṟal (1 July 1948) and Nakkīraṉ (15 January 1960), visually translate the poetic notion that the many “gems” of Tamil literature are jewels that adorn Tamiḻttāy’s body. In particular—and here one may note the clever play on the titles of these various texts—the Cilappatikāram jingles on her feet as anklets, the Maṇimēkalai encircles her waist as a jeweled belt, the Kuṇṭalakēci hangs from her ears as gold rings, the Vaḷaiyāpati adorns her arms as bracelets, and the Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi crowns her head as a diadem.

Other iconographic features drawn from Tamil literary and historical traditions serve to bestow upon Tamiḻttāy a visual presence that distinguishes her from that “other” mother, Bhārata Mātā. In the Annamalainagar poster, Tamiḻttāy sits on a throne inscribed with the symbols of the fish, the bow, and the tiger, which are claimed to represent the ancient Pandya, Chera, and Chola kingdoms, the oldest in the recorded history of the region (fig. 1). The same symbols may be seen in the official Tamilnadu government statue and in the poster released by the state (fig. 9). The Annamalainagar poster, as well as the Kamban Kazhagam’s, also links her visually with the three “branches” of Tamil, iyal (literature), icai (music), and nāṭakam (drama), by incorporating images of a literary manuscript, a lute, and drums (figs. 1, 2). In many visual and material manifestations, Tamiḻttāy holds a musical instrument in her hand; once again, the similarity here with Saraswati, the Sanskritic goddess of music, is unmistakable. Yet her followers insist that Tamiḻttāy’s musical instrument is not Saraswati’s vīṇā but the much more ancient yāḻ mentioned in Canḳam poems.

In general, there is unusual unanimity in presenting Tamiḻttāy visually as a young woman, albeit one who often appears rather matronly. This is in keeping of course with her dominant image as a kaṉṉi (maiden), and with the assertion that Tamil is an evergreen, ageless, undying language (kaṉṉittamiḻ). So far, I have only found two exceptions to this general pattern. First, in a cartoon that appeared in a DK journal, Pōrvāḷ, during the anti-Hindi protests of 1948, Tamil is cast as an old woman who contemptuously looks at the newborn babe, Hindi, with which the Indian state was planning to displace her. The cartoon resorts to the image of the old woman to juxtapose the venerable antiquity of Tamil with the upstart immaturity of the “infant” Hindi.[41] And second, in illustrations accompanying a set of poems written in the piḷḷaittamiḻ (extraordinary child) genre and published in 1981, Tamiḻttāy is featured, in keeping with the requirements of that genre, as a little infant and young girl, albeit one who has the face of a grown woman.[42] These exceptions aside, in the majority of cases in which she appears as a young woman, Tamiḻttāy is generally depicted sedately seated and chastely clothed, which suggests, if we follow George Mosse’s comparable discussion of Marianne of France, the imperative to associate her with stability and bourgeois respectability (1985: 91). In quite a few cases, Tamiḻttāy wears a sari and blouse in the modest style that comes to be associated with the middle-class woman. But equally strikingly, in a large number of instances, including the official state poster, she appears in garments truer to a more archaic iconographic tradition—tight-fitting short upper bodice, no top cloth, and figure-hugging clothing from the waist down (figs. 9, 11). This is typically how the devotional assertion that Tamil is an ancient “classical” language has been visualized; the body of Tamiḻttāy is archaized by clothing her in the (imagined) garbs of an ancient Hindu goddess or literary heroine. Here, parenthetically, one may note Mosse’s observations about the comparable archaizing of the clothing and accoutrements of European icons of the nation, such as Germania and Britannia. “Like all symbols,” he comments, “the female embodiments of the nation stood for eternal forces. They looked backward in their ancient armor and medieval dress [suggesting] innocence and chastity, a kind of moral rigor directed against modernity—the pastoral and the eternal” (Mosse 1985: 98).

Despite the ambivalently developed but nevertheless manifest eroticization of the Tamiḻttāy figure, I have not come across a single visual representation of her as an object of (sexual) desire, with one potential exception: the 1967 cover of the literary journal Tamiḻ Vaṭṭam, which features a sensuous, beautifully adorned Tamiḻttāy seated rather seductively on a globe (fig. 3). In all her other visual appearances, Tamiḻttāy is a remarkably de-sexualized figure with little indication of her poetic persona as a desirable woman. The female allegorical figure, Madelyn Gutwirth suggests, “operates to reify female untouchability.” The “mute remoteness” and “emptiness of expression” worn by many a statue of Tamiḻttāy, their voluptuousness notwithstanding, hardly make them suitable objects of desire (Gutwirth 1992: 256-57). The absence of visuals of a sensuous Tamiḻttāy only underscores the precarious life of the modality of erotics within the world of Tamil devotion.

The alternate conceptions of the language generated by the religious and classicist imaginations on the one hand, and Indianism and Dravidianism on the other, visually manifest themselves in the contrary images of Tamiḻttāy as a glorious, bejeweled woman in some of her pictures, and as a disheveled woman in a state of disarray in others. In general, the latter is restricted to the various cartoons generated during the anti-Hindi protests of the midcentury in contexts that were clearly populist. These cartoons thus show Tamiḻttāy in various stages of distress—as weeping behind bars, bending over the bodies of her dead children, cowering in a corner with tears running down her face, and so on (figs. 7, 10).[43] One striking visual which was published in February 1965 even has a weeping Tamiḻttāy holding the charred body of Aranganathan in her arms.[44] At the end of the Hindi struggle in 1967 with the coming of the DMK to power, Tamiḻttāy recovers her beatific stance, once again, as she is portrayed happy, smiling, and back on her throne.[45]

Another important area of visual contestation is over Tamiḻttāy’s representation as a queen on the one hand, and as an everyday Tamil mother/woman on the other. In the former, her limbs are adorned with jewels; she wears a crown, or is being adorned with one; and she carries a scepter: she is clearly the sovereign of her putative kingdom.[46] But during the 1950s and 1960s, Tamiḻttāy was more often than not featured as an everyday woman, clad in a sari and blouse (fig. 10). Some of these visuals mark her distinctiveness by bestowing a halo around her or placing a small crown on her head. Nevertheless, she could quite readily be mistaken for a generic Tamil-speaking woman, especially when the pictures do not name her. So cartoons of Tamiḻttāy crying over the bodies of her children fade into newspaper pictures of women shedding tears over the death of their near and dear ones.[47] The feminization of the language is so pervasive that texts and essays on Tamil, or on “our mother tongue,” routinely begin to carry the figure of a woman either playing with her children or reading to them.[48] Such images only visually reinforce the notion that the Tamil-speaking woman, especially in her guise as mother, is after all a surrogate Tamiḻttāy.

But undoubtedly the biggest area of contestation in the visual politics around Tamiḻttāy, as in the written and spoken discourses on her, surrounds her representation as “goddess.” The reliance on the canons and materials of Hindu iconography has meant that the over-riding impression imparted by the various statues and some of the posters of Tamiḻttāy is that she could well be a goddess: she wears the crown that many Hindu divinities typically wear; she holds her right hand in the typical gesture of offering grace to her devotees; she sits on a large lotus, or her feet rest on it, as is typical of many goddesses; and her face often carries the same look of remoteness and transcendence that marks the countenance of many a deity. The real distinctive marker, however, of whether a particular picture or statue intends to present Tamiḻttāy as a goddess lies in the number of arms she is endowed with. As is well-known, the supernatural quality and the power of Hindu deities find iconographic representation in the multiple arms they bear. Typically, deities with great power are shown with four arms, while minor deities, female consorts, and godlings have two. The mother-goddess is generally portrayed with four arms, sometimes more.

In general, the large majority of these pictures and statues, especially those produced under the mantle of the Dravidian movement and Dravidianism, show Tamiḻttāy with two arms. She is not a supernatural, superhuman figure participating in all the irrationalities of Hindu religiosity; instead she is a near and dear mother. The seductive maiden on the cover of the 1967 issue of the Tamiḻ Vaṭṭam is four-armed, however, and so is the Tamiḻttāy of the poster issued by the Kamban Kazhagam (figs. 2, 3). The statue of Tamiḻttāy that the latter sponsored is also four-armed, the four arms signifying, I was told, the three branches of Tamil learning (iyal,icai, and nāṭakam) and grace (aruḷ) (fig. 11). This very same statue was recast again in 1981 as the official, government sponsored figure of Tamiḻttāy installed in Madurai. But the state’s statue shows Tamiḻttāy with only two arms; in all other respects, it is identical to the four-armed statue of the Kamban Kazhagam. The two additional arms were left out on specific orders from the highest levels of the government—even from the chief minister himself, I was told (compare figs. 9 and 11). This concession to Dravidianist iconoclasm aside, it is telling that the state’s visual representation of Tamiḻttāy is in all other respects truer to her religious persona as goddess than to her secular incarnation as mother. For the state would very much like to capitalize on the enormous attention that Hindu divinities continue to command among the populace, in its own effort to pass itself off as a devotee of Tamiḻttāy, albeit a reluctant one.

Today, the Kamban Kazhagam’s four-armed statue of the goddess sits in a “temple” to her that has been built in the southern town of Karaikkudi (fig. 12). The foundation for the temple was laid in April 1975 with the blessings of the DMK government of M. Karunanidhi, which also sanctioned the hefty sum of five lakh rupees for the project. The temple was finally opened to the public in April 1993. Its central sanctum houses, in addition to Tamiḻttāy, the images of her two most ancient “sons,” the grammarians Agastya and Tolkappiyar. Three subsidiary sanctums carry the images of Ilango, Tiruvalluvar, and Kamban, three of Tamil’s most famous poets. The temple itself is shaped in the form of a triangle, the three angles signifying the three most ancient kings—the Chera, the Chola, and the Pandya, Tamiḻttāy’s oldest patron sons; alternatively, they also represent the three branches of Tamil, iyal (literature), icai (music), and nāṭakam (drama). Although the structure is referred to as a kōvil, the sponsors are very clear that it is not a “temple” in the religious sense; the image of Tamiḻttāy is not an object of worship, nor are Hindu religious rituals performed. This is a temple that commemorates, in their vision, the language that belongs to the entire world; accordingly it is open to all who revere Tamil. Indeed, during the dedication of the temple in 1993, it was clear that everybody assembled there was careful to distance themselves from all overt signs of religiosity. In his speech, Karunanidhi, who officially opened the temple to the public, even pointed out there should be no mistake about his extending his approval to an image that had four arms. Rather than signifying irrational divinity, the four arms represented the four languages that Tamil had given birth to: Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu, and Tulu. Tamiḻttāy was not a goddess to be worshipped but a guardian who will guide us, he insisted. For his part, Kunrakudi Adigal (1925-95), the controversial head of the Shaiva maṭam (monastery) at Kunrakudi, also concurred, making clear his hopes that Tamil speakers visiting the temple would renew themselves as Tamilians and resolve to write, speak, and think in Tamil, always.[49]

All the effort invested in creating for her a distinctive iconographic presence notwithstanding, there is no single, standardized image of Tamiḻttāy that reigns today. Even as it underscores the many quandaries inherent in translating into visual and material media what is after all an abstraction, the absence of a singular pictorial representation provides a powerful visual reminder of the multiplicity of conceptions about the language, and the many models of the feminine, that have gone into the imagining of Tamiḻttāy within the poetic and prosaic productions of her devotees. And as with the verbal discourses on Tamiḻttāy, in iconographic practice as well the struggle has been waged on several fronts, producing a range of variations in her visual persona. That out of all this a single standardized hegemonic image has not emerged is not necessarily a sign of failure; on the contrary, the existence of this multiplicity and fluidity—what Paul de Man has characterized as a “surplus of meaning” (Gutwirth 1992: 255)— sures the iconographic availability of Tamiḻttāy, as goddess, queen, mother, and maiden all rolled into one, that future devotees can continue to cash in on.


1. I am indebted here to the marvellous analysis by Helen Hackett of Elizabeth I of England as both “virgin mother” and “maiden queen” (see Hackett 1995).

2. Prior to this, in 1881, Damodaram Pillai had already referred to Tamil as aṇanḳu(Damodaram Pillai 1971: 12, 19), and in 1879, Vedanayakam Pillai had invoked her as araci, “queen” (Vedanayakam Pillai 1879: 285).

3. Centamiḻc Celvi 6 (1928-29): 236-43.

4. See Centamiḻc Celvi 4 (1926-27): 296-300; 29 (1954-55): 474-76.

5. Kuyil, 2 August 1960, 16.

6. Intippōr Muracu 1985: 59.

7. As far back as 1881, Damodaram Pillai made a similar suggestion in his analysis of the historical development of Tamil (1971: 19).

8. Viṭutalai, 18 May 1938, 3; Kuṭi Aracu, 22 May 1938, cover; Pakuttaṟivu 4, no. 2 (June 1938). In his memoirs, Karunanidhi recalls that as a young boy growing up in the Tanjavur suburb of Tiruvarur, he mounted this cartoon on a placard and took it around his small town in a daily procession an effort to mobilize his fellow speakers (1989: 44).

9. Aṟappōr, 8 September 1961, 1; Tiruviḷakku, 12 February 1965; Muracoli, 19 and 29 January, 3 February 1965; Muttāram, 15 March 1966; Kaḻakakkural, 15 January 1976.

10. Kuṭi Aracu, 19 December 1937, 15. The inspiration behind this cartoon appears to have been K. A. P. Viswanatham, a devotee whose writings are a melange of radical neo-Shaivism, contestatory classicism, and Dravidianism. A native of Tiruchirapalli, Viswanatham inherited his father’s flourishing tobacco business but dedicated himself from his early youth to tamiḻppaṟṟu, playing a leading role in anti-Hindi protests into the early 1990s, in the demand for Tamil as liturgical language as well for as for changing the name of Madras state, and in numerous other such causes (Sambandan 1976).

11. Bharatidasan made a similar suggestion in the 1920s (1955: 25-29).

12. Viṭutalai, 27 December 1938, 4. In the Mahābhārata, Dushasana is the principal Kaurava prince responsible for disrobing Draupadi.

13. Kuyil, 15 August 1948, 29.

14. An oblique exception to this is a speech made by V. Balakrishnan in the Madras Legislative Assembly in December 1956, when he compared the efforts of government officials to coin Tamil neologisms for English bureaucratic words to the “rape of virgin Tamil” (kaṉṉittamiḻai kaṟpaḻittatu pōl ākum); MLAD 37 (1956): 637-38.

15. Kuyil, 15 August 1948, 29.

16. Tamiḻ Muracu (Pondicherry), 14 January 1960, 27.

17. Nam Nāṭu, 28 January 1979, 8.

18. Kuṭi Aracu, 28 May 1939, 16.

19. See also the essay entitled “Sahōtaratuvam” (Fraternity), Intiyā, 11 December 1909; and the editorial entitled “Vantē Mātaram” (Homage to [our] mother), Intiyā, 22 January 1910.

20. NNR 13 (1913): 816. Such equations between language and mother’s milk are not limited to the Indian context. For instance, a sixteenth-century Spanish theologian, Luis de Leon, also likened “vernacular” languages to the “milk that children drink from their mother’s breast” (Rafael 1988: 25). Similarly, David Laitin, in his study of language politics in contemporary Somalia, cites Somalian poetry in which an explicit equation is made between Somali, mother’s breast, and mother’s milk (1977: 115, 133-34). See also Faust’s exhortation that the mother “must be an educator” because “the child sucks in its first ideas with the mother’s milk” (Kittler 1990: 55).

21. MLAD 37 (1956): 628. Here, as in other instances, the term “bottled milk” refers to English. For other comparisons between Tamil as mother’s milk and English as “bottled” milk, see Maraimalai Adigal (1967b: 82) and his daughter Nilambikai’s speech to Tamilnadu Women’s Conference in 1938 (Viṭutalai, 15 November 1938, 1; Nilambikai n.d.: 3).

22. See also Kuyil, 1 September 1947, 6.

23. See also Kuyil, 15 July 1948, 12.

24. Viṭutalai, 26 November 1938; see also Muracoli, 26 January 1965, 1.

25. Ņāṉapānu 3, no. 9 (1915): 222.

26. Muttāram, 15 March 1966, cover. The same cover was reprinted years later in the DMK party magazine on the occasion of the celebration of the “Language Martyrs’ Day” in January 1976 with a verse celebrating the young men (Kaḻakakkural, 15 January 1976).

27. Camanīti 1965, February 12: 5.

28. English transcript of Tamil speech. Government of Madras Order No. 4818-4819 (Home Confidential), 5 October 1938.

29. Teṉmoḻi 2, no. 8 (1964): 69.

30. Kumari Malar 29, no. 7 (1972): 71-72.

31. The noun kaṉṉi in this compound means, among other things, virgin maiden, youthfulness, freshness, and everlastingness. So, from at least the 1880s, Tamil’s modern devotees refer to their language as kaṉṉittamiḻ, which in various contexts could mean “virgin Tamil,” “youthful Tamil,” “eternal Tamil,” and so on.

32. Kumari Malar 4 (1943): 11-12.

33. Tiṉappuraṭci, 21 January 1993, 2.

34. MLAD 37 (1956): 637-68.

35. Kuyil, 19 August 1958, 1; Teṉmoḻi 2, no. 5 (1964): 7-9. See also Kuyil, 15 July 1948, 3-5, for a poem titled “The Pleasure (iṉpam) That Comes in Serving the Dravidian Nation.”

36. Nineteenth-century mystics like Ramalinga Adigal and Dandapanisami characterized Tamil as “father tongue” to assert its superiority over Sanskrit, described as “mother” (Krishnan 1984: 197-99). In recent years, the domination of the feminized Tamiḻttāy notwithstanding, occasionally some verses personify Tamil as king, father, son, and male lover (Mudiyarasan 1976: 32-33, 40-41; Nagarajan 1980: 3-8, 13-15, 17-25, 39-31).

37. Intippōr Muracu 1985: 52.

38. A historically nuanced study of motherhood in colonial India has yet to be written, though a beginning has been made in “Ideology of Motherhood,” a special issue of the Economic and Political Weekly 25, nos. 42-43 (1990).

39. Viṭutalai, 18 May 1938, 3; and Kuṭi Aracu, 22 May 1938, cover page.

40. To the best of my knowledge, living women have not played Tamiḻttāy in public processions. For comparative examples of real women representing female icons of the nation in other parts of the world, see Hunt (1984: 63-66) for eighteenth-century France; and Ryan (1990: 26-37) for the nineteenth-century United States.

41. Pōrvāḷ, 7 August 1948, 10.

42. Tamiḻaracu 11, no. 13 (1981): 1-12. I thank Paula Richman for bringing these poems to my attention. See also Richman 1997.

43. Aṟappōr, 8 September 1961, 1; Muracoli, 19 and 29 January, 3 February 1965; Muttāram, 15 March 1966; Kaḻakakkural, 25 January 1976.

44. Tiruviḷakku, 12 February 1965.

45. Muttāram, 1 December 1968, cover; Maṟavaṉ Maṭal, 3 May 1970, cover.

46. Nakkīraṉ, 15 January 1960; Camanīti, January 1968.

47. Muracoli, 19 and 29 January, 13 March 1965.

48. See cover of Kandiah Pillai (1958) and illustration accompanying the essay “Intikku tāymoḻi Tamiḻē” (Tamil is the mother tongue of Hindi), Kaḻakakkural, 19 January 1975, 19.

49. Muracoli, 18, 19, 21, April 1993; Mālai Muracu, 17 April 1993; Indian Express, 18 April 1993.

Feminizing Language

Preferred Citation: Ramaswamy, Sumathi. Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.