The Panorama of Tamil literature Today (Paper read in a seminar in Kerala)

The Panorama of Tamil Literature Today


As I taught in the Centre of Kannada Studies of Bangalore University, as a Professor of another language, Tamil, in the Comparative section, comparing different trends and the undercurrents of the two language literatures of Tamil and Kannada is inevitable; and as such this endeavour is also profitable to the students and litterateurs of these two South Indian languages. A general look at the activities of specific groups, relevant magazines, and literary institutions both supported by Governments and individuals of the two literatures will make one understand that Kannada literary activities are more visible getting  support from Government and culturally alert social milieu than Tamil. There is not even one Govt. institution meant exclusively for the support of Tamil literature except one section in a Department of culture to support all genres of fine arts such as Music, Drama and Iyal, which means whatever is rendered in prose. This section, as expected, is now in charge of an erstwhile film comedy actress and needless to say that the allotment of fund of this section of the cultural Department is very meagre. The usual activities of central Sahithya Akademy related to Tamil are more of a routine one, and Tamil Departments of different Universities and a University meant exclusively for Tamil studies virtually do not consider modern Tamil – be in the evaluation of modern creative writing, other studies of modern literature or critical theories – worth its attention as their concern is with old and medieval literatures, though most of the works are uninspiring.

The above picture of modern literary scenario of Tamil may make one think that there is nothing worthwhile in today’s literary world in Tamil. But that is far from the fact. There are lots of activities in Tamil specially in little magazine circles. One publisher has recently brought out the Tamil translation of Nobel awardee Orhan Pamuk’s celebrated novel ‘ My Name is Red’. The translations of the booker awardee  Arundhati Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’, and another  Nobel award winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s famous novel ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ have appeared in Tamil. This translation, it should be noted, appeared almost twenty years later than the publication of the novel of Tamil magical realism, avidly inspired by Marquez. Coming to Indian languages, Kannada writers get a preference over their counterparts in other languages as far as Tamil rendering of the works of these authors are concerned.  Almost complete works of Ananathamurthy and Girish Karnad have come into Tamil, but still the Tamil critical attention is not yet focused on these writers. I have read not even a single notable critical essay on these two writers. So is the case with other Kannada and Indian language writers like  Shivarama Karanth, Vyasaraya Ballal, Tejeswi, Shanthinath Desai, Chandrasekara Kambar etc. Some other writers could appear in Tamil as central Sahithya Akademi has a publication policy to translate an award winning author to another language. Needless to say that these authors, whatever be their standing in their languages, do not provoke even a single reader or critic to write about them . The Marathi work Upara and the Kannada poet Siddalingaiah’s biographical writings and other works are mentioned in a few meetings when the Tamil Dalit writers started a debate as to understand what the priorities of a Tamil Dalit writers are. But, according to me and as noted by many others, Dalit writing in Tamil ( which means Dalits who write in Tamil with a specific philosophy) has not made any impact on the Tamil on-going literary milieu in terms of criticism, discussion or influence on other modes of writing or marking a turning point in the literary trends of new emerging writers. But the Tamil social and cultural history necessitated Dalit political parties which have considerable following as one or two Dalit party MLAs or MPs are elected at least with the help of major political parties of Tamil Nadu. But still one can  assume that Dalit literature, with all its resources, will  become a major voice in future given the fact that Tamil speakers and their tradition largely encourages equalitarian traits since the time of Thirukkural, a text of earlier era which speaks that ‘all living beings are born equal’ .

The dominant cultural thrust of twentieth century, without doubt, is the Dravidian movement which even made an impact on Malaysian, Singapore and Sri Lankan Tamil writers and altered the cultural and literary series of events of Tamil Nadu. The reformist point of view made prominent during this mass-based movement which originally was a curious by-product of the ideology introduced by a single book of linguistics , ‘ Comparative Grammar of Dravidian Languages or South Indian Languages'(1856) by Robert Caldwell, a Protestant Bishop who came from England to propagate Christianity. E.V. Ramaswami Periyar and Annadurai took cue from this ideology and they fashioned two reformist parties – one a non-Political rationalist movement and another a Political Party which later became the ruling party of Tamil Nadu. The legacy of these two leaders continue even today in such a way that no other national Party could come to power in the state thereafter. Dravidianism  – a strange mix of anti – Brahminism, atheism, Tamil-pride, demand of Dravidasthan, pride of place for women etc. could not be swept away from Tamil consciousness in whatever was written  in Tamil till today. The pan-Indian phenomenon of western  modernism that made an impact in the 50s in almost all the State language writings of India -be it  in Kannada where Gopalakrishna Adiga was an icon,  in Malayalam where Ayyapappa Panicker played a pivotal role,or  in Bengali where Bishnu Dey started this trend – could not influence  Tamil writing till 70s  of 20th Century. Even this Tamil modernist elements of writing, compared to such prose writers of the same school in Kannada,  Ananthamurthy, Shantinath Desai etc. , was strong in the genre of poetry, exemplified in the poetry of N. Pichamurthy, C. Mani, Admaanam and few others. One should not forget that this Tamil Modernism is formed as a backlash against Dravidianism, as this modernist poetry of N. Pichamurthy was fostered in a little magazine called ‘Ezhuthu’ which is counted in  the caste  hierarchy as the last Bastian of Brahmin writers.

This modernist literary phase of a short duration after DMK came to power in 1967 marks a plethora of many ideological, religious, psychological, linguistic and philosophical moorings  of literary forms, modes of expression, representation of ideas and a host of other things. The shift, of meanings brought forth during this modernist period paved way for charting new courses of thinking and writing; this introduced new international trends of philosophical discourses. During the seventies just before the death of Jean Paul Sartre, whose death was reported with a special article in Kannada by none other than Ha.Ma.Nayak, a noted Professor, critic, linguist and folklorist in Prajavani, if I am right. At this period  two books were published in Tamil by a small publishing house, Crea, (which later became an important institution) on Alienation and Existentialism, an endeavour considered very revolutionary then amidst publishers who never crossed traditional norms of publications of books on national leaders and repeated Dravidian themes. This movement of neo-Marxism as a philosophical backdrop of modernism, coupled with a few incidents of Naxalit activities in Annamalai University brought in the Tamil social milieu a restlessness which witnessed the declaration of national emergency in India in during 1975-1977. A little magazine called ‘Pragnai'(consciousness), a regular monthly devoted to translations, literature , film criticism and literary debates published one of Sartre’s plays that  portrayed characters whose commitment to a political cause was so urgent, thus reflecting the mood of the time.

After the declaration of national emergency the Tamil literary situation which was the battle ground of new interpretations of Marxism went to the next phase of understanding of Structuralism which unlike in the West, facilitated the new recognition to native Tamil traditional poetics as embodied in the native grammar Tolkappiyam which is indigenous and demonstrates that phonemes as a unit leads to meaning which ends in the writing of poetry with 34 elements (of different techniques).

That a study of the history of influences of one tradition on another does not function in simplistic binary oppositional method is amply demonstrated in the Tamil situation. Structuralism, a systematic method of thinking as a sequel to Existentialism and its corollary thoughts of French intellectuals such as Alienation and the debates associated with these themes and the subsequent introduction of Structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss stirred native reaction in the literary arena of Tamil language. This was the period when Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s  ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ made different world languages react to this new magical realist novel. This period witnessed the collapsing of Soviet union and the Left in Tamil Nadu gave in to the local pressure exerted by the above Alienation & Structuralism debates: the main argument now revolved around was whether the world or the reality got reflected in literature directly as a mirror reflects its objects placed in front of it or through innumerable other levels. Till the 70s, the Tamil Left and their powerful vanguard forums of activities were spread all over the many districts of Tamil Nadu. These organizations did not allow young people entry to the groups of neo – Marxists of Tamil. The groups of leftists slowly changed their tactic after the fall of Soviet Union. Now many Tamil young writers felt a sigh of freedom and started writing poems of their liking using surrealist, magical and meaning – free poems of many cues and colours and this period was fertile for new writing. Simultaneously this period saw  the slow death of Dravidian school of writing as they were busy with reaping  the fruits of political power and this stage marked an end to the usual style and writing of Dravidian literature except one inimitable poet of enormous strength, Bharathidasan who reversed the then existing trend of drawing strenght from the day to day Sanskritised idiom of language by going back to the age old and archaic language of Sangam poems, thus providing inspiration to Annadurai to model his Tamil politics which was something new in the arena of Indian politcs of post- independent India.

In the middle of eighties there appeared in Tamil the first magical realist novel and this new style of writing, no doubt, opened many possibilities of experimenting with narration and thus breaking, for the first time, the realist mode of writing in Tamil. Realist mode was hitherto considered the only style to portray the economic and other social problems of Tamil society which is on the contrary guided by unchanging mythic narrative patterns, rituals and folklore. This new consciousness of magical portrayal of history and society brought to the fore the new understanding that the relation between fiction and social reality is not uni-directional as was made out in Tamil progressive groups, but it is multi-faceted. The strict rule and mode of close and simplistic adherence to social values enforced by the self-styled, ill -informed and insulated progressive groups was given up, after knowing that

Marquez and the Latin American literary writing came from a leftist philosophy and background. This opened a floodgate of new styles of writing in different genres like new poetry, theatre and fiction, and the best use of the situation was made by the young leftist writers, who did not much know that these styles were banned by their elders of the same group . There emerged some very good writers who portrayed in different stories the different Tamil speaking areas, communities and religions. New writers heaved a sigh of relief as they were left with many methods of portrayal of a family, character,situation and community. Either they go to focus on the folklore of a family or portraycustom and religious specificities. These writers have come  from Christian, Muslim, Dalit and trans-gender groups.

The debate whether poetry should be written with prosody or not came to an end only in the seventies in Tamil, whereas Kannada and other Indian languages opted for free verse much earlier.

The perspectives that surfaced in the period of much upheaval in society due to  the Dravidian political movement coming to power and women getting more space and importance in the society and later the declaration of national emergency, are worth our attention. The gradual change of villages, introduction of education among backward communities and the appearance of small towns throughout Tamil Nadu helped spread film theatres to large number of places. This was useful for the Dravidian ideologues to come into the  world of films and  film -goers constitute the main chunk of their supporters and later their voters. Visual knowledge as mode of understanding had spread among the lower classes and castes. This had perhaps brought in a change in the general relation between the masses and the intellectuals and there emerged a mass – culture with the mixing up classical and folk cultures. There was a drastic perspective change at this point of time. The subjectivity or self of a generation changed. Literary outlook of this generation was looking for more experimental forms. This period could be marked as between seventies and eighties of the twentieth century. The most effective plea is made to the Tamil readers by way of new critical theories to shun the age-old writer’s point of view of a literary text and his intension; in its place the reader’s response to a text was advocated. During such debate was found that a sinister collaboration existed between the high castes in literary circles and the idea that only certain individuals of high spiritual capacities are liable to be authors of texts. The new slogan that the author is dead came in handy for a new interpretation which is reader- oriented. The text is, now explained as not having a centre and hence it is polyphonic. What is curious is that these new arguments were supported by resorting to a close study of Tolkappiyam and its poetics, which now many readers of Indian literature know as an alternate model to age old Sanskrit poetics. Here western theories were not understood directly, but through a cultural interpretation or urai, an endeavour acknowledged in traditional Tamil by way of writing as many as 18 commentaries on the universally acknowledged great book ‘Thirukkural’. This tradition of writing commentaries to this book is continuing according to the important modern tenets of Christianity, Islam and of course, atheism. Since there is an interpretative tradition of  accepting different world views as to suit modern life these new theories of literature , be it Deconstruction or  ideas of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, are accepted by a traditional mind and thus erasing the binary of Western versus Eastern debates with which many languages of India are still engaged in including Kannada. And another point is that new thoughts have come not from English Departments, as they largely refrain from intruding into another Department, Tamil,but from Tamil academics which proved fruitful as the new  concepts were seen not as mere imitations, but contesting ones with native thoughts, thus paving the way for coelescense of western and eastern literary thoughts.

Thus the concept of an author of a revered text is not only deconstructed and cast away by using concepts (or non – concepts) of poststructuralists but also by a commentatory (bhashya) tradition of Tamil. This enabled entry to all castes and classes into the portals of Tamil writing and hence the activities of writing and reading are rendered endeavours of equal calibre. Writer is neither superior nor is he/she hierarchically or symbolically placed above the ranks of a reader. Thus text and book are differentiated. The centre – less text could be a computer monitor, painting of glass, or an advertisement.  The e-book negotiates a machine and a reader; the dimensions of time, space and ‘signification’ of text is conditioned by different factors. All these discussions have appeared in Tamil small magazines and they slowly influence creativity of the era on the eve of the end of twentieth century. Now the readers look for very different writers who usually write for a small circle of readers and writers who are mostly not even known to commercial readers who do not distinguish between Telephone Directory and an experimental novel such as the one written by the late important writer Nakulan. This is the reason why there are no names  which  compete for Jnanpith award from Tamil Nadu . These kinds of Tamil writers of little magazines write a kind of objective texts where fiction sometimes may not be differentiated from an essay. The plot is erased and the beginning and end of a story is indistinct as in the stories of George Luis Borges of Argentina. That almost all his stories have been translated in Tamil by little magazine writers in the eighties, may be a pointer to a Kannada serious reader who is not very familiar with Borges’ ‘flat’ stories which are rated very high  among the gamut of world renowned writers and thinkers. Is it true that Kannada has not come out of the large image of its Modernist history of writing where the grammar of a good story is centred around a unified plot?

The twentieth century Tamil creative writing as is the case of other Indian language literatures is formed of influences of English and French (as Pondicherry was a colony of the French) and to an extent Malay in the case of Malaysian Tamil writing (as we have about 8 lakhs Tamil speaking population there). Here what happened is that Tamil, as other Indian languages, is not a mere recipient language. The influences of a foreign languages on an Eastern language is to be understood as an active influence in the sense that the many historical remembrances stored in our languages come to the fore as our languages accept the influences; thereby our language is stirred in its many layers and thus influence is a kind of negotiation with certain elements and layers of the foreign language; what comes as a resulting -output due to this negotiation is a completely new quality of writing. This theoretical delineation could be utilized to the benefit of a large number of questions that our regional literatures face. Having this in mind, let me emphasise, many observations are made and questions are raised  in the above sections of this article.

One specific area of Tamil literature hitherto unexpected having the vast expanse of the history of Tamil literature, is the emergence of women’s writing. In the end of eighties, there appeared a group voice of young women’s poetry; this happened in a genre specific manner in the new poetry domain which itself is only 30 years old if one has to understand the emergence of this genre, free verse, in spite of the opposition from three powerful groups, i.e. academies, leftists and Dravidian writers. What is new in their poetry is a specific emphasis on describing women’s independence; these poets come with largely suppressed and sexually coloured images. Their anger and social concerns are also coloured by this orchestrated and obsessive outlook. Some notable poems of these relatively young women are the result of unleashing a supressed energy which throws up unexpected diction, imagination, metaphors, similes and new ambience of emotions. Along with these new voices their use of language developed a search for the root of a lost tone of poetry, description and setting: most of these poems used the age –old Sangam description of nature as a backdrop of their poetry, though this element of looking for the root started slightly differently with the Tamil nationalist poet, Bharatidhasan, in his traditional poetic pursuit.

As observed earlier, this negotiation with elements that are from the past or forgotten and what constitutes poetry unconsciously is a fall back  providing our modern poetry of men and women a strength and social relevance hitherto unknown. This has happened almost at all the stages of modern literary history. The tragedy of the death of almost one lakh Tamils in Sri Lanka in 2009 through phosphorous bombs against all norms of U.N. rules has shaken the conscience of Tamils all over the world and this makes Tamil language a crisis ridden one now. Different forms of mental and psychological manoeuvrings are attempted today by Tamil writers worldwide to tide over this crisis as all the Tamils witnessed the Sri Lankan massacre perpetrated by that Govt. as a blatant violation of all known humanitarian rules. The search for a new literary paradigm which will give expression to the suffering of fellow human beings and echo the on-going destruction of the identity of these people, and there will come a global awareness that ultimately will help literature bring in a meaningful search for a new literature and criticism which complement each other in order to create a relevant twenty first century Tamil literature. This will recognise fully well that the earlier brands of ‘committed literature’ or ‘progressive literature’ which are narrow and representational in character do not provide an answer to the question.

The student of modern Kannada literature as well as others will find, what is being discussed now in Tamil, useful. There is a theoretical attempt to forge a global alliance with Tamil writing as it is practiced all over the world, as the war in Sri Lanka has made many Sri Lankan Tamils migrate to different parts of the world. So the Tamils of Malaysia, Europe, U.S, Canada and Australia  come together to form a new identity as to develop a ‘Diaspora Tamil Writing’ about which there was a seminar recently in Singapore. Global intercultural elements and national motifs  have started merging with modern twenty first century Tamil creative writing. This has been discussed among the modern Tamil writers and again a new negotiating paradigm is emerging to force different inner currents of the Tamil life of the modern age to make its meanings felt.

I want to repeat  at the end that all these details given above as the  account of Tamil writing and thinking in the field of literature and criticism are the result of the strength of creative human spirit unmindful of whether one gets institutional help or not.So the question we face is  whether a language literature is promoted with generous funding from Govt. or some Institution,  is irrelevent as far as Tamil situation is concerned where the creative dynamics is intense and no less creative during the 20th century .By being creative what I mean is that  out -put of writers and momentom of energy of  every generation is unhampered. The influences of different streams of thought of intellectuals of the world, and experiments in genre, form and content keeping the multifaceted reading public who are spread over many continents are note worthy in Tamil.So the question now is how a language literature flourishes,and under what circumstances, if external agencies do not contribute to its growth.This is the million dollar question one has to face if he/she is a serious student of  literature.

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