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Home > Tamilnation Library > Literature > Tamil Heroic Poetry - K.Kailasapathy
TAMIL NATION LIBRARY: Literature
From the Preface:
"The aim of the present study is twofold. Firstly, in general, to apply the comparative method to the study of early Tamil poetry, and secondly, in particular, to compare Tamil poetry with Homeric poetry, showing that both reflect the conditions of the so-called Heroic Age.
The idea of such a study is not in itself new. Writing about the early Tamil works in general, G. U. Pope (1885) remarked that their resemblance to the corresponding poetry of Greece is 'remarkable as to their sentiments, and the state of society when they were uttered'. S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar observed (1923) that some of the Cankam poems `are like the heroic tales from out of which sprang Homeric Iliad. It remained, however, for N. K. Sidhanta (1927) to suggest a concrete line of inquiry. In themes and their treatment, he observed, `Tamil poetry invites a comparison with heroic poems in other languages'. Following Sidhanta, S. Vaiyapuri Pillai (1952) emphasized the relevance of Chadwick's Heroic Age for the interpretation of early Tamil minstrelsy, and ventured the opinion that some at least of the earliest poems might be taken to reflect the spirit of a Heroic Age. Recently J. R. Marr (1958), in his monograph on the Eight Anthologies, has mentioned en passant that Tamil bardic poetry has certain features in common with other heroic poetry. Two other studies, treating Nature and Love have drawn attention to the existence of Greek parallels.
To this extent, therefore, the present study has its starting
point in a long line of suggestions. In attempting to advance beyond
them, full use has been made of the results achieved by H. M. and N.
K. Chadwick on the heroic poetry of different peoples, embodied in
their monumental work The Growth of Literature.
It is believed that by applying this method new light can be thrown on a number of unsolved problems in the study of early Tamil poetry. Most students recognize in this poetry `a quantity of literary evidence of unique value providing sober and realistic pictures of early Tamil Country'. But such unanimity of opinion has never prevented different scholars from seeing different things often belonging to different periods in the very same poems. Commenting on the bewildering diversity of answers given to questions of chronology, it has been said: `indeed one cannot help thinking that the methods of investigations that have been pursued must have been vitiated by some radical defect, when one notices that all possible dates between the first and tenth century after Christ have been assigned with greater or less confidence to the Sangam period.
Although many scholars now tend to attribute the Anthologies to the early centuries of the Christian era, the problem of their origins remains. Great efforts have been made to fix the precise dates of these poems, but no agreement has been reached. I believe that this is partly because insufficient attention has been paid to the conditions in which the poems were transmitted during the early period. One of the basic questions involved is how the poems were transmitted.
It has been plausibly argued that the Dravidians have had a continuous history in south India since Neolithic times. The earliest poems as we know them are doubtless separated from the probable earliest Dravidian settlers by a time span of about two millennia. Nevertheless, echoes of very ancient and primitive life are recorded in the poems. Some scholars have pointed out that elements belonging to early and late periods are to be found in the same poems.
How was a rich tradition of poetry transmitted over the centuries? It is clear that at some stage before the introduction of writing it must have been dependent on oral tradition. Chadwick has shown that both the Teutonic and Greek heroic poems `were designed for preservation by oral tradition'.The importance of verbal testimonies, i.e. oral traditions, for the understanding of the past is becoming increasingly recognized. Once this is granted then the work of Milman Parry in particular becomes vitally important for our study. What he did to demonstrate that the poems of Homer were traditional epics, and oral compositions, seems to be equally applicable to our sources. That Parry formulated a universal theory has since been demonstrated by its fruitful application to living heroic poetry in Yugoslavia and elsewhere.
The method has been tested in essentially non-heroic contexts too.The results in turn demonstrate its soundness. This study of early Tamil poetry amply confirms the principles enunciated by Parry in his comparative study of South-Slavic arid Homeric poems. Chadwick's and Parry's researches converged in the analyses of the true nature of oral heroic recitations; a combination of these two related and supplementary methods helps us immensely to understand the bards and bardic traditions of early times and their social functions. It also helps us to understand the spirit of the age, which permeates the so-called `Cankam works'. Furthermore, by applying the comparative method in place of a too rigidly chronological approach, it becomes clear that even the medieval commentators may have light to throw on the early history of the poems. The commentaries of the Tolkappiyam, in particular, have been critically utilized. The present study is the first contribution to a comparative study of this kind."