50 years of Eelam Tamil Literature
Professor Emeritus, University of Jaffna
(from a posting in the Tamil Circle) 1995
[see also Selected
Writings - Karthigesu Sivathamby]
ethnic riots of 1983, the pattern of life has changed in
the Tamil-majority northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka
and these changes have inevitably been reflected in recent
Eelam Tamil literature.
By the close of the 1940s, when Sri Lanka (then Ceylon)
became an independent nation (1948), Eelam Tamil literature
was 600 years old in terms of the first literary work known
(Sarasothi Malai, an astrological work). However, in terms
of the first known Eelam Tamil poet (Eelattu
Poothanthevanar) this literature is as old as Sangam poetry.
Poothanthevanar's poems are found in the
anthologies (100 B.C.- A.D. 250).
By the time we come to the mid-20th century, Eelam Tamil
literature had already experienced the kingdom of Jaffna
(14th to 16th century), and the Portuguese and the Dutch
periods (1520-1796) and brought out its own responses to
The British period saw the literary activities of
Arumuga Navalar (1822-1879), the Saiva Tamil
protagonist who outdid Christians by employing their
strategies (tracts, prose versions of old texts in
verse, school texts) to fight back what he called
Christian intrusions, and of
(b) Sidee Lebbe who firmly established the Islamic
identity of the Eelam Moors in the 1880s.
The period of joint missionary activities (by the
Anglican Mission, the American Mission and the Methodist
Mission) which saw the spread of education and the extension
and expansion of translation activities was over by the
close of the 19th century; and Eelam Tamil literature, with
the addition of Upcountry Tamil literature (the literature
of the Tamils of the plantations), was now on the road to
By the 1940s, daily newspapers had already been started
(Eelakesari and Virakesari in 1930 and Thinakaran in 1932)
and journals committed to the growth of modernistic,
socially purposive literature (Bharati and Marumalarchi in
1946) had also started coming out.
At the time of the country's independence, Eelam Tamil
literature was a valued part of the overall Tamil literary
tradition, enjoying much respect in
Tamil Nadu and in the
Federated Malay States (which had a substantial Tamil
Some of the significant characteristics of Eelam Tamil
were by this time easily distinguishable. They were:
1. dichotomous development of religio-literary
traditions (Saiva-Tamil, Christian-Tamil literature and
Islamic-Tamil literature) and secular literary
developments, each enjoying popularity at its own level;
2. Muslims enjoying an ethnic identity that was
separate from that of Tamils; and
3. a sense of region-consciousness.
Although Sri Lanka is geographically small, one could
identify nine Tamil sub-cultural regions - Batticaloa,
Trincomalee, Vanni, Jaffna, Mannar, the North-West
districts, Colombo, the Southern districts and Upcountry.
Each region has its own specificity. The influence of Jaffna
was hegemonic until independence.
By the 1950s, two trends began to surface, one denoting
the emergence of a Tamil consciousness all over the island
in response to the emerging Sinhala nationalism, and the
other a Marxist-inspired literary movement which was
nationalistic and at the same time was opposed to social
oppression and deprivation.
The former expressed itself largely in terms of the
Dravidian ideology and of the poetry of
which were then very much in vogue in Tamil Nadu. But it was
the latter trend of opposition to social oppression and
deprivation, led by the Progressive Writers' Association,
that created an unprecedented literary impact.
This movement brought about a certain togetherness among
the emerging young writers of the various regions,
especially the Upcountry region and the Southern districts
(Muslim writers), and it was forging ahead as a truly Eelam
Tamil literary movement with the writers from the North and
the East playing an important role. Equally important was
the writing this movement triggered against social
exploitation and the caste system in the North.
For the first time in Tamil literature, the victims of
social oppression wrote about their sufferings, their
humiliations and deprivations. Tamil Nadu had to wait till
the 1990s for Dalits to write about themselves. In fact, K.
Daniel, the eminent novelist who wrote Panjamar, is
considered the forerunner of Dalit writing.
This movement had the benefit of the services of literary
critics in providing a theoretical orientation and literary
legitimacy to the content and mode of writing. This new
writing of the late 1950s and the early 1960s was nurtured
well by Thinakaran, with
K. Kailasapathy as its editor (1958-1962).
The impact was electrifying. In a culture where
literature had been the handmaid of social conservatism, it
soon led to bitter polemics in defining the role of
tradition and the social function of literature.
A debate ensued, and the progressives (this writer was
involved in it deeply) and the punditry were locked in a
bitter controversy. This, of course, was in the arena of
polemics. But its social reverberations were far-reaching.
Almost all, from people in the academia to the average
member of the reading public, were involved. But in the
field of creative writing there was another confrontation.
Progressive writing was condemned by some persons as too
doctrinaire, and by some others as unaesthetic too.
The progressives insisted on the message. Realism as a
literary strategy was very much a debating point. Of the
counter-positions expounded and argued effectively, the most
important was that of
M. Thalayasingham, a socio-literary activist. He argued
that one has to take cognisance of a dimension beyond
Marxism, and spoke of a sense of spiritualism as essential
He did not deny the validity of Marxism but argued for a
spiritualism that lies beyond Marxism. Looking back, it was
his perception about the emerging political trauma that is
significant. The period from the mid-1950s to the end of the
1960s with its literary debates and creative efflorescence
marks an important phase in the development of modern Eelam
In poetry, the chief figures were Murugaiyan, Mahakavi,
Neelavanan and Puratchikkamal, with the younger poets such
Nuhman, Shanmugam Sivalingam, Maruthoorkkani and
Jeyapalan (coming in slightly later) making effective
One could see the efforts of the stalwarts of New Poetry
getting recognition by the late 1960s. Murugaiyan wrote
highly intellectual poems. Mahakavi, on the other hand, was
emotive using subtle but loaded imagery. Poetry was a very
lively art during this period, especially because of the
kavi arangus in which poets read out their poems. There was
Sillaiyoor Selvarajan, a master rhetorician whose instant
verses were very attractive comments on politics as well.
In fiction, this was a period of a good harvest. One
could say with confidence that it was during this period
that typically Sri Lanka Tamil fiction, with the smell of
the terrain, was being produced and recognised as such in
Tamil Nadu. Varadar, Daniel, Dominic Jeeva, Raghunathan,
Kavalur Rajathurai, Se. Ganesalingan, S. Ponnudurai, K.V.
Nadarajan, Nanthi, N.S.M. Ramiah, Telliwatte Joseph,
Dickwella Kamal, Senkai Azhian, Sembian Selvan, Muttulingam
and Bhavani Alvapillai are a few of the names that cannot be
missed in any critical evaluation of that period.
Understandably, it was the short fiction that provided
the creative matrix for most of these writers. A substantial
number of these writers came from the Dalit group. But one
should not forget the role played by writers such as
Ganesalingan, who exposed the social rigours of Jaffna
By the early 1970s, some of these writers had graduated
to full-fledged novel-writing, chief among them being
Ganesalingan, Daniel, Ilankeeran, Nanthi, Senkai Azhian and
Se. Yoganathan. Ilankeeran and Ganesalingan were the early
novelists of the progressive movement.
By the 1970s, with the ideological controversies yet
raging but not with as much sharpness as earlier, there came
into the scene a second generation of writers in both the
progressive and the non- and anti-progressive fronts,who
were able to make a rich contribution to the growing corpus
of Eelam Tamil poetry.
Among the poets of the 1970s one could notice Puthuvai
Rathnadurai, Sivasegaram, Mu. Ponnambalam and Vilvaratnamas
highly articulate, and among fiction writers Santhan,
Theniyan and Sattanathan and the late Kathirgamanathan
emerge as major writers of this phase. Social change, which
was the burning problem of the day earlier, had now become
an accepted social reality, and these writers concentrated
more on the characters (and the humanity that underlies),
while for earlier writers social acts and the incidents of
oppression were more important.
Dominic Jeeva's Mallikai was the chief forum for the
publication of progressive writing and the role of
Jesurajah's Alai in bringing out other writings was
In the 1970s, contemporary Eelam Tamil literature was
part of the educational curriculum at the university
entrance level, and this paved the way for the participation
of teachers and students in the literary debates of the day.
Writers became important social figures.
In the mid-1970s, conditions began to change. From about
1974 the political atmosphere became highly charged. With
extra-parliamentary strategies gaining ground (and with the
corresponding decline of Parliament as a forum for political
debate), politics was becoming increasingly activist. State
intervention increased and militancy began to appear among
the youth. With these changes, literature ceased to be open,
and there was more unsaid than said. The regular media -
newspapers and the radio - did not function in an open
manner and thus the range of writing was restrained.
By the beginning of the 1980s there was a dramatic
collapse (the 1983 ethnic riots). From 1984 uncertainty and
gloom spread to the North and East and the pattern of life
changed. In this situation the role of literature began to
assume importance. It was an important medium of expression
but could not be practised as openly as needed and desired.
Poetry, understandably, was the first to record these new
changes and experiences.
An anthology of poems edited by Nuhman, Cheran and
Jesurajah was titled Maranathul Valvom (We Live Amidst
Death, 1984,and it summed up the emotional climate of these
areas. Living amidst death had become the order of the day.
Nuhman's translation of Palestinian poets opened up a new
vista to young Eelam readers.
It was Cheran, the son of Mahakavi, a new arrival of
the 1980s, who recorded with authenticity and sincerity
the changed feelings and emotions. His anthologies,
Erandavathu Sooriya Uthayam (The Second Sunrise) and
Yaman, though slender in size, left a deep impression.
On the burning of the Public Library, he wrote:
What took place?
My city was set on fire
My people became faceless.
On my land, my breeze on all the estamp age of
With your arms inter-locked behind your back for
whom were you waiting?
Fire has writ large its message indelibly on the
A new era in Eelam Tamil literary sensitivity and
expression had dawned.
Fifteen long years have now passed, and looking at the
period, one could see some contours emerging. The period
could now be seen in slots - 1984-1988, 1988-1990, 1990-1995
and 1996 onwards. Throughout this entire period, poetry has
remained the dominant form. Cheran, Puthuvai Rathnadurai,
Vijayendran and Jeyapalan are important names. Agonies and
aspirations, and pathos and anxieties are inscribed with
Here one should not fail to notice the differences in the
experiences and sufferings of the different regions. The
Batticaloa experience was very different from that of Jaffna
and Vanni, and Solaikkili has recorded it in his poems in
unforgettable terms. His weird language and surrealist
images are haunting.
Another major upheaval in the poetic experience was the
Muslim-Tamil clashes in the East and the uprooting of
Muslims from the North. These experiences have given rise to
heart-rending poetry. Muslim poets such as Vedanti have
written brilliant poems. Today there is a galaxy of young
Muslim poets writing with conviction.
Of the younger poets who were able to register their
arrival in the 1990s, Natchathiran Sevvinthiyan, N. Atma,
Deva Abira and Aswagosh are notable. Fiction, being by
nature more analytical than poetry, took some time to find
its expressiveness. All the torment of living in war-torn
environs, and the agony that characterises human relations
in such uprooted, disjointed situations, are brought out
well in the short stories of Ranjakumar, Uma Varadarasan and
The intensity and the depth of suffering, its
unprecedentedness, must be read to be believed. Ranjakumar's
Kosalai (the mother of Rama in Ramayana) is a brilliant
portrayal of the hapless mothers whose sons run away from
home. Kaviyuvan's stories reveal how social institutions
such as the family have been ripped apart. S.L.M. Haniffa
has written some brilliant short fiction during this period
depicting the changes among Muslims.
Much of these writings are not freely available and
even if available, cannot be discussed openly. Even a
brief perusal will reveal how life has changed and
suffering has become all-pervasive.
The most important outcome of the post-1983 period is the
emergence of an expatriate branch of Tamil literature. Eelam
Tamil refugees now living in
Australia keep alive their identity and hope for a
return through their writings in Tamil published in various
little journals coming from these countries.
Some of these writers have proved their worth. One could
detect an emerging trend in their current writing.
Along with their longing for their homes and villages,
they are now beginning to speak about the problems they face
in integrating with the societies they live in. Colour
problems loom large. In poetry, we find new symbols and
images, new to Tamil expression but rooted in the Western
tradition. Pine trees and snowfalls are no more alien to the
Tamil poetic landscape. Jeyapalan, Vijayendran and
Aravinthan are important among the expatriate poets.
Karunakara Moorthy and Partipan are notable fiction writers.
Feminist writing has come to stay. There is more of
feminist and gyno-criticism than real creative feminist
writing. Even here poetry has done better than fiction.
There has been some significant feminist writing coming from
the theatres of war.
The socio-political experiences Eelam Tamils and Muslims
have undergone have no parallel in the Tamil experience in
other countries; nor were such experiences there in the
past. Thus this literary corpus, especially since the 1980s,
is unparalleled in terms of the experience it has recorded
and the genuineness and sincerity with which it has been
The role of Sarinihar, an alternative journal, has been
laudable. Besides providing space for much of contemporary
Eelam Tamil literature, it also serves as a mediating point
between the local and the expatriate writers. It is also a
forum for criticism.
In criticism it should be admitted that the literary
theories of the post-1960s have had no major impact. The
lively debates on post-structuralism and post-modernism
characteristic of literary criticism in Tamil Nadu are
absent here. Nonetheless the need for "fresh readings" and
reappraisals is being argued with fervour.
A theatrical upsurge since the late 1970s has brought
about a rich theatrical culture, especially in the North,
and there are now some eminent playwrights. They stand
shoulder to shoulder with
Professor Kanapathipillai of the 1940s and 1950s.
Shanmugalingam's theatrical writings constitute another
artistic diagnosis of the ethnic war. Children's theatre and
educational theatre too have done well.
Murugaiyan and Mahakavi had in the 1960s and the early
1970s written commendable verse dramas.
In fact, theatre was able to do what literature
(publications) was unable to do during the last quarter of
this century. To go into it would be to enter another
sphere; and this has to be done separately.