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Home > Tamil Language & Literature > The Tamil Language in the Modern World
The Tamil Language in the Modern
Albert B Franklin,
The Tamil language is a matter of deeply emotional and political concern throughout the Tamil country. It is not immediately apparent to the inheritors of this great Tamil language-culture complex that their birthright is a proper interest of international scholars. Theirs, they feel, is the right to criticize, to praise individual works, to investigate the grammar and the development of the language to determine the historicity and the dates of great literary and linguistic events and phenomena of past ages, and to state positions of broad scope relevant to such subjects as the present one.
There is a certain justice in this attitude. It has become increasingly apparent over the last century, that Tamil is indeed one of the world's great languages and that in it is expressed one of the world's great and ancient literatures.
Unusual pride in the literary language has persisted from most ancient times in Tamil Nadu when rulers gloried in literary achievement. It has persisted through the period of the British Raj, into the most modern period, which has seen an orator and playwright, C. N. Annadurai (1909-1969) joyfully carried to power for love of his language by the overwhelming majority of the Tamil people.
Throughout ancient Tamil literature, in the Sangam poems of love, in the Silapadikaram, an early romantic epic, and in the later poetry of the Saivaite and Vaisnavite saints, the subject matter and the treatment are strong and mingle two intensely Tamil traditions, first, that of delight in the forms and purity of the language, and second, that of exultation in the flexible and complete expression it affords to the full range of human experience, from the ugly and the terrifying and disgusting, to the erotically exciting and the transcendentally beautiful.
Such mystic outpourings as the poems of Thirumular, such philosophical penetration as that of Sankara and Ramanuja, such scientific brains as that of the other Ramanuja, the mathematician, or that of the late Nobel Prize winner C. V. Raman do not arise in barren soil. Nor do the exquisite arts of Carnatic music and Bharata Natyam. Imagination of this category springs from a richly intricate and articulate linguistic symbolism.
Though it is now well over three hundred and fifty years old, the interplay and mutual influence of Tamil and English in South India is still of primary importance both to government and to education.
With their culturally welcoming temperament and linguistic facility, the Tamils quickly became, judged by any relative standard, the best speakers and writers of English on the sub-continent. During the century and a half of the East India Company, and the ninety years of the British Raj, the facile Tamil mind played an important role both within the government, and against the Raj.
Within the government, the Tamil clerk was indispensable in every office. Outside the government, India's great English-language newspapers, such as The Hindu, constantly observed, in classic English and with scholarly awareness of British juridical principles, each of the departures from these principles that the Raj appeared to embark upon.
These newspapers became a schooling ground in government for Tamils, and thus indirectly an extraordinary preparation of the Tamil language itself for its future role as a language of state government and a language of analysis of governmental activity and of interstate and state-center relationships. Knowledge of English gave an advantage to the Tamil clerks and jurists in the pre-independence period, and whetted their feelings of separateness from the British overlords, whose language they spoke and wrote, in many cases with Oxonian or Cantabridgian style and pungency.
It was not only the British culture and language which arrived with the Raj, but the English grammar school and university system as well. The adoption of a school system similar to the British, offering elementary and secondary education to all, had a revolutionary effect upon traditional activities of groups within the society that has not yet fully played itself out. The effect of this ` revolution ' was to release the searching light of this complex instrument, the Tamil language, upon areas it was not previously its habit to consider.
The use of the English language in administration, and as an educational medium in an English type school system quickly underscored the essential nature of the Tamil language of a century ago as a diglossia, one arm of which was used in traditional, that is ceremonial, forms of expression, and the other in oral communication among villagers and among townspeople.
In the gap between these two branches of the diglossia lay the entire area of expression commonly held among modern nations as necessary to thought, education and government. Even more important, the whole subtle area of discourse denoted by such words as 'irony', 'sarcasm', 'implication', 'caricature' and 'humor fell (so far as written material is concerned) in the no-man's-land between the two branches.
Human nature abhors such a vacuum. So Tamil writing in this century has proved. It may be described practically in its entirety as an attempt to meet the needs of language in a modern society ; to bridge the gap between the two arms of the diglossia. Some of these attempts were unconscious, some were counterproductive, but the essential nature of Tamil writing itself was profoundly altered by the revealed existence of the basic inadequacy in the customary use of the language in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The initial intellectual reactions to this situation may be succinctly classified as follows :
These two categories of reaction to the demonstrated vacuum were, of course, diametrically opposite in purpose, the one envisaging an English speaking elite, controlling education and Government in a population largely unable to communicate except in spoken Tamil, and the other envisaging eventual modernization of the Tamil language itself, and along with it the thought processes of the electorate.
In Tamil Nadu, the issue, as between these two approaches, is still very much in the balance. An English-speaking or English-knowing elite still controls business, administration, banking and the press. But, though English is widely spoken in Tamil Nadu today, there are no giants in mastery of the English tongue to compare with those mentioned above. Their day is gone.
On the other hand, the seed of literate habits in
Tamil, sown by Kalki, has grown to be a very luxuriant
No serious Tamil writer could ever write fiction again without thinking of Pudumaipittan. He appears not to have realized that the social change represented by his attitude towards letters was made possible by the literary missionaries on the Kalki model. Without Kalki, there could have been no appreciation of Pudumaipittan. As it was, following Pudimaipittan, and his contemporaries such as Mowni (S. Mani, b. 1909), and Ku Pa Raa (1902-1944), the way was open for the development of a truly modern literature both of fiction and of literary criticism, of which Pudumaipittan's great admirer, Ka Na Subramaniam (b. 1910) became the leading exponent and consequently, though sometimes harsh and partisan in his judgments, a hero of a younger generation of writers.
The extent of the revolution of thought and relationships implied here can only be understood by those familiar with the South Indian scene, both the respect for status in all its ramifications, and the characteristic Indian difficulty in expressing or accepting constructive criticism. As E. M. Forster says, in Three Cheers for Democracy, ` Indians have a marked capacity for worship or for denunciation, but not much critical sense, as criticism is understood in the West.'
Nonetheless, just as the appearance of the live and disrespectful genius of the language was inevitable after the missionary work of Kalki and the imitators of British and continental writing, so the development of objective criticism is now inevitable.
These changes do not come easily, however, and the strong scholastic tradition in Tamil letters still fails to see that there is room for both scholastic classicism and modern communicative expression concerning present-day realities in a present day medium.
Pudumaipittan's philosophically ironic vein and his occasionally deep despair are excoriated as if these were faults a writer should avoid at all costs, and Ka Na Subramaniam was severely punished socially for an alleged lack of even-handedness in his attempts to bring the light of criticism to play on Tamil literature. There was a long road ahead.
Once Independence arrived and with it a greater freedom in the disposition of stocks of newsprint, the gateway to modern communication was ajar. Within three years after independence two new types of publication appeared, new at least in scope and distribution. These were, first, the mass distribution popular Tamil language magazine, whose circulation exceeded all expectations, rising rapidly to the hundreds of thousands. Now one of them, Kumudam, has surpassed three hundred thousand, and there are four following close behind. Another type of publication which appeared at this time was the politically motivated drama and story directed toward upsetting the social order in which the Brahmin landholder typified the established power.
The village drama is a branch of Tamil literature which has an unbroken tradition into the remote past. In the long pre-modern period, this drama was an important device for communication, and one of the few vehicles in which the village speech and declamation in the scholastic manner (if not in scholastic purity) were linked, and the gap between them bridged at least momentarily. it was the only mode of literary expression in which something recognizable as humor occurred. In the post-Independence period, a group of writers appeared with roots deep in the rich background of Tamil village drama, fully aware of the opportunity afforded by mass media and an audience of literate masses, and determined to use their talent and their language for political purposes. These purposes centered around the idea of an enlightened regionalism, in which the Tamil language, so greatly beloved, would come into its own as the language of the people, their government, their education, and their thought.
These writers used the short story, filmscript and radioplay as their media. The movement was outstandingly successful, and its leading members are today at the head of government in the Tamil country. Through their political success, these writers, of whom the present Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Honourable M. Karunanidhi (b. 1923) is an outstanding living example, have brought the Tamil country to the verge of great decisions with respect to the use of Tamil in education and government. Regulations have been promised assuring first consideration for applicants for State government positions for persons who have qualified through education in the Tamil medium, as opposed to the English medium. These measures are naturally opposed by the English-knowing elite. Decisions along this line are of the essence of the situation created in India by the division of the country into linguistic states, and are not the immediate focus of this paper.
To summarize the post-Independence situation : the first seventy five years or so of inchoate attempts at obtaining a Tamil readership in the subjects with which modern mass communication is largely concerned brought into being in the post-Independence period three broadly identifiable types of authorship motivation : didactic, commercial, and political. In addition to these three objective types of authorship motivation, and cutting across them, another had appeared, which we may be all subjective, that is, the motivation of the writer as writer : the joy of creation in writing.
This class of authorship motivation is best exemplified among pre-independence writers by Pudumaipittan, and it furnished proof, if proof were needed that the didactic motivation of the pioneers of modern Tamil such as Kalki had borne fruit, that Tamil was now a medium adequate to attract the born writer, and eventually (perhaps already in the case of Pudumaipittan), the modern literary genius. This somewhat arbitrary division of Tamil writers by motivation admittedly has no connection with quality, nor does it take into account the fact that individual cases usually show a mixture of two or more of these four motivations. Annadurai, for example, was a political writer whose works vibrate with the joy of writing. It does, however, permit discussion of writing in Tamil along the lines of these four divisions :
(2) The Political Writer
(3) The Didactic Writer
(4) The Creative Writer
These other Dravidian languages are distinguished from Tamil largely by having accepted in varying degrees, some thousand years ago, the lexical contributions of Sanskrit and to a greater or lesser degree other linguistic influences. Thus Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Marathi writers of the present generation enjoy greater freedom in the use of the creative imagination, in development of a personal style, in the use of devices for implication, nuance, irony, including colloquialism and slang, in a great range modes, running all the way from the highly classical, to the street usage.
The ` new' writers in Tamil are only today opening up the possibilities of their language in these directions. In doing so, they feel themselves to be challenging not only the linguistic and stylistic values the conservative, but the entire range of establishment social and cultural values as well. This generation of writers is able to do this use of the recession of the serious age-old Sanskritic ` threat' to purity of the Tamil language. Whatever else may be said of the linguistic emotionalism that swept the D.M.K. government to power in Tamil Nadu, it has performed the service of stabilizing the language and eliminating the ` threat' of Sanskritization. The new threat may be fear experimentation generated by an age-old habit of defense of the langage.
Thus, the elements of the current literary movement itself constitute social change. To read a modern Tamil short story or novel, is for thousands of readers, to obtain insights and perspectives across millenial barriers both within the psyche and in the community and culture.
Here is indeed a case where the medium, a contemporary Tamil prose, is the message, and it is not surprising that emotions are occasionally high on both sides of the tide-rip of social change. In short, we have coexisting at the present time in Tamil Nadu representatives of two different ages, in McLuhan's classification, the scribal era and the typographic era (McLuhan, 1967). This fact is fundamental to an understanding of the critical difficulties facing contemporary writing in Tamil Nadu. Today's young authors, belonging in increasing numbers to the age of typographic man, with its visual and sequential attitude toward history and society and its willingness to transcribe the language as it is heard in the streets and in the families, factories and colleges, and with it to describe realities perceived in all these places, face a quite natural opposition from the adherents of the scribal era.
Indeed, the most important fact, in its social,
cultural and political consequences, about Tamil Nadu
today, may be that the culture is passing from the
scribal era, which has been preserved long past its
disappearance in many other parts of the
This is not a stable situation, but a gradual progression. An advance is observable from the earliest writers of prose fiction, in the late nineteenth century, to the present time, from a prose which, at most, compromises politely with the scribal point of view, to the present situation in which the modern writer, drawing on much that is earthy and even boysterous in the perennial village culture of Tamil Nadu, attempts to endow Tamil literature with the capacity to interpret fully an observed present-day reality. Here a quotation from McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy (p. 72) is apposite : 'Any culture that is engaged in translating itself from one radical mode .... to another .... is bound to be in a creative ferment, as was classical Greece or .... Renaissance (Europe).' The ` new literature' of the younger writers in Tamil Nadu today is such a ferment, springing from just this cause.
The embattled partisans of the scribal mode are indeed right in feeling themselves and their principles fundamentally challenged by the younger writers. Their battle to preserve what must be considered an outmoded manner of viewing the world and of interpreting it is predictably a losing battle. Or is it ? Perhaps not in Tamil Nadu.
In the first place, in this the ultimately conservative society, modes continue to survive side-by-side with succeeding modes, in a compartmentalized existence: without even any apparent benefit of interficiality.
In the second place, since the younger writers desire to enter what is 1evwhere called the ` twentieth century ', they must expect their public p come from among readers who also feel at home in the norms of the twentieth century. In Tamil Nadu, however, these readers are at present most exclusively readers of English in preference to Tamil. The issue , is therefore in doubt.
Hope for a typically Tamil solution springs from it strongly linguistic appeal of the political leaders of Tamil Nadu. Is it not possible that, with the greater number of essentially Tamil-speaking and non-English-knowing families in the urban centres attracted by the wider spread of government and industrial employment, and of Government's use of Tamil in local communications, there may be both an increasing audience for the younger writers and a more thoughtful and widespread appreciation and concern for the ancient values in Tamil language and culture ?
It is possible to discern a pair of alternatives :
(1) the gradual and painful extinction of living
literary Tamil for lack of support by an English-reading
Whichever alternative wins, the present ration of younger writers in Tamil must be viewed as the only active force tending to preserve a Tamil literary language into the modern world.
Who reads their output? As this paper is limited to fiction, the following four categories may be examined in this order :
This is proceeding from the lowest to the highest in order of status and in order of monetary expense to the reader. The order also corresponds to the author's approach to his public. A new author may find a magazine to take his short story. After a few successes, and with luck and friendship, he may find a publisher to take a longer story in serial form which may then be called a novel. Only 'name' writers may obtain publication in book form ; we shall not count self-financed books. Some of the best writers, such as La Sa Ramamirutham (b. 1916), do not make the best seller lists, but exert a strong stylistic influence.
An informal assessment of relative best-sellers on today's market Tamil Nadu gave the following results : the six most popular authors short-stories in magazines are (in order of frequency of publication),
Three of these six ' new ' writers, willing to write material identifiable as ` modern ' in theme and treatment, stressing social change, daring in language, and frequently experimental, which is to say daring, in subject-matter. The remaining three are sound writers, circumscribed in subject-matter and in style by considerations of orthodoxy. (That is, the problem raised in, the writings of the latter three will be solved so as to leave no disquieting aftertaste.) Any one of the above six will sell thousands of copies of any magazine which prints his name on the cover. All six enjoy huge followings.
The four best sellers in serial form include three of the above, Sujatha, Indira Parthasarathy, and Janakiraman, plus Chandilyan, (b. 1911) a writer of pseudo-historical serials. Two of these four, again, are experimental authors concerned with modern themes, and Janakiraman, though somewhat older, is in sympathy with their efforts.
Material in book form has a singular importance in an economy such as that of India, where the purchase of a complete book by one author is a commitment of an amount of cash which cannot likely be duplicated for several months. Only three authors emerge as sure sellers in the field of short-story collections : Jayakanthan, Akilan (b. 1922) and Na Parthasarathy (b. 1932) who far outsell everyone else in this field.
Novels in book form are a luxury in India. Periodicals are cheaper ; casual reading is rarely purchased in book-form. The purchase of a novel indicates more than a casual interest in the author. In this form, the best-seller by far is Dr. Mu Varadarajan (b. 1912) Vice-Chancellor of Madurai University, though he is not currently producing. His books are, of course, purchased for study by many students. This does not detract from the fact that he is a top-flight writer whose motivating force may be largely or principally the provision of suitable reading material for the growing literate public in Tamil Nadu. He writes in a classical style, frequently deeply moving, perceptive of human and social values, respectful of the orthodox concept of style and treatment.
Second, only to Varadarajan as a best-seller is Jayakanthan. Then, in order, Akilan, Na Parthasarathy, Chandilyan and the D.M.K. Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M. Karunanidhi. Jayakanthan and Karunanidhi definitely belong to the 'new' literature of Tamil. Akilan, Na Parthasarathy and Chandilyan are older writers, but all lively enough to enjoy a wide reading public. Of them all, Chandilyan can command highest prices for his long pseudo-historical fantasies in hard covers.
Of the entire group the only one who is unqualifiedly a ` fulltime writer' is Jegachirpiyan, a short-story writer for the magazines, who hews to the conservative line.
Conspicuously absent from best-seller lists are several, including some I have mentioned, whose works win great critical esteem such as La Sa Ramamirutham, and N. Pichamurti (b. 1900). Among these are some who have not heeded the admonition of Va Raa, that prose should be comprehensible to a rickshaw puller.
Va Raa, in saying this, showed his relish for picturesque and forceful fression. But the absence of some of the best writers from the bestlier lists does indeed raise the problem of the nature of the audience for this literature. As stated above, the English-knowing elite does its reading in English. A middle-class Tamil home will receive one or more mass-circulation periodicals for the leisure reading of the women and children. Aside from these, who might be described as 'dependents ' of the elite, this literature reaches the broad mass of employed urban Tamill-speakers. Neither the elite dependents nor the salaried workers are interested in' difficult' literature. A steward visiting my hotel room, expressing some interest in my piles of Tamil magazines, took one at a page of a novel by La Sa Ramamirutham, and said, ` Oh no, that is literature (ilakkiyam), I can't read that.' In his voice was a tone of respect and awe, and slight embarrassment that one of his class should have been thought to pretend to such literary knowledge.
The audience for contemporary Tamil literature is therefore not as broad as that of, say, the American Life magazine. It involves neither ;day labourers, the hut-dwellers nor the elites of business, industry, Is and education, though it does, currently, involve the governing elite. It is made up of the salaried workers and the dependents of the and is to all intents and purposes restricted to these two groups. rickshaw-wallahs are not in it.
It hardly needs to be added that a great deal could be done to increase the circulation of current literature even among its present restricted audience. Merchandising of Indian language books is among the efficient operations in the Indian economy. This would, in appear to be the point at which the problem of increase in literacy could be most efficiently attacked. A recent attempt over the past decade to attack this problem, on the part of a Foundation, failed through lack of appreciation of the economics and politics of the problem, and ignorance of the peculiar set-up in which, for Tamil books, there are neither proper bookstores nor jobbers.
This gives a certain importance to the best-selling
magazine authors. One appears on nearly all of the above
lists, and as the best-selling current form novelist as
well : Jayakanthan. While it is not my aim to turn these
paragraphs into a apotheosis of any writer, it is worth
reminding the reader that this is the same Jayakanthan
whom I have quoted complaining that he had nothing to
read in Tamil, and that he was writing to provide reading
material for those who needed something in
Jayakanthan began his literary life as a communist, having joined the Party when he was twelve. He has since become disillusioned with the Communist Party but still retains the deep concern for India's poor and unemployed that caused his initial interest in Communism. He communicates his concern through stories that carry the message of his readings in social theory from other languages, and encourages reformulation of values and modernization. He is a thoroughgoing pro, as a writer, and a thoroughgoing pro as a public figure as well. His prefaces often read like intimate letters between himself and his reading public. He is not afraid to appeal to this public through scenes in some stories which are mildly shocking to the rather puritanical South Indian morality.
This leads some to discount his appeal as practically pornographic. With due allowance for the fact that prurience is as lively in Tamil Nadu as anywhere in the world, Jayakanthan simply describes everyday Tamil experience, and his sustained appeal must be explained more correctly by solid interest in his themes which centre around modernization and change and their impact on family, community and individual life. He attacks these themes with optimism, which comes as a relief to a Tamil public long used to sobriety. His motivation is similar to that of Balzac, Zola and Gorki, that is, concern for the lot of the common man. He creates recognizable Tamil types, families, and human backgrounds. The film version of his novel A Man Like You won the President's medal for the best picture of 1968.
Obviously, Jayakanthan is a key figure in the changes involved in the rise of a new type of literature. But he is not alone. It will be useful and satisfying to pursue the careers of more than twenty young authors now at work, some as yet publishing little outside of the pages of the ephemeral little reviews. It would be unfair to them to list them incompletely, and beyond the scope of this paper to cover them all even with a brief summary. Though they vary widely in style, subject-matter and technique, they share some traits. In particular, the nostalgia which characterized much early prose fiction has been abandoned, along with its artificiality and its Victorian pretence. Also, the tendency to communal bitterness has almost entirely disappeared. But if, aside from the social change involved in the very existence of this modern writing, and the social changes described in its pages, there is one shared trait which is definitely Tamil, it is a rich vein of fantasy deeply rooted in Tamil lore and in the Tamil language, and coloured with the humour and earthly directness of the Tamil village tradition and the high artistry of Tamil Nadu's millennial literary tradition.