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Kailasapathy was responsible for critical re-thinking about early Tamil History and Society

Oct 20, 2010 10:18:50 PM- transcurrents.com

by Kesavan Veluthat

IT was by the turn of the last century that the corpus of literature in Tamil known popularly as “Sangam literature” was brought to light from near oblivion. The hitherto accepted canons of Tamil literature were upturned, at least in Tamil Nadu, although Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) continued to cherish the old canon of Saivite literature. That proved to be the beginning of a new chapter in the understanding of the history and culture of early South India. A veritable revolution, it claimed a place for Tamil along with other classical languages such as Sanskrit, Greek and Latin.



One of the effects of this momentous event, however, was the unabashed glorification of the past of southern India, with every one of the constituents with which nationalist writers make the “classical” identified there. In the process, history became less about the past than about the present; and evidence became a nuisance, a liability. Interpreting texts within their context became unheard of. If a historian here wrote with some semblance of methodological rigour or a literary critic there showed some sense of comparative literature, they were treated as so many traitors and they were met not exactly with academic criticism.

It is against this background of near jingoism that one has to place the work of Kanagasabapathy Kailasapathy. The revolution brought about by the discovery of Sangam literature was matched only by the kind of unorthodox and critical thinking that he inaugurated in the analysis of this early literature and the society studied on its basis. Perhaps the Ceylonese origin of Kailasapathy, as well as of other scholars who have contributed immensely to the study of early South Indian history, such as Kathigesu Sivathamby or Sudarshan Seneviratne and the editor of this volume, is significant, because they are heirs to a tradition that did not quite idolise Sangam literature.

What Kailasapathy did was somewhat unorthodox. When his book Tamil Heroic Poetry was published in 1968, what it contained was nerve-chilling for the champions of the Glory that was Tamilakam. He opened his book with the somewhat shocking statement that “The title Cankam Poetry is a misnomer”. He went on to show that early Tamil literature would make better sense when analysed within the framework of what is described as heroic poetry, using the techniques of studying oral literature.

Taking the cue from the monumental work of H.M. and N.K. Chadwick, The Growth of Literature, and following the results of the analyses of Teutonic, Greek, Icelandic, Slavonic, Sanskrit, Sumerian, and African oral poetry, Kailasapathy demonstrated that early Tamil poetry was basically oral in character. He also applied the results of Milman Parry's analysis of Homeric epics, which had attained the status of a “universal theory” for studying heroic poetry.

The research of the Chadwicks and Parry converged and helped Kailasapathy to understand the bards and the bardic traditions of early times and their social functions as well as the spirit of the age that produced these texts. The conclusions of Kailasapathy were too much for the Tamil pride of South India and, not surprisingly, Kailasapathy's book was practically blacked out in South India for several years. The world of scholarship lost him when he was just 49 years old.

The book under review is a collection of essays commemorating Professor Kailasapathy on his 25th death anniversary. Put together by Professor Karthigesu Indrapala, one of the associates of Kailasapathy, it contains five essays by renowned scholars apart from a brief biographical sketch and a chapter, in edited form, from Kailasapathy's classic, Tamil Heroic Poetry. A veritable ‘who is who' of early South Indian historiography in the contemporary period, the list of authors lining up to salute the memory of Kailasapathy contains names to reckon with.

The Introduction by the editor, which follows a very personal but informative biographical sketch of Kailasapathy, presents a succinct summary of the state of current knowledge about early historical southern India, bringing in all the important work available on the subject. A corrective to the conventional picture of a glorious past for early historical Tamilakam is available now, occasional attempts to hark back on the old celebratory exercises notwithstanding. Following this brilliant overview, the collection begins with an edited version of the first Chapter of Kailasapathy's Tamil Heroic Poetry.

While it is admirable that a piece of Kailasapathy's own writing on early Tamil literature is included in the volume, a question or two can be raised about the particular piece. It is only a survey of the corpus of the literature of the early Tamils, which does not actually represent the path-breaking work of Kailasapathy. Any other chapter from the book could have given the reader a flavour of what the great pioneer really did, especially the third (“Bards and Bardic Tradition”), the fourth (“Technique of Oral Verse-making”) or the sixth (“The World of the Heroes”). There is no justification for deleting the discussion on Tolkappaiam and the section on Purapporul Venpamalai from what is included.

K. Rajan's essay on “Damili Graffiti and Cave Records: the Brahmi Records from Tamil Nadu” is a detailed study of inscriptions from Tamil Nadu in what is known as the Tamil Brahmi or Cave Script. Besides presenting the evidence in its fullness, Rajan also uses inscribed potsherds, placed in the right stratigraphical context, which is a considerable strength of the essay. However, one may not be able to go all the way with the author in his conclusions. For instance, his critiquing of notions of a prestate society in Tamil Nadu during the early historical period, the Mauryan or North Indian origin of the script, the heavy Prakrit content of the records and so on needs further proof, particularly in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary. It smacks of a kind of enthusiasm to show a Tamil origin of the script, something which runs contrary to the spirit that Kailasapathy stood for.

Y. Subbarayalu's paper, “Visaki and Kuviran: Historical Implications of Names in the Tamil Brahmi Inscriptions”, presents the other side of the medal. It has to be read along with his earlier essay on the pottery inscriptions of Tamil Nadu appearing in the festschrift to Iravatham Mahadevan, the doyen of early Tamil epigraphy. Uncompromising attention to detail, systematic analysis, a dispassionate approach to the problem and a professional thoroughness inform this essay, like all other writings of Subbarayalu. According to him, a significant implication of his conclusions on the identity of the persons whose names figure in the inscriptions is that “Prakrit-speaking merchants were mainly instrumental in the beginning in introducing the Brahmi script into the Tamil country”. “This must have happened soon after the Brahmi script in its full form was available in the Magadha region during the Mauryan rule, early in the third century BCE.”

Subbarayalu also makes an extremely important point regarding the mediation of merchants in the spread of the knowledge about writing – a point that has implications going beyond the scope of the problem at hand.

K. Indrapala deals with the problem of the emergence of the Tamil identity. Indrapala argues for the existence of a Tamil identity that he distinguishes from ethnic, political or religious identity. The Tamil self is constituted in contradistinction with its “other”, the moli-peyar-desam (“areas where other languages were spoken”). Even though an ethnic group identified as speakers of Tamil is not available, a clearly recognisable Tamil-speaking region, Tamil-kuru nallulagam (“the good world where Tamil is spoken”), is referred to in the documents from the early historical period.

This world, to be sure, was home for different ethnic groups, political units and people with different religious persuasions; but that did not stand in the way of the consolidation of a Tamil identity. Cutting across such differences and going beyond clan and tribal barriers, a larger group for whom the Tamil language had become a marker of identity was emerging in the early historical period – one more reason to treat it as a phase representing an epochal transformation.

In a competent overview of the emerging perspectives on the social formation of early historical Tamilakam, R. Champakalakshmi not only examines the recent work on different aspects of the problem but also integrates the results of the studies and presents a cogent picture of the processes that were at work in early South India. Characteristically modest in her claim (she says: “No claims are made here to reinterpretations and analysis which provide tremendously important and new insights into the Tamil society of the period”), she nonetheless stresses the need to introduce alternative perspectives to understand the transformation of Tamil society from proto-historic to the early historic and thence to the early medieval period. This she does by highlighting the problems of dealing with the sources and the methodological advances made in recent studies of early societies, and in assessing the significance of the re-reading of the sources together with a historical geographical approach.

One of the ways in which Tamil enthusiasts argued for the greatness of Tamil civilisation was by denying any Sanskritic or Indo-Aryan influence on things Dravidian. V. Sivsamy's essay “Brahmanas and Yagas: Spread of Vedic Ideas” is a significant corrective to this. He presents unimpeachable evidence of the presence of Vedic ideas and practices in Tamil Nadu. Although M.G.S. Narayanan had brought out the Vedic-Sastraic-Puranic elements in early Tamil literature more than three decades ago, this essay is crucial as it is presented in the context of a realistic appreciation of society and culture in Tamil Nadu, a tribute to the memory of Kailasapathy who did much towards that end.

There are four appendices at the end of the book: translations of the Pattinappalai and a song from Purananuru, texts and translations of three Tamil-Brahmi cave records, P.T. Srinivasa Iyengar's translation of the legend of the Sangam and a note on Vanavarmapan and Devanampriya. They are all relevant, although one may not be able to go all the way with the arguments equating Vanavarmapan of the Tamil songs with Asokan Devanampiya.

There is also a select bibliography of recent writings. It would have been helpful, and appropriate, if a detailed bibliography of the writings of Kailasapathy was given.

The editor has done very well in paying a fitting tribute to the memory of a pioneer, one who was responsible for a considerable rethinking about the nature of early Tamil history and society. - courtesy: Frontline -