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Deep Rivers: Selected Writings on Tamil Literature.

Deep Rivers: Selected Writings on Tamil Literature. By FRANCOIS GROS. Translated by M. P. Boseman. Edited by Kannan M. and Jennifer Clare. Institut Francais de Pondichery Publications Hors Serie, vol. 10. PONDICHERY: INSTITUT FRANCAIS DE PONDICHERY AND TAMIL CHAIR, DEPARTMENT OF SOUTH AND SOUTHEAST ASIAN STUDIES, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA AT BERKELEY, 2009. Pp. xxxviii + 519.

This rich collection of provocative and lyrically written essays comprises the shorter works of Francois Gros, composed over the decades of his monumental forty-year career as an Indologist and Tamil scholar. As M. P. Boseman writes in his translator's note, "These articles are as much works of literature as of scholarship" (p. vii). The volume presents for the first time in English all of Gros's major essays on Tamil literature, which were originally written in French. Born in Lyon in 1933, Gros received formative training in classics (his early specializations were in Greek and comparative Indo-European). He went on to study ethnology and continued to develop competencies in other languages (Hindi, Tamil, and Sanskrit). The turning point in his career was his appointment as a fellow at the French Institute of Pondicherry (founded in 1954) by Jean Filliozat. Kannan M.'s introduction, which details Gros's fascinating life as well as the depth and breadth of his interests, is followed by Gros's own "Reflections" on his long career. The book is divided into three sections. The first is devoted to classical literature (cankam and bhakti), followed by an invaluable set of articles on contemporary Tamil writing, while the third brief section includes short bibliographic essays as well as articles on miscellaneous topics.

Francois Gros is a great supporter and documenter of the antiquity of the Tamil language and the unique quality of its early literature. He is also a tremendous exponent of translation. As he writes, "What stands the test of time is only the material that has in terms of philology been most rigorously worked on: it remains the most solid: translation; literal exegesis; attention to the reading of what the texts spontaneously say rather than to the speculations that may be drawn from and then substitute for them" (p. xxx). Gros also reminds us that it is just as important to train one's exegetical skills on the modem (p. xxxiii), remarking that contemporary Tamil literature is a "natural expression of ... living Tamil culture" (p. xxxv).

The lead article in the first section on classical literature, titled "Agastya's Shift from North to South: The Weight of the South in Indian Studies," is a basic and useful "overview of the historical and institutional part played by the South in French Indology" (p. 24). Gros documents a shift from eclecticism to scholarly research, moving from a liveliness to what he describes as "a level of mere picturesque or conventional detail in the second half of the nineteenth century" (p. 13). As he rather blisteringly writes, "Europeans turned to learning Sanskrit, but more for reasons of their own than for anything having to do with India: their search for Indo-European roots and a widening metaphysical horizon retained a distinctly European perspective, and their infatuation with the Vedas and with Sanskrit philology tended to relegate medieval and regional sources to the background, whether this was done consciously or not," resulting in what Gros describes as a "retrograde new form of illiteracy" (pp. 13-14). He further remarks that "a western philological prejudice has persistently kept European Indologists away from the cultural diversity of the South." The exceptions to this grim picture were the early French pioneers in Tamil studies, and in the final pages of this article Gros provides useful sketches of these scholar-enthusiasts, including Eduoard Ariel, Julien Vinson, and Gabriel Jouveau-Dubreuil (pp. 17-19). He also describes the typical early "scholar-magistrates" of Pondicherry and their Tamil translators and scholarly counterparts (p. 19).

In "Cankam Literature and Its Public," Gros describes the "two publics" of cankam literature; at the moment of its composition and its readers through history (p. 25). He further characterizes the context of the cankam poems as "rich" and "cosmopolitan," writing that "the first poems ... were probably composed for sophisticated farmers and cattle breeders, warriors, horsemen, and metal workers, and not within some narrow and primitive Dravidian culture" (p. 35).

"The Song of the River Vaiyai: Paripatal" is an English translation of Gros's introduction to his own monumental French translation of Paripatal, which, in effect, is one of the most intelligent and comprehensive discussions of the problems and pitfalls involved in dating early Tamil literature (pp. 60-67). Gros provides a digest of the text's history and its placement among the eight cankam anthologies despite its fragmentary nature and its marked difference. His descriptions of Paripatal's contents highlight the text's potential as a historical document: it is not "just" a fine piece of literature, in other words. As Gros writes, "It is the humble satisfaction of the philologist who might be imagined busy minutely weaving shrouds for dead gods, to make contact through these songs with the beliefs, the joys, and the sorrows of a living people" (p. 122).

"Introducing Tiruvailuvar: The Book of Love" is written in lyrical, even rhapsodic prose and is dedicated to the couplet form displayed in the Tirukkurab This essay is perhaps the best example of Gros's deeply literary sensibilities that we no longer find in scholarship, as it is unfortunately no longer welcome (or so it seems). Gros's thoughts are always directed outward, in true comparatist fashion, to literatures and literary genres in the rest of the world, thereby giving early Tamil literature a place in world genres writ large. After noting that the flower code of the cankam poems all but vanishes in the Tirukkural (pp. 143-44), Gros ends this essay with a lengthy disquisition on love poetry, which, albeit a tangent, is a delightful one.

What follows is an essay on the Tirukkural's commentators, which contains important descriptions of their "syncretism," especially that of the great exegete Parimelalakar (p. 165). After a foray into the legend and works of Karaikkalammaiyar comes an authoritative essay on the Tevaram and Periyapuranam, which Gros positions against the canvas of the dissonant opinions of historians and archaeologists: he manages to make sense of it all, and also lets us on to the mysteries of his own method: "We work somewhat like a landscape painter who, in the boundless desert tries to distribute, along a single track, the obscure landmarks that he has" (pp. 206-7). In the following article dedicated solely to the Periyapuranam, Gros sees the text as an expression of twelfth-century "exuberant Saivism" (pp. 213-32).

Reading across the essays in this first section, one gains an instructive picture of literary development in the South across the centuries, as well as innovations in style, which is at its most evident in Gros's essay on the Periyapuranam, in which he hears hears "a brief echo of ... landscaping conventions" (p. 245). The middle section of this essay, a meditation on the function of violence in the heroic devotionalism of Saiva devotees, is a must-read (pp. 247-60).

The second section of the volume is devoted to contemporary Tamil. In the lead essay, "Wandering in the Tamil Archipelago," Gros expresses his hopes for contemporary literature; that it might "appear as the subjective inscription of history in process." He compels us to treat it "as a matter of language and socio-historical identity by those who can both understand its style and sense its place in context" (p. 311). He also notes the trend towards writing in dialect, which, in Gros's view, questions "the authority of so-called standard Tamil" (pp. 311-12). (I would argue, rather, for more of a writerly striving for super-realism independent of regional linguistic chauvinism.) He also describes a "lenient escapism" that he sees as a distinguishing characteristic of contemporary Tamil writing, achieved through preferences for rural landscapes, although Gros remarks that "even the urban landscape has its soothing and seductive voices ready to transform and marginalize any self-conscious critical protest" (p. 312).

In "Tamil Short Stories: An Introduction," Gros begins with an exploration of the Tamil "predilection for the short story," claiming that reading fiction is "the best possible first step of a journey to the heart of [Tamil] life" (p. 321). Gros notes how the best authors are masters of the "subtleties of landscape and moods" and are expert at writing in the nostalgic mode (p. 322). He further describes how these authors are "able to sustain aesthetic interest whilst maintaining a conscious view of a way of life and of expression" (p. 322). Such texts often show the real talent of some writers, far beyond their documentary function as witnesses of their times as they respond in their fiction to the "the shock of modernity" (p. 330).

Gros also writes of the emergence of the short story as a function of the establishment of journals and magazines, which "both answered the needs of the educated middle classes, and the dialogue between the writing and its readers was instituted through a press that was already grown up well before Independence" (p. 331). Gros deftly traces the growth of the Tamil short story within the readerly contexts of the "popular" versus the "elite" (p. 334). Providing useful and sensitive sketches of such early greats as Mauni on through Ashokamitran and D. Dilip Kumar, Gros, Gros writes with a deep appreciation of these authors and their varied milieu and personal artistic circumstances. Gros also takes note of the voices of "dissonance" (pp. 356-57) and of women (pp. 357-58), and concludes this essay with well-drawn appreciations of G. Nagarajan (pp. 361-62) and Dharmu Sivaramu (also known as Piramil) (pp. 362-63), but also on a note of warning. telling us in a footnote on page 368 that the short story form "has become an endangered species in Tamil." I hope that Gros is wrong, but I have every reason to believe that he is right.

In the following article, "Tamil Dalits in Search of a Literature," Gros describes the emergence of Dalit literature in Tamil as roughly analogous (p. 375) to that of the Dravidian movement, but notes that this genre is a thing unto itself. Gros remarks that Dalit literary production was centered on the Kilvenmani massacre of 1968 in the Tancavur delta (pp. 382-87), taking note of the "failure" of middle-class literature in portraying such horrors. Gros provides us with a narrative of how Tamil Dalit literature emerged by noting its "precursors" (p. 393) and by providing a synopsis of caste politics and associations in Tamilnadu (pp. 393-400), ending with a description of the rise of Dalit theater and performance (pp. 402-5), poetry (pp. 405-6), and short stories and novels (pp. 406-12): all in all a very useful (if not unproblematic) survey.

What follow these three major essays are short but incisive appreciations of author and critic C. S. Chellappa, G. Nagarajan, and Cuntara Ramacami, whom Gros compares to Voltaire (p. 443). This entire section of the volume contains invaluable close readings and synopses of modern fiction. Gros's final assessment is that "it is a constant in contemporary Tamil that it is at its best when short" (p. 449).

The brief last section is an assembly of Gros's "Occasional Papers" on, for example, the monuments and inscriptions of Uttaramerur., on manuscriptology, an ode to the French Institute at Pondicherry which amounts to an overview of its establishment and evolution as a center of learning, and, most usefully, a digest of the history of the translation of classical Tamil texts into French.

In sum, it was a great pleasure to read this collection of beautifully written and deeply erudite essays. The longer articles, some of which originally served as introductions to volumes of translations published by the French Institute, are rambling but brilliant, thorough, and penetrating. They display great subtlety and demonstrate Gros's gifts as a marvelous reader and explicator of nuances and difficulties. Some of the essays, which are published versions of various keynote addresses, are full of warnings and often take the tone of a literary call to arms. The entire book brims over with valuable bibliographic references, a fact that leads to my one big complaint: the editors made the unfortunate choice of not including an index, forcing readers to take their chances. Gros's skills as a cataloger and archivist are evident throughout the book, however, and it is a necessary addition to the shelves of Tamil scholars and enthusiasts everywhere.


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Author:Selby, Martha Ann
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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