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Songs of Experience: The Poetics of Tamil Devotion.

Norman Cutler's book takes its title not so much from Blake's series of poems, with which the Tamil works he treats have little in common, as from his contention that the Tamil Saiva and Vaisnava hymns involve an "experience" (or enjoyment, as he suggests on page 43) of God by both the poet and the poet's audience. As he says (p. 13), just as savoring a rasa is the poetic goal of the audience of Sanskrit drama, experiencing God through poetry is the goal for the Tamil devotee. Throughout the book, he works out the consequences of this view,

often with considerable and striking insight.

The book is in two main sections. The first is commentary and analysis, treating the poems from a number of rhetorical and other perspectives. The second consists of Cutler's translations of poems he has selected from both Saiva and Vaisnava traditions. The first selection (chs. 1-3) is further divided into two parts, the first of which treats the "typical" or standard type of Tamil bhakti poem, while the second (chs. 4-5) is concerned with the Tirukkcovaiyar, a work by Manikavacakar that is clearly devotional but does not fit the standard form.

In the first chapter, Cutler lays the groundwork for his later arguments. He shows how the poems involve a triangle consisting of the poet, God, and the audience, and analyzes poems in which this configuration is manifested in various different ways. He shows how various rhetorical strategies are employed in Manikkavacakar's Tiruccatakam and Nammalvar's Tiruvaymoli.

In the second chapter, Cutler goes on to consider how devotees experience the hymns. I found this chapter somewhat weak - Cutler's discussion of how the poems are experienced seems rather one-sided, relying excessively on the scholastic traditions. No doubt these are interesting and important, and they form a part of the experience of the hymns, but I think Cutler has neglected some important areas. Quoting K. K. A. Venkatachari, he points out that Visnu is said to "enjoy" the recitation of the Tamil poems. But surely there is much more to it than this. It seems to me that the poems serve to legitimize and empower the deity much as the early poems of the bards (on which Nammalvar's poems are modeled) served to empower the king. On page 51, Cutler says that the hymns "engender divinity in the devotee." This strikes me as a bit simplistic - surely the poems are used in quite complex ways, often just for enjoyment or to create an auspicious atmosphere (much as the akam poems were apparently used in Sangam times). More plausibly, he ends his chapter by suggesting "what is essential is the devotees' experience of the hymns." In trying to catch this rather elusive "experience," he has described and analyzed the traditions in various useful ways. He does not mention one aspect that seems important to me - that the devotee's experience is modeled on the identification of the warrior with the king (a theme that goes through all of Tamil history, down to the present).

I found chapter 3 fascinating. Cutler describes the poetics of bhakti, analyzing it both in terms of the rasa theory and the theory of Tamil poetics developed by the Tolkappiyam, its commentators, and later writers. It seems to me that there is a fundamental discontinuity between the rasa theory and Tamil literature that might have been brought out - the rasa theory stresses uniformity and fitness of mood, while Tamil literature loves to shock its audience by sudden unexpected changes, by the juxtaposition of things that seem not to fit. He goes on to describe ways in which the bhakti poems - even the so-called akam poems - are based on puram models, in an extremely compelling section. He also analyzes the poems in terms of Barbara Herrnstein Smith's distinction between "natural" and "fictive" discourse: ". . . the natural/fictive distinction," he writes (p. 72), "which is engendered by a dualistic habit of mind, is not entirely compatible with [the Tamil poets'] poetic vision." His insights here are persuasive.

The second part is a long discussion and analysis of Manikavacakar's Tirukkovaiyar. This is valuable because it is one of the few extended literary discussions of this intriguing work that we have. Cutler has done a good job discussing the various traditions and commentaries we have on it. What he fails to do is to describe just what he believes Manikkavicakar meant to do in the poem. He says he does not think the poem was meant to be interpreted allegorically, yet it seems to me that it could be compared to the poems of St. John of the Cross, whose own commentaries show that his love poems are meant to have been construed allegorically. Of course, few would disagree with his assertion that the later commentators got rather carried away with their allegorizing. It strikes me that Cutler's persuasive argument that the bhakti hymns are modeled on puram rather than akam poems could be extended: Manikkavacakar's standard poems could be seen as inspired by the puram tradition, while the Tirukkovaiyar is modeled after the akam tradition. Cutler might have also pointed out that in many akam poems in Sangam literature, there is a section that invokes a king in terms usually found only in puram poems. These sections are strikingly similar to the passages evoking Siva in each of the stanzas of the Tirukkovaiyar.

The translations are accurate and read well, though they are marred by occasional infelicitous phrases ("will change our burning troubles to blessing," "the lord whose palm radiates a bright light"). All in all, Cutler has done a good job in bringing over poems whose subject matter makes them quite difficult to render in English. The notes on the poems are thoughtfully done and will be useful for any not versed in the Tamil poetic tradition. The translations are followed by several appendices: a section on how the hymns are used in temples today; an index of mythological/iconographic allusions and proper names in the poems; and an index of motifs. The book concludes with a bibliography and an index.

We are fortunate to have two new books on the poems of the Alvars and Nayanmars viewed as literature - Norman Cutler's work and Indira Peterson's Poems to Siva: The Hymns of the Tamil Saints (Princeton, 1989). These books consider the material from very different viewpoints, and both contain translation sections. The value of Cutler's book is that it considers both the Vaisnava and Saiva tradition, and that it places the poems in the Indian literary tradition. It is full of important and intriguing lore about the traditions that have appropriated the poems, and, most important, it contains innovative and compelling analysis of how the poems work, how they are experienced, and how they differ from other genres of Indian literature.
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Author:Hart, George L.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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