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Tamil literature.

Of the many spoken and written languages on the Indian subcontinent, the constitution recognizes fifteen. They are Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. Hindi has been given the status of India's official language, along with English. These fifteen languages belong to the two main language families: Indo-Aryan and Dravidian. Contemporary Indian literature includes, therefore, literature in any one of the fifteen languages, not excluding English. My understanding of literatures in other Indian languages, except Tamil, Sanskrit, and Hindi, has been only through English.

Tamil is the oldest of the four major Dravidian languages and is spoken by 56 million people (1991 census), mainly in Tamil Nadu in southeastern India. It is also spoken outside India in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Burma, South Africa, the Fiji Islands, and the Caribbean Islands. The language was regulated around 250 B.C.

The earliest Tamil literature goes back to a period between 150 B.C. and 250 A.D. and is found in numerous anthologies that were later gathered together in two great collections, The Eight Anthologies and The Ten Long Poems. These, together with The Tale of the Anklet (fifth century A.D.), The Descent of Rama (twelfth century A.D.), and the medieval devotional hymns of the Saiva and Vaishnava poets, are the outstanding productions of the Tamil genius. The Tamils, in two thousand years, have not surpassed this achievement.

What, then, is the state of contemporary Tamil literature? The poet Ka. Naa. Subramanyam (1912-89) sums it up in the poem "Three Strains." His opinion is wholly unorthodox and is not accepted by most Tamils. The Tamils live in a euphoric past, and this euphoria expresses itself in an excessive glorification of the Tamil language to the exclusion of almost everything else. The situation is rather dispiriting. Let us look at the poem.

Arab mongol tartar three strains go to make this jade dragging the jutka grazing the tarmac of Madras streets.

Three sangams and twice three go to make this Tamil language I handle and speak and manhandle and teach derived from of old.

The strains are weak, wearing out; arab or mongol or tartar elements are rarely to be recognized in this tottering but willing jade.

The "jade" is "tottering/but willing," and it would appear that there is little that is significant in contemporary Tamil writing.

1: FICTION. Popularity, rather than literary quality, is what characterizes Tamil literature today. Periodicals such as Ananta Vikatan, Kalki, and Kumutam encourage and patronize pulp fiction. In the 1930s R. Krishnamurti (pseud. "Kalki," 1899-1954) specialized in historical romances. They are insignificant as literature but nevertheless fed the pride of the Tamils in their awesome exultation over their past glories.

Two writers in particular reacted strongly to Kalki's romances, and so pioneered the new Tamil writing: C. Vriddhachalam ("Pudumaippittan," 1906-48) and S. Mani ("Mowni," b. 1907). Through the periodical Manikkoti (The Jeweled Banner) they and others such as N. Pichamurti (1900-78) and K. P. Rajagopalan (1902-44) made the short story the dominant form of Tamil writing. Both Pudumaippittan and Mowni explored the psychological overtones of character and situation. Their stories are entirely intellectual in content, and the average Tamil reader, fed on Kalki's romances, found both Pudumaippittan and Mowni hard to stomach. In the words of Subramanyam, Mowni "put the Tamil language to uses to which it had never been exposed and, in the process, became difficult, though not obscure."

Subramanyam himself is one of the pioneers of modern prose fiction in Tamil. In his novels from Hunger onward to Demon Breed he reexamines the Tamil tradition, and it is this inquiry that has given his novels their unique importance. They are anything but popular. He does not sing the praises of the Tamils, or of their two-thousand-year-old heritage. Tamils find the questions he asks about them embarrassing and uncomfortable. In earlier Tamil novels the approach was passive, and this prevented any reexamination of tradition and its relevance to contemporary life. Therefore, self-questioning or the quest for identity or God were problems too remote for Tamil fiction to bother itself about. In Subramanyam's novels there is, on the other hand, a conscious reacceptance of tradition. A sense of bewilderment, even anguish, before the forces of life and therefore the need for roots, as situations inherent in the human condition, are explored in his novels. Demon Breed, for instance, is an inquiry into the forces behind life, and how tradition, rightly understood and activated, helps human beings organize these forces and fulfill themselves as individuals. The novel may be regarded as a fable of our times. It offers insights into the relationship of men and women to themselves, society, and God. No other novel in recent Tamil literature has attempted this task so honestly and imaginatively.

Subramanyam's earlier novels, such as False Gods, One Day, and When the Favored Fall into Ruin, are skillful modulations on the theme of Demon Breed, that of reexamining the basic aspects of the Tamil tradition. In his novels, prose fiction in Tamil reached its apotheosis. Other novelists whose work I consider significant are L. S. Ramamirtham (b. 1916), T. Janakiraman (b. 1921), Rajam Krishnan (b. 1925), Sundara Ramaswamy (b. 1931), J. Thyagarajan ("Ashokamitran," b. 1931), Chudamani Raghavan (b. 1931), D. Jayakanthan (b. 1934), Neela Padmanabhan (b. 1938), and C. S. Lakshmi ("Ambai," b. 1944).

More than any other Tamil writer, L. S. Ramamirtham has taken it upon himself to "purify the dialect of the tribe," to rescue the language from the accretions that surround it, so that words obey his call. His poetics is founded upon the belief that there should be no distance separating the word from the object it represents. "When I say 'fire,'" he writes, "it should burn my mouth." This explains why he is obsessed with the mystique of the word, its texture and nuances. Writing for him is an act of meditation. In Son he exploits Tamil folklore and evokes without any sentimentality the life of a woman on whose family a curse has been placed. His language is rich in poetry, unlike the insipid brew of the popular magazines. From the earliest times there have been two varieties of Tamil in use: a formal or literary variety used in writing, and an informal variety with many spoken dialects. The situation is not unlike that of Greek with its standard, katharevusa, and its vernacular, dhimotiki. The gap between the two varieties of Tamil is enormous. The language used in writing is still literary. The spoken language has not been fully exploited, except perhaps by Ramamirtham. In the process his Tamil has achieved the rarified state of poetry. This has, however, made him difficult to read. The Tamil middle-class Brahmin household, with its intricate network of family relationships, is the focus of Ramamirtham's work. In The Ocean of Milk he evokes for us three generations of his family. Especially striking are the cameos that he offers of his grandfather and of the family deity. His fiction thus centers on the fammly saga.

T. Janakiraman's novels The Thorn of Passion and Mother Came represent the realistic and humanistic trends in contemporary Tamil writing. Mother Came is a satire on traditional, sentimental attitudes toward the mother. The novel is psychologically interesting in its observations on urban life in Tamil Nadu today. Many of Rajam Krishnan's novels are social documents that chronicle the lives of isolated communities, such as those of the coastal fisheries of Tamil Nadu that are vividly evoked in On the Seashore. Others, such as The Battlefield, revolve around the politics of the family, and especially of a woman's role in it. Sundara Ramaswamy's Story of a Tamarind Tree is about the disappearance of an idyllic, pastoral society and its replacement by an artificial world. In Dissolving Shadows Ashokamitran explores levels of urban society as they interact with one another. He particularly exposes the unreality of the Tamil film world. His vision is unsentimental and austere.

In Chudamani Raghavan's fiction women are free spirits. They refuse to buckle under the pressures of society in their need to fulfill themselves as individuals. Marriage does not put them under a spell. They turn their backs on husband and family to become persons in their own right. Raghavan's novels from The End of the Ordeal to Mother speak eloquently about women's empowerment and their right to be themselves. They illustrate the truth of Adrienne Rich's statement in "Conditions for Work": "Feminism means finally that we renounce our obedience to the fathers and recognize the world they have described is not the whole world." Essentially a short-story writer, D. Jayakanthan, in his novels Some Men at Certain Times and A Man, a Home, and a World, interprets life in the context of social change.

Neela Padmanabhan's novel The Generations chronicles three generations of a family of merchants who have fallen on evil days. Within a few months of her marriage, Nagammai is sent back to her father's house by her impotent husband on the suspicion that she is barren. Everyone is reconciled to her fate except her brother Diraviam, who fights back against the forces of orthodoxy in order to rehabilitate his sister. He fails in the end, and his failure enlarges the novel's tragic dimensions even more than Nagammai's fate. There is something elemental about the novel, and it is a landmark in Tamil fiction.

Ambai writes in the tradition of Krishnan and Raghavan on familial themes. Her work explores the tensions women experience in a patriarchal society where fathers and husbands do everything in their power to oppress women, as in the stories collected in Wings Must Break. In The Face Behind the Mask Ambai undertakes one of the first extended discussions of women in Tamil literature. The study is a milestone in Indian feminist criticism.

Prose fiction in Tamil has come into its own only in the last fifty years. The time is not yet ripe to critically evaluate its contribution to Tamil literature. The death of Pudumaippittan in 1948 at the age of forty-two deprived Tamil literature of the one writer who could have given it a sense of direction.

2: POETRY. Although prose fiction in Tamil is little over a hundred years old, Tamil poetry goes back to the second century B.C. The poems from The Eight Anthologies are of such breathtaking sophistication that one would be hard put to find parallels in contemporary Tamil poetry. They remain unsurpassed to this day.

The ghost of C. Subramania Bharati (1882-1921) hovers over every contemporary Tamil poet. Though a traditional poet, Bharati broke away from the received forms and, singlehandedly, invented the idiom and metric of twentieth-century Tamil verse. He defamiliarized the current language of poetry, which was elitist and static, by exploiting the spoken language as the vehicle for lyric expression. By his innovations, Bharati was able to overcome the diglossia that traditionally characterized the Tamil language. For the first time, poetry was no longer the exclusive preserve of the elite. It flourished on the tongues of the illiterate and uneducated. It was set to music and sung or chanted in films and at political rallies. The poem "Autobiography" epitomizes the widespread disaffection brought about by education in a foreign language like English, as in these lines, for example: "No climbing back from this bottomless pit / This hell of foreign learning-- / Into which my father pushed me / For my own good, simple-minded that he was."

The innovations begun by Bharati, notably in his Prose Poems, were carried forward by Pichamurti, Rajagopalan, Pudumaippittan, and Subramanyam, who experimented in nontraditional forms. However, it was Subramanyam who, as writer, editor, and apologist, espoused new vevse and helped establish its poetics.

It was in 1959 that I made a critical statement on what I called new poetry in the magazine Saraswathi in which I pleaded for an intellectual content in poetry apart from the emotional, a barking back to the oldest strata of Tamil poetry, the sangam poems which are in recognizable conversational phrases, and for the hard image shorn of adjectives of any kind. It was easy for the Tamil poet to indulge in mysticism and I called for avoiding it.

By focusing attention on the classical Tamil poems, Subramanyam urged his contemporaries to return to the wellspring of their own poetic tradition and creatively exploit it. He thus helped establish a poetics as well as provide a sense of direction to new verse in Tamil. It was therefore the poets themselves rather than the professional scholars who, took the lead in exploring the secrets of their craft and formulating a poetics. In a rather outspoken poem, "Situation," Subramanyam describes the limbo inhabited by the Tamil poet.

Introduced to the Upanishads by T. S. Eliot;

and to Tagore by the earlier Pound;

and to the Indian tradition by Max Muller (late of the Bhavan);

and to the Indian dance by Bowers;

and to Indian art by what's-his-name;

and to the Tamil classics by Danielou (Was he Pope?);

flesh nor fish blood nor stone totempole;

vociferous in thoughts not his own;

eloquent in words not his own (The age demanded...)

In fact, this is true of all Indian writers. They owe their discovery of India and of themselves as Indians to European scholars.

In his search for new thresholds, Pichamurti appropriated for Tamil the free verse of Walt Whitman (1819-92). "Leaves of Grass, by the American poet Walt Whitman, was in fact," he wrote, "the germ from which my own efforts in free verse blossomed. Reading it I discovered the wellspring of poetry. Afterwards I read Bharati's Prose Poems. They strengthened my resolve." It was Pichamurti, and not Bharati, who won attention for free verse in Tamil. The form freed him from the restraints of an obsolete prosody. He began to explore unconventional subjects. "Naranan the Shopkeeper," "The Wild Duck," and "The Guide" are in the nature of forays into unknown territories. At the same time, he invests ordinary and familiar things with the breath of poetry, as in these lines from "Seeing": "In the oppressive sun/big with child, a sweeper/finds no end of pleasure/in a sprig of tobacco." "The Wild Duck," for one instance, breathes with Whitman's voice and presence. The irreverent tone is there, as are the open, expansive rhythms. Consider these lines, which halt in their flight the Siberian wild ducks as they heave into view at Vedantangal, the bird sanctuary near Madras:

They follow their own nature to reproduce their kind. They abide by no law. They have no tall stories of the past, No tradition or pride. Untaught, and by instinct alone, They fly three thousand miles to nest here. And now, the flapping of their wings.

Free verse in English was itself an offshoot of the French vers libre, which was the most enduring feature of the revolution in poetic form initiated by the symbolist movement in the late nineteenth century. In "Reflections on Vers Libre" T. S. Eliot wrote: "But the most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like the iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. It is contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse." The rationale for free verse was sought in the development of an appropriate modern poetic idiom."

In the absence of an official, public status as a poet, the Tamil poet's universe of discourse came to be centered in his own inner world, in the complexities of his own experiences--sexual, emotional, and psychological. Experience itself is depersonalized as it shapes into a poem. Every once in a while the poet steps out amd bares his chest to the world in a gesture of defiance, only to retreat awkwardly. One such occasional poem is Subramanyam's "The Latecomer."

I had, in fact, set out for the play. But it was all over When I got there. The house was empty And littered with chairs. Even as I stood wondering Where to sit, The day was upon me.

The truism that, unprepared as we are, life passes most of us by and then it is too late to do anything is embedded in the text. The image of the theater is the only hint offered to the reader in his attempt to make explicit the theme of the poem. The analogy between theater and life is not suggested. The reader is expected to supply the equation and thus complete the poem. The interpretation is the result of a mediation between the explicit and implicit features of the poem, whose philosophic thrust thus remains unobtrusive--in fact, unsaid. The thematic indeterminacy is further reinforced by the indeterminacy of the prosodic form, free verse. A traditional meter would have imposed a more formal pattern.

Little magazines in Tamil have helped not only to foster new verse but also to keep it alive. It was in the pages of Eluttu (Letters), edited by C. S. Chellappa (b. 1912), that the new voices were first heard and talked about. Founded in 1959 as a critical review, its 119 issues comprise a history of the new verse movement in Tamil. Chellappa's Eluttu Press published New Voices in 1962, an influential anthology that contained the work of twenty-four poets. What is refreshingly new about these poems is not only their informal tone, or their employment of colloquial language and unconventional images, but their impressive use of irony. Often the poems are brief aphoristic or epigrammatic statements. Thus, a whole new dimension was added to Tamil poetry. Besides Subramanyam, the poets who best represent the new poetic are T. K. Doraiswamy ("Nakulan," b. 1922), Shanmuga Subbiah (b. 1924), T. S. Venugopalan (b. 1929), S. Vaidheeswaran (b. 1935), S. Palanisamy ("Si. Manee," b. 1936), R. Ranganathan ("Gnanakoothan," b. 1938), and T. K. Somasundaram ("Kalapriya," b. 1950). The important critical study The Origin and Development of New Verse by R. S. Krishnaswami ("Vallikkannan," b. 1920) offered the first serious consideration of the new poetry, and thus helped legitimize the movement.

Nakulan's poems walk a tightrope between verse and prose, creating an edginess of tone that is unusual in Tamil poetry. He exploits the power and resilience of the spoken language, uninflated by metaphor. This gives his poems their characteristic staircase. A poem by Nakulan is an invitation to observe the general drift of a thought as it discovers the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary. In "Step Aside," for instance, the speaker wrestles with the unreality of his multiple identities. It is vintage Pessoa.

In this great house I have no room of my own. No known face in this big town. And when the known face Shows its true colors, It turns out to be The face of a stranger. When will I stop being What I appear to be? The thought crossed my mind. A voice said: "Step aside."

Again, Nakulan is perhaps the only Tamil poet I know who is comfortable with exploring intimate relationships between men and women, as in the exquisite "Sushila" poems. The absence of love poetry is intriguing, especially since the genre dominates classical Tamil literature. Here is a well-known poem by Pilaipatiya Perunkatunko (second century A.D.) that poignantly evokes the situation of a woman abandoned by her lover: "He avoids our street though he lives/in the same town. Should he visit us,/he won't take me, lovingly, in his arms./Unseeing, he walks past me as if I were/the burning ground of strangers. Once,/I was unashamed when passion had robbed me/of my senses. But now, like an arrow/sent flying from a bow, it has landed far off." Nakulan does not hesitate to tap into this rich vein. His tone, however, is low-keyed and ruminative, as in the poem "It Is Me."

Out of habit I was sitting up In the room with myself: I heard someone Knock on the door. "Who is it?" I asked. "It is me, Sushila. Open the door." Who can foretell which door Will fly open, and when?

What distinguishes Shanmuga Subbiah as a poet is his unobtrusive voice, heard almost as an afterthought. His poetry represents a breakthrough for Tamil verse. In "To Those Who Inquired After My Welfare" the reader overhears the speaker in the poem talking to his interlocutors.

Yes, I've been through it all! Thank Heaven! I have also two kids. Who should take credit for them, I wonder? Both are sons. Moreover, I'm rheumatic And she, consumptive. It's a pity The older of the two is ill Most of the time. As for the younger one, There's been nothing to complain of, At least so far. Of tomorrow, who can say? Above all, I'm a clerk. Will this do? Or, is there anything else You wish to know?

It is a familiar situation, the urban hell that we all inhabit, where the boredom and horror of a middle-class existence are sharply etched. His cup is full, but he refuses to complain. The culture itself has become desacralized. The poem chokes on the burden of the unsaid. It is irony that redeems it from turning melodramatic. The use of casual, everyday discourse produces a surface calm that is totally at odds with the intention of the text. The meaning is thereby foregrounded.

Subbiah's language has the force and simplicity characteristic of oral societies where the power of the spoken word is feared and respected. Again, the poem "Dog Show" is remarkable for its understatement and economy. Something as uneventful as a dog show provokes the poet to an ironic social comment. The pariah dogs, after all, represent for him the inescapable Indian reality. On the other hand, the pedigreed dogs, though equally real, are an aberration, because Indians are not particularly known for their kindness to animals. Dog shows were part of the social entertainment of upper-class Indians under the raj. Like the SPCA, they ironically survive even today. Still, the poet does not scorn them. His irony is gentle and inoffensive throughout: "I too saw/The dog show./It was amusing./But coming out,/I walked into a rabble/Of pariah dogs."

"After Reading the Daily" gives the politician a rap on the knuckles for his indifference and lack of feeling. Subbiah is keenly alive to the tensions to which modernization has given rise in a traditional society such as India. He takes the West to task for this in "To the Westerners" by exposing the contradictions inherent in its way of life. At the same time, he also sees unerringly the contradictions in the Indian way of life. But the poem stops there. No attempt is made to examine the contradictions and relate them to a broad pattern of human behavior. The poem raises expectations that remain unfulfilled. This failure to sustain an argument at length perhaps explains that thinness of much of contemporary Tamil poetry about which Subramanyam had complained. More than any other poet, however, Subbiah briefly and poignantly encapsulates in his poems the daily embarrassment of living in urban India, and of being at odds with the orthodox Tamil establishment.

T. S. Venugopalan's collection A Paddy Field in Summer is unusual in style and content. Tamil poetry traditionally has been dominated by the pundits with their strict enforcement of stylistic and prosodic conventions. Seen in this context, Venugopalan's verse represents a breakthrough for Tamil. His tone is neutral throughout. He is content to state rather than explain: hence the total absence of metaphors in his poems. Partly on account of this, they lack any complex structure. They possess, on the other hand, the hard, grainy quality of proverbs. They are epigrammatic, often with an ironic twist at the end, throwing light on an obscure comer of experience. Take the poem "Family Pride." It opens with a proverb, and like all proverbs, it epitomizes a story. In addition, the story has an unexpected ending. The movement of the poem is thus linear throughout, except toward the end, where it curves abruptly, almost turning a somersault. Through a sort of double-edged irony, the poem deflates, on the one hand, the pride of the Tamils in their possibly non-Aryan ancestry (as represented by the mango-stone) and comments, on the other hand, on their unfortunate position today, as represented by the worm. The poem can therefore be read as a historical exercise that is symbolically realized--an exercise that ranges, however superficially, over the entire gamut of Tamil experience. And to have said all this in just twelve words (in Tamil) is no small achievement

The curried mango-stone Boasted of its pedigree. I sowed And waited.

The huge tree and its fruits Dissolved into a shadow. What wriggled out Was a worm.

The edifice of S. Vaidheeswaran's poems is built almost entirely on images. The effect is invariably visual rather than aural. "Shedding" is an example, inspired by the repulsive posters that foul the streets of Madras.

The city walls lie Inert as snakes.

The poster skins Often expand and turn brittle. The walls, still and erect, Citified snakes that they are, Peel off their skins hastily At dead of night, And stir themselves about, glittering, In their fresh coat of scales.

Si. Manee's long poem "Hell" is a showpiece of the new verse movement in Tamil. The poem examines the state of Tamil culture today as represented by the urban hell that is Madras, in which relationships between men and women are unreal. Torn between the past and the present, the Tamils inhabit a wasteland. Manee speaks of the despair precisely and without emotion.

Tamil Nadu is not in the east, Neither is it wholly in the west. She put the vessel on the stove To cook rice, but went no further. The result: starvation and ruin. She does not turn back, Nor does she move forward. The present is a toss-up. A tradition hard as nails, and Beliefs under lock and key-- Both refuse to give a hand To untie the knot. What's to be done?

Unlike the other poets, Gnanakoothan has not opted out of traditional metrics. Except occasionally, his verse moves heavily with the burden of the past. He is by far the most literary of the seven poets discussed here, and the only one seriously preoccupied with the state of the language. His two-line poem "Tamil" is almost the manifesto of new poetry in Tamil: "It's true Tamil is the breath of my life,/But I won't brag about it to others." He uses colloquial Tamil, even slang, forcefully and with ease. His irony is often directed at himself. He says with disarming candor, "Nothing remarkable happened in my life. This is the problem both for me and my poetry." The poem may be viewed as an ironic response to Bharati's eulogy on Tamil, as in the following lines: "Be sure to make the thunder/Of Tamil resound in every street."

Kalapriya's poems are brief dispatches about life in rural Tamil Nadu. They bring to life the immemorial rhythms of village India in all their beauty and simplicity, as in the poem "The Path."

A train speeds past a hut. A bull crouches inside a shed: The hair on its thighs stands up. Utterly naked, a little girl Blows her new whistle And waves to the train.

On the threshing floor, Stretched in cradles, The young ones lie scared Of the dust: their eyes And mouths shut tight. Butterflies are all they dream about.

By the edge of the paddy field, A rattlesnake is beside itself with pain: Unable to move, a mute frog In its belly. A schoolboy casts about for a rock: His bag and packed lunch Do penance by the side of the path.

A prominent feature of new verse in Tamil is that most of the poets favor a short poem (six or eight lines) as opposed to a long one. This is perhaps a conscious effort to appropriate the formal excellence of classical Tamil verse. However, no one will dispute its relevance to contemporary Tamil life. Herein lies its potential for further growth.

I began translating the Tamil poets included here in the winter of 1978 while a guest of the University of Iowa's International Writing Program in Iowa City as one more step in the dialogue between myself and my Tamil past. I used to pelt the frozen Iowa River with verses from Andal and Ilango. Of Tamil, I had written in Rough Passage: "To live in Tamil Nadu is to be conscious/every day of impotence./There is the language, for instance: // the bull, Nammalvar took by the horns,/is today an unrecognizable carcass,/quick with the fleas of Kodambakkam." It was that bull I was keen on taking by the horns. I set aside the contemporary poets for a time and turned my attention to The Tale of the Anklet. I envied Ilango his great epic, and the only way I could possess the poem, make it my own, was to rewrite it in English. My assimilation of Ilango is a form of translation--rewriting a poem in English that I could not myself write in Tamil. Again, it was at the hospitable campus of the University of Texas at Austin, during the four years that I was there from 1982 to 1986, that I began and completed the translation of the 5,730--line epic. By making Ilango speak in the accents of English, I hope I have breathed life into the poem and awakened it from its enforced sleep in Tamil. The translation was published in 1993 by Columbia University Press in its series "Translations from the Asian Classics." The Tale of the Anklet is India's finest epic in a language other than Sanskrit. It is to the Tamils what the Iliad is to the Greeks: the story of their civilization. It is precisely this burden of the past that the Tamil poet has to wrestle with, unlike poets in other modern Indian languages, and one which sets him apart. The situation is unique to Tamil literature. The Greek example once again comes to mind, as the work of poets such as Dinos Christianopoulos (b. 1931) demonstrates. They are not rendered speechless by Homer's patrimony. Neither should the Tamil poets be by Ilango's.

Poets from Bharati onward attempted to breathe life into Tamil. Poetry for them was a "struggle for breath." Their voices faltered and stumbled as they tried to free themselves from the past. Not even Bharati was up to the task. The fruits had already been picked. There was nothing left in the barrel to scrape. Yet Bharati, in his Prose Poems, indicated the directions that poets after him were to follow.

No contemporary Tamil poet is totally free of tradition, however emphatically he might swear to the contrary, for the poetic tradition asserts itself most vigorously through language. The Tamil poet finds himself at the center of a linguistic triangle which imposes on him varying degrees of allegiance to classical Tamil, Sanskrit, and English. The situation is true for other contemporary Indian literatures as well. As a result of the encounter with the West, we can speak of a dissociation of sensibility in India in the nineteenth century. The origin of modernity in India can be traced to that historic event. This led to the desacralization of the Indian languages and to the eventual secularization of the literatures in them.

R. PARTHASARATHY is a poet, translator, and critic, whose works include Rough Passage (1977), a long poem; Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets (1976), an anthology; and The Cilappatikaram of Ilanko Atikal: An Epic of South India (1993), a translation into modern English verse of the Tamil national epic. The Forked Tongue: Essays on the Traditions of Literature is forthcoming. He is currently working on translations of The Manimekalai of Cittalai Cattanar and of the modern Tamil poets, including Bharati and Pichamurti. He is Associate Professor of English and Asian Studies at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
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Title Annotation:Indian Literatures: In the Fifth Decade of Independence
Author:Parthasarathy, R.
Publication:World Literature Today
Date:Mar 22, 1994
Previous Article:Process of creation.
Next Article:The son complains to his mother.

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