A NOTE ON TAMIL

Tamil is more than a language. It is a body of knowledge, much of it intrinsic to an ancient culture and sensibility. “Tamil” can mean both “knowing how to love” – in the manner of classical love poetry – and “being a civilized person.” It is thus a kind of grammar, not merely of the language in its spoken and written forms but of the creative potential of its speakers.


DAVID SHULMAN,
Tamil a Biography, (Belknap Harvard, 2016)

Tamil has a rich and hoary literary tradition spanning over two thousand years. The earliest literature in Tamil can be traced back to Sangam poetry, circa 2nd century BCE, which comprises anthologies of short lyrics compiled as Ettuthokai (Eight Anthologies) and longer poems collected under the name of Pathuppaattu (Ten Idylls), both of which deal in depth and detail with several aspects of life such as love, war and social values.

Among the other classics of Tamil literature are the Tirukkural and the Naladiyar, both works of ethics and morality noted for their brevity, universality and non-denominational approach. The Tirukkural (“Honoured Kural”) shares with the Bible and the Qur’an the distinction of being one of the most widely translated texts in the world. The novel as a genre of literature arrived in Tamil in the late 19th century, its emergence perhaps facilitated by the growing population of Tamils with a western education and exposure to popular Western fiction. The modern Tamil literary movement began in the early twentieth century with Subramania Bharati, the multifaceted nationalist bard, who broke the rules and blazed a new trail in poetry. He also wrote Tamil prose in the form of commentaries, editorials, short stories and novels.

The incisive short stories of Pudhumaipithan (1906 -1948) and D. Jayakanthan (1934-2015), steeped as they were in urban realism, broke new ground and revolutionised Tamil fiction, as did the works of Mauni, Thi. Janakiraman, Ku. Pa. Rajagopalan, Ashokamitran and Na. Pichamurthy. The pudukkavithai (new poetry) pioneered by Bharati was further honed by little magazines such as Manikkodi and Ezhuttu edited by Si. Su. Chellappa.

Chief among the modern icons of Tamil writing who rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s were Sundara Ramaswamy (1931-2005) and C.S. Lakshmi who wrote under the pseudonym Ambai. Ambai's unabashedly feminist short fiction, challenged stereotyped notions of femininity and sexuality in a male-dominated literary tradition. Each one of Sundara Ramaswamy's novels, Oru Puliyamarathin Kathai (Tamarind History), J.J Sila Kurippukal (J.J: Some Jottings) and Kuzhanthaigal, Pengal, Aangal (Children, Women, Men) is a cult classic in its own right.

The 1990s onwards have been a time of profound transformation in Tamil society and culture. New social movements and new social classes began to express themselves creatively in Tamil. Writers such as Imayam, Bama, Perumal Murugan, Devibharathy, Salma, Sukirtharani and Anar continue to hold up a powerful and unflinching mirror to the lives lived on the margins and struggles for self-respect and dignity in the face of daily discrimination and oppression. Jo D’Cruz, Salma and Sukirtharani Continue to hold up a powerful and unflinching mirror to the lives lived on the margins and struggles for self-respect and dignity in the face of daily discrimination and oppression.