Thursday, April 13, 2017

Tamil A Biography by David Shulman

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Tamil A Biography

The book under review is an account of the Tamil language situated in its historical and linguistic context. It is one of the unfortunate intellectual legacies of the colonial era that many of the discredited theories pertaining to racial origin, evolution of language, scriptal literacy, religion are all wrapped up in the dense fog of ideology that it is today impossible to deal with some of these issues dispassionately. It takes a peace activist from Israel, the well known Indologist and historian, David Shulman to write about these and other issues with integrity and deep commitment to scholarship.


I have not come across a book that captures the complexity of Tamil literary and political history as eloquently and with scholastic depth as the present book. It is quite obvious that the present breed of Tamil "intellectuals" will rail against the account given by Shulman as he completely destroys the self serving myth, perpetuated over two centuries that Tamil has an origin independent of Sanskrit. Until Cauldwell made "Dravidian" into both a linguistic and racial characteristic, the term Dravida was used in Tamil literary works only as a geographical expression.




The nineteenth century which saw the crystallization of racially charged theories, bequeathed to India a toxic legacy in the form of the Aryan/Dravidian Dichotomy, the Aryan Invasion Myth, the conflict between the oldest Tamil language and the upstart Sanskrit language. All these theories, though discredited have traction due to the purchase of identity politics in India. Hence, it is essential to read Shulman very carefully as he has argued effectively that throughout the medieval period, the Age of the Cholas, Sanskrit enjoyed a privileged status in the royal court and that status was neither resented nor did it lead to the sort of shadow boxing we find in the last century when the "Pure Tamil " movement sought to expurgate Sanskrit from the Tamil language altogether.

David Shulman, unlike Asko Parpola and others is a recognized authority on Sanskrit Language and Literature and knows nearly 24 languages including Telugu, Kanada and a host of European and Asian Languages. His own early foray into Tamil history when he wrote Tamil Temple Myths marked him as one who uses literary texts in new and novel ways. The tallapuramam of medieval Tamil region were studies against the general background of history and iconography in this work which was followed by King and Clown in South Indian Myth and Poetry a path breaking work on the textual construction of South Indian kingship. More recently, Whitney Cox has added to the thin corpus of historical investigation in his Politics, Kingship and Poetry in Medieval South India (Cambridge University Press, 2016). This line of investigation, a new historicist perspective that melds the fluid poetry of medieval Tamil compositions to the firm foundation of historiography.

Tamil A Biography demolishes three fundamental myths of the dominant political ideology prevalent in Tamil Nadu today and pervades the entire gamut of academic studies on early Tamil Language and Literature. As he says, "In modern South India Tamil has become a major criterion for collective identity, often seen now as forged in opposition to Sanskrit and an invasive north Indian culture and ideology". Shulman goes on to show that the Chola royal court was bilingual with Sanskrit enjoying the same status as Tamil and there is no sign of any conflict, real or imagined during the four centuries of Chola rule. The advent of the anti brahmin movent meant that the South Indian brahmins were represented as agents of the alien culture and that was used as a justification for excluding them form public and cultural life altogether. The scholarship of David Shulman goes a long way in correcting the distortions of the past. His discussion of the enduring presence of the Agasthya Myth, a north Indian therefore a putative Aryan as the founder of Tamil Grammar is both convincing and sound.

The date of the so called Cankam literary works and the presence of the enigmatic Kalabrahs are two vexed issues in early Tamil literary history. Following Tieken, Shulman also argues for a late date for the Cankam works, There is little evidence to show that the puram and akam varieties of poems were contemporaneous with the Roman presence in South India and the graffiti marks found on pot shrds from sites like Arikamedu, Porunthal, Kodumanal and other places do not help in tading the Cankam literary works. There seems to be a close association between Bhakti literature and the redacted bardic poetry of early Tamil region. His disdussion of the Sangam tradition based on the Velvikkudi Copper plate Inscription is interesting.

The work under review is a classic and will remain a reliable introduction to Tamil language and literary history.  

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