Sixth Annual Tamil Conference
April 24-25, 2010

Saturday. April 24
8.30 am

Opening Remarks

Alexander von Rospatt, Acting Chair, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies

9-10:30 AM

Reading Pallavar Kalam through its Sacred and Secular Texts

Chelva Kanaganayagam
University of Toronto

The objective of this paper is to unpack the social and cultural dimension of the Pallava period through literary texts. Although historians have offered complex readings of the economic and administrative practices of this period from non-literary sources, very little has been done to investigate the relevance of literary representations for this line of inquiry. Literary texts have, for the most part, occupied a separate niche in that they exemplify the burgeoning of bhakti during this period. I would like to argue that these two streams need to be seen as complementary, and that literary works have played an important role in shaping the world view of this period.

Narrative, Politics, and the Accession of Kulottuga I Cola

Whitney Cox
SOAS, England

The rule of the emperor Kulottunga I (usually dated to 1070-1020 CE) has been taken as a watershed in the history of the Colas across a spectrum of schoarly disciplines, ranging from studies of literary culture, to art and architecture and the history of economy and society. In my paper, I will outline a reinterpretation of Kulottunga’s transformation from distaff cousin from the strife-ridden family of the Vengi Chlukyas in coastal Andhra to ruler of the most influential kingdom in all of southern Asia. As I will show, the standard explanation for Kulottunga’s sudden political success – that he was related to the imperial Cola line through two generations of cross-cousin marriages – provides only a necessary, not a sufficient cause, while it fails to adequately address his complex genealogical situation and deliberate self-fashioning. My argument proceeds along two closely related tracks: an empirical reconstruction of the early years in which he issued inscriptions under the name Rajendra (ca. 1070-1075), and a cultural-historical interpretation of the multiple narrative sources that framed his public actions, and that in turn gave rise to new textual renditions of the events of his accession in both Sanskrit and Tamil. As I will show, these two different approaches to Kulottunga’s career are best understood in concert: the political maneuvering that marked his early epigraphic pronouncements are best understood as intelligible cultural actions, while the abundant narrative and literary sources can themselves be situated within definite social and political contexts of production, as realizations of particular worldly projects. This line of thinking comes together in a new reading of Cayankondar’s Kalinkattupparani, the major literary monument of Kulottunga’s court and a turning point in the history of medieval Tamil poetry.

Agastya for the New Age?: The Cittar Tradition and the Tamil Medical texts Commissioned by King Serfoji II of Thanjavur

Indira V. Peterson
Mount Holyoke College

From its inception, the Maratha court in Thanjavur (1685 -1855) was a fertile site for textual and other translational activity among multiple languages and cultural spheres, in multilateral exchanges among Tamil, Marathi and Sanskrit. This paper examines the syntheses, translations and transformations entailed in the Sarabhendra Vaittiya Muṟaikaḷ (SVM), the 18-volume Tamil verse compendium of medical formulae that Serfoji II (r. 1798-1832) a European-educated polymath who ruled under British colonial supervision, commissioned from court poets (Civakkoḻuntu Tēcikar, Vēlayuta Vāttiyār) and physicians. Serfoji’s Maratha forebears had focused exclusively on the Sanskrit texts of Āyurveda, even producing original Sanskrit treatises and dramas ((e.g., Dhanvantarivilāsa, Jivānandana) on medicine. Serfoji studied both western allopathic medicine and Indic medical systems, and conducted a comparative medical project, which involved interaction among European, unani (Islamic), cittar and āyurvedic physicians in a research institution (Dhanvantari Mahal). The content of Serfoji’s Tamil compendium is largely drawn from Sanskrit āyurveda texts such as the Bheṣajakalpa. However, not only are the form, language and style of the SVM drawn from Tamil citta vaittiya texts such as Akattiyar Vaittiya Ainnūṟu, but its emphasis, like that of the cittar texts, is on anupavam (experience (and efficacy) as the basis of the authority of practice. Why did Serfoji couch his ambitious medical project in the Tamil language, when he often commissioned texts in the other languages of his court, and why is the SVM’s strongest affiliation with the Tamil cittar tradition? I suggest that, even as he paid homage to the Sanskrit śāstric sage Dhanvantari, Serfoji’s ambition was to become an Agastya for the modern age (verses in the SVM name Serfoji as the author of the formulae). Paradoxically, the king used the figure and trope of the gifted Tamil cittar sage and the medium of ‘traditional’ cittar style verses to overturn traditional notions of knowledge and its transmission, shifting from secrecy to publicity, aiming at exploding with his texts the exclusive guarding of medical formulae in teacher-disciple lineages (paramparai) and indecipherable paripāṣai (technical language). I also consider the relationship of Serfoji’s modernizing project with the colonial regime’s attitudes toward and investigations into Indian medicine. Serfoji’s medical text project is an interesting precursor of later 19th- and 20th-century movements to reimagine Tamil cittar traditions.

10:30 – 10:45 AM

Coffee Break

10:45 AM – Noon

Time and Triumph: Devi at the Kailasanatha temple in Kanchi

Padma Kaimal,
Colgate University

Sculptures of the Goddess on the early 8th-century Kailasanatha temple in Kanchi present her in a variety of roles. She is the gentle wife, Shiva’s helpmate in struggle, the key to battlefield victory, mistress of the domain of war, and the personification of triumph over even Time itself. These roles unfold in this dramatic crescendo along the clockwise path around the vimana. Her final scenes repeatedly strike the very notes that sound throughout the Devi Mahatmya, a 5- 6th century hymn that locates the Goddess outside time

Mimicry and Reuse in Medieval Tamil Temples

Risha Lee
Columbia University

In medieval Tamil country, temple architects and patrons made a concerted effort to preserve aspects of older temples. Sembiyan Mahadevi (ca. 949-1006), wife of King Gandaraditya and mother of Uttama Cola, is well known for having rebuilt several older brick shrines in stone, carefully preserving prior inscriptions by re-inscribing them on the temple walls. In countless other shrines, sculptures of deities, stylistically dateable to an earlier period than the temple architecture, occupy central niches on the temple exterior. On a larger scale, patrons commissioned temples with nearly identical architectural formats. The best-known example is at Gangaikondacholapuram (ca. 1025), where King Rajendra I (r. 1012-1044) consecrated his new capital and erected a smaller version of the famous temple built at Thanjavur (ca. 1009-10) by his father, Rajaraja I (r. 985-1014). This phenomenon is not isolated to this site, and my paper investigates other instances of architectural mimicry. My paper asks whether we can interpret these practices of preservation, reuse, and mimicry as a conscious antiquarianism, in which architects and patrons viewed architecture as a means of connecting people and landscape to an imagined past.

Masculinity in the Caṅkam Puṟam Anthologies

Elizabeth Segran
University of California, Berkeley

In this talk, I examine various qualities that contribute to the construction of masculinity in the Tamil Caṅkam tradition, particularly within the Puṟanāṉūṟu anthology. I focus on several important masculine traits, including movement and pursuit, bellicosity and warfare, and productivity and the flow of wealth. I argue that these qualities are strongly associated with the figure of the king and that they serve to delineate the boundaries of hegemonic masculinity in this ancient literature. As I consider masculinity in the Tamil context, I will draw upon a range of theories from the field of gender and womenʼs studies, including recent anthropological work on the subject of hegemonic masculinity. I will also turn to Simone de Beauvoirʼs notions of the feminine “Other” and Judith Butlerʼs theories about the heterosexual matrix as starting points for my own discussion of gender construction. Ultimately, I posit that the Tamil poets themselves were aware of the fluid and constructed nature of gender. Indeed, there are moments when the fissures and fractures in this carefully constructed system of gendering become apparent. At these junctures, the poets sometimes endeavor to make things cohere: sometimes, however, they seem to acknowledge the artificiality and futility of gendered categories. I am interested in highlighting these moments of confusion, for they are instructive about the process of gender formation in this culture.

Noon -1:15 PM

Lunch Break

1:15 – 3 PM

Knowing the Classics: Participating in a Literary Tradition

Blake Wentworth
Yale University

What makes classical Tamil literature classic, and for whom is this true? Cankam literature, the Ramayana of Kampan, and select Cola period masterpieces might well be the prime contenders today, but was this likewise true for Tamil literati of previous centuries? There is a rich history of poets beyond the Cola period, masters such as Irattaaiyar, Cerai Kaviraja Pillai, or Antakakkavi Virarakava Mutaliyar, all of whom worked decisive changes in the Tamil literary sensibility. How did they envision the tradition they upheld? I seek to explore the texts and biography of the great seventeenth-century poet Antakakkavi Virarakava Mutaliyar, analyzing his life and work in order to understand how he and his audience understood the literary, and what they took to be classic. What did a poet of this era think literature was for, what were its powers, and how did it relate to the texts that had come before? For Antakakkavi, too, had his classics, and by knowing what they were, and how they were to be invoked and transformed through the poet’s creative art, we can better understand what it meant to say that someone had the gift of poetry once the Tamil Saiva tradition had already recognized its classics.

“Tell him the story of the spreading blood”: The Civil War in Sri Lanka and the Poets

Sascha Ebeling
University of Chicago

For the past three decades, the civil war in Sri Lanka has been the major theme in Srilankan Tamil literature. This paper examines the various ways in which Srilankan Tamil poets, prose writers and playwrights have addressed the war in their work. It discusses the different poetic strategies for rendering war an object of literary practice, such as: literature as a chronicle of war; reflections on the loss of the ‘readability of the world’ (Blumenberg); trauma, memory, nostalgia; the heroicization of soldiers/propaganda; and coming to terms with a new life, diaspora, dislocation. The material presented here is part of a larger project which maps the diverse histories of contemporary Tamil literature, music and film from a global perspective.

“Cash in on the clay doll season::” Sharad kalam and Sundal-kalam Navartri among Tamil people

Vasudha Narayanan
University of Florida

The Sharad kalam Navaratri is the most important of the cycle of four navaratris and one of the most popular women’s festivals in Tamilnadu. While the form of celebration—the kolu – is well known and possibly has its origins in Karnataka, and also in Andhra Pradesh, its continued presence in the Tamil region and among Tamil people in the diaspora is remarkable. My paper will look briefly on the possible origins of the kolu; the production of the dolls in Panrutti (one of the three major doll producing places in Tamilnadu); and discuss the ways in which the festival has been celebrated by Tamil people in the last fifty years. From traditional displays of Ambal and Dasavataram, the kolus have moved on to those based on feature stories and news items. Prize winning displays in the last few years in Chennai included themes on Katrina, Kiran Bedi Police training camp, Abdul Kalam Science Center, and organ donation. Kolu competitions sponsored by the Adyar Times and the Mylapore Times together receive more than two hundred entries every year.

Apart from showing the shifts in social consciousness seen through the festival among Tamil people in Chennai and in the United States, my paper will explore how the season, time, and festival connect and highlight distinctions between what are perceived as Tamil and Sanskrit cultural streams; bring together various sectarian communities and ethnic language groups in India; as well as create and rupture notions of pan-Indian identities.

3 – 3:15 PM

Coffee Break

3:15 – 5 PM

Tamil Preferential Marriages With Close Kin: Precedence, Honor and Rank

Isabelle Clark-Deces
Princeton University

What makes Tamil marriages with close kin “preferential”? Why are cross cousins and uncles/nieces the favorite (in some castes, the obligatory) marriage partners? Scholars often explore these questions with reference to notions of “alliance,” “affinity,” “desire,” and “isogamy.” In this talk I propose to explore these marriages instead from the perspective of their associated meanings. My focus will be on what the categories of “murai” and “urimai” say about the order in which Tamil kinship is inscribed, and the status of the preferred marriage partners and their parents. Since these categories situate themselves very explicitly in the perspective of time — of immediacy, priority, and precedence in particular — I will also consider the ways in which Tamil preferential unions establish differential kinship and social rank. The “right” kin (as preferential kin are called in Tamil) are entitled to first honors and authoritative rights. Hence the conflicts over matrimonial precedence that prove to be so intense as to completely damage kinship relationships as I also chronicle in this paper


The Intertwining of Religious and Political Selves: Srivaisnava Non-Brahmin Oral Histories in Our Time

Katherine K. Young
McGill University

The twentieth century is commonly accepted as a time of unprecedented social change in Tamilnadu for non-Brahmin social mobility and political awakening. Although scholars have explored the contributions of Christianity, Saivism, and Neo-Buddhism to these awakenings, they have rarely commented on the Srivaisnava contribution. This illustrated paper, based on my fieldwork (2006-2009) in South Arcot district, will recover aspects of the almost lost history of “elite” non-Brahmin Srivaisnavas through reminiscences of changing family life and religious values, political affiliations, and the politics of caste and religious conversion over the past century. After relating these narratives to “our time,” I will briefly compare the patterns to what I have found of elite non-Brahmin social change in two other periods – the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries – to determine continuities and discontinuities.

Gender, Friendships, Marriage and Family In Jeyakantan’s novels.

Kiran Keshavamurthy
University of California, Berkeley

In Jeyakantan novels, same-sex friendships are socially marginal to but more emotionally significant and intimate than marital ties and family. Same-sex friendship is represented as an anomalous relationship: it exists outside the more thoroughly codified social networks formed by patriarchal kinship and sexual ties. Male friendships often provide men with professional or intellectual and conversational intimacy that they hardly ever share with their estranged wives and children. Male friendships provide an exclusive (homo)social space where patriarchs can overcome their reluctance and pride and share their suppressed insecurities and fears of giving up control over the family to rebellious sons. Same-sex friendship in this novel often represent the possibilities of larger bonds of sociality namely kinship and conjugality. It often borrows its conceptualization from kinship to gain definition and identification and to socially and emotionally situate it as an image of sociality and human solidarity. While friendships between unrelated men and women are socially forbidden in the world of the novel, there are suggested exceptions where romantic, familial and marital relationships between men and women draw on a certain rhetoric of friendship. These representations of friendship seem to exhibit a paradox: although the novel’s textual strategies make kinship and more implicitly conjugality into privileged loci of signification for representing friendship, they also make friendship into a paradigm of sociality.

Sunday, April 25

10 AM -1 PM

Round Table Discussion


  • Anne Monius, Harvard University
  • Jennifer Clare, University of California, Berkeley