Eighth Annual Tamil Conference

அழகு: இறைவி, அரசி, மங்கை

Beauty: Goddesses, Queens & Women
April 20-22

Friday, April 20
5 pm

Beauty, Sound, and Movement in Tamil Cinema

Anand Pandian
John Hopkins University

Relying on ethnographic fieldwork with a leading Tamil film music composer, and a team entrusted with choreographing and shooting one of his recent songs, this talk will explore beauty, sound, and movement as forces of attraction in contemporary Tamil cinema. Cutting back and forth between the staging of an international film music concert, and the making of a cabaret “item song,” I examine the expression of these forces through diverse yet related bodies: composer, choreographer, dancer, loudspeaker, stage, and the world of attractions that they together compose
Saturday, April 21

8:45 am

Opening Remarks

Penny Edwards, Chair, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies

PANEL 1
9:00-10:30

May women perform temple pūjā?

Ginni Ishimatsu
University of Denver

In recent years, against tradition a few families in India have taught their daughters to perform domestic rituals or saṃskāras, while the popular Hindu guru known as Ammachi has authorized women to perform ritual worship in her organization’s temples, allowing women to assume public priestly roles for the first time. Do such moves mean that women are gradually being accepted as ritual specialists outside the domestic sphere? This paper seeks to answer this question by examining textual prescriptions regarding ritual authority and the increased roles for women in temple life.

Bharati and the Tamil Modern

Bernard Bate
Yale University

C. Subramania Bharati (1882-1921), the greatest Tamil poet of the twentieth century, was among that vanguard of young activists who first deployed Tamil oratory as a new political medium. The paper interrogates the relationship between poetic language, oratory, and the emergence of the mass political with a consideration of Bharati and a singularly Tamil modern. As such, the paper queries the relationship between poetic and political modernity. I will focus on a set of three speeches and two songs. The first song was sung during an event that involved a procession, music and a large public meeting on the Marina Beach in Madras on 9 March 1908. It was during this time that Bharati wrote some of his most famous nationalist songs in a simple Tamil set to folk meters and melodies perfect for interpellating a new political agency: the Tamil people. The second song was reported to be sung eleven years later at a crossroads not far from the Marina during a procession of fervent political actors moving towards the first great satyagraha of the Madras Presidency, 6 April 1919. By that time Bharati had been broken of politics, and yet the enigmatic poet was sighted dancing in and out of events associated with the political form that he had helped to establish. In one of them he sang a song and danced and merged with god in the process. That this performance may have been imagined, perhaps even dreamed, makes little difference, for the event entered into written history and became an element of truth regarding Subramania Bharati.

Outside the Caṅkam Canon: Innovation in Akam Poetics in the Yāpparuṅkalam Virutti commentary

Jennifer Clare
Colorado College

This paper is part of a larger project that looks at the tension between convention and innovation in debates over what constituted literary beauty in commentaries on Tamil poetics produced between the eighth and the seventeenth centuries. In particular, this paper looks at the literary examples used by the twelfth-century Virutti commentary on the metrical text Yāpparuṅkalam to argue that, in contrast to contemporary scholars invested in a monolithic interpretation of the classical Tamil past, the examples of the Yāpparuṅkala Virutti commentary mobilize the highly conventional system of the akam genre of poetry (poetry of love and domestic life) central to the classical Caṅkam poems and the Tolkāppiyam to introduce a range of new aesthetic priorities that had entered into the Tamil literary landscape since the time of the early poems. Although these new “akam” articulations retain imagery and syntax and style recognizable from the early akam poems, they replace the poetic logic of the old poems, in which the conventions serve to elicit complex layers of suggested meaning, with new aesthetic priorities that emphasize alliteration, word play and the “extreme” genres of citrakāvya. In these examples, the akam poems of the Caṅkam corpus do not reflect an ancient system that must be preserved or carefully managed at the risk of corruption, but rather allow for the compatibility of the ancient tradition with new understandings of what constitutes literature and literary language, opening up the classical conventions to new expressive possibilities.

10:30-10:45

Coffee Break

PANEL II
10:45-12:30

Love in the Time of Youth: Premarital Romance in Tamil Nadu

Isabelle Clark-Deces
Princeton University

The Tamil rural society in which I last conducted fieldwork in 2009 and 2010 was undergoing profound processes of restructuration and detraditionalization. The specific dynamic forces tearing at the social and mental fabric of village life included a rise in the age of marriage, family planning campaigns, generalization of schooling, closing of the gender gap, opportunities for new forms of work, increased cost of and escalation in the practice of dowry, and a growing culture of individualism, free choice and consumer aspirations. All these changes produced conflicts and contradictions, impacting marriage preferences, and young people’s relationships with the other sex and their sense of self. They also facilitated the formation of “love” interests that, much like the “flirtations and romances” documented in Kerala by Osella and Osella (2000; 2006), rarely developed into marriage. This paper discusses the concept of love (kātal) in Tamil premarital romance, arguing that that for Tamil youth the experience of kātal is not obviously desirable. One of my reasons for presenting this paper is to include the specific social predicaments and personal experiences of Tamil youth in the anthropology of Indian kinship and marriage.

Beauty and Power on the Pageant Stage

Elaine Craddock
Southwestern University

Male-to-female transgender people in Tamilnadu, recently labeled “tirunaṅkais” by the state government, enact complex and sometimes competing performances of gender and sexuality in their daily lives and at special events. In annual pageants connected to the festival at Kuvakkam, tirunaṅkais engage in staged mimetic performances in which they embody notions of beauty drawn from multiple sources. The contestants don deliberately provocative outfits and perform suggestive Bollywood-style dances on stage in public arenas. In some pageants judges ask the contestants questions about their experiences as often stigmatized individuals and what actions would benefit the community, in a display of “inner beauty” that normalizes the tirunaṅkais for the larger public. Some contests are sponsored by leaders of tirunaṅkai houses who enhance their status with well-attended events. Others are sponsored by NGOs whose primary goals — to work for the health and welfare of the entire tirunangai community through educational campaigns focusing on HIV/AIDS, and to satisfy donors – may conflict with other community aspirations. These pageant performances are one way in which tirunaṅkais define and express both individual and community identities; tirunaṅkais compete with each other to achieve a reputation for superior style and beauty, but they also play to the gaze of men and cameras to construct themselves as sexually alluring, an image that has economic and social ramifications. These pageants also bring the tirunaṅkai community into transnational systems of commodification of beauty and identity. My paper argues that beauty pageants are one mode for tirunaṅkais to negotiate an ambiguous embodiment and a precarious social position, both within their community and in larger local, national, and even international, milieus.

Writing the Body for the Third Millennium: On Tamil traditions and contemporary Tamil women’s writing

Sascha Ebeling
University of Chicago

Over the last ten years, a number of new voices have burst on the scene of Tamil feminist and women’s literature. The work of Salma, Kutty Revathi, Malathi Maitri, Sukirtharani, Leena Manimekalai and others has been received with both rave reviews and male chauvinist condescension. The present paper examines this new body of writing, its larger location within discourses on Tamil cultural politics, the social locale of contemporary Tamil women writers and the question of how this new writing relates to literary and wider cultural traditions.

The Arts of Courtesans and Brahmans in Tamil viṟaliviṭutūtu Poems

Indira Peterson
Mount Holyoke College

The viṟaliviṭutūtu (VVT, ‘Message sent through the viṟali singer/dancer’) is a Tamil pirapantam poetic genre that flourished under the patronage of rulers and officials in principalities and zamindari kingdoms in the 17th to the 19th centuries. The VVT is framed as a narrative spoken in the first person by a brahman. Addressing a viṛali, the brahman protagonist, an ‘’avatāṉi’, a master of multiple arts, describes his infatuation with a beautiful courtesan/dancer (vēci, tāci) and his subsequent duping, financial ruin and humiliation by the courtesan’s mother-bawd (tāyk kiḻavi). He urges the viṟali to carry his message of contrition to his wife or wives, thus to facilitate a reconciliation. Several scholars (Nagaswami 1982, Ebeling 2010, Shulman 2001, Soneji 2011) have written about the genre’s central concerns, including erotic excess, the seductive art and beauty of courtesans, and the satiric treatment of the concupiscent brahman, in relation to early modern courts and kingship. In this paper I argue that the VVT’s treatment of the older Sanskrit and Tamil literary theme of the seduction of elite men by courtesans is both innovative and specific to the local Tamil culture of the 17th to the 19th centuries. Examining several examples, such as the Kūḷappa Nāyakkaṉ Viṟaliviṭutūtu, Mūvaraiyaṉ Viṟaliviṭutūtu and Naṇṇāvūr Caṅkamēcuvaracuvāmi Vētanāyaki Ammaṉ Peril Viṟaliviṭutūtu, I show how the genre offers a unique portrayal of the South Indian courtesan and her multiple arts (music, dance and erotics) through a narrative of the brahman -courtesan / temple-dancer liaison, a relationship that is embedded in contemporary Tamil social realities and the temple as well as court milieux of music and dance. I contrast the treatment of the Brahman-courtesan theme in the contemporary Sanskrit monologic bhāṇa drama, also a uniquely South Indian genre, with the ‘thick description’ and the vividly localizing and specifying impulses which, I argue, are the essentially Tamil literary-cultural features of the VVT.

12:30-1:30

Lunch Break

PANELS III & IV
1:30 -4:30. 

Concubines, Copper Plates and Colonial Authority: Temple Inscriptions by Women in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Tanjore

Davesh Soneji
McGill University

Between c. 1824 and 1845, Serfoji II (r. 1798-1832) and his son Sivaji II (r. 1832-1855), the last Maratha rulers of Tanjore, built large seraglios called Kalyana Mahal and Mangala Vilas that housed dozens of concubines who bore the titles akkā (“elder sister”), bai or ammāḷ (“respected lady”). The concubines, whose relationships with the kings were solemnized through a “sword marriage” (katti kalyāṇam), came from a range of caste and regional backgrounds, and included Tamil Christian women, Tamil Brahmin Ayyankar women, and various groups of Maharashtrian women. From roughly 1860 to 1895, after Tanjore had been completely annexed to the British, the concubines of Sivaji’s Mangala Vilas contributed small and large-scale donations to temples in and around Tanjore, many of which had been built or re-consecrated under the patronage of Serfoji. Their donations are recorded in the form of stone and copper-plate inscriptions that in many ways emulate the style of medieval Tamil inscriptions. Written in Tamil, Marathi, and occasionally English, these distinctly “modern” inscriptions furnish the names, dates and other details about the women that can be corroborated with similar data found in the Marathi palace records in Modi script. In this paper I argue that the eleemosynary activities of Sivaji’s concubines must be understood in light of another struggle for power over the redistribution of resources that was played out by the Tanjore Maharanis. In 1857, Kamakshi Bai Saheba, the senior rani and widow of Sivaji II, sued the British Government for declaring the title of “Raja of Tanjore” extinct, and for usurping ownership of the private estates and temples that were traditionally under the legal and economic purview of the royal family. In 1863, the temples and their endowments were restored to Kamakshi Bai and her successors until 1912.

The Aesthetics of Exteriority, Glamour, and Disfluency in Commercial Tamil Cinema

Constantine Nakassis

This paper looks at the non-Tamilness of femininity in Tamil commercial cinema. Here the interest is less in representations of foreignness—that is, vis-à-vis characters—than in the exteriority of the actresses themselves and the ways in which such exteriority comes to spill out of the screen. In part, my argument is that gender norms governing of public appearance make it such that the female body on screen always entails a performativity which exceeds the diegetic representationality which we typically associate with fictional film. That is, how the performativity of gender bleeds through attempts to represent it (i.e., “mention” it instead of “using” or doing it), creating an interesting complex in Tamil cinema where women, in certain crucial ways, never seem to be acting at all. To this end I reconsider Madhav Prasad’s account of the avoidance of the on-screen kiss not simply as an issue of the audience’s moral complicity with the screen, but as linked to the imputed performative power of seeing a kiss in public. Second, I look at interviews with film actresses and producers regarding the difficulties for women acting (and, in particular, the question of “glamour”) and to the question why most Tamil heroines are not Tamil. Finally, I look at a recent television program—Thamizh Peesum Kathaanayaki—in which I participated while conducting fieldwork in 2011. This reality show’s premise is to recruit Tamil speaking women to the film industry from the general public. The show revolved, in particular, on countering what the producers saw as the general unwillingness of “Tamil” girls to be on screen. Here I am interested in ways in which the figure of the actress is depicted in the show through her linguistic disfluency.

Kōlam: Beauty, Feeding a Thousand Souls, and Generosity

Vijaya Nagarajan
University of San Francisco

This paper argues that the kōlam, a popular women’s ritual art form, reflects one of the central “rituals of generosity” and “rituals of gratitude” in the Tamil cultural ethos. The kōlam, meaning beauty, encodes within itself a range of understandings of generosity and gratitude that has echoes in the ancient Tamil text of the Thirukkural on hospitality and feeding guests. Tamil women often say that one of the central reasons for performing the kōlam is “to feed a thousand souls”, referring to the kolam’s ability to feed small animals as it disintegrates into the earth, once it is made. Being consumed as food for unknown guests, the kōlam is a container for the central Tamil metaphor of hospitality.

Monstrous is the Parody of Beauty: Foul Women in the Kamparāmāyaṇa

Blake Wentworth
Yale University

In the Rāmāyaṇa of Kampaṉ, the poet crafts expressive portraits of monstrous women, against whom Rāma will display his own bold heroism. But what, for Kampaṉ, makes a woman a monster, or a monster a woman? Two quite different modes of personhood appear to be at work in such a figure. The ferocious killer takes care to adorn her body with anklets and rings; the deceitful shape-shifter feels the true pangs of lovesick sorrow. The monstrous women that Kampaṉ describes are complex in their desires and histories, yet their futures are determined simply: they will be disciplined, for they are savage. Kampaṉ’s descriptions of such women, laden with vivid expressions of physical foulness, insatiable appetites, and abandonment to flesh, speak to a kind of being and a way of being. Yet both are shaped through parody, given form and purpose by narrative forces that surpass the tragic conditions of their own lives. This presentation focuses on the textual depictions of two such women, Tāḍakā and Śūrpaṇakhā, to explore the character of their monstrosity. Against them stands Sītā, whose own perfection defines the ways these other two women shall fall.

Beautification of Icons and Manifestation of Divinity: Evidence from Tamil Epigraphic Texts

Appasamy Murugaiyan
École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris

Pādādikeśāntam patiṉeḻuvirale
iraṇṭu torai ucaramum iraṇṭu tirukkaiyyum
uṭaiyarākakkaṉamāka eḻuntaruḷuvitta nampi ārūraṉār pratimam oṉṟu.

“One solid image of Nampiārūraṉār, (measuring) seventeen viral and two torai high from the feet to the hair and possessing two sacred arms, was set up with grace.”

In South India, the peak of artistic excellence was reached during the reign of the imperial Cholas (c. 850 CE – 1250 CE). Inscriptional data reveals that metal images of Śiva, Viṣṇu, Gaṇapati, Nāyaṉārs, Ardhanārīśvarar, Periyaperumāḷ, Olokamakāteviyār and many others were the objects of offerings constantly made by kings and their entourage. The images are frequently referred to in inscriptions by such terms as tirumeṉi, piratimam, paṭimam, patumam and the like. The icons, both in stone (installed in shrines as mūlavar) and metal (taken out in procession- uṟcavar), meant for worship, are considered sacred only when they are perfectly shaped with a high degree of beauty in them. Especially, the process of beautification is believed to be essential for the icons to embody the divine power. One finds many subtle iconographic details along these lines besides their symbolic values in many of the Tamil inscriptions. The process of sanctification of icons, usually referred to as “ratnanyāsa(m)”, consisting of special rituals, is performed to make them alive and worship-worthy. Thus, performing rituals and beautification of icons complement each other during the significant process of attributing divine power to them. Icons adorned with precious jewels and ornamentations, according to normative texts, facilitate the process of inviting and fixing the divine power onto them. The inscriptions give such precise iconographic information both on images as well as on ornaments. As a matter of fact, the system of measurement as found in the Tamil epigraphic texts stretching from tōrai, viral, cāṉ and muḻam gives parallel information on the proportions, otherwise called iconometry, as we learn from silpa sastras. While the agamic and puranic normative texts tell us more about the processes, the inscriptional texts offer us evidence about the accomplishments of artists by way of beautification of icons. Possibly, it is in this type of epigraphic literature one finds evidence for the development of Tamil iconographic tradition. In my presentation, I shall attempt to draw evidence from Tamil inscriptions to show how the metal images installed in different temples by kings and others underwent various processes of iconic coding, rituals and beautification. Further, I shall argue how the process of beautification of icons is an integral and essential process while instilling divinity into them.

The Element of Beauty and Use of Similes in Tamil

Vasu Renganathan
University of Pennsylvania

Tamil poets employ similes more in number than any other figures of speech to articulate the element of beauty in their objects of representations. The idiosyncrasy of similes in comparison to other techniques such as employing metaphors, personification, idioms and others, is that in similes the objects that are used to compare can be part of a very large domain of the popularly understood set of objects such as ñāyiṛu (ñāyiṛu anaiya nin pakaivarkku ‘for your enemies like a sun…’), tiṅkaḷ (tiṅkaḷ anaiya emmanōrkkē ‘for our kins like a moon…’ (Puṛam:59), mūttār ‘elders’, neruppu ‘fire’, amiḻtam ‘nectar’, maṭamayil ‘female peacock’ and so on; and they can also be part of a number of very selectively used uncommon ones like piṇṭa nellin aḷḷūr anna ‘like the abundant rice in Allur’ (Aham:46-14), vēnil veḷiṛṛup panai pōl ‘like a palmyra without core during the summer time’ (Aham:333-11), paḷiṅkattanna palkāy nelli ‘goosberries, like a pile of beads’ (Aham:5-9) and so on. Specially, use of such uncommon objects in similes not only represents poets’ eloquence in imagination and creativity, but they also found to be deferentially appealing in nature for the reason that comprehending such similes requires an in-depth knowledge of the subject matter as denoted in the poems along with a detailed knowledge of the context of their utterance, which can typically be obscure in nature. One finds a rich source of such similes with uncommon objects more in Sangam than in medieval poems, with an exception of a few works, like Cittar Pāṭalkaḷ. I shall argue in my paper how the similes with such uncommon objects weigh more in appealing the beauty of the poems than their counterparts, and how they play a significant role in studying the history of the Tamils and ancient Tamil country.

Sunday. April 22

9:00-12:30

Round Table