Seventh Annual Tamil Conference

தமிழ் மரபு

Seventh Annual Tamil Conference
Tamil Marapu (Traditions)
April 29-May 1, 2011

Friday, April 29


Marapu and Poetics in Literary History

Chelva Kanaganayakam
University of Toronto

The notion of marapu (tradition) is quite central to understanding the evolution and aesthetic value of poetry in Tamil. Until the adoption of free verse about a century ago, prosody and convention were crucial elements in assigning aesthetic value to poetry. In fact, the entire tradition of explication in Tamil was governed by conventions expounded by the scholiastic tradition in Tamil. Conforming to tradition was seen to be synonymous with the ability to write good poetry. Dominant prosodic forms such as akaval, veṇpā, and viruttam, and conventions as tiṇai, patakam or maṭal were markers for classification and appreciation. In certain instances, being able to innovate within tradition was seen as the mark of a great poet. Until a Western style “practical criticism” mode was introduced as a possible approach in the 1960s, no real attempt was made to distinguish one poem from another on the basis of aesthetic sophistication. Even today literary criticism is governed by the notion of prosody or by thematic relevance rather than by poetic merit. The objective of this essay is to raise questions about how one might establish a theoretical niche for poetics while framing one’s approach within the overall requirements of marapu.

Saturday, April 30


Opening Remarks

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


Jain Satire and Religious Identity in Tamiḻ-Speaking Literary Culture

Anne E. Monius
Harvard Divinity School

Even a quick survey of pre-colonial Tamiḻ literature reveals Jain monastic poets to be the masters of the satirical. The Nīlakēci and the Cīvakacintāmaṇi, the Peruṅkatai and the Cūḷāmaṇi, the Yacōtarakāviyam and the Utayaṇaṉ Katai—all sparkle not only with poetic elegance and narrative complexity, but with biting wit aimed at king and court, Hindu and Buddhist, glutton and hedonist. While the anti-Jain Śaiva invectives of early bhakti literature have been studied at length, this Jain (more specifically, Jain monastic) propensity for satire has been little examined. Why would Jain monks compose lengthy poetic narratives on the classical Tamiḻ themes of love and war, most often retelling stories well-known from Sanskrit and Prākrit sources in a new key? What role might the composition and consumption of lengthy poetic satire have played in Jain monastic discipline? What historical circumstances might have given rise to these many Tamiḻ Jain satirical pieces? This paper will explore the questions above, arguing that Jain satire shaped pre-modern Tamiḻ literary culture in numerous ways.

Tirunangais: Embodying Feminine Ideals, Negotiating Marginality

Elaine Craddock
Southwestern University

Male-to-female transgender people in Tamilnadu enact complex and sometimes competing performances of gender and sexuality in their daily lives and at life cycle ceremonies and special events. These individuals are commonly called “aravanies,” deriving from their ritual marriage to Aravan, the hero from the Mahabharata who married Mohini, the female incarnation of Krishna. Thus this name highlights their female embodiment of a male being, as well as their connection to divinity. This ritual marriage is performed annually, most famously at Kuvakam, where aravanies go to tie the thali in the temple, then the next day enact their widowhood after Aravan dies on the battlefield by cutting their thalis and breaking their bangles. A significant number of aravanies serve village goddesses such as Ankalaparamecuvari, and make a living as diviners and healers. Aravanies embrace ideals of conventional womanhood and heteronormativity, but also insist on their special embodiment and status as neither male nor female. The Tamilnadu government supports this special status by recognizing transgender people as a third gender, issuing identity and ration cards that allow individuals to register under their feminine names. Recently Chief Minister Karunanidhi has renamed these individuals “tirunangais” or auspicious women, highlighting their femininity. These moves acknowledge and support a marginalized community that falls outside of normative gender and social roles, but also attempt to bring this transgressive community from the margins into the center by constructing the individuals as women. These governmental changes highlight paradoxes and tensions that have been integral to Tamil transgender communities. My paper argues that tirunangais negotiate marginality partly by both embodying conventional womanhood and contesting normative gender binaries.

The Brother takes less: Marriage with Elder Sister’s Daughter in Tamil Nadu

Isabelle Clark-Deces
Princeton University

This paper focuses on the Tamil preferential marriage with elder sister’s daughter, suggesting that the critical pair in this particular variant of South Indian close-kin marriages is neither a man and his brother-in-law (as Louis Dumont argued about “Dravidian” kinship in general) nor a brother and his sister (as Margaret Trawick argued in Notes on Tamil Love) but a mother and her daughter. The mother marries her son to her daughter’s daughter (hence the groom is the bride’s maternal uncle). Marriage with elder sister’s daughter, I will suggest, is a sacrifice (that of the younger brother), which benefits women (his mother, elder sister, wife, daughter, in short the matriline). Hence my argument that this form of “marriage” expresses what is perhaps the basic feature of Dravidian kinship: namely the opposition between the sexes and the ranking of women (elder sisters) above men (younger brothers). The sphere of social activity predominantly associated with males — coming first in society — is generated from the sphere of activity predominantly associated with females — marriage

Neologisms, Near Words and Non-words in the Cīvakacintāmaṇi.

James Ryan
California Institute of Integral Studies

How many other epic poems are there in the world where 3145 verses are made in rhyming quatrains? Though I can’t prove it, I strongly believe that CC, like most Indian vernacular language poetry, was composed to be sung in recitation, not read, as one understands in Western contexts of poetry. Certainly, CC today is a pārāyaṇa nūl or a book intended for devotional recitation, and is almost always sung in a Jain temple or special gathering along with a harmonium. It is probably because CC is more a song than “written literature” that Tiruttakkatēvar took surprising liberty with literal meanings while creating the beginning rhyme in the many quatrains. The authoritative Madras Lexicon records dozens of meanings that seem to appear uniquely in CC. In this short talk I will discuss this interesting situation, where it seems clear that the song and its rhyme took precedence and literal meanings were temporarily bracketed in the devotional thrall of the poet/singer.

Convention and Innovation: Debating Tradition in Tamil Poetics

Jennifer Clare
University of California, Berkeley

Tamil literary culture of the eighth through the fourteenth century was defined in part by debates over the definition of the Tamil literary tradition, as articulated in the numerous texts on poetics produced during this time. On the one hand, tradition was defined in terms of adherence to the rules established by the earliest stratum of Tamil literary and grammatical production, the collection known today as the Caṅkam poems and the early grammatical text, the Tolkāppiyam. On the other hand, literary scholars recognized the capacity of the Tamil literary tradition to incorporate change, including developments in language and in poetic convention. This short paper looks at two such conflicting articulations of tradition in the commentaries of Pērāciriyar and Nacciṉārkkiṉiyar on the Tolkāppiyam to better understand this range of attitudes towards convention, innovation and the role of the Tamil past in the definition of Tamil literature.

10:30 – 10:45

  Coffee Break

10:45 – Noon

Tukaram in the Tamil Country: Marathi Kirtan, Sampradaya Bhajana and the Cosmopolitan Life of Karnatak Music

Davesh Soneji
McGill University

On March 17, 1675, Ekoji Maharaja, a relative of Chatrapati Sivaji, was crowned king of Tanjore. A number of distinctly Maharashtrian cultural practices travelled to the Kaveri river delta with the migration of a large number of Marathi-speaking people who subsequently came to populate Tanjore and its surrounding regions. It is believed that a year after Ekoji’s coronation, Samarth Ramdas (1608-1681), famed as one of Chatrapati Sivaji’s religious advisors and author of the voluminous Marathi text Dasbodh, visited Tanjore on his way to Rameswaram. Records note that he stayed in Tanjore for about a month, and that three of his disciples – Bhimraj Svami, Bhikaji Shahpurkar, and Raghav Svami – established mathas in Tanjore, Mannargudi, and Konur respectively. These “Ramdasi” mathas were among the earliest sites where performances of kirtans by the Marathi saint-poets such as Namdev, Tukaram, Janabai, Bhanudas, and others are recorded to have been performed. A number of Marathi works called nirupanas that codified the sequence and content of kirtan performance were composed under the patronage of the court between 1700 and 1830. Using a number of sources – from the Tanjore court records to Marathi manuscripts and contemporary ethnographic data – this paper unpacks the complexities of Marathi kirtan’s travels into the Tamil country in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century, performances of Marathi kirtan have morphed into two distinct art forms known as harikatha and sampradaya bhajana. Both reflect Tanjore’s unique cosmopolitanism, and in many ways, provide the generic and technical roots for modern Karnatak concert music. Sampradaya bhajana in particular, retains the repertoire and technique of the old Marathi kirtan, yet merges it into a complex, multilingual poetic world that draws from Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, and Sanskrit devotional works. In this paper I demonstrate the influence of Marathi kirtan on the making of modern Karnatak music by examining the mediating role played by sampradaya bhajana in the nineteenth century. The iconic figures of Karnatak music like Tyagaraja (1767-1847) who emerge out of the sampradaya bhajana tradition, are equally the inheritors of the legacy of the old Marathi kirtan in its new Tamil home.

The Government Takeover of a Hindu Temple: The Case of Chidambaram

Ginni Ishimatsu
University of Denver

In 2009 the Madras High Court paved the way for the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HR&CE), a department of Tamil Nadu’s state government, to take over the administration of the famous Nataraja temple in Chidambaram. Although the move came as no surprise, given that the HR&CE has assumed control of most of the state’s temples, the takeover came only after a prolonged struggle going back to the nineteenth century. The Dikshitar priests, who had previously managed the temple, and various religious and political groups, including the usual Hindu nationalists, protested against the decision; the matter has since been brought to the Supreme Court. This paper argues that the nature of this fight goes to the heart of the Indian Constitution’s guarantee of the freedom of religion and the relationship between religion and secularism in India.

Histories of the Caress: Thoughts on Literary Translation

Steven P. Hopkins
Swarthmore College

I will address the theme of marapu with a reflection on literary translation from Tamil and Sanskrit poetry. I will first look at various theories of translation, from Borges to J. Z. Smith’s notions of incongruity, surprise and difference, and Derrida’s insights on translation as elevation, preservation, and negation, an act that excites desire, where “one language licks another, like a flame or a caress.” After considering the rich semantic energies of the Tamil verb moḻipeyarttal – translation as absorbing, dislodging, recovering, another’s words – I will take a practical look at my contemporary moḻipeyar marapu, from the work of Masson/Merwin, Ramanujan, Heifetz, to Hart, showing how I have moved closer over the years to George Hart’s basic ideals in my translations of the poetry of the 13th-century South Indian saint-poet and scholastic Veṅkaṭanātha, attempting in American English to better mirror line-length, rhythm, and even something of the syntax of the original.

On the Languages of the Commons in Tamil Nadu: A Theoretical Exploration

Vijaya Nagarajan
University of San Francisco

The physical and natural commons is managed by social, cultural, semi-legal, and customary agreements a people make with each other about their local natural systems. These agreements have embedded within them multiple codes, ritual and secular, of moral and ethical orientations. This paper argues that there exists a serious lacuna in the current theoretical and ethnographic understandings of the commons—There is insufficient knowledge of the commons in their specificities and multiplicities, in terms of languages, cultures and religions. This paper calls, therefore, for recovering repertoires of conceptual languages of the commons that is far more inclusive of a diversity of languages, cultures, and religions. Through a set of five propositions, this essay argues for a broader range of cultural, religious, and environmental metaphors to better perceive and understand the category of the commons in everyday life, both in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. Towards filling this theoretical and ethnographic gap, this paper outlines a preliminary exploration of the commons as it presents itself in Tamil literature, culture and religious life. More specifically, this paper will trace historically the multiple and nuanced ways in which Tamils have articulated their relationship to spatial commons. Looking closely at sacred groves, water tanks and other common spaces, this paper will examine the theoretical contributions that Tamils can make to the general theory of the commons, which is all too often rooted in Euro-American discourses, languages, histories and metaphors.

The Role of the Jew in the Non-Brahmin Political Theory of Self-Respect

Matt Baxter
University of California, Berkeley

The relationship between the Ganges and the Rheine—the ways in which Subcontinental encounters, real and imagined, influenced Germanic Continental thinkers from Herder to Hitler—is widely acknowledged. Yet what happens when world-wide projections of such Continental encounters “return” to the Subcontinent? I focus on the ways in which the Self-Respect Movement of EVR appropriated the return of Tamil tropes of Aryan and Pariah during the rise of fascist Europe, tropes which journeyed from ஆரியர் [āriyar] and பறையர் [paṟaiyar] to German and Jew to Brahmin and Non-Brahmin. I focus particularly on the figure of the Jew, noting the ways in which the Jew functioned in the Non-Brahmin political theory of Self-Respect as both Brahmin and Non-Brahmin, as both Aryan and Pariah. I argue that the journey of such tropes from Tamil Country and back again mark moments in which struggles against oppression cohere when, and perhaps only when, placed within broader world-wide frames. Such frames, and the journeys of tropes they mark, simultaneously provide arguments for and against “tradition.”



1:15 -3:00

Ordering, Recording, Transmitting: Documentation and History in Medieval Tamil Inscriptions

Leslie C. Orr
Concordia University


In this paper I will explore the significance of marapu within the context of the documentary practices and historiographic consciousness revealed by medieval Tamil stone inscriptions. Marapu in this case means, on the one hand, the customary usages of the record-makers/ record- keepers (local accountants or, at times, royal scribes) who crafted a vocabulary and created a genre of writing specific to temple life and responsive to legal exigencies. On the other hand, marapu refers to the “tradition” that was produced – the portrayal of the past, the recording of lineages and deeds, the mandating of consequences for the future – which itself constituted history, as well as serving as a “resource” for modern historians hundreds of years centuries later. I am particularly interested in charting developments over time, from the 9th and 10th centuries up until the 13th and 14th centuries, examining the changes in the use of the stone walls of the temple as a medium for preserving records, in the form and content of the inscriptions, in the varieties of types of records, in the identities and roles of the record-keepers, and in attitudes toward past, present, and future.


Eros, Chais, Kings & Women

Padma Kaimal
Colgate University

To honor George Hart’s substantial contributions to my understanding of ancient Tamil kingship and “the erotic, chaotic Tamil woman,” my paper will trace the concept of the auspicious (mangala) as it organizes and suffuses the sculptural program of the early 8th-century Kailasanatha temple in Kanchipuram. This concept offers a structure for contextualizing war, love, sexuality, and power, and the cross-cutting relationships among them. The program of this temple, a deluxe monument patronized by at least three members of the Pallava family, makes this concept visible by laying out mangala and amangala as distinct but intertwined aspects of the responsibility kings must bear.

“As close to me as my body to my life:” Tirumaṇa marapu among Tamil people

Vasudha Narayan
University of Florida

Through George Hart’s lyrical translation of Akanāṉūṟu 136, we enter the wedding pandal of a young couple in the early part of the first millennium CE and enjoy a tirumaṇa viruntu. Ilango’s rich, thick description of the marriage of Kannagi and Kovalan and several other pieces of Tamil literature also give elegant portrayals of wedding rituals in the Tamil speaking country. Fast forwarding to the ninth century CE, we encounter Andal who describes inconsiderable detail a dream in which she gets married to Vishnu. What rituals have endured and what have been jettisoned? Can we, with any certainty at all describe rituals as specifically “Tamil?” Does Tamil identity trump religious identity in the celebration of wedding rituals? Using Andal’s Nācciyār Tirumoḻi 6. 1-10 as a lens I would like to look, with bi-focal glasses, at wedding traditions among the people and deities connected with Tamil culture.

Divinity, Immediacy & Danger: George Hart’s Study of the Sacred in the Sangam Period

Layne Little
University of California, Berkeley

George Hart’s meticulous study of the Sangam Anthologies yielded unique insights into an era when the indigenous theological roots of Tamil culture were still in the early stages of having Vedic/brahminical accretions grafted onto them. Although not always popular, his published research on the nature of Sangam period culture and belief was candid and uncompromising. This brief presentation will review George Hart’s most engaging and provocative theories on the beliefs of the ancient Tamils.

Women and their Words: Tamil poetry of resistance on film

Gita V. Pai
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

“SheWrite” (2005) is a documentary film about four Tamil women poets: Salma, Kuttirevati, Malathy Maitri, and Sukirtharani. In their poems, these women celebrate their bodies, tackle themes such as desire and sexuality, and challenge patriarchal expectations. While these poets earn much acclaim for their work, they also elicit vitriolic attacks by men who oppose (at times violently) the content and their presence in the contemporary Tamil literary scene. This paper considers the women, their words, and the male reception of their work. It also explores the medium itself, that of film, and the filmmakers’ technique of making the lines of the poetry come alive on the visual field. Lastly, it critically engages with the ways in which gendered resistance operates both in print and on film: how do we conceive of the poets’ claims that they are continuing a literary tradition of Tamil women’s writing?

3:00 – 3:15


3:15 – 4:30

Nammalvar’s Tiruviruttam: Some Considerations on Translation

Archana Venkatesan
University of California, Davis

The Tiruviruttam is a poem of 100 verses composed in the akapporul mode. The poem employs the antati style along with a set of repeated motifs and themes offered in different contexts. In my presentation, I will offer some thoughts on the translation challenges presented by the Tiruviruttam and some possible solutions. I will also discuss the place of medieval Śrīvaiṣṇava commentaries in the translation process, and what this might offer us in understanding the relationships between text and commentary.

Notes on a Poetic Friendship: Kampan and Oṭṭakkūttar

Blake Wentworth
Yale University

For a text at the core of the Tamil literary tradition, Kampan’s Irāmāvatāram, better known as Kamparāmāyaṇam, has been subject to a wide range of interpretation regarding its date. While the delightful nineteenth century text Viṉōtaracamañcari portrays poet as having a close relationship with the Cōla king Kulottuṅga II (r. 1133–50), and offers a captivating tale of competition between Kampan and the court poet Ōṭṭakkūttar, the clues that Kampan himself provides are few: scattered mentions of patronage, and a royal biruda associated with Cōḻa kings. While scholarship generally tends towards a twelfth century date, primarily by associating the poet’s mention of a king titled “Amala” with Kulottuṅga II (r. 1133–50), others such as Mu. Arunachalam have made careful arguments for placing Kampan’s Rāmāyaṇam in the ninth century. I believe that we can strengthen the case for a twelfth century date through a close analysis of the intertextual gestures shared by Kampan’s masterpiece and the poetry of Oṭṭakkūttar, and indeed go further to argue that Viṉōtaracamañcari is correct to suggest that both men drew inspiration from each other in developing their own artistry.

Tamil Language Change during the Medieval Period: Disambiguation leading to Complexity

Vasu Renganathan
University of Pennsylvania

Language change during the medieval period shows a major development in the history of Tamil language in the sense that many new forms and structures evolved only during this period. One of the reasons for this change may be attributed to the production of enormous amount of texts by poet saints leading to extensive use of language during this period. Question arises as to what really caused the change in the structure of Tamil language in a major way only during the medieval period and not earlier! Were these changes caused by linguistic or religious reasons, or both? I show in my paper how some of the linguistic innovations of poet saints as motivated by religious reasons caused certain linguistic processes such as disambiguation, simplification, grammaticalization etc., to take place enormously during this period. Reanalysis of the verbal noun form with the suffix –al into infinitive form with the suffix –a; formation of aspectual forms, excessive use of complex verbs such as uḷteḷi, uṭaṉvāḻ, kūṭi nil, uḷ uṇar and so on are some of the examples I take into consideration.

Re-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.

Nylon String, Digital Diviners, and Text Messages: Subtle Technological Changes to Tradition in Tamilnadu

Eleanor Power

How does the introduction of new technology change, challenge, and sustain tradition? This broad question, tackled by many, is illustrated here with a number of observations from my preliminary fieldwork in Madurai, Tamilnadu. These observations are not of shattering changes (as for example the electrification of wells observed by Appadurai in Maharashtra) but of the more mundane and ordinary advancements that take place with little notice: the new type of string used to tie the kappu, the increasing accessibility of cell phones, or the glossy photo albums of a relative’s marriage. The ramifications of such seemingly minor technological changes are explored in the hopes of suggesting something of the situated, malleable nature of tradition

Sunday, May 1


Round Table