Book Review: 'Avvai' by Inquilab reimagines the Tamil poet

A deeply political play which establishes Avvai as a vibrant, passionate poet of the Sangam period, almost an antithesis of the holier-than-thou image created by the popular 1953 movie Avvaiyar.

Published : Apr 03, 2022 06:00 IST

‘Avvai’ by Inquilab, translated by A. Mangai (Modern Indian Drama Series), Sahitya Akademi, 2021.

‘Avvai’ by Inquilab, translated by A. Mangai (Modern Indian Drama Series), Sahitya Akademi, 2021.

The poet Avvaiyar is a legendary figure in Tamil Nadu. She is also one of the symbols of Tamil self-respect. The 1953 filmAvvaiyar, based on her life, was one of the most popular movies ever produced in Tamil.

Perhaps its unprecedented popularity was owing to the passionate performance of the lead role by the actor-singer K.P. Sundarambal, who specialised in the role of devotional singers in several other Tamil movies. Produced by S.S. Vasan, Avvaiyar depicts the poet as a perfect picture of piety and devotion to Lord Ganesha. One of the criticisms levelled against this superhit was its ahistorical approach to the character of Avvaiyar.

Many Avvais

There appear to have been several poets by the name Avvai in the Tamil tradition. One is the historically unfounded Avvaiyar, a pure devotee and ardent defendant of the patriarchal understanding of women as a means to fulfil and satisfy male expectations.

The other is a more historically established Avvai, a vibrant poet of the Sangam period and a far cry from the devotional and didactic Avvaiyar. In fact, Avvai the Sangam poet is almost the antithesis of the mythological Avvaiyar of S.S. Vasan’s movie. Although the historical Avvai endorsed in the long run the heroic values of the Sangam period, she is an unmistakably feminine, sensuous, worldly and passionate poet of great power who excelled in both the akam and puram genres of ancient Tamil poetry.

It is this second Avvai, the passionate Sangam poet, who is at the centre of the modern Tamil play, Avvai , written by the poet Inquilab and translated into English by the theatre person and scholar A. Mangai. This volume, published by Sahitya Akademi as part of its Modern Indian Drama Series, is a welcome addition to existing stock of Indian language plays for several reasons.

Although there has been a deluge of Indian literature in English translation in the last couple of decades, the genre of drama is hopelessly under-represented. What’s more, works of Tamil drama have more or less been blacked-out in the canon of modern Indian drama constructed by Delhi-based theatre institutions and our status-quoist university wits of performance theory. In this scenario, the theatre in translation series newly started by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, is commendable.

Inquilab’s play is Tamil-specific, but it also represents a pan-Indian pattern of playwriting that seeks to excavate and reinterpret key figures of the past through the lenses of our own times. Jaishankar Prasad’sSamudragupta, Bhisham Sahani’s Kabira Khada Bazaar Mein, Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal, Girish Karnad’s Tuglak, The Dreams of Tipu Sultan and Tale-danda, Indira Parthasarathi’sAurangzeb, and my own plays, Mahachaitra and Shakespeare’s Dream Ship, are some of the better known examples of this trend.

Inquilab’s play stands apart in its theme and treatment of the subject. It is a bold attempt to dismantle the holier-than-thou, too-good-to-be-true Avvaiyar of the legendary S.S. Vasan movie and supplant her with a more down-to-earth Sangam poet. The play places Avvai in the context of itinerant singer-performers of ancient Tamizhagam, somewhat comparable to the bards of ancient Greece and medieval Europe. Basically episodic and narrative in structure, the kernel of the play is covered in discursive portions at the beginning and the end which try to debate who the real Avvai is.

These are the feeblest portions of an otherwise gripping dramatic narrative which impresses us with very specific depictions of characters and situations without ignoring the contradictions of the Sangam age, unlike other utopian representations of the period by Tamil fanatics.

Although Avvai is a composer of the heroic age who celebrates male military heroism, there is a human touch to her character and imagination. Her love poems, which are woven into the narrative, express a powerful woman’s voice by speaking uninhibitedly about sexuality, as contrasted with the subdued and modest women in the poems of the male poets of the period.

Another fascinating dimension of the narrative is the sensitive depiction of Avvai the poet’s relationship with Atiyan, her patron and chieftain. It is somewhat like what the anthropologist Margaret Mead would call an “asexual relationship”, which is as important as the sexual relationship between and within genders in modern society.

Avvai’s adoration of Atiyan is based more on an appreciation of his unselfish commitment and generosity to his subjects than on the extent of his political power. For this reason, Avvai stands by his side, singing and inspiring him in his last-ditch battle against the three invading kings of Tamizhagam. To the best of my knowledge, no other play I have read or watched deals with this specific form of man-woman or poet-patron bond with such insight and sensitivity. What we are left with at the end, which is Atiyan’s heroic death, is an impact close to the denouement of Greek tragedy despite the play’s structure being completely different from that of a Greek tragedy.

The eminent Tamil scholar K. Sivathamby argued in his book on ancient Dravidian theatre that the Tamil stage of that period was closer to its counterpart in Greece than north India. The philosophies informing both ancient Greek and Tamil imagination are tragic—while the Greeks expressed it through the genre of theatre, the Tamils did so through poetry. Viewed from this broad perspective, Inquilab’s play appears to be a bridge between two rich ancient literary and theatre cultures.

If edited properly and divested of its needlessly discursive prefix and suffix, I have no doubt that this book can be the basis of remarkable theatrical productions in any language. The play is deeply political as it is an attempt to rid a glorious woman figure of the past from masculine appropriations. The narrative of the play is inlaid with brilliant pearls and diamonds from the rich archive of Sangam poetry.

Most importantly, it is a highly successful rewriting of a great tradition that steers clear of the Scylla and Charybdis of blind traditionalism and arrogant progressivism. The author, the translator and the publisher deserve our deep appreciation for making this rare piece of drama available to us in English, the only language through which our far-flung language cultures can connect and speak to each other .

Kannada poet and playwright H.S. Shivaprakash retired as Professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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