Seeds of Tamil Renaissance

Print edition : April 04, 2014

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran pressing the button to inaugurate the World Tamil Sangam in 1986 and to lay the foundation stone for a building for it, in Madurai. Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

An important contribution to the understanding of the history of Tamil literature, colonial history, modern nationalism and related movements.

THE latter half of the 19th century in Tamil Nadu was in many ways momentous. Revival of literary and artistic activity and the insights gained about the past provided a fillip to the political movement that was building up against the colonial domination. An important factor of this resurgence was the discovery of lost Tamil classics and how they were brought into public domain through the printing press. In south India, after the British tightened their hold, certain scholars such as F.W. Ellis and Col. Colin Mackenzie looked at history and brought out a new understanding of the region, the people and their language. They started a scholarly process that went on for many decades.

Dictionaries came to be printed. Robert Sewell, who came later, studied the archaeological remains in the Madras Presidency and documented the inscriptions. Robert Caldwell examined the Tamil language and its grammar. He pointed out the independence of Tamil from Sanskrit and declared it distinct in character. The excavation conducted at Adichanallur (in Tirunelveli district) by Alexander Rea in 1889 and the prehistoric artefacts it yielded pointed out the antiquity of civilisation in this part of the country. Journals such as The Madras Review carried articles on the history and language of the region by civil servants and researchers. A Tamil newspaper carried information about the exciting finds in the field of archaeology and literature.

A few decades later, significant work was on in the realm of classical Tamil works by Indian researchers well-versed in Tamil. Some scholars, such as U.V. Swaminatha Iyer, Meenakshisundaram Pillai and A. Damodaram Pillai, began unearthing palm leaf manuscripts bearing ancient literary texts. They edited them and made them available to people by publishing them through the printing presses that were springing up in many places. The Madurai Tamil Sangam commissioned them to bring out these works, which were in content not only Hindu, but Jain and Buddhist also. The publication of the twin epics Silapathikaram and Manimekalai, one Jain and the other Buddhist, opened up a vast new source material for the history of the Tamil people.

There were some secular works also. V. Kanagasabai Pillai, working as Superintendent of Post Offices, translated into English two such works, Kalingathuparani and Kalavazhi Narpathu, and published them in the Bombay-based journal Indian Antiquary. The work for which he is remembered, Tamils 1800 Years Ago, published in 1904, was symbolic of the celebration over the discovery of a glorious past. A collection of his earlier articles, it pointed out new areas of research.

It was a time when printing technology was taking root in India and a series of publications were throwing light on ancient Tamil land and the antiquity of the Tamil language. The study of the newly discovered corpus of Tamil works was promoted by zamindars and language associations and by the growth of journalism, and eventually it found a place in the syllabi of degree courses in the University of Madras. The golden age that historians found in the ancient texts was contrasted with the poor state in which Tamils were in the 20th century.

In recent years, Eugene Irschick and A.R. Venkatachalapathy have studied these developments in the realm of printing and publishing in Tamil Nadu and its impact on politics. In the book under review, V. Rajesh examines this period of colonial history of the Madras Presidency, particularly the history of printing, publication of classical Tamil literature, and how it was received. The author, as a bilingual scholar, has the advantage of being able to examine in depth Tamil sources. Paying special attention to the Sangam anthologies of Ettuthogai and Pathupattu, helooks at the manner in which Tamil scholars responded to these literary works and how they used them to write literary histories during the British period.

Rajesh says the book attempts to mediate at three levels—literary history, literary cultures in history, and socio-economic history. He focusses on the work of the college at Fort St. George, followed by the revival of Saivism and related literature by the activities of Arumuga Navalar of Jaffna who was trying to counter the spread of Christianity. The author devotes quite some space to examine the missionary scholarship that had actually begun by the turn of the century. He catalogues the works of civil servants and academics in this area. The author documents in detail the debates between scholars on their study of language and literature. He also traces the social history of the publication of Tamil classics and, in the process, documents how Indian intellectuals challenged the views of the Madras School of Orientalism. The criticism against the work of orientalists also comes in for scrutiny.

This newly produced knowledge of the Tamil literary heritage had relevance in the growth of the non-Brahmin Justice Party and later on the Dravidian parties. However, the author is careful to point out that nationalist leaders also used this revival of Tamil. Subrahmanya Bharathi was inspired by Purananooru, an anthology of poems, and also wrote in praise of the epics. V.O. Chidambaram Pillai wrote about Thirukural and even translated part of it. Touching upon the issue of Dalits, who at this time found a voice in Ayothee Thass Panditar, the foremost critique of the caste system and brahmanical Hinduism, Rajesh suggests that this aspect of the history of the colonial period needs to be studied further.

The book is well researched and meticulously documented. The survey done of earlier literature on the subject, both Tamil and English, is exhaustive. The chart the author has prepared providing information relating to palm leaf manuscripts, culled from the first editions of Sangam classics, and the photographs of the title pages of 10 of these works (all from Roja Muthiah Research Library, Chennai) are invaluable indeed.

In accessing sources of information for his research, the author appears to have spread his net wide. In addition to Tamil sources, going back to 19th century journals such as Udayataragai (1848), he has also examined the documents at the missionary archives in the Franke Foundation at Halle, Germany. It augurs well for Indian historiography that researchers have started looking at Tamil sources. There are other missionary archives in Europe where Tamil imprints are preserved. With more and more researchers coming into the field, equipped with language and cyber skills, there are chances of new light being thrown on this era if these materials are accessed. There have been periodic attempts to get copies of Halle documents to Chennai. Recently, Roja Muthiah Research Library signed a memorandum of understanding with Franke Foundation to get copies of the documents to Chennai. These contain the legendary papers of the first protestant missionary, Bartholomaus Zeiganbalg.

Rajesh has contributed an important study to our understanding of the history of Tamil literature, colonial history, modern nationalism and related movements.