“She is my mother who fed me the milk of Tamil. For 40 years it is Andal whose voice has been singing inside me. The 8th century society in which she lived was patriarchal and religious. I wished to understand how her unique voice came to be. But I feel ashamed to uphold the cherished Tamil in such a crowd [the fringe elements], which attempts to twist and malign my celebrated article on her.”
—Tamil writer-poet-lyricist Vairamuthu.
WITH these anguished words, the 64-year-old Vairamuthu clarified his position, for the second time in 15 days, on the raging controversy surrounding his article in the Tamil daily Dinamani on January 8 on Andal, also known as “Kothai”, the Srivaishnavite poet-saint and goddess who is believed to have written the celebrated Tamil poems Thiruppavai and Nachiyar Thirumozhi .
The reason for what is a trumped-up controversy and for the protests was a quote that Vairamuthu sourced from the book Indian movements: Some Aspects of Dissent, Protest and Reform , edited by Subash Chandra Malik and published by the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (1978). (It is a compilation of articles on religious, social, and literary reforms.) In the chapter titled, “Bhakti movement in South India”, written by M.G.S. Narayanan and Kesavan Veluthat, it is mentioned that “Andal was herself a ‘devadasi’ (woman bequeathed to a temple), who lived and died in the Srirangam temple.” A few scholars have pointed out that the mention of Andal here should be understood in a metaphorical sense.
Vairamuthu’s laudatory article with this quote, which was probably meant to be in the manner of an inference, was published under the headline “Thamizhai Andal” (She who ruled Tamil). Referring to the quote, the lyricist wrote in the article that devotees of Andal would not believe it. He continued: “Those who oppose patriarchy and atheism would contemplate over this. A few researchers have arrived at a few conclusions [on Andal], which could also give a culture shock.” Andal, he said, could be seen as Hinduism’s signifier, an alternative to Jainism and Buddhism. He added that though her birth was shrouded in mystery, her Tamil “has remained an elixir for centuries”.
When the controversy erupted, Vairamuthu responded by saying that he did not mean to demean Andal, who, he said, was his “Tamil mother”. “How could I degrade her?” he asked. Talking to Frontline, the poet said it was an attempt to comprehend Andal in terms of her feminism. He said: “Yes, a sort of research. Andal has to be studied in the period she lived. Hers was a bold voice of feministic emancipation that perplexed me. I approached her socially and historically. She appeared to have told me, ‘I am exceptional; not bound by the crowd of mortals and its oppressive society’.”
The poet said Andal was a liberated soul who attained the celestial position. “The article was meant for Tamil youths who are getting alienated from language and culture. They treat Tamil just as a communication tool. I take sincere efforts to connect these youths with Tamil’s rich heritage and literature. Andal is one such attempt in literature. But, unfortunately, it was twisted by fanatical elements to serve their nefarious ends. A literary piece such as this should not be allowed to be exploited,” he said.
But the criticism only got more virulent and grew into threats against him. Intellectuals and academics saw in this aggression of a minuscule minority a clear agenda of hatred and sectarianism taking shape in Tamil Nadu, which is known for its secular, rational and progressive ways. Surprisingly, Vaishnavite scholars, Jeeyars (ascetics), Vedic exponents and a few members of Other Backward Classes such as Yadavs joined the bandwagon of these disruptive forces.
An enigma For centuries, Andal, the divine consort of Lord Ranganatha, has remained an enigma. Many scholars, both in India and abroad, have contributed richly to this mystical-cum-lyrical excellence of Andal. From her birth to her union with the Lord at Srirangam, the story of Andal is shrouded in mystery. She was believed to have been found under a tulsi plant at the garden of her foster father, Periyalwar, one of the 12 Alwar saints, at Srivilliputhur. A school of thought believes that Periyalwar himself could be Andal. C. Rajagopalachari was one of those who had raised doubts about her existence.
Besides the mystery surrounding her birth, Andal’s upbringing in a Vaishnavite family, her literary acumen, and finally her heavenly disappearance into the Lord himself at Thiruvarangam (Srirangam) infuse a mystical lustre to her poems, mellifluous hymns that in simple and emotional terms showcase her love for Krishna, her benefactor. D. Dennis Hudson, one of the foremost American scholars on religions of India and a pioneer in South Asian and Indian Studies, in his writing, says, “Historical evidence indicates that Antal (sic) and her father Periyalvar (sic) were poets and mystics who probably lived in the 9th century.”
Like many poets, writers and researchers fascinated by Andal and her Tamil, Vairamuthu too attempted to understand and unravel the mysticism of the poet-goddess through her works, Thiruppavai and Nachiyar Thirumozhi . Thiruppavai , he said, was for people to reach out to God, while Nachiyar Thirumozhi was the device she created to unite with God. Thiruppavai , enriched by the Vedas and the Upanishads and set in the pastoral aayarpadi (a dwelling place for cowherds), prepares one to reach out to the supreme soul (paramathma), while Nachiyar Thirumozhi defines how she as a lover attained the oneness she longed for with the Lord.
Thiruppavai is recited and sung in every Vaishnavite household in the auspicious Tamil month of Margazhi as an invocation of Krishna. Nachiyar Thirumozhi is not as popular and has been the subject of scholarly studies perhaps because of its erotic content. The American poet, essayist and writer Andrew Schelling, in his work on Meerabai, points out that Andal is no different from Meera, whose songs are “amorous, hungry, full of ecstasy or tossed with despair”.
Andal shows no hesitation in talking about her body and its sexuality, besides her nuptial desire for the benefactor she adores. The American Steven J. Rosen, a scholar on Vaishnavism and founding editor of The Journal of Vaishnava Studies, calls it “transcendental lust”. There is a clear separation between literature and scripture in Andal’s works. For those who worship her, she remains a goddess, and for litterateurs who adore her, she is a poet.
Historical, liturgical and hagiographical studies on Srivaishnavam, which Katherine K. Young, renowned Canadian scholar on religion, called “liberation theology”, contribute an exceptional richness to the Tamil language and literature. The Bhakti movement, said Steven Rosen, was “advantageous for women with feminist leanings”. Vairamuthu said it was in this context that Andal, who is credited with creating a social space for women in religion and society, should be seen and studied as a symbol of feminism.
Although a few feminist writers are of the opinion that Vairamuthu could have avoided using the reference of devadasi, they do not endorse the over-the-top reactions of the self-appointed guardians of Hinduism. Tamil scholars and social historians vouchsafe that devadasi, as a term and practice, was not considered to be derogatory in the past.
The devadasi tradition
The word devadasi (vassal to God) is derived from “devar-adi-yal”, meaning a woman at the feet of God. Later, they were identified as devadasis, (men are called “dasans”). Initially, they were revered and respected and later they emerged as a distinct social group dedicated to the performing arts such as music and dance. In the prevalent caste system of Tamil Nadu, they were exploited and abused by the rich and powerful. Over a period of time, the term too assumed a derogatory meaning and the system was abolished through a law in 1930 at the initiative of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, who hailed from a devadasi family.
Muthulakshmi Reddy (1886-1968) was the first woman member of the Madras Legislative Council, nominated in 1927. She was a member of the Justice Party, known then for its progressive policies. She introduced a Bill in 1930 against the abhorrent practice of dedicating women to temples, which later became the Devadasi Abolition Act. The Bill had to wait for over 15 years to become an Act—Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act, also called Tamil Nadu Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act, enacted on October 9, 1947.
Frontline , in its cover story on “The Pioneers: Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy”, in the issue dated May 24, 2008, wrote: “While progressive persons supported the abolition of the system, many conservative nationalists opposed it. While the then Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president C. Rajagopalachari, in the words of Muthulakshmi Reddy, ‘was not very much in favour of abolition of the pernicious practice’, another Congress veteran, S. Satyamurthy, argued that the devadasi system needed to be protected because it was essentially a part of the indigenous Hindu/national culture.” ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy, leader of the Self-Respect Movement, and Moovalur Ramamirtham Ammaiyar, another woman veteran of the movement, campaigned actively for the Bill, it noted.
V. Arasu, Tamil scholar and former Head of the Department of Tamil Language and Literature, University of Madras, said there was nothing derogatory about devadasi. He said that during the Bhakti movement in the 7th century, along with the temple-based traditional practices, dancers and singers, including women, were made to serve temples and the deities. “Disgracing such women is itself casteism. Vairamuthu spoke about the majesty of Andal. But, unfortunately, those who practise patriarchy in such religions target him today,” he said.
The Bharatham dancer Nrithya Pillai, whose ancestors belonged to the Isai Vellalar caste group and served temples as devadasis, said: “The devadasi system was prevalent in temples and the community had great relevance in terms of its contribution to dance and music. The renowned musician Bangalore Nagarathnamma, who built the samadhi for Saint Thyagaraja, and the dancer T. Balasaraswati, who lived in dignity, were proud of their devadasi ancestry.” Balasaraswati was honoured with the Padma Bhushan in 1957 and the Padma Vibhushan in 1977.
“That a devadasi did anything immoral should reflect on the oppressive society which exploited her. We as a society should be held morally responsible for such actions that had degraded devadasis. We treated them unfairly. And what people still continue to do so to these women and their names remain unfair. I am unable to comprehend the reaction of both men and women to what has transpired—taking offence at what Vairamuthu quoted in his article on Andal,” said Nrithya Pillai.
“His statement could be questioned. But the fallout of these reactions tarnish a community of women who were not only artists but also by far victims of religious and transitional patriarchy. It is nearly 70 years since the system has been abolished and the community has lost much—their livelihood and their dignity. And we still do not let these women live in peace,” she said.
The renowned Carnatic singer T.M. Krishna, in atweet, said: “In order to protect our false sense of morality, piety and sanctity, we repeatedly deride and shame the devadasi. The controversy that erupted over Mr Vairamuthu is deeply disturbing. Those who have taken offence to what he said have shown scant respect to the devadasi community.”
The poet’s lyrical tribute However, the lyricist has expressed his awe and wonder at the rebellious streak in Andal’s poems and appreciated her single-minded devotion to the Lord. The protesters seemed to be too aesthetically challenged and communally charged to appreciate Vairamuthu’s rich prose. Andal’s poems in the Bhakti period were exceptional, and Vairamuthu takes pride in a society that sanctions the liberal space that women had longed for, which Srivaishnavam ensured. Vairamuthu, in a way, concurred with the view of Katherine Young that “Antal revolted against male authority and was idealised as a goddess”.
Vairamuthu revels in the flavour of both Thiruppavai and Nachiyar Thirumozhi and talks about the rich imageries Andal employs in her poems. His article takes her to the masses, outside the confines of her religion, besides enriching Tamil literature with a refreshingly new perspective that focusses on her creativity. He speaks about the waning influence of Jainism and Buddhism at the advent of Hinduism. He points to the importance of Srivaishnavam and its preachings. He wondered how a mortal could achieve oneness with the idolised God and came to the conclusion that it was that searing love of Andal with her single-minded devotion that made it possible.
Andal’s poems fall in the category of Akam, one of the two genres of Classical Tamil poetry of the Sangam period, which is on the subject of love, with the other being Puram (on valour). Thiruppavai talks about bhakti , while Nachiyar Thirumozhi expresses Andal’s yearning for union with the Lord.
Mona Mehta, academic and writer, said in an interview to Archana Venkatesan, scholar in Religious Studies, at the Jaipur Literary Festival: “Andal’s bhakti is about balancing, negotiating that individual quest with what you can achieve and share in. Her bhakti has different shades to it. One reason is the Thiruppavai itself and what it is doing—it is about a young girl’s quest for a husband, which has resulted in her canonisation. The second reason has to do with the deep and profound eroticism of her poetry.”
Mona Mehta said Andal’s bhakti “looks very different from that of her contemporaries, the Alwar saints; and also of Meera and Kabir who came later”. In Andal’s poetry, there is no mention of bhakti. Instead, there is talk of surrender, request for union, absolute intimacy and, as Mona pointed out, “a constant oscillation between union and separation”. Even in her two works, her bhakti , she said, looked different in one from the other.
Katherine Young, in her essay “Theology does help women’s liberation: Srivaisnavism, a Hindu case study”, published in the book Vaisnavi: Women and the Worship of Krishna, talks about Srivaishnavam as Tamil Veda. An orientation of inclusivity, universality and equality, the writer says, is found in the hymns of the Alwars, especially in the Thenkalai branch of Srivaishnavam, which ensure spontaneous surrender. To think of a devotee in terms of caste (varna) is said to be a heinous act in it.
Katherine Young says: “The love or marriage between the devotee as the feminine lover and god as the masculine beloved is paradigmatic for the tradition. Although the Bhakti saints sing of love and marriage in a manner similar to the earlier Sangam poets—whose poetry reflects the ancient Tamil view of secret, erotic love (kalavu) between the lover and the beloved as akin to marriage (karpu)—the Acharyas often portray the relationship between the devotee and God as arranged marriage and take a more metamorphic view of the lover-beloved stanzas.”
Sarojini Sahoo, scholar in contemporary feminism, especially in Odia literature, in one of her postings in her blog, said women bhaktas (disciples) were simply staying largely within the patriarchal ideology of chasteness and transferred the object of their devotion and their duties as “lovers” or “wives” to the divine. “Nonetheless, that their poetry became an integral aspect of the Bhakti movement at large is highly significant and inspirational for many who look to these extraordinary women as ideal examples,” she wrote.
Vairamuthu echoed similar sentiments. However, even scholars and ascetics seem to have been misled by Hindutva groups that are trying to infuse polarisation in a society known for its secularism and rationalism. Although a group of writers, poets and artists expressed its solidarity with Vairamuthu and declared the protests against him as an assault on the freedom of expression, it also pointed out that this studiously built hate campaign “is not the result of a spontaneous and collective anger”.
The jingoistic rants of BJP leaders such as H. Raja resulted in the issue snowballing into a row in which even the “spiritually inclined” spewed venom at the poet. Those who deliver religious discourses, like Ananda Padmanabhachariyar and Velukkudi Krishnan, too have condemned the poet for “disgracing” their goddess. “Andal is our divine mother. How can he demean her?” Padmanabhachariyar asked.
Deeply pained Ironically, many who took to the streets against the poet do not seem to have read his article fully. The police have filed cases against those who spoke violently. The Madras High Court, on January 19, stayed all proceedings against the poet. Vairamuthu said he was deeply pained at the sudden outburst of a few zealots. He expressed his regret, calling it an “emotionally searing” pain, and released a 10-minute video on Youtube, in which he calls Andal his mother.
The Tamil writer Gnani, who died recently in Chennai, in one of his last videos, condemned the protest against the poet. The People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) said the poet’s “presentation about Andal was done with the intention of portraying her greatness as a Bhakti poet.” Pointing out that critical reflections on any faith need not be taken as an offence against the religion or religious faiths, the PUCL statement claimed that what was going on was mis-propaganda against the poet as fundamentalist political forces attempted to make use of the issue for political gain by instigating people in the name of religious beliefs.
The Dalit writer D. Ravikumar said people should be given the space to differ in their ideas and actions. He said: “The threats are symptoms of a malaise that has the potential to disturb the functional democracy of the country. His intention, it seems, is to eulogise her Tamil. His article is just an extension of Bhakti literature. Research on a subject or an individual needs a detailed study. His wish to be seen as a researcher has landed him in trouble today. The attempts to politicise his article assume dangerous connotations, heightens caste and religious differences. The impact of Hindutva is evident from the silence political parties have maintained on this issue.”
Meanwhile, in an act of abject surrender, K. Vaidyanathan, editor of Dinamani, met Sri Sadagopa Ramanuja Jeeyar of the Manavala Maamunigal Mutt, Srivilliputhur, on January 23 and apologised for publishing the poet’s article. In a symbolic act after chanting the words “Sri Andal Thiruvadigal Saranam” (surrendering at the feet of Andal), he prostrated at the sanctum sanctorum of Sri Andal at the Srivilliputhur temple in front of a group of people and the Jeeyar. Ironically, the daily had run an announcement of the poet’s regret on the front page and an apology by the editor in an inside page in its January 10 edition and followed it up with another apology in a box on January 11.
Justice J. Chelameswar of the Supreme Court, observed in his M.N. Roy Memorial Lecture delivered in April 2017: “We have become a progressively more and more intolerant society and less and less rational society in this country.” Tamil Nadu fits this description, and in the process what it has lost is Andal’s voice—bold and progressive.