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H S Shivaprakash
Monday , October 31, 2011 at 15 : 42

Currents and cross-currents of South Indian cultures


'Unity in Diversity' - the term was coined by Jawaharlal Nehru and later used by the eminent historian D D Kosambi to refer to the complex relationships among diverse regional cultures of India. Can we invoke the same expression to describe the complex relationships between different regional/linguistic cultures of India? Regional cultures of the sub-continent are as diverse as their languages. It is true that we do find some common strands, but it makes better sense to talk about unities rather than unity. However, even this improved phase does not indicate the mobility and dynamics of culture. For regional cultures always strive to become trans-regional like languages and religions. So it makes better sense to talk about them through the metaphor of currents and cross currents.

Even one considers the sub-continent as a whole, interdependence among different regions has been its hall-mark. In the first millennium, the current of Sanskrit culture travel downwards resulting in radical socio-cultural transformations. In the second millennium, the current was reversed when South Indian Bhakti cultures travelled northwards and beyond. Buddhism and Jainism, though born in North, became the greatest moulders of South Indian arts and culture.

In pre-modern period, the non-stop inter-regional exchanges were ensured by cultural currents flowing back and forth in South India, a site of shifting language and culture-scapes. Still, one type of unity was also assured by the fact that the four mainstream languages of the south-Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malyalam-and some minor languages like Tulu and Kodava are all grammatically Dravidian languages as contrasted with Indo-Aryan languages of the North or other tribal languages scattered over the whole sub-continent but concentrated in North-east.

Before examining the major currents and cross-currents of South Indian cultures held together in most of Deccan Plateau and Dravidian grammar, there is a need to emphasize the fact that South Indian cultures been as much at the giving end to rest of India as they have been at the receiving end. Even during the first millennium there was south Indian Sanskrit tradition of poetics identified with Dandi. Bhakti Movements which re-wrote the socio-cultural histories of the whole sub-continent for well over a thousand years after 6th century of CE had their genesis in South India. BhaktI Movements of South India inspired pioneers of Varkhari Bhati Movement of Mahasrashtra, Sant Jnaneshwar and Namdev.

After Jnandev's passing away, Namdev carried this influence to North and facilitated the emergence of various Nirguni Bhakti paths including Sikhism. The Sangam    lyrical poetry of ancient Tamilland influenced and inspired King Hala to compose 'Gaha Sattasayi' a Prakrit anthology of love poetry which in turn made possible the formulation by Anandavardhana, a Kashmiri scholar, of dhwani (resonance) that was to become one of the foundational theories in Sanskrit poetics. More important, all the three Acharyas who reshaped the religious thought and institutions of North India, Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhwa, hailed from South. Sri Vallabhacharya from Andhra Pradesh founded a new Vaishnavism called Pushti Marg in Gujarath Rajasthan. Nathdwara became its centre.

Similarly, one of the disciples of Sri Ramanuja, Ramananda, influence profoundly the religious life of Hindi-speaking regions. All these influences have had great historical repercussions. Some of the major treatises in different shastras were written in South India. These include Sangitaratnakara a musicalogical treatise by Shargnadeva and Manasollasa were written in South India. Some of the astounding temples to the north of Vindhyas like those in Konarak and Bhubaneswar were built by kings of South Indian origin.

The achievements of ancient Tamil land in the areas of poetry, grammar and poetics compares favourably with the best anywhere in the world, the achievements of Greek civilization for instance. By about the second Century of CE, Tamil had a well-developed literary and intellectual tradition in spite of the fact that no imperial formation had taken place in the region at that point of time. Though the three kings of the region, Pandyas, Cholas and Cheras were constantly at war with each other and therefore no political unity was possible, the region of Tamil-speakers, Tamizhagam, was united by the same language, literature and culture.

Ancient Greek genius expressed tragic essence of a violent society through great tragedies whereas Tamils agam (love) and puram (war) poetry, the categories theorized by the great treatise on grammar and poetics, Tolkappiam, the south Indian counterpart of Panin's grammar. Passionate both in love and poetry, ancient Tami poets explored these themes in terms of images of actual landscape found in Tamil Nadu - the hills, farmlands, riverine regions, seashores and wastelands. Pairing each of these landscapes with different stages of love, the ancient Tamil poets and poeticians formulated a unique landscape theory of poetry completely different from the essentialist theories of Sanskrit poetics. The down-to-earth common sense coupled with the this-worldly ideals of the heroic age renders a unique glow to Sangam poetry. The other literary riches of ancient Tamils includes Tirukkura, an ethical work comparable to sayings of Confucius in China and a great epic Cilappadikaram, (The Anklet Story) comparable to at the same time different from similar works of the ancient world like Gilgemish, Odyssey, Iliad or Beowulf. Unlike its counterparts in far-off cultures, the Tamil epic glorifies patience and virtues of the woman protagonist. The Babylonian, Greek and Anglo-Saxon epics named above glorify the military heroism of the male protagonist.

After the heroic age, Tamil culture took a different turn-the rise and spread of Bhakti culture. How the culture of Bhakti replaced the heroic values sudenly after 6th century is yet to be explained. Two varieties of Bhakti-Shaivite and Vaishnavite came to the fore. Both traditions produced the rich hymnal literature by saint poets from different walks of life. Another highlight was that Tamil Bhakti pfroduced two great woman poets Karaikkal Ammayar and Andal and the first dalit poet of India Tiruppan Alzhwar. Long before royal patronage for literature ended in the West, Bhakti poets rejected dependence on earthly kings as they declared themselves adiyars slaves of the lord. Their devotion was temple-centred though temples were very small institutions at that time. A spontaneous outpouring of bhaktas intoxicated with divine love, bhakti soon became institutionalized under the aegis of imperial power.

Though this period gave a fillip to temple art and architecture and resulted in anthlogization and exegesis of Bhakti texts in the light of Sankritic theologies, it estranged from people Bhakti and the temple, which, at the beginning of the first millennium turned into a very rich and exploitive social institution.

'When God came, I saw the temple flee,' said Allama, the most radical of Kannada Bhakti poets.

(This is the first part of a two-part series on South Indian cultures written exclusively to mark the launch of IBNLive South, our dedicated website on South India)


More about H S Shivaprakash

Prof H S Shivaprakash is an acclaimed English professor and writer. He is currently working as the Director, Tagore Centre, Berlin at Indian Embassy in Germany. He is also heading India's cultural mission in Germany. He was the Dean, Department of Arts and Aesthetics Studies at the JNU, Delhi. He was also the Editor of Kendra Sahithya Academy journal ' Indian Literature'. He Authored eight books of poems, nine plays, two books of criticism in Kannada and English. He is a recipient of Central Sangeet, Natak Academy Award and MHRD Fellowship for Literature.