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H S Shivaprakash
Monday , November 14, 2011 at 14 : 48

Dynamics of pre-modern South Indian cultures


The history of pre-modern South Indian culture has a dynamics based not entirely on 'affairs of kings or splendors of fortune' or just on mechanical acts of giving and taking. Further, it is perhaps difficult for us now living in more or less well-defined borders of linguistic states at times disturbed by border disputes or demands for separate statehood how much more conflict-ridden the socio-political backdrop was in the past except during the brief periods of stable political formations.

Neither were there one-to-one correspondences between region and language. Though the domain of ancient Tamil culture was identified with the region of Tamizhagam located between Tirupati in the north and Kumarittivu in the south, ancient Tamil poetry was also enriched by the talents of poets from outside the Tamil-speaking regions-from Erumaiyoor(present-day Mysore) or from Koshara (present-day Goa) then under rule of Tamil kings.

Similarly, the Kannada land whose borders the ninth century Kavirajamarga sets between the Kaveri and the Godavari then contained many areas that are now Marathi-speaking. The literary out put of Vijayanagar Empire was bilingual: it enriched both Kannada and Telugu creativity. The bilingualism and multilingualism of this context is reflected in the creative practice where is not very rare to find poets writing in more than one language. Kulashekhara Azhwar wrote both in Sanskrit and Tamil; Palkurike Somanatha composed poems both in Telugu and Kannada; the Kannada poet Harihara could not have written narratives about Shaivite saints of Tamil land without having read Shekkizhar's Tamil classic Periya Puranam.

The instability and impermanence of socio-political and linguistic situation formed both the context and content of medieval literature and cultures, particularly in Bhakti expressions. Saint Basavanna said: 'Look! Within a moment, just a moment, in half a moment/ look, the world coming/ look, the world going/ Like, a cloud's shadow, this world Lord Kudalasangama made.'

It is in this ever changing backdrop that many-layered and multilateral cultural exchanges happened among South Indian regions on the one hand and between South India and other regions in the form of transitions, translations and transformations.

To illustrate this intriguing and intricate process, one can look at any one of the major works that our languages can be proud of. Consider for example, Andal's Tiruppavai. This work appeared between the twilight of heroic age and the dawn of devotional age. It is a tour de force that marks the transition transition from Sangam to Bhakti period in many ways.

Andal, perhaps the first woman bhakti poet of India, in stanza 30 of this masterpiece, that she 'has sung, as if by moon-faced beauties, These thirty stanzas in Sangam Tamil.' Though she is still identifying with Sangam tradition, nothing can be further away. This is no puram poetry that glorifies mighty kings and their bloody battles. Though Krishna, the poem's hero, is mighty in the sense that he has enslaved great kings, Andal repeatedly speaks of his humble origins: 'You born of those who make a living out of tending and grazing cattle!' (stanza29), Though it centres around the love of cowherd girls for the hero, it is a far cry from the individual love-sex of agam poetry. Though there is longing in this love, it is a new genre of love, bhakti, which is unconditional and without expectations. At the end of the poem, all desires for rewards fall away and the cow-herd girl prays:

In every birth we will be with you

As your bonded slaves to serve you

Burn other wishes. Hail! Our vow.

This transition had tremendous implications for the future of South Indian cultures.

The cultural process of translation constitutes another important mechanism of the evolutions of South Indian cultures. It is not just the translations of the Ramayana and Mahabharatha that one should recognize. Though in the second millennium such translations played key role in South Indian literary evolution, the tradition of translations goes further back. Cilappadikaram that appeared during the twilight of the heroic epoch can be considered an free translation of more primitive versions of the anklet story prevailing in regions of Kerala and Sri Lanka.

Ilangl Adigal has succeeded in fitting this old material into the framework of his Jain worldview. Andal's Tiruppavai is a good example of how bhakti genius effected translations at many levels. Similarly, the first work on Kannada poetics, Kavirajamarga, of an earlier Sanskrit work Kavyadrsha.

Consider the poem's title. 'Tiru' means 'sacred' and pavai, 'vow.' The custom of young virgins bathing in a river in early winter mornings in expectation of getting a good husband was a very ancient practice in Tamil land. Andals's poem 'translates' this pre-Bhakti ritual into a Bhakti ritual by making it Krishna-centered. Also, the mythical landscape of the banks of Yamuna in the north and the actual landscape of Tamil land are translated into each other just as in Tamil Shaivite Bhakti poetry the actual Tamil landscape and envoirons of the Himalaya, Shiva's abode, are translated into each other. Further, the conventions of Sangam poetry-agam and puram-have been translated into Bhakti convention. In Sangam poetry landscapes are the signifiers of human love and splendor, which, in turn, are translated into signifiers of divine love.

A third level of signification was added to the language of poetry. The modal of translation built into Tiruppavai is different from what the word means now, It is a free translation of various cultural strands into one piece of fascinating tapestry. It is thus an important moment in the transformation of the old into the new.

The processes of translations and transformations begun in the ancient period received a new impetus during bhakti age. The pre-Bhakti culture was thus transformed into Bhakti cultures. Later, the spontaneous outpourings of Bhaktas were translated into the arid idioms of theology by anthologists and interpreters.

The translations of two classics - Ramayana and Mahabharata - into South Indian languages is coterminous with Bhakti transformations. Both these epics, unlike the source texts, become steeped in Bhakti. Thus Kumaravyasa the Kannada translator of Mahabharata describes his work as 'Krishna story.' He is at his eloquent best while singing of Krishn's glory. Ezhuttachchan's Malayalam version of Ramayana is another example of such transformation.

This process was synonymous with the translation of lives of Bhaktas into hagiographic narrative poetry-a process begun by the Tamil Periya Puranam and was continued by the Telugu poet Palkurike Somanatha, the author of Basavapuranamu, and by the Kannada poet Harihara, to mention only a few. These attempts represent the desire of Bhakti culture to provide a narrative tradition counter to the mainstream tradition whereas Ramayana and Mahabharata translations constituted an attempt to tame pre-Bhakti ethos into Bhakti framework.

Equally fascinating is the way Bhakti traditions negotiated regional folk traditions through translations and transformations throughout the pre-modern period. Just as Andal transformed a pre-Bhakti folk practice of pavai into a symbol of pre-emninently Vaishnavite Bhakti practice, the components of bhakti cultures were often translated back into non-bhakti cultures.

Here is a Sind Madiga folk poem that uses symbols but not content of Bhakti. Says a country lass to a lecher who begins to chase her: 'you came chasing me O Krishna/ you are dark O Krishna/ mucus flowing from your nostrils,/ your words stale,/ you have come by mistake O Krishna/ because you had no wives/ because you had no whores/ because you got no-one else/ you have come in delusion/ go away Krishna/ or else, I will break all your teeth/ go away.'

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


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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.