Book review

This meditative biography of Tamil is a breathtaking sweep over a linguistic landscape

A journey through the Dravidian renaissance and the ‘rediscovery’ of the classics in the language.

Writing the biography of a living entity, human or otherwise, comes with a certain risk. When the entity in question is a language that effortlessly stakes its claim to both antiquity and continuity, and one rather close to the epicentre of language wars in the sub-continent, emotions can run high. The biographer of such an entity needs to perform a delicate balancing act between doing justice to its history and culture and not giving in to the shrill agendas and counter-agendas of modern day polity.

David Shulman in his Tamil: A Biography performs the task with élan, with unaffected erudition and an infectious charm that leaves the reader breathless and at times, puzzled at how endearing the evolution of a language could turn out to be. There is no doubt that Shulman, foremost Indologist from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is uniquely qualified to do this job given a lifetime of scholarship on south Indian literature and culture. His love for his subject comes alive on every page of the book and yet this is not a stormy, tortured relationship; instead there is refinement and nuance, things not often seen in language discourse in India.

Tamil and Sanskrit

The book is divided into chapters along the lines of a Carnatic kriti, that trace the origins of the language and literary culture from the Sangam era to the present day. In the first chapter, “Beginnings”, Shulman looks at wide-ranging linguistic and historical evidence to conclude that speakers of Dravidians were well established in southern India by first millennium BC and there was interaction between them and the speakers of Vedic Sanskrit as well as with peoples in other parts of the known world. He is sceptical of the claim that the dating of the Dravidian language can be stretched back to Indus Valley times or that Tamil existed in some pure state at some point in time isolated from Sanskrit or north Indian influence.

In a book like this, conclusions are open to argument, but the data points are fascinating in themselves. For instance, Sanskrit loans words in Tamil are common as every speaker of Tamil knows but here are some Dravidian lexemes and loan words in Vedic Sanskrit (controversial as they may be): mayūra (from mayil), phala (from palam), muktā (from muttu), candana (from cāntu). There is then the open question of retroflexion, a common feature of Indic languages, which is likely to have come into Sanskrit from Dravidian where it is pervasive. More interesting are the Dravidian words in other languages of the world, such as in the Hebrew bible:

“...and tukkiyim, always translated today as parrots, as in modern Hebrew tukki, but originally taken from Tamil tokai, the male peacock’s tail, thus metonymically signifying peacocks. One can, I suppose, imagine ancient Israelite mariners pointing to the splendid tail feathers and asking their Tamil-speaking colleagues what name it had...”

This reader certainly can.

Sangam classics

In the next chapter, “First Budding”, Shulman brings the Sangam corpus to life – the poems of akam (in-ness) and puram (out-ness), the Tamil landscapes, the patronage of the Pandyas and later, the more northern Pallavas, of Tirukkuraḷ, and of the “epics” of Tamil literature. This period of Tamil history and literature is the one the lay reader tends to be most familiar with, and Shulman brings to this world depth, and a way of seeing that goes beyond the obvious. Consider the following poem he says he couldn’t help including:

A little cormorant with his red beak,
looking for minnows to feed the pregnant mate
whom he loves, pecks in the black mud
in deep holes, filled with flowers,
on white sands where village women
have gathered vines to worship their god,
stamping on thick hare-leaf creepers
on the coast where he lives.
He’s cold to me.
My love is ruined.
My helpless misery
is blossoming on all the tongues
in this ancient village.
My pain is much worse
than pain.

Here is what the biographer has to say about it:

“..Clearly, a nĕytal poem of the coast: this is Narriṇai 272, attributed to Mukkal Ācān Nalvĕḷḷaiyār. It seems that the beloved, in an acute state of loneliness and sorrow, is speaking to her girlfriend. The inset should speak for itself, but in case it doesn’t, the rest of the poem spells it all out. In contrast with the little cormorant, devoted to his pregnant mate, the lover has turned his back on the speaker – trampled on her, one might say, like the heedless village women intent on their ritual. Pain too, it seems, one of the primary features of in-ness, has a deeper inner surface, far more hurtful than the outer surface one feels at first. Like many nĕytal poems, this one also flits from black to white, as if the visible white surface were there only to contain the dark depths. The inset is syntactically complex, a tour de force of serially embedded images; but the statement the poem strives for is utterly simple, directly and laconically expressed, hence all the more devastating. Here, as often in the akam corpus, in-ness has been ravaged from without; or, given the cold outside, in-ness has been turned inward on itself, a recursive twist that exposes the pain that is greater than pain”

In this chapter, Shulman also includes the epics, Cilappatikāram and Manimekalai and sees them “as works of conscious integration which draw together the disparate fragments of early Tamil culture and reframe their grammars in the service of this vision”. Cilappatikāram tells the story of the long-suffering wife turned firebrand Kaṇṇaki who is an enduring icon of chaste womanhood in modern day Tamil Nadu.

And yet, Shulman points out that the third book of Cilappatikāram, which is set in present day Kerala and sometimes seen as a later addition, is in a sense the true point of the story and fits a pattern of the narrative art form Tĕyyam which is often based on outrage and violent death leading to deification. (Yes, even in Sangam times, you had to prove your revolutionary credentials before you were accepted into Chera land as one of their own.)

The Bhakti canon

There is enough in the first budding of Tamil to keep the reader engaged for months but Shulman is just getting warmed up. In the second budding, he talks of Bhakti poems, “the intense tonality of which he believes is the single most powerful contribution of Tamil south India to pan-Indian civilisation”. This form of worship as seen in the Bhakti canon is a very south Indian invention.

Both the Siva and Vishnu versions have inspired beginning with ghosts playing a prominent role in both and there are a number of common features with the respective God making an appearance often as poet, listener or judge. The poems here are still akam poems and the similarities are striking but we are in a different time in a newly configured world where the absent lover is no longer human. These are unruly poems of passion, albeit in more accessible language than those of the previous era. Here are two examples, both by intoxicated women poets speaking of their absent heavenly lovers:

They say he’s the one in the sky.
They say he’s king of the gods.
They say he’s this place.
The wise one. The one whose neck
grew dark with poison.
But I say: he’s the one
in my heart.


I thought one thought.
I decided one thing.
There is one thing I’ve locked
in my heart.
Only one. The lord with Ganga
and the bright moon in his hair
and flames flashing
in his hand: I just want
to be his. 

— From 'Poem of Amazement', Kāriakālammaiyār

I melt. I fray. But he doesn’t care
if I live or die.
If that stealthy thief, that duplicitous Govardhana
should even glance at me
I shall pluck these useless breasts of mine
from their roots
I will fling them at his chest
and stop the fire scorching me.

— From 'The Sacred Songs of the Lady', Āṇṭāḷ

What is truth?

And then, we come upon the Imperial moment, or in other words the high Chola period in history which is known for political conquest and maritime adventures, but Shulman uses the word “imperial” to mean something less obvious – this is a time of linguistic expansion both within India and southeast Asia, of re-grammatisation (which now includes Tamil and Sanskrit grammar), of temple endowments and a new social order that includes Buddhists, Jains, courtesans, village priests, merchants, courtiers and shamans all of whom use elite Tamil. In other words, Tamil becomes a world language.

Shulman sneaks into this chapter an utterly breathtaking meditation on the Tamil idea of mĕy (truth), uyir (breath, sort of) and vāymŏli (true speech) as articulated by the Chola-era temple poet Kamban in his well-known version of Ramayana. There is not much I can say about it without excerpting the entire section, so instead here is a talk where Shulman expounds on the topic.


The Chola empire disintegrated after the mid-twelfth century but Tamil’s linguistic horizon seems to have expanded. In “Republic of Syllables”, Shulman tells us that we now live in a “polyglossic reality” where Tamil, Sanskrit and Prakrit (soon to be replaced by Telugu) share pride of place. These centuries are a time of creative experimentation and sophisticated wordplay with mantic poets holding sway.

Both Sanskrit and Tamil exist very much inside each other by then and a poet could compose in either language. Shulman maintains that they were never in direct opposition to each and yet provides strong examples of exactly that but in his view, these are exceptions that prove the rule.

Shulman goes into some detail in this chapter on the ever-fascinating Maṇi-pravāḷam (ruby-coral), the language created from the amalgamation of Kerala Tamil and Sanskrit, and states categorically that Kerala Maṇi-pravāḷam is not a separate language; it is early literary Malayalam by another name. It is interesting to note that the Līlā-tilakam, which lays out the grammar of this language, calls out the unity achieved by stringing corals and rubies since they share a single colour. However the poets of Tamil Maṇi-pravāḷam, by contrast, talk of the Tamil equivalent as a combination of pearls and rubies as the father languages are seen as distinct and complementing each other.

The period from AD 1500-1800 that sees Tamil enter the modern era is a continuation of the preceding period with a couple of key additions – Tantric ideas and masters are seen in both court and literature, and to a large extent, Tamil is now a full-fledged deity situated in the speaker’s inner self in a way it never was before, and this clearly has consequences that we see manifested in the present day.

Tamil today

The final chapter, “Beyond the Merely Modern”, stands as an independent essay in itself – it provides a sense (albeit incomplete) of what it means to be a native Tamil speaker in our time. Two major strands stand out – one, the “discovery” of ancient Tamil classics of the Sangam age, and two, the tale of a Dravidian renaissance / nationalism and how the two strands are interconnected. Shulman explains it using a hypothetical Greek example:

“Suppose the literature of fifth-century BC Athens had been forgotten for centuries and then suddenly came to light in early-modern Athens. Imagine the excitement, the passionate responses, the suddenly explosive horizon, the attempts to re-conceive and re-appropriate Greece in its ancient glory. Imagine, too, the inevitable and sudden downgrading of most of Greek literary production from say, late-Antique of Byzantine times on, up to the arrival of a devoutly wished-for modern Renaissance that stood in active relation to the newly recovered masterworks. Here is a paradigm that might work for the Tamil case.”

Shulman goes on then to talk of the appropriation of the above into the Dravidian nationalistic narrative, of its chief proponents and the fringe elements, of extreme linguism and what he sees as the politically effective force of the anti-Brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu. He looks at different factors in an attempt to explain the “astonishing success” of this nationalistic force – from Tantric themes, Jaffna connections to Brahmin privilege and colonial bureaucracy. All of which are contributing factors, though I must say that he misses the exogenous provocation from the elements of the dominant culture north of the country, which has no space for distinctiveness.

Tamil: A Biography is a hugely rewarding book, and one that with repeated reading provides more food for thought. It must be said that for a non-academic reader such as this one, this is not an easy book – it is quite easy to get lost after the first set of polyglossias and hyperglossias but that is somehow missing the point. The beauty of this book is precisely in getting lost and then surfacing to find absolute gems irrespective of whether they are rubies, corals or pearls.

Tamil: A Biography, David Shulman, Harvard University Press.

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