“Hiding your light under a bushel” is an old-fashioned saying. But it immediately comes to mind when one thinks of ML Thangappa (1934-2018), a distinguished translator of Tamil poetry into English (among many other things). I cannot recall the last time a seventy-five-year-old man’s first “real book” was published by a major publisher and went on to win the Sahitya Akademi’s translation award. Until Love Stands Alone: Selections from Tamil Sangam Poetry was published in 2010 (followed a year later by Red Lilies and Frightened Birds, also published by Penguin), Thangappa was unknown in the world of Indian English writing.

In the Tamil literary world, Thangappa held a different, niche status. Known largely as a writer of traditional verse and a critic of free verse, he kept up a steady stream of poetry for over half a century. An early member of the editorial collective of Thenmozhi, he was a great champion of Thani Tamil or pure Tamil and eschewed the use of all non-Tamil words. Never one to privilege intellectual work over activism, he gave equal time to whatever cause demanded his attention. His linguistic activism once led him to return an award given to him by the Puducherry government because of its perceived anti-Tamil stance. He wrote many essays on human life and was an avid correspondent – a man of few words, his views and feelings found expression in long letters. He was also a pioneer of environmental activism and took up ecological issues back when it was unfashionable to do so. In the last years of his life, most of Thangappa’s time was spent editing Theli Tamil, a Tamil little magazine.

The making of a translator

In the last decade of his life that Thangappa, who taught Tamil for many decades, found new fame through his translations. Educated in St John’s College, Tirunelveli by clergymen of European origin, and through a reading of the Bible, Thangappa had imbibed the English language. But writing Tamil poetry was his passion. It was his friendship with a fellow Tamil poet, Tha Kovendhan (1932–2004), in the late 1950s that made a deep impact on his life. Egged on by the poet, Thangappa began to translate classical Tamil poetry into English. This was a decade before AK Ramanujan discovered Tamil poetry in the dark corridors of the University of Chicago’s Harper Library. These were the years of the rise of Tamil identity politics and Thangappa’s attempts were informed by a desire to proclaim the glory of Tamil culture to the larger world, through the medium of English.

Inspired by English poetry, especially the romantics such as Shelley, Wordsworth and Keats, and Victorian poets such as Tennyson, Thangappa’s early translations were set in rhyme and had a quaint ring to them. But he soon gave this up for free verse. In 1970, three years after AK Ramanujan’s The Interior Landscape, Thangappa published Hues and Harmonies from an Ancient Land. Despite not having the benefit of an editor and being privately published, the slim volume won much acclaim among Tamil enthusiasts.

Beyond a Tamil audience

Translating Tamil poetry into English and distributing it within the Tamil world had by this time become somewhat of a cottage industry. Thangappa was dissatisfied with this state of affairs. When I first met him in the early 1980s, as a high school student, it was clear to me that he wanted his translations to be contemporary, and to be read by a non-Tamil audience. But he had little knowledge of the English publishing world and over the years, draft translations accumulated in his chaotic study, occasionally published in little known Tamil magazines.

I became fascinated with his translations. From the late 1980s it became my mission to get them published and began to act as his typist, secretary, editor, collaborator and PR person all rolled into one. Although he was a skilled translator of poetry, Thangappa was unconformable with writing English prose, and did not feel up to writing an introduction to the poems. I decided to write it.

By the late 1980s, a clean manuscript was ready. Penguin was the first publisher to reject it. Further rejection slips came at a furious pace over the 1990s. In 2007, R Sivapriya, who had edited me at Orient Longman, joined Penguin and took charge of the Black Classics. I promptly submitted sample translations and the reaction was incredible. Having faced rejections for decades I was little prepared for the enthusiasm with which they were received. The first question everyone asked was: “Who is he? Where was he until now?”

Squaring up to Ramanujan

A challenge remained, however, in the cult status of AK Ramanujan. Ramanujan was not just an acclaimed poet but also a scholar with a named chair in a famed American university. He had initiated a new approach to translating Indian classical poetry in contemporary American English resorting to modernist techniques such as idiosyncratic typographical arrangement. Was there a place for another translation by an unknown translator?

Every reviewer of the translation raised this question. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, and Whitney Cox, now head of the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilisations at the University of Chicago – both of whom provided endorsements for Love Stands Alone – raised it and found the translation worthy. A young poet, reviewing the book, said that she compared Thangappa and Ramanujan poem by poem, and gave up saying, “this goddamn Thangappa can stand on his own.”

Prolific and contemporary

Thangappa’s success lay in his original understanding of the poems, scarcely relying on medieval and modern commentaries. Led by intuition, he invariably came up with the right interpretation of complicated texts. Surprisingly for someone who barely read anything new – I can swear that he had never read Salman Rushdie or Amitav Ghosh; he even gave up reading English dailies many years ago – he had a keen ear for contemporary English. He constantly revised his translations, and appreciated editorial changes, his face brightening when they were improved.

Steeped in Tamil literature, Thangappa tried his hand at every phase of the two-millennia long poetical tradition. His translations ranged from Tamil bhakti poetry, iconoclastic Siddhar poetry, and Kalingathu Parani, to the nineteenth century Vallalar Ramalinga Swamigal, and the twentieth century greats, Subramania Bharati and Bharatidasan. Some years ago he finished a translation of the Tamil didactic text, Naladiyar. An anthology of two thousand years of Tamil poetry can easily be compiled from his draft translations.

After Love Stands Alone, as Thangappa’s “literary agent”, I receive a steady stream of requests for permissions for inclusions in anthologies and demands for new translations. I’m left to wonder whom I will turn to now.

AR Venkatachalapathy is the author most recently of Who Owns That Song? The Battle for Subramania Bharati’s Copyright