David Shulman is regarded as one of the world’s foremost authorities in the languages of South India and his scholarly works goes beyond linguistics to embrace many fields including the history of religion in South India, Indian poetics, Tamil Islam and Carnatic music. He is also a poet in Hebrew, a literary critic and a cultural anthropologist, apart from being a peace activist with Ta’ayush, a joint Israeli-Palestinian movement working in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Most recently, Shulman and S Ramakrishnan have translated Bullocks from the West, five of Na Muthuswamy’s punjai stories and a play. Best known as the founder of the iconic contemporary theatre group Koothu-P-Pattarai based in Chennai, Na Muthuswamy has often been described as the master of the avant-garde in Tamil literature. His writing – grounded, lyrical and dream-like at the same time – draws on the ancient folk performative texts of Therukootu as well as the idiom of contemporary theatre from across the world.

David Shulman spoke to Scroll.in over email on translating Na Muthuswamy, the preservation of ancient vernacular texts and art forms, historical methodologies and his work with Ta’ayush. Excerpts from the interview:

If I remember right, you end your previous book Tamil: A Biography with a tantalising paragraph from Na Muthuswamy. And as is clear from your afterword to Bullocks from the West, you consider his stories set in Punjai to be the pinnacle of what modernist Tamil prose has to offer. As I was reading Na Mu’s stories, I kept searching for a phrase to describe what these stories are about and failed, but you offer a description for the genre in the afterword: “dream realism”. Could you elaborate on that please?
The Punjai stories are strongly realistic, tied to a physical world and real people; so much of Muthuswamy’s writing is devoted to keeping that world alive in the mind and in memory. But many of the stories have a dreamy quality, as if they were floating in and out of a space where profound emotional linkages and transitions take place freely and rapidly, as they do in dreams. There is a sense in which dream life offers us a truer picture of ourselves and our surroundings than waking perception, which is tied down to heavy conventional definitions and categories. We see what we have been trained to see and what we are used to seeing, and we often protest if the reality outside us suddenly contradicts those hackneyed perceptions and presuppositions.

Dream realism starts from other assumptions. We all know what happens when we wake up and begin to translate a dream into words and sentences – the deeper and more fluid world of the dream becomes reduced, impoverished and flat. Muthuswamy tends to inhabit a space that has the emotional intensity and density of the dream in which our senses see directly and the material of daytime experience is reworked in creative and consequential ways.

In all the stories in this collection, there is an almost compulsive need to talk of directions, relative to a street, a temple, a culvert, etc. By the time I got to “Kalyani”, I started drawing up a map of Punjai (as this felt like a puzzle that had to be solved) only to give up soon after. Is there any significance to the importance given to geography?
It’s good you started drawing a map. The Punjai villagers have such a map in their heads, but they need to articulate it frequently and they need to situate themselves in it vis-a-vis others. It’s a moving map – restless, self-transforming, context-dependent, which may be why it elicits this need to speak the directions repeatedly.

The stories are set in the delta villages of Kaveri in the decades following Independence and in so many ways, they refer to the concerns and sensibilities of the time. But the concept of time is also deceptive here as nothing (and no one) is linear – I think you call it “thick time”. I was wondering if there is a logic behind the order of the translated stories? Are they in the chronological order in which Na Muthuswamy originally wrote them?
We didn’t try to arrange the stories in chronological order as they were written. We were thinking more in terms of the sequence and feeling we could create by placing the stories in this order, which has a logic.The first story, “Bullocks from the West”, is the one most firmly situated in the narrator’s early childhood. There is some kind of development sequence from that story to the unnerving complexity and psychological subtlety of “Panchali”.

I understand that these stories were co-translated by you and S Ramakrishnan, which I find interesting in itself. Why did the stories need two capable scholars? How did the process of translation work in this case?
Ramakrishnan and I first worked together on another translation, that of G Nagarajan’s Nalai marrum oru nale, where we had Abby Ziffren’s draft translation as a basis for our polishing and fixing. There is great joy and satisfaction in working together; each of us brings different sensibilities to bear on the texts, and the result is much better, I am sure, than if one of us were working alone. We looked at every sentence carefully, many times, in the course of working in short periods when I was in Chennai. We tried to convey the rhythms of Muthuswamy’s exquisite Tamil in English, which has a syntax that works in very stark contrast to the Tamil. I think one hears better when listening with a friend who is attuned to the original and to how it should sound in idiomatic English.

You talk of Na Mu being un-translatable (à la Dante and Kamban) because of the “isomorphism between the music of their words and thoughts and the irreducible music running through the language they speak and write”. Does this have more to do with writers or more to do with the language itself, i.e. is this isomorphism you refer to seen more in some languages vs others?
I don’t think this rhythmic musicality of speech is limited to only some languages; it must be a universal feature. But it’s true that some great writers have a way of speaking or singing that brings out the natural lyricism of their language. It’s a rare achievement. Osip Mandelstam is another good example of such a writer whose textures are so language-specific as to be more or less untranslatable. The Persian poet Hafez also shares this feature.

Na Muthuswamy | Shadow Stealers via Youtube
Na Muthuswamy | Shadow Stealers via Youtube

For readers who would like to read more in the same vein, who would you suggest we read next?
I’m not sure what “the same vein” means. More modern Tamil prose? There are good translations of quite a few of the major writers, though my own idiosyncratic preference for Muthuswamy’s prose is clear. The best translation of modern prose from a South Asian language that I have seen is Kalpana Bardhan’s superb translation of the Bengali writer Adwaita Mallabarman’s A River Called Titash. I don’t know Bengali, but I can identify really good prose when I see it. Another very fine recent translation is Velcheru Narayana Rao’s Ha Ha Hu Hu by Viswanadha Satyanarayana, published in Penguin’s Modern Classics. The great difficulty is in translating into real, idiomatic English without losing the precision and depth of the original, by which I mean the irreplaceable and unique texture of a great text. There are many such texts in modern South Asian languages, but only a few have been translated flawlessly.

If I may move to Tamil: A Biography, you use a historical method in the book that relies on close readings of myths. Do you believe that historical methodology needs to be culturally conditioned, and that the history of India needs to be investigated in a different way to the history of the West?
There is something universal about history as a mode of mind or of looking at time and the world; Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Narayana Rao, and I have thus tried to reclaim as historical a rather large literature in South Indian languages from the early modern centuries. At the very least, historiography requires some notion of causal sequencing and a strong notion of factuality. However, I myself think – and here my two friends and co-authors may not agree with me – that fundamental conceptions of temporality and reality and process and perception can vary widely among cultures, and that one might be able to identify culture-specific and context-dependent historical thinking that reflects, let us say, a South Indian vision in contrast to a Western or Chinese or Indonesian one. This is a challenge that historians of India might want to address.

In your books and articles, you talk about how important ancient texts in the vernacular languages are disappearing, and that it seems an impossible task to preserve and catalogue them. Do you think scholars within India are not taking the problem as seriously as they should? And if so, why is this the case and what can be done?
Yes, much has been lost and much is still being lost today. There are severe problems with preservation of manuscripts, for example, in many parts of the country (and India has the largest collection of manuscripts in the world!) I have seen damage like this with my own eyes. There is also the fact that vast numbers of texts are disappearing from circulation because of lack of interest. And it is not only a question of manuscripts. In Andhra, printed books from the golden age of Telugu printing are more rare than manuscripts. I have spent some substantial part of my life hunting everywhere for copies of prabandha texts that were composed in the zamindari courts of places like Vizianagaram and Bobbili and Nuzvidu. Occasionally I’ve been lucky and found rare copies. Most of the time, it’s a frustrating quest. The huge palace library of the Vizianagaram kings, with scores of rare books, was, according to the local tradition, dumped in the lake at the time the last king abdicated and turned the palace over to the Andhra state.

Similar disastrous losses have occurred with another kind of text – mural paintings that were widespread throughout all of South India. Many, probably most, have been irrevocably lost because of neglect, indifference, and sometimes wanton destruction. We need to cultivate a sensibility that values the treasures of the past and commits resources to preserving them.

I’d like to get your views on preservation of art forms such as therukkuttu and chakyar-kuttu which (to this casual observer) seem to be dying out. Is this the case and what do you think can be done about this?
You are definitely right about the attrition and erosion of performance traditions and art and craft knowledge throughout the south (also must be true of the north). Not just Chakyar-kuttu but all of Kudiyattam is in some sense hanging by a thread; the great performers live hand to mouth. Patronage has dried up – in the past Kudiyattam artists were ambalavasis living from temple stipends – and support for many great artistic forms is now erratic. Terukkuttu at least has a fine school in Kancipuram that is preparing a new generation of artists.

However, I should say that, despite the prevalent pessimism about the future that one hears all the time from the artists, understandably, I myself don’t think these are dying traditions. I think even in medieval times there were probably no more than 25 to 30 great masters of Kudiyattam in Kerala – and that number is more or less what we have today. There is a sense in which Kudiyattam and Kathakali and Teyyam and Mudiyerru are, despite everything, still flourishing. It’s not so easy to kill off a deeply rooted art.

But there is an urgent need to put in place sources of dependable funding. a responsible government, either on the State or the national level, would long ago have created some form of state subsidies to provide at least a basis of support to many of these art forms. Similarly, the enormously wealthy patrons that exist all over south India could easily provide support for cultural forms like these– we are talking about very small sums on their scales – if only we could succeed in interesting them in these fields.

Could you tell us a bit about Ta’ayush and the work you do in the settlements? Also, how do you compartmentalise your life between what is seemingly two different lives?
Ta’ayush is a group of volunteers, Israelis and Palestinians, who work on the grass-roots level inside the occupied West Bank and who attempt to protect the Palestinian civilian population from the violence inflicted on them routinely by Israeli settlers, soldiers, police, the judges in the military courts, the political system as a whole, and the Civil Administration, that is, the unit that administers the occupation. We accompany shepherds and farmers to their grazing grounds and fields to enable them to work and to feed their herds; by simply being with them, we are able, at least at times, to prevent the settlers and soldiers from chasing them off their lands at gunpoint. We are involved in many cases of land disputes, in the course of which, by persisting in being physically present on those lands together with the rightful Palestinian owners, week after week and year after year, and by taking these cases to the civil courts, we are often able to achieve the return of lands that have been stolen by settlers and the state. We also work besides Palestinians in sowing and plowing and harvesting and olive-picking and other activities in which they need our support. We do our best to prevent further demolitions of houses by the Israeli army and the expulsion of entire communities, as is now the express aim of the Israeli authorities. And so on.

I don’t compartmentalise my life or lives. I’ve never been able to do that. The work on the human-rights front, and the peace front, is deeply connected to the texts I read or the music I listen to. To some extent all of us in Ta’ayush follow the Gandhian tradition; we are committed to non-violent civil disobedience in the face of overwhelming wickedness perpetrated against innocents by the Israeli governments and their various agents. By now, after long periods of living in South India over the last many decades, I have, I guess, internalised certain basic notions – such as the characteristically South Indian sense that the deepest human problem is our ingrained habit of hardening ourselves, our hearts and our bodies, turning the mind to stone, and desiccating the living inner self out of fear and greed and hatred. Whenever I go into the Palestinian territories, I carry in my bag books like Narayana Bhatta’s Narayaniyam along with Montaigne and Homer and other good friends. It doesn’t feel to me like a divided existence – just the opposite.

On the one hand, you show incredible courage and commitment in your work for Ta’ayush as a crusader for justice. On the other hand, your scholarly work often seems not to be concerned with political or social factors, such as the modes and conditions of production of texts in hegemonic languages such as Sanskrit. Or to take a modern example, in the realm of Carnatic music (in which you have a deep interest in) where caste hegemony continues to play a significant role. Whence this contradiction?
To be honest, I think calling Sanskrit hegemonic is something of a distortion, something close to a modern prejudice. There are issues of power and oppression in all human places, and I wouldn’t target a language as responsible for them. In the case of Sanskrit, its long history has many faces, including voices of protest and revolt (today mostly forgotten or ignored). And I don’t think it’s my responsibility to sort out hegemonic elements in the world of Carnatic music; there are those who are doing this far better than I could.

It would be great to hear about specific examples of voices of protest and revolt in Sanskrit...
Iconoclastic protest in Sanskrit goes back as far as the Upanishads, which have many passages that are skeptical about, or hostile to, what is today called “Brahmin privilege”, not to mention hostility to the Vedic rituals. A strand of egalitarian, anti-establishment protest is part and parcel of the classical tradition over the last two or three millennia.

But if you want specific texts and names, there are the Virasaiva thinkers writing in Sanskrit who formalised the entire movement of revolt against structure and hierarchy and rituals and temples (along with others, the Aradhyas, who reinstated a kind of hierarchy). Look at the Srikarabhasya, the canonical text of philosophical Virasaivism. Or, for that matter, at the Sanskrit versions of the Tamil Periya Puranam (Ratnakheta Srinivasa Diksitar’s 16th-century reworking in Sanskrit of all the Nayanmar stories, including those that have an antinomian character). And there are lots and lots of Sanskrit verses, by Abhinanda and his contemporaries in Kanauj, with sympathetic and realistic descriptions of Dalit life, for example. By the time we reach late-medieval south india, at the Nayaka and Maratha courts in Tanjavur for example, there is no end to these voices of protest and dissent. And major 20th-century Sanskrit works, such as the Keralodaya, are socialist, Gandhian, egalitarian, and antinomian all at once. In short, there is no dearth of texts that support a more complex view of what is now called “hegemony”, a buzz word that is used to hide the far more interesting and varied realities of the past and present.

Is there going to be a book on Kudiyattam anytime soon?
Yes, I think so. It’s about half written. With some luck I may finish it in the course of next summer and autumn. It will be a short book focusing on some of the full-scale performances we, my students and colleagues and I, have seen over the last 11 years.

What would be your dream project?
I have many dreams; some of them occasionally seem to come true. I would like to try to reconstitute the gurukulavasam system of higher education in Telugu, with private teachers who are connoisseurs of Telugu classical poetry but who live and work outside the official system of higher education. I would love to live in Chennai for another year or two and write a volume of interpretative essays about specific Carnatic compositions. I want to learn Balinese and live in Bali for a while to study the Old Javanese kavyas from scholars who still know them well. I am taking my first stumbling steps in Kannada in the hope of reading the great Kannada poets someday and also learning to speak the language well. I hope to write a book about the most penetrating literary-critical and metapoetic text in the entire history of South Asia, the Malayalam Purusartha-kuttu in its Vivadam section. I’m not sure which of these, among many others, would be my dream project, and I suppose I won’t manage to fulfil them all in the waking world.