“If music be the food of love, play on,” says Duke Orsino in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. For the Tamils, from time immemorial, music was the food of love and devotion to God, as evidenced by their literary works dating from a distant past. The hymns of the (Vaishnavite) Azhvars and (Saivite) Nayanmars (7th-9{+t}{+h} century), which are musical melodies of intricate panns (ragas) of the rarest beauty, stand testimony to this irrefutable fact. Mu. Arunachalam, an erudite Tamil scholar and one of the most distinguished historians of Tamil literature, had left, in manuscripts, a through chronological study of Tamil Isai. This has now been published in two substantial volumes, eminently edited by Ula. Balasubramanian. The first makes an in-depth study of Tamil Isai as it obtained in the Tamil literary works from the Sangam era to the present day, while the second deals with the manuals on this musical heritage, written in Sanskrit and Tamil.

According to the author, in Sanskrit there was only one musical style in the ancient days, namely the ‘Sama Gana' (the raga Karakarapriya) that related to the recitation of Sama Veda. In Tamil, on the other hand, there had been a long tradition of a variety of pannisai as can be gathered from ‘Tolkappiyam', the earliest Tamil grammar belonging to a period at the beginning of the common era. ‘Tolkappiyam' refers to pannaththi (that which is the genesis of different kinds of pann or raga), for which, two musical works, called Sitrisai and Perisai (said to have been composed during the Sangam age), are given as illustrations by the commentators. But, unfortunately, both of them are now extinct.

‘Paripadal', which is described in ‘Tolkappiyam' as a musical poem (also a Sangam work), had 70 songs, out of which only 24 are available now. The names of the composers of the poems, as also the names of those who set them to music, and the names of the panns in which they were sung are mentioned in ‘Paripadal'. This clearly establishes the antiquity of the Tamil musical heritage.

Why is it that only the musical works belonging to the Sangam period became extinct, when ‘Paththupattu' and ‘Ettuthogai' (the 18 literary poems) of the same era and belonging to the non-musical genre have survived? The author puts the blame on the mysterious ‘Kalabras', who ruled the Tamil territory for nearly three centuries starting from the third century of the common era. He argues since they were Jains, not well-disposed towards music, the Tamil musical tradition collapsed and many of the earlier musical works went into oblivion. Such an explanation is in the realm of speculation and surmise, and it does not address the issue convincingly. ‘Silappadikaram' (5th century), written by Ilango Adigal, is a treasure-house of glorious music and theatrical forms. It also gives encyclopaedic information about the rich Tamil musical and dramatic tradition. That Ilango Adigal was a Jain monk suggests that the ‘Kalabras' belonging to the Jain cult could not have been responsible for the extinction of the earlier musical compositions and treatises written in Tamil. It is really sad that most of the grammatical works related to Tamil music and theatre quoted by Adiyarkunallar, (‘Silappadikaram' commentator — maybe, of the 13{+t}{+h}/14th century) no longer exist.

Arunachalam says that the south Indian music system, which was indeed Tamil Pannisai, was erroneously named, for the first time, Karnataka sangeetham in the 12th century by a western-Chalukya king, Someswara Bhuloka Mamalla, in his ‘Manasoullasam', a monumental work that dealt with all the subjects under the sun, including music. According to him, in no other language in India, there existed at that time Sahityas (musical compositions) as they did in Tamil. Though most of the music manuals written from the 9th century onwards were in Sanskrit, the source materials for them — like the varieties of ‘ragas' (pann) they had mentioned in their works — were all associated with the Tamil literary works, like ‘Silappadikaram', ‘Thevaram', and ‘Nalayira Divya Prabhandam'.

Madangamuni's ‘Brahat Desi', (9th century), Saranga Deva's ‘Sangeetha Ratnagaram' (13th century) and several of the music manuals that followed mention many of the Tamil panns, and avoid, perhaps deliberately, any reference to the Tamil literary texts, according to the author. In Arunachalam's opinion, the authors of these treatises, although well-acquainted with Tamil, wrote in Sanskrit because it happened to be the lingua franca of the learned in India at that time and so ensured a wide reach for their works. That Karnataka Sangeetham is but a synonym for Tamil Isai, irrespective of the language of the songs, is the firm and considered view of the author of these two great volumes. This position may well provoke discussions and debates among the musicologists.