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Updated: November 27, 2009 12:52 IST

Critical study on Tamil literature

P. MARUDANAYAGAM
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The book is a supreme model of criticism as creative writing

Most of the essays, originally written in French by François Gros on Tamil literature representing landmarks in the three eras — Sangam, Bhakti, and contemporary — have been brought together for the first time in English in this anthology. The work testifies to the author’s multicultural scholarship inasmuch as he projects Tamil in its varied facets — literature, archaeology, epigraphy, history, anthropology and linguistics.

Since Julien Vinson, “the first French master of Tamil studies,” published his translation of the section on ‘Kaaraikkaal Ammaiyar’ in Periya Puranam more than a century ago, there has been a steady stream of writings by French Indologists by way of translation and criticism of Tamil Classics, although over the last three or four decades American scholars have outstripped them.

Rather nostalgically, Gros says, in his introduction to this book, that abandoning the world of Greek and Latin and French literature, he ventured into Indian studies in the mid-1960s. But he need have no regrets on that account because he chose ‘Tamil literature’ for his studies. As Gros himself notes: “Tamil is also the ancient language of a classical culture whose two brilliant flowerings, one secular, at the beginning of the Christian era, and the other, of a frankly religious lyricism, between the seventh [century] and the ninth century, precede our Chanson de Roland.”

What is of greater importance is that he has been able to make a worthy contribution to Tamil studies which, I am sure, will not go unrecognised by the Tamils and the Tamilologists the world over.

Facts

That this collection reflects the wide range of Gros’ scholarship and the depth of his specialisation in Dravidian culture and medieval studies is borne out in several places as, for instance, when he says:

“Considering only the most reliable works, those of experts such as Emeneau, Burrow and Kuiper and of a younger generation, Southworth, Colin Masica, or even Mc Alpin, we know that the Dravidian influence is perceptible from the most ancient strata of the Veda, not only in phonology and vocabulary but also in the structure of phrases and that it may go back to the Indo-Iranian.”

Gros provides an enormous wealth of factual information about every contemporary Tamil writer of short stories and novels and he seems to have diligently checked every piece of information he got. He cautions Western scholars against being “subdued to their informants and acting almost as scribes of their informants.” a pitfall Gros avoided.

Quality

Unlike many of the Western critics who are often swept off their feet by extra-literary considerations, he focusses attention on the intrinsic quality of the work under discussion — be it ancient, medieval, or modern — and is able to pinpoint the real merit of the text.

Consider, for instance, what he has to say about a couple of works/writers:

“If the content of the work [Tirukkural] is eternal, its form is nevertheless specifically Tamil, just as the spirit of its subject is; it is not an index of erotica as the Sanskrit Kamasutra is but rather the art of living carnal love in the harmony of the inner landscape of the Tamil world of the imagination.”

“The erudition of Periya Puranam’s multiple facets reaches the highest standard of Indian scholarship: an awesome recollection of texts, of Puranic stories and of anecdotes, a feeling for narrative, characters and situations and all this in the service of a noble cause.”

“Putumaippittan, [who] for the form and the maturity of the genre, was the real founder of the Tamil short story…At that effervescent period when the temptation to reduce literature to ideology and propaganda was great, he did not give in to the prevailing atmosphere.”

Although Kailasapathy’s Tamil Heroic Poetry was well received in India and abroad, Gros convincingly rejects the contention that Sangam poems should be treated as belonging to the heroic age as they are characterised by “the formulaic style proper to oral style.” Pointing out that the Sangam texts attest to all the characteristics of a classical tradition, he concludes that it is foolish to reduce written masterpieces to the clichés that have accumulated around all oral literatures.

Also, Gros rightly chides those who are interested in employing all kinds of post-structuralist approaches indiscriminately: “Decolonisation is certainly no more an original theme and we know that Edward Said’s explorations are particularly unconvincing where India is concerned as its documentation on the area is weak.”

The book is a supreme model of criticism as creative writing. Unfortunately, there are many typographical errors and a few mistakes even in grammar and expression. It is also surprising that no index of authors and titles has been provided.

DEEP RIVERS — Selected Writings on Tamil Literature: François Gros in French; Translated by M.P. Boseman; French Institute of Pondicherry, 11 St.Louis Street, P.B. No 33, Pondicherry-605001. Rs. 800.

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