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Updated: September 29, 2009 14:58 IST

The meeting of the ‘twain’

INDIRA PARTHASARATHY
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For the last few decades, the running slogan in the political scene of the academic roadshow of Tamil Nadu has been — one could say, taking liberties with what Rudyard Kipling had said in a different context, — “Tamil is Tamil, and Sanskrit is Sanskrit, and never the twain shall meet.” But two ‘strong forces’, one from the East (The French Institute of Pondicherry) and the other from the West (The Department of South and Southeast Asian studies, University of Berkley, California) have come together to facilitate a meeting between ‘the twain’, and the outcome of such a friendly dialogue is this book, a collection of papers by specialists, focussing on this issue of relationship.

M. Kannan, one of the two editors of this volume (the other is Jennifer Clare, who has elegantly portrayed the confrontation between ‘the siblings’, Sanskrit and Tamil, for the last 150 years in her ‘Foreword’), has spelt out in the ‘Introduction’ the difficulties he faced in organising the dialogue. He says they could identify only a few scholars who could do comparative research competently in two or more languages.

To quote Kannan: “We discovered that it was not just difficult but next to impossible to find anyone amongst the younger generation of Indian scholars doing, or even willing to take up, the comparative work involved in this field. The only young scholars of this orientation whom we could find were from Europe or from the United States of America.”

As George Hart succinctly puts it in his ‘Preface’: “The history of South Asia is in a large measure the story of the interaction of the Dravidian and Indo-Aryan languages and their cultures.”

He associates the Dravidian culture with the Megalithic civilisation, which existed in South India, primarily the Deccan plateau, in the first millennium before the common era. The Satavahana empire extended from modern Andhra Pradesh to Mahratrashtra, which meant it included the regions of Dravidian and Aryan tongues.

Poems in ‘Sattasai’

‘Gatasaptasati’, also known as ‘Sattasai’, a famous collection of love-poems attributed to Hala and written in Maharastri Prakrit, predated the classical and sophisticated literature in Sanskrit that was heralded by Kalidasa during the Gupta period, a few centuries after the common era. There are many poems in ‘Sattasai’ that bear close resemblance to the love-poetry found in the Sangam ‘aham’ tradition. Hart contends that the ‘Sattasai’ verses could have been influenced by the Dravidian literary heritage of the Sangam era not only because of the geographical proximity of these two languages, Tamil and Maharashtri Prakrit, but also for the reason that the literary conventions of the Sangam ‘aham’ tradition are speculated to have been set up much earlier.

Kalidasa, who could not have been unaware of the ‘Sattasai’ anthology (he himself had composed a verse in Maharashtri in Abhijnanasakuntulam), did not hesitate to adopt this genre for composing his own romantic poems in Sanskrit and, thereby, unknowingly appropriated some of the Sangam thematic conventions of the ‘aham’ classification. That the pre-Sanskritic linguistic substratum of South Asia can now be seen only through the Dravidian Tamil and the Indo-Aryan Prakrit dialects also appears to be a fit subject for further debate.

Iravatham Mahadevan says that the 90 inscriptions dating from the 2nd century BCE to the 4th century CE found in the Tamil region were in Tamil and in Tamil-Brahmi script with a free admixture of Prakrit words, and all of them related to the donations made to the Jain monks and nuns.

In the ‘Confluences’ section, several issues are discussed, the focus being religion in the context of the relationship between Sanskrit and Tamil, especially during the bhakti and medieval periods.

Stephen Hopkins and Prema Nandakumar have dealt with the Vaishnava poetry in the background of the literary traditions that obtained both in Sanskrit and Tamil.

From A.A. Manavalan’s paper on ‘Mahabharata,’ it is evident that there has been continuous attention and response to this great epic from the Sangam age up to the modern era, when Mahakavi Bharati wrote his magnum opus, “Paanchaali Sabatham” in 1912.

Indira Viswanathan Peterson’s paper, with insightful comments, on “Mapping Madras in ‘Sarvadevavilasa,’” a Sanskritic work by an anonymous brahman in the form of a dialogue between two brahman bards looking for patrons in the new emerging colonial city, makes an interesting reading.

The urban space, populated by totally different economic and social classes of wealth and power is picturesquely portrayed. The old order of the blue-blooded dynastic royalties having collapsed, the poor brahmans reconcile themselves to seeing divinity in the Vellala Dubasies (the ancient Tamil grammar Tolkappiyam would classify this theme as ‘poovainilai’) who, thanks to their active collaboration with the colonial masters, are in the central stage of social attention, during this period.

The book is appropriately divided into three sections — ‘the stepping stones’, ‘history,’ and ‘confluences’ — having in all 22 papers that are at once immensely readable and insightful.

PASSAGES - Relationships between Tamil and Sanskrit: Edited by M. Kannan and Jennifer Clare, Published by the French Institute of Pondicherry, 11, St. Louis Street, P.B. 33, Pondicherry-605001; Price not mentioned.

Keywords: TamilSanskritinsights

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