On the eve of the World Classical Tamil Conference, Jayanthasri Balakrishnan reflects on the rich legacy of its literature

The count down has started. Coimbatore looks festive and solemn, ready and nervous all at once. As responsible hosts and regular users of Tamil, a quick brush up of the literary track record of Tamil becomes essential. Besides, it would make an international conference into a memorable personal experience. Academic seminars, exhibition on classical Tamil, pageant processions, awards and honours may allure you. On the other hand, traffic diversions, upset of daily routine etc., may unnerve you too. Nevertheless, how often does one get an opportunity to be a witness-participant of an event of such a magnitude! So on your mark, get set and here we go!

Language is inevitable. We are caught in it before our birth. Often we choose to forget that we are psychologically bonded to our language community. But, we are what we are, thanks to our mother tongue and the other tongues we use every day.

“I know three languages; I write in two and dream in one” said Kamala Das. With all our wisdom and scholarship we, as individuals, are yet to contribute a word to the existing vocabulary of the language we draw on. Doesn't this make us marvel at the emotional and intellectual labor expended by our ancestors for generations in unison, systematically and continuously, to perfect tongues worthy of inheritance? Are we not indebted to this collective authorship?

Many of the human languages are oral. Rich is a language even if it exists only in the spoken form, richer if it can possess a script too. Richest is the one that has endured the test of time with a laudable literary output. But these qualities are not enough to recommend a language for the CLASSICAL status. “A classical language is a language with a literature that is classical – It should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own, not as an offshoot of another tradition and it must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature” says the renowned linguist, George. L. Hart.

Literary classics aesthetically advocate humanism, harmony, clarity of vision, precise poetic form and universality. Tamil is an indigenous classical language with an uninterrupted rich literary history. Unlike the other classical languages, it has braved oblivion's curse and has not suffered diglossia, a condition where the existing structure of a language is different and distanced from its ancient form.

The classical antiquity of Tamil dates back to 200 BC, the period when Tolkappiyam was composed. It deals with phonology, morphology and poetics. The earliest Tamil literary works, the Cankam classics must have necessarily predated Tolkappiyam. The International Conference for Classical Tamil focuses on the treasures of Cankam Age - the Eight Anthologies (Ettutokai) and Ten Songs (Pattuppattu), Tolkappiyam, the Eighteen Minor Works (Patinenkilkanakku) Cilappatikaram and Manimekali.

Cosmic Rhythm

The most inimitable feature of Cankam literature is its classification as akam and puram. Akam literature, the expression of natural, robust and spontaneous love between a well matched pair is manifested in five unique and distinctive moods in verse. It portrays love in union and separation, love before and after marriage, love in fidelity and falsity. Love thus expressed is always in tune with the time, seasons and, the flora and fauna. Each akam poem is a microcosmic view of cosmic patterns, and an individual's life finds a corresponding beat in the cosmic rhythm.

Puram poems view life from outside the family. These poems are on war, peace, praise, mourning for the death of a hero, suppliant's plea, ethics of conduct and great ideals, and the lives of wandering bards and poets.

The Central Institute of Classical Tamil is engaged in bringing out the classical editions and English translations of the vintage masterpieces of the Cankam epoch. The translated anthologies have not only the English renderings of the original poems, but also critical commentaries, notes and glossary. Forty one classics have been shortlisted for this colossal literary obligation.

We are a part of a richly loaded cultural heritage and a literary legacy. We are the entitled legatees of an ancient ethos. We have the revered responsibility of passing this prized endowment to our children.

(The author teaches English at the PSG College of Arts and Science and has a Ph.D each in Tamil and English)