What is the relevance of Ilango Adigal’s epic today? Indira Parthasarathy and Pradeep Chakravatri has some answers.

“Silappadikaram is an unusual and unconventional literary work. It is both a play and an epic,” averred Tamil literatteur, Indira Parthasarathy in a dialogue he had with heritage buff Pradeep Chakravarti, recently at the TAG auditorium, Chennai.

Elaborating, Indira Parthasarathy said, “The story of Kovalan-Kannagi is more than an epic, because of its author’s skill and clarity in documenting music and dance theory. It is a theatre manual comparable to Bharata’s Natya Sastra.”

Untiring efforts of U.Ve.Sa

Both acknowledged the untiring efforts of Tamizh Thatha Dr. U.V. Swaminatha Iyer, who spent years in searching for palm leaves of Tamil epics, correcting the mistakes and interpretations before publishing them. Parthasarathy recalled an incident when scholar Iravatham Mahadevan asked the U.Ve.Swaminatha Iyer Library for a copy of ‘Silappadikkaram.’ They said it had been out of print for more than 25 years as there was no demand for it.

U.Ve.Sa wrote about this in Dinamani, which he was editing then, and money was collected to bring out the book. “Unlike other epics, Silappadikkaram is not an outsourced work from Sanskrit. It is the original Tamil story by Ilango Adigal. Paranar, the poet, refers to the ‘Kannagi Kottam’ built by Senguttuvan, but does not mention the name of Ilango. If only an outstanding poet such as Ilango had been Senguttuvan’s brother, Paranar would have referred to him at least in the context of Kannagi Kottam. It is, therefore, obvious that Ilango is not the brother of Seran Senguttuvan.”

To the question raised by Pradeep as to what could be the period one would associate Ilango with, Parthasarathy clarified that he could be a descendant of the royal family of the Cheras, but then he would have come much later, say, 5th century.

Silappadikkaram has three cantos – Pukar Kandam, Madurai Kandam and Vanji Kandam of Chera, Pandya and Chola kingdoms. “It is my strong contention that 5th century was the golden period for cultural heritage of the Tamil country,” said Parthasarathy.

“This is not a love-triangle of Kovalan-Kannagi-Madhavi. Kannagi had strong bond with Kovalan. Madhavi loved Kovalan and Kovalan loved Madhavi. The dutiful, loyal Kannagi became a ferocious woman in Pukar Kandam. Why did he write that she was a loyal wife? As Kovalan’s wife, she was gentle, patient and frail. She considered Kovalan more as an institution than her husband. Kovalan wanted to dominate her. But at the same time, she was strong and this is revealed only in Vanji Kandam.” “Is Silappadikkaram a pan-Indian epic?” Pradeep asked. “Ramayana and Mahabharata represent reportedly the cultural psyche of IndiaSilappadikkaram reflects the pains of the Indian psyche. Indian poetic is a synthetic thread of so many cultures each having its own identity. Silappadikkaram reflects the Indian aesthetic culture with its regional identity.

“Yes, it is Karur,” said Parthasarathy, when Pradeep wanted to confirm whether Vanji was the present day Karur.

Parthasarathy pointed out that the sense of alienation that each of the three characters suffers from, happens to be the bottom line of the epic. It is Kovalan’s alienation from his avocation, Madhavi’s alienation from her profession as a courtesan and alienation of Kannagi in Madurai Kandam.

In Silappadikkaram, the ‘silambu’ or anklet is a symbol or metaphor. Silambu represents virginity, but later becomes one of the insignia of the ‘Pathini Cult’, symbolised by Kannagi. All the important characters here are women. The religiously aggressive Jain nun, Kaundi Adigal, fond of lecturing on Jainism, acts as a guide to Kovalan and Kannagi.

As Parthasarathy’s assertion that it is important to understand from this epic that man is afraid of woman and that is why he termed her as fairer, weaker sex and subjected her to cajoling, so that she may not dominate the man.

Pradeep Chakravarti, while summing up the entire dialogue, felt that the epic is a documentation of many details, such as gemmology, weaponry, the arts, society and historymore. Ilango Adigal has beautifully narrated the story with contrasts. The way Kannagi is portrayed in Madurai Kandam is relevant even today. There is a lesson there for all of us: ‘If you oppress a class, they will rise with vigour.’