Kanchana Natarajan talks about how a chance discovery led to her book on an almost-unknown Tamil woman saint.

Never underestimate the role of chance in the quest for knowledge. In 2000, Kanchana Natarajan, a professor of Indian Philosophy at Delhi University, chanced upon an old copy of a Tamil text — a compilation of Shenkottai Sri Avudai Akkal’s songs — at the library in the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh. Like most Tamils of her generation, Kanchana had not heard of Akkal. But her research — triggered by that discovery — showed that “Akkal was a remarkable 18th century woman saint” whose songs were once a part of a strong oral tradition.

Kanchana has now published Transgressing Boundaries: The Songs of Shenkottai Avudai Akkal (Zubaan), which not only opens a window into Tamil Brahmin society 300 years ago but also has Akkal’s songs appearing in English for the first time.

“When I first learnt about Akkal, I had no idea that I would write a book about her,” says Kanchana. “All I found was that she was a child widow who lived by the Cauvery in Shenkottai village in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district. She was initiated into Vedanta by Sridhara Venkatesa Ayyaval and subsequently achieved self-realisation.”

While she continued her hunt for more information, Kanchana also began translating Akkal’s songs into English. In 2001, she learnt of a new book in Tamil.

“It was the work of Gomathi Rajankam, who gave it to Swami Nityananda Giri of Tapovanam in Tirukoilur before her death. The Swami took 20 years to publish it.”

In 2008, Kanchana got a fellowship at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS), Shimla, to translate a selection of Akkal’s work. Kanchana used Shenkottai Sri Avudai Akkal: Padal Tirattu as her a source. The fellowship allowed her to carry out extensive fieldwork in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Why Akkal stands out, explains Kanchana, is because she helped women access Vedanta when it was considered a man’s domain. She simplified the terse text for women by using domestic metaphors. In one manuscript, Akkal explains the rigour of Vedanta through the process of producing castor oil. “Castor seeds are highly poisonous. To produce the oil, the seeds have to be treated, boiled and filtered again and again. Unless you process the vidya, boil and filter it, you can’t drop the ‘a’ from avidya and attain vidya. You have to use the same technique.”

In song after song, Akkal celebrates the joy of freedom, the realisation that no shackle of any kind (even the restrictions of widowhood) can block one from attaining ultimate liberation. “She wanted women to understand what liberation is, what widowhood is, through the metaphors they were familiar with.” Akkal’s songs discuss even the nuptial bed and menstruation and debunk standard binaries. Kanchana points out, “In the song ‘Paraparakanni’, she says, “Yelling ‘Teettu!’ you (men) take to your heels!/Now, who can understand the play of delusion/That overpowers you, Paraparame!/When the same teettu blossoms/And crosses your threshold/As a sculpted, nubile young maiden/Whom you so lustfully approach—/Does teettu then recede, Paraparame?

Akkal also devised a board game, Panchikaranam, based on Adi Sankara’s treatise of the same name. for women. “It is not a competitive game but an Advaitic one that takes about 6-8 hours.”

Among other elements, Kanchana’s book holds up for readers the historical erasure of Akkal, “possibly because she was a woman”. Akkal was the foremost (female) disciple of Ayyaval, a revered saint of the Nama Siddhanta tradition during the rule of Maratha king Shahaji I, a time well-documented in history. “In song after song Akkal invokes and exalts her guru but there is absolutely no mention of her in biographical and hagiographical accounts of Ayyaval, not even by her contemporaries. It is a puzzling lacuna in the cultural record, particularly when the lives of her contemporaries like Bodhendra, Paramashivendra and Sadashiva Brahmendra have been documented.”

During her research, Kanchana found that Ayyaval asked Akkal, who was then 12 or 13 years, to come for “the secret, and also sacred, tradition of bestowing mahavidya upadesha in the absolute silence of midnight. This was not open to women and was granted only to sanyasis.”

On her first visit to Shenkottai “to see if there is anything left of Akkal there”, she found people referred to her as a mad woman who walked the streets singing songs, an impression handed down from the earlier generation.

“While most men were uninterested, for the older women (in their 80s and 90s), she was a living presence. They knew her songs by heart, could recreate earlier times in the agraharam when they sang her songs. So even if written history wrote her off the records, the women kept her work alive through oral traditions,” said Kanchana. After the publication of the Tamil book, she saw “some reclaiming (of Akkal) happening in Shenkottai.”

Next on her list is a book that will focus on the board game of Akkal. “The younger generation don’t know about it. Only some old women know.”