“Muthollayiram”, a unique literary work in Tamil, has been assigned various dates in the first decade of the common era by different scholars. S. Vaiyapuri Pillai, one of the most objective and, as such, controversial among the Tamil scholars, places it in the 9th century CE, while T.V. Sadasiva Pandarathar, the doyen among the traditional Tamil pundits, gives a date that predates it by three centuries.
The distinctive identity of this work is its secular and romantic trait, which stands apart from the didactic (if it was composed in the 6th century CE) and devotional (if one accepts Vaiyapuri Pillai's view) poetry of those respective periods. Like the numerical identity that distinguishes the Sangam poetical compositions —‘Pathu Pattu' (Ten Poems) and ‘Ettuthokai' (Eight collections), for example — this literary work is called ‘Muthollayiram' — the term could mean either 2,700 poems or 900 poems about the Chera, Chola and Pandya kings, abstract representation of the ancient three Tamil royal dynasties.
As of now, out of the 900 poems only a hundred and odd have survived and are found in an anthologised literary work called “Purathirattu.” Mahavidwan Ra. Raghava Iyengar edited them and got them published in 1905. T.K. Chidambaranatha Mudaliar, who loved good literature, saw immense potential in this remarkable romantic work. And, he was largely responsible for its instant popularity.
The authorship of ‘Muthollayiram' has not been established convincingly as yet. A widely shared view is that it could be by a single, yet-to-be identified author. But, considering some of the repetitions and similarities of the poetic images — not excluding contents related to different kings, Chola or Pandya — the view that these poems could have been written in different periods of time by different poets and later anthologised under a thematic and prosodic conceptualisation (as in the case of ‘Naladiyar', a didactic work by the Jain monks) cannot be dismissed or ignored.
However, A.R. Venkatachalapathy, who has been doing dedicated service to modern Tamil literature by bringing to light lesser known masterpieces of yesteryear, is inclined to attribute single authorship to this work. In his introduction to this elegantly translated and immensely readable book by M.L. Thangappa, Venkatachalapathy has provided an in-depth backgrounder. It should help a non-Tamil reader in grasping the nuances of the traditional Tamil literary culture and in appreciating the original work better through this translated version.
‘Muthollayiram' is set in venba metre, which has strict prosodic conventions that render it difficult for any lesser poet to handle. A venba is a quatrain verse with three lines of four feet each and the last line of three feet, with a formulaic ending; it is like, as Venkatachalapathy says, “dancing with manacles on.” One outstanding work in this rather hazardous metre is Nala Venba by Pugazhendi, written much later than ‘Muthollayiram'.
This brings us to the problem of translation. Translating a work from one language to another is, by itself, no easy task. When the target work and the vehicle of translation happen to be of totally different cultural mores, it becomes a formidable challenge for the translator.
Though FitzGerald's English translation of Rubaiyat put that remarkable work on the literary map of the world, the conventional Persian scholars were said to have commented “it is FitzGerald's Rubaiyat and not Omar Khayyam's.” “Translation”, a word originating from Latin means, “to take across to the other side.” Good translators assimilate the content of the original and, bearing in mind the genius of the language in which they are conveying, give easy communication their top priority. This, of course, would not be at the cost of the spirit of the original text.
Thangappa, who hails from a family of traditional Tamil scholars, has to his credit a reputable rendering of Sangam poetry in English. Now, he has come out with this translation of ‘Muthollayiram', an effort that could have posed prosodic challenges. And yet, the translation is commendable and it readily captures the soul of the original work by flexible, idiomatic adaptations.
When the red lilies bloom on the waterlogged fields,/The birds panic, thinking the water is on fire,/They fly helter-skelter, trying to guard/Their nestlings under their wings'