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The Maratha connection

Suganthy Krishnamachari
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History Professor Indira Viswanathan Peterson focusses on King Serfoji II and his contributions to the Big temple. Suganthy Krishnamachari

A linguist too: Indira Viswanathan Peterson. Photo: R. Ragu
A linguist too: Indira Viswanathan Peterson. Photo: R. Ragu

“I see Serfoji II, a Maratha who grew up in Tamil Nadu and who knew many languages, as my alter ego!” says Indira Viswanathan Peterson, a Tamilian who grew up in Bombay, and knows 12 languages.

Indira is a David B. Truman Professor of Asian studies at Mount Holyoke College, U.S. Her book on the Big temple, which she has co-authored with George Michell, was published last year. Recently, Indira spoke at the C.P. Ramaswami Iyer foundation on Serfoji's connection with the Big temple .

One catches up with her later, and asks her why she published a book on the Big temple. Isn't there a surfeit of material on the subject? “Yes. But most studies focus on Chola contributions. I was more interested in Serfoji II's association with the temple.”

“Serfoji's contributions to the temple are significant for many reasons,” she elaborates.

Adopted son

Serfoji was the adopted son of King Tulajah, and his legitimacy as royal heir had been challenged by Amar Singh. So Serfoji had to strengthen his claim to the throne. How better to do it than by leaving his imprint on the Big temple? Others such as the Tiruvarur temple, for instance, were administered by adheenams and mutts. Serfoji wanted a temple that he could call exclusively his own, and luckily for him the Big temple had no claimants! Serfoji, in fact, may be credited with turning the spotlight back on this temple, points out Indira.

Serfoji had been educated by the Christian missionary Schwartz, and the correspondence of the period shows that the missionaries expected Serfoji to convert to Christianity.

Indira says that Serfoji's public demonstration of his faith in Saivism, might have been to reassure his people that he remained a Hindu. “I also think he was firm in his belief in Saivism and wanted to show himself to be a Hindu dharmic king,” says Indira. “That is why he installed 108 lingas in the Big temple, besides making many gifts to the temple.”

Indira's love for literature encouraged her to study the literature of the Maratha period from the 16 {+t} {+h} to the 18th centuries. “And there was an explosion of genres during this period. I find the kuravanjis, nondis and pallus particularly interesting. The first kuravanji was performed in the Maratha court. In Shahaji's time, there was a polyglot kuravanji, in Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu.”

“There is a little bit of everything in the kuravanji - geography, gods, kings and eroticism. The kuravanji was both cosmopolitan and hybrid. And it was performed by the Devadasis.”

Interestingly, the Christians wanted to have their version of the kuravanji. So Vedanayagam Sastri wrote the ‘Bethlehem kuravanji.' He even wrote ‘Gnana nondi'. The nondi genre appealed to the Christians, because of their belief in faith healing. Vedanayagam Sastri wrote hundreds of Christian kirtanas, and he also gave Christian musical discourses, resembling a Harikatha, with abhinaya and hand cymbals!

“Another genre popular during the Maratha period was the bhana,” says Indira. The word ‘bhana' is from the Prakrit word ‘bhanati,' which means ‘to speak.' Bhana plays enacted in the temples of Thanjavur, were risqué monologues, about the liaisons between Brahmin men and Devadasis. The audience consisted only of Brahmin men.

“I find these bhana plays interesting, because here we see the Brahmin community self- satirising,” remarks Indira.

“There is so much about the Maratha period that requires study,” says Indira. She sees Serfoji as a visionary, who took pains to build a magnificent library. In one shipment from Europe, he had 650 books, all of them just for his medical studies!

4,000 books

Serfoji's collection includes 4,000 books in nine European languages, and these are about European literature and science. Interestingly, many of these books have also been found in Benjamin Franklin's and Thomas Jefferson's collections! And this similarity makes Indira want to study Serfoji in the context of the intellectual history of Europe and America. Indira's translations of some Tevaram hymns have been published. Why has she not translated verses of the Azhwars? “There already are many translations of Vaishnavite literature, but not Saivite literature, because Vaishnavite literature has the advantage of having many commentaries. These help (one) to understand usages and meanings.”

Indira has introduced Indian literature to her students, whom she has taught the ‘Jataka Tales,' ‘Panchatantra,' ‘Kathasaritsagara,' ‘Sangam' and Prakrit poetry and stories from the ‘Ramayana.' “The students found that the ‘Aesop's Fables' pale in comparison with the ‘Panchatantra,' for the latter has animals, kings and so much of everything. They also like the bhakti poems of Meera and Surdas. Lord Krishna is, of course, a favourite.”

Indira feels there is so much in Indian literature that needs to be translated for Western audiences, such as Krishna Deva Raya's ‘Amuktamalyada.' Her book on Serfoji II is likely to be published this year.

Academic background and work Indira has a B.A.(Honours) in English literature from Bombay University, and a Master's degree and a Ph.D in Sanskrit and Indian studies from Harvard. She has held many fellowships, including those from the American Council of Learned Societies, The National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Institute for Indian studies, the Social Science Research Council, the German Government's Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. She is the editor of Indian literature (500 B.C. to the present) in the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces and the Norton Anthology of World literature (2001).


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