Literature Authors

A dispassionate comparatist

Dr. A.A. Manavalan

Dr. A.A. Manavalan   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Prof. Manavalan’s work on the Ramayana makes us reflect on the cultural significance of comparative literature as a discipline

In the Victorian era, when English people were tending to be parochial, Matthew Arnold wrote advising them to read widely and open their minds to the best that had been thought and said in the world. He was a comparatist by his taste out of which arose his erudition. Prof. A.A. Manavalan, who passed away on November 30, in Chennai, was a sound multi-lingual scholar and a cultivated comparatist, whose work must make us reflect on the cultural significance of Comparative Literature as a discipline.

What is Comparative Literature? It was a Western European academic phenomenon rising in early 20th century. Of course, much before its institutionalisation, Goethe talked of ‘World Literature.’ Rabindranath Tagore (1907) used the term ‘Visva-sahitya,’ but translated it as ‘Comparative Literature’ and not World Literature. Analogy, contrast, reception and influence are the nodal points of comparison in a systematic juxtaposition of phenomena from different literatures. These are exactly what we find Prof. Manavalan looking for in his magnum opus in Tamil, Rama Kaathaiyum Ramayanangalum (2007), which was awarded the Saraswati Samman by the K.K. Birla Foundation for 2011. It is a critical treatise on the re-renderings of the Ramayana in India and South-East Asian countries.

A product of ‘Reception Study,’ it enquires into the convergences and divergences between the Indian Ramayanas and other language Ramayanas without placing the poets in a hierarchy.

The comparatist is at his best in unravelling the variations in the treatment of the Ahalya episode. Equally engaging are the analyses of the symbiotic interaction of the northern and southern cultures which have impacted the various Indian Ramayana versions. A couple of riveting instances may be mentioned. Agastya is a sage, who came down the Himalayas, subdued the Vindya mountains and went South to settle down. Manavalan shows, through meticulously compiled comparative lists that the greatness of Agastya as one who gave us the Tamil language, performed miracles and caused river Cauvery to flow, is brought out only in the Ramayana of South Indian languages, following Kamban, whereas the Northern versions simply mention that he came down from the Himalayas and that Rama met him.

A more interesting feature is the horoscope of Rama, based on the planetary positions at the time of his birth. It is a paradox that the idea of celebrating Sriramanavami originated in the South, especially the Tamil country where a famous poem rejects faith in planetary influences. How Ramanavami has become a pan-Indian festival is an example of cultural diffusion. The idea of Bharat as a cultural continuum does not call for obliterating sharp variations in perceptions governing their respective semiotic systems.

Prof. Manavalan argues that the cultural and literary commerce has not been a one-way traffic. Hence a later text alters the so-called original because the ‘original’ Valmiki itself is a palimpsest, thanks to the ‘counter-influence’ from the South. This, he claims, alters the very concept of ‘influence’ in Reception Studies. Hence in Kamba, a later text, Ahalya is cursed to turn into stone. Absorbed with the task of tracing the genealogy of concepts, ideas and episodes, Manavalan locates the source of Kamban’s version in Tamil Sangam poetry. This version of the Ahalya legend was already in circulation in Tamil society and literature. Whereas in the Northern Recension of Valmiki there is just the curse, in the Southern Recension she turns into a stone.

Various accounts of Mantara as an incarnation, her grudge against Rama, her secret sexual attraction towards Bharata emerge in Manavalan’s explorations, provoking the interest of the reader. The Buddhist and Jain Ramayana texts do not narrate Tataka’s killing. South-Asian Ramayanas such as Ramayana Kakawin briefly refer to Surpanakha’s complaint in general terms whereas the Laotian Ramayana Gvay Dvorabhi does not at all project a character called Surpanakha. In the two Buddhist Ramayanas — Dasaratha Jataka and Dasaratha Kathaanam — the incident of the abduction of Sita has not been narrated. The parallel study of the pre-marital days of Rama and Sita in folk literature and in the mainstream literature highlights the transaction between grand récit and petit récit.

Prof. Manavalan avoids the Scylla of debilitating piety and the Charybdis of irreverence and directs his critical gaze steadily at the rich tapestry of the many Ramayanas we are fortunate to have as our cultural legacy.

(The Story of Rama and the Ramayanas is a forthcoming English translation by C.T. Indra and Prema Jagannathan of this Tamil critique. The aim of the English translators of this award-winning Tamil work is to show how it deftly participates in the critical debates in recent years about the Ramayana being an ethical text or an ideological text)

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 10:04:46 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/authors/prof-manavalan-a-dispassionate-comparatist/article25733015.ece

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