For a tome that takes us back to antiquity, resurrecting interred wisdoms with resplendence, its most profound resonances are castigations against a moribund present. When forces of parochial tribalism fulminate against pluralistic societies, revisiting a culturally dynamic past is a stark reminder of our contemporary shortcomings. In hindsight, facets of modern nationalism like language chauvinism and linguism appear antithetical to the dynamic, fluid, and organic ways languages and cultures have historically evolved through exogenous interactions. Though it’s not his main purpose, in a new book, David Dean Shulman, Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jersualem, shows that language chauvinist movements like Tamil nationalism are political prevarications detached from historical reality.
Indologist Shulman’s Tamil: A Biography is a towering achievement in the field of cultural history and philology that is a compelling evolution of one of the oldest languages in the world from antiquity to modernity. (There are also cogitations about the condition of Tamil in post-industrial society). Passionately and yet objectively written, the book is as much annals of the language as it is a thoroughly researched panegyric to it. The narrative intertwines morphologies of the language in terms of grammar, syntax, phonetics, and phonology as well as the cultural manifestations of the language such as philosophy, poetry, prose, and song. It’s consciously congruous with the etymology of the word tamil. While there’s no consensus, we are told it may possibly refer to “the proper [process of] speaking” / the rules governing language or simply “sweetness” in expression.
The word tamil is also a derivative of the Sanskrit term for the Dravidian family of languages. You do not have to be Tamil to appreciate the significance of this book. In fact, it appears intended for anyone with an interest in the cultural history of the language, regardless of background. Shulman takes great pains to ensure that no reader is alienated by the context. Constant cross-references to other cultures are made, whether to the Hebrew Bible, Homeric poetry, Mozart’s music, Greek, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, illuminating the development of the language through comparative philology. Tamil is situated in a global network of languages.
There are two main themes in the book: one is to showcase the corporeal and asomatous features of the language. One whose early literati shaped it to “express processuality” both endogenous and exogenous to subjectivity—“in the external domain of objects no less than in the internal world of thought, feeling, and awareness.” Tamil literature is as much concerned with making sense of the physical realm as it is with an appreciation of the metaphysical. The other theme, more controversially, is to trace the synergy between Sanskrit and Tamil in broad strokes throughout history. The discussion about the complex relationship between Sanskrit and Tamil is “still clearly alive and full of passion in current debates about language and culture in the Tamil world.”
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Shulman uses Carnatic music scales to name his chapters, overtly stating his sonorous intentions that “the book is built like a concert.” The book is structured to open with basic knowledge about the language and its genesis. Chronothematic chapters dealing with linguistics and literature as well as the philosophical concerns embedded in the language and its poetry in each time period follows accordingly. The narrative begins from second century B.C. “the moment when prehistory becomes protohistory”—when the first known Tamil inscriptions in the Brahmi script were written, to the development of classical Tamil Sangam literature canonized between second to eight century A.D., to the flourishing medieval and late medieval period Tamil literary works, to the development of modern Tamil, and reaches colonial times with the intellectual community of a “Tamil renaissance”.
While all the chapters in the book are of superlative quality, one particularly stands out for interweaving historiography, anthropology, philology, and lyricism into discourse on medieval Tamil. The Chola kingdom of South India (c. mid-ninth to mid-13th century) is considered by many to represent the apogee of ‘Tamil civilization’. The chapter deals with both the hagiography surrounding the Chola establishment of a so-called Tamil empire (the book concedes that the term is open to debate) as well as the material reality of Tamil’s emergence as a “transregional language” in Asia. The language is referred to in records found from South India and Sri Lanka all the way to Southeast Asia and as far as China. Corroborating with sources from around the world, Shulman uses traded commodities, diplomatic exchanges, and monuments to prove that by the first millennium “Tamil had clearly become an international language” used in the incipient global economy. The chapter also notes the development of a nascent Tamil diaspora community, which by the eleventh century starts to become prominent.
Underscoring a recurring theme, Shulman speaks of a “Sanskrit-Tamil symbiosis” in state courts suggesting that while the Chola kings used Tamil as the official language of their state, they were also happy to incorporate Sanskrit. Just like the major Pallava and Pandya kingdoms before them. The Cholas also provided the munificent patronage that “created a courtly milieu” responsible for a flourishing Tamil literary culture in South India. Prominent among the literati is the 12th century temple bard Kamban, whom Shulman hails as “the most gifted of all Tamil authors.” Lionized as among the greatest literary compositions in the language, Kamban’s Tamil Ramayana represented the apotheosis of cultural achievements of the Chola kingdom.
In the same chapter, a poignant matter is raised about the Tamil notion of ‘truth’ and its connotations in Tamil literary works. We are reminded that the concept and definition of truth is “always culturally determined.” In Tamil, the notion of truth is related to the consequences of utterance and phonology. The spoken word must accompany commitment to what is said in order to maintain the integrity of the utterance, which once articulated will always live out its life in the world. In Tamil, “truth is connected to sound” and the very being of the person articulating the words. To not carry through on an utterance is tantamount to questioning the very “aliveness” of the speaker—their interiority and breath. Another dimension is that truth is also seen as “unerring.” To not fulfill what has been articulated was considered a great humiliation, a stain upon an individual’s fame, and antithetical to heroic virtues. Reading the book at a time when “post-truth” is selected as the international word of the year, the espousal of the trope of truth in medieval Tamil is a tragic reminder of humanity’s regression. We have sufficient reason to believe that for a long time in history, speaking the truth was the essence of life; not any longer it appears. True speech or the metaphysical consequences of truth was a major thematic preoccupation of the Chola period Tamil literary works.
How the “deep interpenetration” of Sanskrit and Tamil turned to downright antagonism is a question the book answers. Dravidian or Tamil nationalism was an ideology in South India created by self-styled language purists to defend Tamil and Tamils from being dominated by languages like Sanskrit and Hindi. The “complex dynamic of Sanskrit-in-Tamil and Tamil-in-Sanskrit” that was a structural feature of Tamil’s linguistic evolution was ruptured as a corollary of the anti-Brahminism movement in South India. As Brahmins were vilified for their position at the apex at the top of the caste hierarchy and privileged role in the machinery of the British Raj, they were also deemed “bearers of an alien, Sanskritic culture.” Stemming from anti-Brahminism, Dravidian nationalism, as an ideology in late colonial and postcolonial India was the “marriage of linguism with long-standing social and economic resentment.”
With great aplomb the book clinically dismantles the whole project of Tamil nationalism and questions its legacy. While the rediscovery of Sangam-period works in the 19th century was a trigger, Shulman also shows how “conceptual input” from orientalist scholarship in British India was fundamental to fossilizing the linguistic chauvinism of Tamil nationalism. The colonial bureaucracy, in accordance with imperial ‘divide and rule’ strategies, actively encouraged the artificial chasm between Sanskrit and Tamil just as it set Brahmin against non-Brahmin and kept the north and south at odds. Despite the presence of language specialists in the colonial bureaucracy, oriental scholarship conjured up narratives of a romanticized untainted primordial Tamil that antedated Sanskrit that they depicted as a foreign entity. The orientalising project misrepresented classical Tamil texts by vitiating the Sanskrit-Tamil symbiosis. We are reminded that linguism, like nationalism, “tends to flatten out the object it purports to celebrate.”
Sublime and riveting, Tamil: A Biography proves that good linguistic and intellectual history can be written without resorting to either esotericism or jargonism. Moreover, when seamed by cultural history to showcase the emergence of the science of language concomitant with cultural expression enriches both streams. Casual readers would find the philology palatable because most of the spadework to compact and elucidate the material has been done for them. Presciently, the book warns us that insularity and provincialism are relatively recent developments and that throughout history all languages have developed in interaction with others. The heights of cultural achievements have come from synergy and symbiosis, not isolation and retreat. The book will unsettle even the most obdurate Tamil language chauvinists and that is a testament to Shulman’s meticulous research and persuasive argumentation.
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