Tamil inscription (Benjamin Lewis Rice/Wikimedia Commons)
  • David Shulman’s book, Tamil: A biography is a must-read for Indians, and not just Tamils

David Shulman. Tamil: A Biography. Harvard University Press. 2017

A farrago of emotions hit me as I finished this rather unwieldy book. The first was the joy and satisfaction of completing it and thereby becoming much wiser (with a full-time job and a new season of “House of Cards”, it took me a month). Second, being a Tamil speaker who grew up in Madurai, the headquarters of Tamil literature, I felt a bit ashamed of reading a book on Tamil in English. The third was the awe that someone from Israel has managed to not only master a language as hard as Tamil but also has delved deep into the beauty and complexity of the classics. Fourth was a sense of betrayal that many of the outstanding texts are neither taught in schools nor discussed widely than they should be.


David Shulman’s book, Tamil: A biography, is a tour de force. It is a must-read for all Indians, not just Tamils. The author takes us on a grand journey, starting from the ancient era of “Irayanar Akapporul” (which he cleverly calls “Grammar of Stolen Love”) through the golden Sangam age, the Bhakti era and the modern age starting with the rediscovery of Sangam literature in the late 19th century. It is filled with delightful vignettes about sages, poets, scholars and even Gods that many Tamil children hear of growing up. Almost every poem in the book strikes an emotional chord.

In the early part of the book, the author refers to a story on Sundaramurthy Nayanar who chides Lord Shiva for not heeding magnanimously to his repeated pleas (“Why are you just standing there with a red-eyed serpent dancing in your hand?”) and tells Him that he wonders if Shiva is actually a civilised Tamil person! The language and speakers are put at a highest moral pedestal, and nothing less will do. Just a gentle reminder to the current bunch of politicians in Chennai!

The cover  The cover 

The author points to the primacy of the oral word with all its inherent metaphysics and the hesitation in changing to the written script that is bereft of emotion, situational appropriateness, and thereby not in connection with the cosmos which feeds the soul of the language.

To assuage the apprehension with the written form, Lord Shiva himself wrote the verses of Thiruvasagam as Manickavasagar dictates, to compensate for the diminished status. He points to how certain practices like the Araiyar renditions still manage to keep the oral practice alive. In that sense, modern-day authors and journalists should realise that the roots of their profession go way back to Lord Shiva himself, and understand the need for piety and responsibility when they put pen to paper.


The crown jewel of the book is the chapter dealing with akam-puram (“inness- outness”) poetry. Shulman makes us fall in love with vintage poetry, especially from Kuruntokai. As a scholar describes, the “external landscape is folded-in to the interior of person”. The “inness" provides for the depth of emotion and when mapped on to the “outness”, provides the width for reflection.

This poignant poem is just one of the many that Shulman refers to:

The sun goes down and the sky reddens, pain grows sharp,

light dwindles. Then is evening

when jasmine flowers open, the deluded say.

But evening is the great brightening dawn

when crested cocks crow all through the tall city

and evening is the whole day

for those without their lovers.

His explanation of thinais (poetic grammar) is pure delight. The chapter will transform you as a person, and hearing movie-song-lyrics will never be the same again. You will begin to see that the tradition of akam-puram and thinais continues to this day . In Vairamuthu’s line “vettiveru vaasam, vedala pulla nesam”, the nascent love in a young maid’s heart is compared the smell of the vettiveru roots that are used to make mild perfumes. That is akam-puram in the 1980s! When “Chiyyan" Vikram, croons “maalai en vethanai koottuthadi” in the movie Sethu, it is the Mullai thinai of longing for the unrequited love in the interminable evenings in hill slopes. I wonder if the sensitivity to poetic grammar is slowly imbued into our genes that such poetry appears so natural!

The parts on Andal and Karaikkal Ammaiar bristle with proud feminism. They were called “ghosts” for the fervour of their devotion. Both these great women look at their Gods, (for Alwar Andal it was Lord Vishnu, and for Nayanmar Ammaiar it was Lord Shiva) as their consorts and their verses contain high-voltage romance. It is a shame that we have allowed the imposed Judeo-Christian morality to shun such verses. Society should take the blame for this “intolerance” of closing the door to a path to divinity. If these maverick “bhakts” were alive today, they would have definitely been shunned to asylums. It would be instructive for us in the quick-judgement social media age to allow huge standard deviations from “mean” behaviour.


The book segues into the Chola-era globalisation and the rivalries of Kamban and Ottakoothar, (the classic rivalry of the gifted versus the diligent, la Ghalib versus Zauq). The influence of Jain and Buddhist works, Seevaga Chintamani and Kundalakesi opens a window to the syncretic culture of the times and the patronage given to poets of other religions.

After paying homage to the towering icon, Nammalvar, the main author of the “Tamil Veda”, Shulman steps into the Tantric Bhakti era. The author beautifully introduces concepts like auraliation, the act of putting together a goddess by a mental process of "listening" to her, the sonic equivalent of visualisation. The role of Saiva Siddhanta mutts in Kaveri delta such as Thiruvavaduthurai and their quiet role in promoting and delinking the language from the Brahmanical moulds over the middle centuries of the last millennia are documented.

The final chapter on modern Tamil pays handsome tribute to the redoubtable “Tamil thatha” (The Grandfather of Tamil) U Ve Saminatha Aiyar, who along with other scholars rediscovered lost texts and made it all possible for us to access the treasures. Shulman then goes on into the politics of Justice Party whose President Periyar even shouted, “Tamizh ozhiga!” (Damn Tamil!) to cure the “language-madness” of the people. Instead, Shulman could have gone on to the greats of the 20th century and ended with Na Muthukumar of recent years.

However, that there is nothing on the great nationalists Bharatiyar, Bharathidasan, Kalki, Kannadasan, Vairamuthu, etc. is a bummer.

Reading Shulman is no walk in the park, but he is no Umberto Eco either. (Umberto Eco, the Italian novelist said, “So probably I am writing for masochists. It's only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged,". If you have managed to finish his “Foucault’s Pendulum”, rated as one of the most difficult books to read, you deserve a medal and some counselling).

Re-reading Shulman’s long, complicated sentences filled with excruciating details will help build character. Secondly, the linguist in him does a deep-dive into the intricacies of the language - the grammar and style through the use of terminology that will be hard to understand for a layperson. Thirdly, there is no Tamil script in the book at all. I had to google all the Tamil prose from the references to read the original text (one of the reasons it took me long to finish). It could have been made much easier if the appendix contained the Tamil versions of the poems. Fourthly, the author alludes to the discredited Aryan- Dravidian divide all through. For an author who beautifully explains the cross-pollination of syntax and ideas in the portions dealing with mani pravalam, he fails to acknowledge the inherent discordance and falls prey to the dominant narrative.

There are lessons to be learnt for our education system. A good liberal arts education in high school can address many issues on gender, religion and ethics. For instance, our highly moralised syllabi cut off anything related to romance, though current teenagers are swamped with baser versions of entertainment through internet and television. Even in Thirukkural, kurals from arathu pal (righteousness) and porut paal (material well-being) alone find a place in Tamil text books. Can we not rope in texts from kamathu paal (romance) or Andal’s Thiruppavai in a mature manner? These are tricky issues, but our modern high school education needs a reassessment.

As Shulman reminds us, both the tussle and the cooption between Sanskrit (vadamozhi) and Tamil (thenmozhi) are a recurring feature over the ages. Sage Agastya bringing Tamil from the Himalayas is a unifying Bharatiya theme. In the gentle Sangam era, there was great synthesis and learning from each other characterised by the great poet Dandin.

The purists would raise eyebrows, but it was more of a gentle companionship in the spirit summarised creatively by Kumaraguruparar:

The milk and water of the pond are also inextricably mixed and then absorb the moonlight, itself no longer separate in any way from this liquid mixture—like Tamil and Sanskrit, in theory, distinct yet in practice, so thoroughly fused as to constitute a new third-order entity, the true subject of this poem.

It was recent Dravidian politics that triggered virulent hate. The bogey of “Hindi imposition” was foisted on Rajaji way back in 1937. Current politicians, especially from the northern parts of our country, should not be cavalier about the language issue. Understanding Tamil history will make them sensitive about what animates the people that have managed to preserve their mother tongue through more than two millennia with love and devotion (“Pyar se, lagan se, mehnat se,” quoting from “Dangal”).

To end, my ardent wish is that Shulman produces a new smaller book from the same material, trimming off its more pedantic parts and making it more accessible, on the lines of Sanjeev Sanyal’s books. It will be a welcome addition to many current debates in politics and education policy.

As Tamil Scholar Gnanasundaram once said in a conference, “Not learning Sanskrit is not its loss. It's your loss”. The same is true for Tamil. More people should know about this language through which there is much to seek, to find and to enjoy. In the prose and poetry from the proud people from down south, there is much that unites!

Image credits: Benjamin Lewis Rice/Wikimedia Commons

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