Explained: Vairamuthu’s Controversial Remarks On Aandal
The Aandaal controversy is a good indicator of how Tamil popular culture and icons are utterly lacking in serious scholarship.
The well known Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu’s comments on Aandal, a much-revered figure in the Srivaishnavite tradition, have kicked up a controversy.
In his speech on Aandal, delivered recently at the Srivilliputhur Andal Temple, where he was invited to mark a celebration during the pious month of Margazhi, Vairamuthu made the following remark citing a book: "Andal was herself a Devadasi who lived and died in the Srirangam Temple." The lyricist, throughout his speech, attempted to dwell on Aandal’s celebrated Tamil poetry and attempted to narrate the socio-cultural history of Tamil country to the best of his knowledge.
But how much of what Vairamuthu said is correct and historically well established? Has Vairamuthu gone beyond his comfort zone and spoken of things he has very limited knowledge about? Going by facts, it seems, he has indeed over-stepped a little.
Before we look at his more controversial claims about Aandal being a devadasi, let us look at some other claims he has made.
In his speech, Vairamuthu has tried hard to establish that there is a distinction between the worship of ‘deivam’ and ‘kadavul’, two Tamil words used interchangeably to mean ‘god’ in Tamil.
Vairamuthu positions ‘kadavul’ as something spiritually lower in hierarchy than ‘deivam’. He suggests that ‘deivams’ were ancestors whom society had come to worship. ‘Kadavul’, according to Vairamuthu, implies worship of the Unknown. The suggestion is that deivams are native gods while kadavul could be Vedic gods that got imposed on Tamil society.
But is this true? Even Vairamuthu could look up the most celebrated and ancient Tamil literature, the Sangham corpus, and find concepts of deivam and kadavul used interchangeably. The truth is that, it is possible that the word deivam has origins in Sanskrit and the word kadavul could have Dravidian origins. So much for Vairamuthu’s analysis of ancient Tamil society.
Let us now look at Vairamuthu’s claim that Aandal was a devadasi at the Srirangam temple. Was his remark derogatory? Was it derogatory towards Aandal?
Before we look at facts about Aandal and devadasis, it is important to understand that the Devadasi tradition has given much to the world of Indic art and culture.
According to cultural analyst and classist Professor Bharat Gupt, "The bhaav in the Devadasi tradition is the daas bhaav, of their service to the deity, of samarpan, of surrender. This bhakti reaches the peak of mysticism, it reaches the peak of poetic expression, it touches the greatest heights of bhakti in the discourse of our greatest saints like Aandal and Meera. Main to apne Narayan ki, aap hee ho gayee daasi, said Meera. We should stop falling into these disgraceful traps meant to insult our saints and Devadasis in our outrage against self-serving interests of people who make these mischievous remarks."
The current outrage appears to be originating from the fact that the devadasi tradition had significantly deteriorated into rather unpleasant circumstances including in some circumstances, flesh trade, by the twentieth century. Thus identifying Aandal as a devadasi has angered devotees given the connotations in circulation today, irrespective of the historically important role that devadasis played.
But this does not mean Vairamuthu is right about his claim that Aandal was a devadasi and that tradition has not given her the due she deserves. Aandaal is said to have lived before the tenth century whereas the devadasi tradition really took off big time only after the Chola empire which is after the twelfth/thirteenth century. Here is what historian Upinder Singh had to say on the devadasi tradition:
“Leslie Orr’s study shows that the ‘temple women’ of the Chola period were very different from the Devadasis of the twentieth century. ... The modern Devadasi phenomenon is marked by hereditary transmission, professional skill, and temple dedication. None of these were operative in the case of the temple women of the Chola period. These women were neither temple dancers nor prostitutes. They were not married to the God, nor is there any indication that their sexual activity was exploited or confined to the temple context. Their history in the Chola period cannot be seen as a story of degeneration or decline - in fact, their position got strengthened and well established over time.” (A History Of Ancient And Early Medieval India: From The Stone Age To The 12th Century, 2008)
So, here we are comparing completely different phenomena separated by centuries, and it is astonishing that Vairamuthu would make such an assertion. But to make this claim, Vairamuthu is citing a rather interesting book titled 'Indian Movements: Some Aspects of Dissent Protest and Reform' (Ed. Subhash Chandra Malik) published by Indian Institute of Advanced Study in 1978.
So why did Prof Subhash Chandra Malik make such an authoritative assertion of a historically wrong statement on Aandal being a devadasi? This lie is rooted in a 1960 short story penned by Daniel Selvaraj, a Marxist writer belonging to Communist Party of India. In this, he had ‘re-read’ Aandal as being born in devadasi lineage.
The story described Aandal as a devadasi and she assuming spiritual 'penance' to escape the predatory attempts of then Pandya king Sri Vallabha. Periyazhvar, Aandal’s father whom Vairamuthu accuses of having fathered Aandal through an illicit relationship with devadasis, too was depicted in the short story as a person who enjoyed the sexual favours of devadasis. The story also implied that Aandal could have been the child born out of such relations. Incidentally, in the Sri Vaishnava tradition, Periyazhvar, Aandal and Sri Vallabha Pandya are all held in veneration for more than 1,000 years.
The short story was a deliberate propagandist account that intentionally falsified history. As stated earlier, devadasis were not part of the temple institutions in Tamil provinces before the ninth century. However, what is interesting is that this propagandist distortion of history had reached the ivory towers of academia and had gained a life of its own.
In 2012, the short story collection that included the story that falsified Aandal's history was sneaked into the Tamil curriculum for BA and BSc students of Manonmanian Sundranar University, Tirunelveli. Thankfully this attempt was thwarted by activists.
So, here you have a work of fiction, somehow being spun into ‘real history’ and this then is the basis of Vairamuthu’s claims. If anything, this controversy is a good indicator of how Tamil popular culture and icons are utterly lacking in serious scholarship. They have taken to using convenient explanations - whatever seems convenient seems to be acceptable, serious scholarship be damned. And Vairamuthu needs to really read up on Tamil literature.
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