The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Oral tradition mixes with literary culture

Print, Folklore and Nationalism in Colonial South India By Stuart Blackburn, Permanent Black, Rs 550

Better known for his works on oral folk traditions in South India, Stuart Blackburn attempts in this book an interesting, even if problematic, cross-over to a history of print. He claims to identify certain dichotomies that have characterized recent analyses of print as a modern technology and its role in mobilizing a modern consciousness that found expression in new literary practices and the production of new literary genres, all of which went towards the making of a nationalist project in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Print as the harbinger of modernity and orality as the marker of tradition is one such dichotomy that Blackburn takes up as he proceeds to examine the role of print in promoting folklore. Going by the well-known adage that print produced more old books than new, he focuses on the production of printed folklore in Tamil Nadu, where printing facilitated the commingling of an oral tradition with a literary culture. Here was a case where modern technology was deployed to serve what was essentially a pre-modern traction, and which introduced in the process, new complexities about consuming and contemplating folklore. As shards of an intimate inner experience, as expressions of a simple, pristine collective past, folklore was at once antithetical to modernity and yet was a potent symbol of an older tradition, the repository of the lost village. This ambiguity was never resolved and predictably, folklore could not supply the necessary means to imagine the nation.

Blackburn grounds his project by examining the development of printing in South India under the early Portuguese and Jesuit missionaries, whose efforts from the mid-16th century produced the first major inter-lingual dictionaries and translations. He argues that this project was not only new but it also underscored the radically different nature of the early European encounter with existing traditions of language and linguistic experience. Centuries of mingling between Sanskrit and Tamil, or Tamil and other regional Indian languages had not produced similar comparative anthologies or dictionaries — an omission that Blackburn argues was indicative of the assimilation tendencies in pre-modern South Indian culture. Translation was essentially an exercise in conversion and the means adopted for this was by way of the print technology.

From 1577, with the production of the Portuguese catechism in Tamil, printing under the pioneering efforts of Henri Henrique and Roberto de Nobili became a fullfledged activity. The enterprise yielded interesting results that included the emergence of a new kind of prose, using colloquial idioms and advocating the use of a correct linguistic register. Thus, from very early on, a debate was set in motion about which Tamil was proper and which Tamil could be used. It was here that folklore played an important role — the production of Guru Simpleton by the Jesuit C.G. Beschi (1744) constituting a landmark. It described the adventures of a foolish guru and his band of dimwitted disciples. What Beschi did among other things was to make the point that it was spoken Tamil that constituted the best and most appropriate Tamil.

All these efforts — in which local text copiers and makers participated — were instrumental in creating a new literary culture that involved new literary practices like that of compiling dictionaries and bilingual grammars. Local pundits became part of this new culture as they built up their involvement with the history of printing. This became even more pronounced in the 18th century, when the demands of the rising city of Madras altered their role in printing. They were no longer the shadowy figures in the background, the value of their knowledge was endorsed publicly, with the colonial state enlisting them to authenticate and edit old texts besides encouraging them to write new ones.

It is in this section that Blackburn excels, as he traces the nexus between pundits, publishing and public patronage in the wake of the establishment of Fort St George with its urgent need for usable grammars, primers and textbooks. The existence of a pool of text-makers and copiers in traditional centres and courts like Tanjore and European settlements like Pondicherry, the nature of their activities, their early connections with missionaries and the technology of printing and their switchover to the Madras establishment are documented with precision and elegance. It is interesting to note that a large proportion of these pundits were high caste non-Brahmins, Pillais and Mudalis and even Christian Pillais who were eminent scholars in Tamil grammar and classics. There was only a sprinkling of Brahmin scholars working largely on Sanskrit texts. Thus from very early on there was an official sponsoring of Tamil literary and linguistic traditions under the aegis of traditional non-Brahmin pundits. This link would, in the future, produce separatist narratives of regionalism and Dravidianism where the antiquity and uniqueness of Tamil and its difference with the northern tongue of Sanskrit became a recurrent motif.

Pundits turned independent publishers around the 1820s and 1830s, when they no longer printed books for the European students in Fort St George. Targeting a local audience and schools where there was a demand for grammars and history and geography texts, Tamil publishers honed their skills. They produced a number of grammars, compiled classic Tamil texts like the Tirukural and produced printed copies of existing folklore. Tantavaraya Mudalier’s Katamanjarai (1824), and his translation of the Marathi Pancatantra (1825) were the most influential examples of this phenomenon. By the 1840s the new literary practices had engineered a literary culture that engaged with issues of prose and orthography. The production of folktales became an important medium of the new practice.

But to what extent, as Blackburn claims, was the production of printed folklore a bridge between literary culture and oral tradition' Admittedly, folklore occupied an important place in the emerging literary culture, and as an expression of a literary practice that advocated the use of prose and colloquial Tamil, it was important as an inspirational basis for later writing. It is not entirely coincidental that the first Tamil novel — Kamalambalcharitram (1893-95) drew upon folklore. And yet its value as an integrating vehicle of expression, or even in creating a reading habit, as novels did in the late 19th and early 20th century, was minimal.

Notwithstanding the extension of folklore into the public sphere as a consequence of technology, or indeed the efforts of trained folklorists and ethnologists to invest folklore with an academic and national status, it remained an ambiguous inheritance failing ultimately to sustain either nationalism or Tamil separatism. For the advocates of Tamil separatism, language was certainly a key tool in mobilization and empowerment, but it was a language far removed from the easy colloquial Tamil that Beschi had in mind. It was a language that had to be cleansed of all loaned words. Powered by imagery and alliteration, it would create among its speakers an aura of glory and power and instil among them a passion to defend their language with their lives.

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