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  • Published 5.03.10

Edited by A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Viking, Rs 399

Sangam literature is a body of classical Tamil literature created between 600 BC and 300 AD, although the span and the exact dates have been debated for long. It has 2,381 poems by 473 poets, some 102 of whom remain anonymous. The poems were composed by Dravidian Tamil poets from various professions and classes. They were edited and tagged with colophons only around 1,000 AD, before being collected into eight anthologies called Ettuthokai. Sangam literature fell out of collective memory soon thereafter, until it was rediscovered in the 19th century by scholars like C. W. Thamotharampillai and U. V. Swaminatha Iyer.

The appellation, “Sangam”, which was a later invention and was probably derived from “sangha in the Jain and Buddhist era, refers to assemblies of Tamil scholars and poets. Critics, however, point out that the first comprehensive account of the Sangam legend is found in a commentary to the Iraiyanar Akapporul by Nakkîrar in the seventh or eighth century. Nakkîrar describes three Sangams, the first held at “the Madurai which was submerged by the sea”. Legend has it that while the first Sangam included some Hindu gods such as Shiv, Kuber and Murugan, the second and the third included Pandya kings. Avvaiyar, Nakkeerar and Kapilar are three great names of Sangam poetry. Some scholars like Kamil Zvelebil say that these assemblies might have been founded and patronized by the Pandya kings. Although earlier Sangam poets were known to be Jains and later ones were presumably Vaishnavs or Shaivas, Sangam literature is absolutely secular.

What makes Sangam poetry special to modern readers? In Love Stands Alone, the editor has offered quite a few answers to this question in the introduction. To sum up his arguments, Sangam poetry represents a priceless emblem of ancient Dravid culture laid waste by the Aryan invasion, and, more important, it cuts across the Oreintalist canonization of classical Sanskrit literature in its directness and insouciance of style and temperament, without sacrificing the imagistic vibrancy and tonal variations. This makes it akin to modern poetry. In the words of A.K. Ramanujan, “In their values and stances, they represent a mature classical poetry: passion is balanced by courtesy, transparency by ironies and nuances of design, impersonality by vivid detail, austerity of line by richness of implication.” Tholkappiyam, an ancient text and style manual for Sangam poets, classifies Sangam poetry into two broad genres, akam (or agam) and puram. While akam deals with the ‘inner field’ of human experiences such as love and sex, puram depicts the ‘outer field’, such as war, valour and ethics.

The powerful imagery of Sangam akam verse is portrayed in these lines by Velliveethiyar: “Like the sweet milk of a cow/ spilt on the ground/… the speckled beauty of my complexion/ is being taken away”. In another poem by Avvaiyar, a girl expresses her frenzied passion — “I feel an urgency to get up/ and smash things… This cool breeze/ kindles the fire of love in me./ But this callous village/ is sweetly sleeping.” Are not these verses reminiscent of Sappho’s passionate yearnings for love? The puram verses contain nuggets of wisdom —“You (death) have acted/ like a ruined peasant/ who eats the seed grain/ unmindful of a bumper crop.” M.L. Thangappa must be generously thanked for his able translation.