The dream of Subrahmanya Bharati, the poet of renascent India, has already begun showing signs of fulfillment. He reiterated, in more than one song expressive of the upsurge of nationalism, the urgent need for self-expression in the mother-tongue. He saw with clear vision the hour of dawn and deliverance for the country in all spheres of activity, apart from the political which was the most obsessing factor at the time when he sang. Today at the threshold of an era of momentous changes and revival, we have nothing but admiration for the poet at the way he foresaw all this. We bow in reverence to the immense power of His pen which unfurled futurity before our eyes.
The national movement of the last few decades has had to use the language of the people more and more for their regeneration and education. An atmosphere of national pride and love of things Indian has been generated. The more sober minds are going back to the literature and religion of the past. They look on them with discernment and interpret them in a new light. They discover a fresh meaning and attraction in our culture and tradition.
No doubt it is an irrefutable fact that still in our education English claims a larger share of attention. Inheriting a system, we still feel unable to imagine a time when we can carryon without using the English language for our administrative purposes. But signs are everywhere evident to predict that the position will change, as it has been increasingly felt that all this is not quite sound. An awakening has already come of which the good results are visible, though too rapid and premature an acceleration of change may lead to inadequacy to meet all modern demands of communication of thought. Even the most sanguine of Tamil enthusiasts will have to concede that Tamil vocabulary and diction, like those of many sister languages, do not as yet possess adequate number of terms of art in order to facilitate conveyance of modern ideas in it. The task now awaits the country of moulding the renascent culture, combining the best of the heritage of the past and the best that has been imbibed from our contact with Western thought and literature.
To estimate the present pace of advance in Tamil literature, we may have to get a peep into the recent past, say a century at the least. The latter half of the nineteenth century, though not fertile in poetic output, was not totally devoid of some significant writing. Gopala Krishna Bharati, the precursor of , our own Bharati, was a poet of acknowledged authenticity. Being the celebrated author of the operatic masterpiece ‘Nandan Charitram’, he is still a wonder to many a muse-worshipper, how he could introduce so much dramatic element and musical quality and devotion in a piece of no considerable length. People who have listened to this marvel of literary invention have been transported to realms of rare experience and all-pervading spirituality. Scholars may find flaws in this work by reason of the colloquialism employed here and there in the language; but to the pure Rasika, these very things prove delicious and vital intimations of literature, undreamt of before this god-intoxicated singer poured out the strains of his melodious art.
The establishment of a settled Government under the foreign rule as well as the spread of printing in the 19th century led to the emergence of a group of educated persons with a modern outlook. Therefore, the shaping of the literary activity also partook of ideas of the West, especially of English literature. No doubt, here again, all our sister languages of the South were equally under a debt to this influence. Learned men in Tamil, though trained under the old system, became none-the-less ardent votaries of the English language, with the result that they emulated the good features of their masters. The printing and publishing of classics were started, which naturally made it easy for more people to study Tamil literature. ‘Sthalapuranas’ or accounts of sacred spots of pilgrimage began to be compiled and we cannot fail in this context to refer to the scholar-writer Meenakshi-sundram Pillai, the fountain-source from which Dr. U. V. Swaminatha Aiyar drew much inspiration for his monumental researches and classical editions of ancient works. Perhaps it may not be proper to single out names without referring to two others, Arumuga Navalar and Ramalinga Swamigal, whose personalities in the perspective of time gain no mean importance for scholarship and mastery of expression. Navalar was a very learned scholar and writer while Swamigal was a saintly poet and composer of accredited merit. From the life of Meenakshisundaram Pillai written by Dr. Swaminatha Aiyar, we are able to gather an idea of the well-established reputation enjoyed by the former for his numerous works in Tamil. Other names like that of Damodaram Pillai and Kanagasabhai Pillai also occur to us in dealing with the latter part of the last and the earlier portion of the current century. Damodaram Pillai hailed from Jaffna while the other was bred up in English education, with the result that he brought to bear his new sense of values on our ancient classics and literature.
Sundaram Pillai is yet another name to conjure with along with two others, Poondi Ranganatha Mudaliar and Vedanayakam Pillai of Mayavaram, the trio making up for all the sterility of the nineties in the fields of literary writing and musical composition. B. R. Rajam Aiyar, one of the earliest to come under the spell of Swami Vivekananda when he visited Madras in 1893, surprised the world by his attempt at fiction-writing–almost the first of its kind in the Tamil Nad. His justly famous ‘Kamalambal Charitram’ bears all the strength of simplicity of style with a blend of idealism and realism in the story told, though by its loosely-knit plot and touch of improbabilities it suffers a bit in its appeal to fastidious critics. Perhaps one may not be far wrong in ranking it with Goldsmith’s ‘Vicar of Wakefield’ for its easy unaffected narrative as well as its apparent flaws of contrivance of situations. ‘Pratapa Mudaliar Charitram’ of Vedanayakam Pillai is something of a combination of biography and fiction, with an unevenness running throughout its literary craftsmanship. Still, patches of living portraiture of the times and individuals make it worthy of even the most advanced of modem writers. ‘Manonmaniyam’ of Sundaram Pillai is a play written at a time when hardly anything like a drama ever existed in Tamil literature, and its uniqueness is further vouchsafed by its emphasis on patriotism and love of freedom–themes that are ever fresh and full of inspiration to generations of readers.
Ability for prodigious research and scholarship of a singularly genuine type were embodied in Dr. Swaminatha Aiyar, who during his four-score years and more proved to the world of savants how to the man of earnest labours, even gigantic obstacles can lose their proportions and size and move away from his path of duty. In the sphere of editing the classics with precision and ample notes, perhaps none has equaled him yet, despite better environment for research work prevailing at the present day. Unsullied integrity alone was responsible for the fame he achieved, maintaining its hold on both contemporaries and generations after. His simple prose style amazed readers that such a confirmed Pundit could write so naturally and without adornment. His reminiscences and biographical accounts of two of his predecessors in the field of Tamil Letters are great storehouses of information to us regarding times of comparative neglect of Tamil. Still they do not strike us by anything that we associate with biographical art as derived from Western models.
Another great scholar, Mahavidvan R. Raghava Aiyengar, is a name to reckon with while we are on the group of scholars in the last half-a-century. He, unlike his compeers of whom we have spoken, was possessed of a type of scholarship which derived as much advantage from Sanskrit as from Tamil sources for any of his theories in the reconstruction of the chronology and history of Tamil literature. He was therefore even better than others in the matter of deeper penetration into the classics, though much of what he wrote came in for controversy at the hands of those who suffered from chauvinistic tendencies. He was stimulating at times in his interpretations, though his style did not get over the early influences of pedantry and artificiality of presentation common to the Pundits. ‘Parikathai’ is his monumental work, being a poem recording the traditional lore round the figure of the illustrious Pari, and the value of the book gains considerably by the astonishing fund of information included in the commentary to it from his own pen. His translation of Kalidasa’s ‘Sakuntalam’, though it certainly fulfilled a long-felt want of a correct translation of the great Sanskrit play in Tamil, hardly satisfies scholars and laymen alike because of its ponderousness of style.
The list of scholars mentioned above neither has exhausted the top-ranking men in the field nor has indicated the clusters of English-educated ones of a latter period, like S. Vaiyapuri Pillai, who fortunately is with us doing eminent service in the direction of removing many of the cobwebs of superstition ant sentiment enmeshing the so-called theories of unadulterated Dravidian lore and literature shining in all their isolated splendour. Before I try to indicate the trends of literary writing of today, let me touch upon the background first of the change brought about by the incessant flood of nationalism generated by that huge force for political emancipation–the Congress.
Subrahrnanya Bharati, the harbinger of a new era for Tamil literature, drank deep of nationalism from the Congress and its ideals. Being a poet first and foremost, before anything else, he felt the emotional call to serve his country in the best way he could. Thus his powerful imagination, added to his cultural upbringing, easily drew from him vibrant lines of exhortation to his countrymen to live up to the ideals of their forbears, without at the same time losing the capacity for imbibing the best of modern orientation in many aspects of our life. His intense spiritual longings lit up his entire outlook and also permeated his poetry with a glow of ineffable exaltation of spirit. If he described Panchali in his celebrated poem as dishevelled of locks and despairing of help from all those around watching her pathetic plight, there was an implied suggestion of the utterly humiliating circumstances in which India, his dear land, was then situated under the British yoke. Thus his patriotism ran equal to his poet fervour in whatever he touched. He was at the same time not uninfluenced by the traditional objectives of true poetry which guarantees in no small measure a living religion in the hearts of both the muse and musician. The imprimatur of his spiritual experience cannot be more effectively envisaged by us than in the bunch of poems entitled ‘Kannamma’ from his pen, stirring us with their extraordinary beauty of imagery and exquisiteness or lyrical charm. But before he could display matured thought and richer vision he was snatched away by untimely death. His spirit burned with such a steady light that even his articles or topical value which appeared in the ‘Swadesamitran’ contained genuine sparks of the fire. His prose too deserves attention from us of a later period for its engaging vividness and freedom from affectation. The present day renaissance in Tamil prose owes not a little to Bharati’s intrepidity in expressing whatever he wrote with directness and clarity.
Bharati tried his skill at fiction too, but with indifferent success. His soul, steeped in poetry, perhaps could not bring itself down to reeling out long dialogues and contrive adroit situations which, for the sake of enduring realism, a writer is forced to adopt in a novel. Or perhaps, had he lived some more years, he would have demonstrated his originality and power of moving hearts by means of fiction as well.
But Bharati was not without fine models before him at that time. Pandit Natesa Sastri, a writer of novels, indebted to Sanskrit and Tamil alike for contribution to his distinct style, pleased a generation of much English-educated individuals whose tastes were trained in the classics of Dickens and Thackeray. Though originality was not his forte, still Sastri’s inimitable sketches of domestic scenes, in two of his totally home-made novels, sprang a surprise upon a world starved for such fine portrayal of intimate life. A. Madhaviah, a compeer of Sastri, came out with his novels of complete realistic imagination, betraying no doubt his indebtedness to master-novelists like Thackeray. His ‘Padmavati-Charitram’ and ‘Vijayamarthandam’ are the results of a conscious art and a desire to choose the channel of fiction for spreading new ideals among the youth of the land with our healthy contacts with the West. Indeed, some others too of the early fiction-writers have left indelible marks of their receptivity to new thought and new ways of expression. Translations into Tamil from Bankim Chandra Chatterjee–the Sir Walter Scott of the Indian literary scene–also spurred on literary minds to devote themselves more and more to the medium of the novel, though only with limited success.
Thus the first two decades of the present century saw the rise and growth of a class of English-educated persons cultivating self- expression with zeal in the mother-tongue. Despite the first flush of success attending upon their attempts at modernising literary forms, they did not evince signs of outgrowing alien influences at their best.
The essay, as an alluring form for the artist to convey his philosophy of outlook, caught the imagination of some of the promising penmen of the period, though the full gamut of its usefulness and aim failed to attract them. Chelvakesavaraya Mudaliar, Vedachalam Adigal and Thiru Vi. Ka (Kalyanasundara Mudaliar), three of the earliest to adopt the essay as the medium of their expression to impart to the Tamil-loving people some of their favourite conceptions regarding life and achievement, impressed themselves sufficiently on the literary history of the times. Sometimes their well-reasoned articles came in for discussion among friendly groups with both animation and understanding. Vedachalam, in his later years known as Marai Malai Adigal, was a good Sanskrit student, and, despite his deep prejudices against the Aryan tongue, gave the world a very compact and illuminating appreciation of Kalidasa’s ‘Sakuntalam’, which certainly can be read with profit by all those who care for real critical literary appreciation. Text-books on grammar and dictionaries began to be produced to meet the growing educational needs, as also works on modern scientific subjects. Lexicographers we have had in the past like Rottler and Winslow, both of the West, with their deep love of Tamil, and S. Vaiyapuri Pillai, still with us, with his unusually unbiased outlook and severe self-examination whenever he has to contribute his point of view upon controversial topics, as for instance the Age of the Sangam and the date of ‘Tholkappiam’.
Creative literature in Tamil should be deemed to have not had much of a beginning before the Gandhian era of non-cooperation Movement and its varied reactions on the public mind. Save for a few pioneers who have been already dealt with briefly, real enthusiasm for creative writing hardly ever stimulated minds before the thirties of this century. Energetic discontent was solely responsible for the sudden rich output in the field of short-stories by many young and spirited youths, requiring the solace of self-expression in their desire for freedom from repression of some kind or other. The lamp Bharati lighted in the festival of revival was neither left untrimmed nor allowed to burn fitfully. We are too near to the period to estimate correctly its achievement. Yet one thing will be clear, namely, that the birth of a number of journals and periodicals in the thirties bears witness to a new throb of life in the production of books and pamphlets in Tamil. Dailies like ‘Swadesamitran’ had already paved the way for a certain amount of accurate reportage and news vending. But the real journalistic flair in Tamil had not been envisaged properly till ‘Ananda Vikatan’ under Kalki made its appearance on the scene. It was with Kalki’s entry into the field that we come across journalistic writing containing a combination of directness and lightness of touch in dealing with problems of national import. Kalki must be acknowledged as the true architect of Tamil journalism, because he alone gave it an impetus to take a leading part in the shaping of public opinion on many vital matters affecting the country. With a pen dipped in humour and irony he whipped up a sluggish public conscience and inert political thinking into action. His style refreshingly struck a mean between richness of diction and commonness of idiom, and made the normal reader feel a familiarity with the written language as at no other previous period. Added to it was his unique talent to analyse facts and to argue cogently when espousing any great case. A rich harvest of appreciation he gained for his unprecedented power to employ happy turns of expression; and naturally, once he succeeded in capturing Tamil Nad by his ability for writing, at every step it was assured to him, whether it was a short or a long story, or whether it was a thousand paged novel or a film version of a saga of Tamil Nad’s eminent rulers of old.
Following in his wake there have been many similar attempts at periodical productions, but of course with much less effective verve or vigour in presentation of matter. Still we cannot be blind to the great scope these journals gave to rising talent to win the first laurels in short-story writing. Many young men and women with little or no claim to any deep cultivation of mind through a study of any of the literatures, Tamil, Sanskrit or English, exhibited marks of promise and easy self-expression in fictional output. Also due to the voraciousness of readers of these journals, a group of writers, whose credentials to recognition rest merely on their imitative faculties of much that is foreign and unindigenous, caused a glamour for such stuff in the hearts of the inexperienced. We have, as an outcome of the prevalence of journals, a strange admixture of good and bad even in the field of the short-story which certainly bids fair to equal in its popularity that of some of the Western countries.
Very talented short-story writers too we have had, who doubtless can be ranked with some of the best in the world. Space does not permit of mention being made of many of them Individually, though, for the sake of the landmarks being known, I cannot refrain from referring to one or two who are no more. Ku. Pa. Ra (Rajagopalan) and Pudumai Pithan (Vriddhachalam) can be just touched upon here, as the task of writing about the host of other short-story writers would mean personal embarrassment to me as well dissatisfaction to them by reason of inevitable omissions and commissions in the preparation of such a list.
Ku. Pa. Ra had to his credit a fine bunch of original and fascinating stories which make us forget ourselves by the keen penetration of human nature and unerring eye for life’s little problems enshrined in them. His mind was richly stocked with intimations born of personal observation and experience of a society which, in its last throes of rebirth, had necessarily to borrow alien influences and Un-Indian habits of thinking, in order to secure equilibrium in a world of divided loyalties to the cutures of the West and the East. Pudumai Pithan delighted and offended by turns, as he regaled the advanced and reviled the conservative element amidst a people who were living a double existence as a consequence of the prevailing political unrest. His satire was effective and his raillery at a world too complacent to be hurt by atrocities in the name of civilisation can shake any soul out of its poise. His literary output easily traversed the range of varied forms of writing known to us. His place among the accredited leaders of the art of short-story is assured. 1
(To be concluded)
1 Paper read to the members of the P. E. N., Madras, under the presidentship of Sri Sri Prakasa.