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Deep rivers

Kannan M.
Jennifer Clare


François Gros

Texte intégral

To the memory of Armand Minard (1906-1998),
my first professor of Sanskrit,
who, in a letter prodding me to pursue Indian studies added a postscript:

“If you have a few pence, buy La fraîche by Lucienne Desnoues,
a small poetry collection, absolutely wonderful.”

It was in 1958, in a recently released sixty page book by
an unknown author, that I read:

  • 1 la fraîche in Coll. «jeune poésie nrf», Gallimard 1958. Lucienne Desnoues (1921-2004) is a lesser (...)

« On va déballer la fraîcheur du monde…
Mon cœur débardeur, empoignons la vie »1

“We are going to unpack the freshness of the world...
My docker heart let us grapple life to us”

1The texts collected here represent landmarks in the three areas of the field of Tamil studies I have ventured to explore; Caṅkam, Bhakti, and the contemporary period. No serious attempt has been made to vindicate or update writings that reflect an itinerary occupying more than forty years. However, a few alterations rectify factual errors or suggest further reading.

2A personal assessment of this retrospective prompts the following random remarks that deal with some of the issues at stake in the field of classical Tamil studies and, as well, with the important place given here to the contemporary; this may be unexpected from a specialist in classical Tamil, but the issue is, in any case, a crucial one for the disciplines concerned.

  • 2 See for example, the Proceedings of the First International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies, K (...)

3When, abandoning the world of ancient Greek and Latin and French literature, I ventured into Indian studies in the mid-nineteen-sixties, the access to Tamil studies for international Indology remained, even after more than a century of mostly local erudition, quite “confidential” and mostly confined to approaches to the most ancient literature. Apart from rare, committed, often militant, Tamil scholars, only a few open minded Sanskritists, such as Jean Filliozat or Siegfried Lienhard were finding the way towards a cultural dialogue, soon to be enriched by the first publications of George L. Hart.2

  • 3 To widen that horizon, Roland Lardinois, L’invention de l’Inde, Entre ésotérisme et science, CNRS (...)

4If we look at the fringes of French Indology3 however, we discover three interesting openings onto Tamil language or culture. In the 19th century itself, we notice a demand for the creation of a Tamil chair in Nancy; some years later the congresses of orientalists formulated a similar request for a school of oriental languages at Paris. Later on, Tamil Nadu became a part of a particular landscape of religious and mystic interaction, including, for example the experience of Roman Catholic priests such as Jules Monchanin and Henri Le Saux, a bye product of the extensive French missionary implantation in Tamil Nadu, and, equally, the prestigious teaching of Ramana Maharishi at his ashram at Tiruvannamalai. Last, but not least, the impact of Louis Dumont on Indian sociology, with the necessary reference to his south-Indian field work, gave impetus to these studies; we must, by the way, clearly state that the development, in recent studies, of a more holistic anthropological attitude should imply more emphasis on regional data, and thus better integration of Tamil literature as a whole. Unfortunately, the claim for this literature’s unique antiquity has too often limited the South-Indian horizon to Caṅkam literature, to its leading interpreters or translators, and to the confused debate on its dating, still in question today.

5Influenced by this perspective and discovering Caṅkam literature for myself, I thought it essential to contribute to the confirming of the opinion that Tamil literature is not only beautiful, as my translation work led me discover and share with others, but has the aura of being the most ancient Indian literature, other than Sanskrit. For a Tamil scholar, the first thing was to make sure of the literature’s antiquity by means of synchronisms as would withstand criticism, and for an Indologist, the first thing was to moderate the more political than scientific enthusiasm of a local nationalism determined to support unconditionally the radical originality of a literature which, in fact, could be quite naturally integrated into the general pattern of Indian literatures, an argument unfortunately, however, too often turned against Tamil by purely Sanskritic Indology.

  • 4 Whence the sometimes excessive insistence on taking into account from their first striking formula (...)

6To rely too exclusively on synchronisms was, of course, to fall into the trap the historical discourse sets for the student of literature who is overconfident to the point of transforming verisimilitude into certitude. If some synchronisms did seem questionable, early dating was, from then on, encouraged by the new perspective of epigraphy which, though still hesitant, looked to be so rich in promise:4 a promise that was to be fulfilled, as it happened, at the turn of 21st c. We thus fervently welcomed the first conclusions which, after the initial outburst of enthusiasm, soon began to look hasty or overreaching; there are therefore, in the footnotes to various old papers collected here, some regrets and corrections.

  • 5 Marr accepted the information found in the colophons and meticulously listed the possible indicati (...)

7In fact, one particular, once famous, synchronism was not expected to survive long after I published the Paripāṭal in 1968, that is, Gajabāhu’s synchronism. John Marr had actually pointed out its major weakness on purely philological grounds, in his 1958 thesis: the data rested, he said: “on secondary evidence in Tamil sources, the patikam to decade V of Patiṟṟu. and the prose Uraipeṟukaṭṭurai to the patikam to Cilappatikāram by an unknown early editor.” His warning, however, remained unnoticed, buried in the records of the SOAS, till a printed version of the thesis was made available in India, in 1985.5

8But there was a much more fundamental objection, in terms of methodology, which gives to the episode a paradigmatic value which has mostly been overlooked. Gananath Obeyesekere, exploring the folklore of the goddess Pattiṉi, exposed the mythical character of Gajabāhu in that context and demonstrated the impossibility of inferring history from non-historical data. The argument was decisive, the approach unimpeachable and seemingly so obvious. It was presented in an article in the first issue of The Ceylon Journal of the Humanities (January 1970 Vol. 1, No 1, pp. 25-56, “Gajabāhu and the Gajabāhu Synchronism. An inquiry into the relationship between myth and history”). Obeyesekere explained why “the independent references to Gajabāhu in the Cilappatikāram, and the Sinhalese chronicles” cannot be used as historical argument to date the Cilappatikāram since all the anthropological evidence is against the identification of any Gajabāhu of “historic” claims with the mythic figure of a Gajabāhu of the Pattiṉi cult in Ceylon (which would suggest a very much later date, 10-13th century, for the Tamil poem).

9This article did not, however, receive the attention it deserved and it was only in 1984, with the publication by Chicago University of The Cult of the Goddess Pattiṉi, (Indian edition in 1987), that its fundamental contribution was recognised as such. Obeyesekere, in fact, opened the way to an “archaeo-ethnology” which assured him of a brilliant career, unfortunately not in the heart of the Tamil land. Today another pioneer in a neighbouring field remains likewise ignored: P. L. Samy who, in a few fundamental articles in Ārāiycci in the nineteen seventies traced new, yet to be followed, paths towards a better integration of the subject matter of ancient Tamil poems with such remains of popular folk traditions as he collected on the borders of Tamil Nadu. Unfortunately there was never occasion for a dialogue between P. L. Samy and Madeleine Biardeau who, in her own style, also called for more interaction between classical mythology and popular forms of Hinduism. Not even the contemporary Tamil specialists concerned seem to see any such connection with their own ancient literature.

10It must be said that, notwithstanding Obeyesekere, Gajabāhu synchronism is still evoked today, and this will continue because the identifying of a “first” Gajabāhu continues to rely upon the credit granted to the Mahāvaṃśa, which is read uncritically as an “historical chronicle”, probably due to the fact that the early chronology of Sri Lanka is still built exclusively on its listing.

  • 6 See Journal Asiatique CCXLIX, 4, (1961) pp. 441-459 with bibliography, and, for more details J. Pi (...)

11The next major synchronism based upon the relations of India with the West, and especially the Roman Empire, is certainly solid when considered as a whole. But we observe that details expected to stand as absolute dating have actually been shifted back and forth across two centuries by western scholars over two or three generations. For several decades, the conclusions of two works had been taken for granted: M. P. Charlesworth Trade-Routes and Commerce of the Roman Empire, (first edition in 1924, and French translation in 1938, by G. Blumberg and P. Grimal), and E. H. Warmington The Commerce between the Roman Empire and India, (Cambridge Univ. Press 1928). When I began my Indian curriculum, however, the Belgian historian of the Middle East, Jacqueline Pirenne, had just overthrown the then accepted chronology (middle of 1st c. CE) of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.6 She proposed dating it 225CE, coming back very close, in fact, to the date of 247CE proposed exactly one century earlier, in 1861, in the same journal of the French Asiatic Society, by M. Reinaud, a remarkable French orientalist of the 19th c. So, the order of the day was to correct the ‘outdated’ edition of W. Schoff (1912) by reverting to Reinaud; I accepted this enthusiastically, all the more so because another and better edition by Frisk had been issued in 1927.

12But Pirenne’s thesis has now been rejected too and nobody trusts a date in the 3rd c. CE anymore: the international scholarly community reverts to a dating in the second half of the 1st c. CE, after considering possibly crucial details provided by data coming from the study of the Middle East and the east coast of Africa.

  • 7 The Periplus Maris Erythraei, Text with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary by Lionel Casson (...)

13We may possibly never know the exact date. But Jean Filliozat, who admired Reinaud’s exceptional and direct knowledge of sources (Greek, Latin, Arabian, Persian, Indian and Chinese) immediately invited me to prepare a new edition of the Periplus and provided me with the photocopy of the 15 folios of its unique manuscript preserved in Heidelberg, from which I actually started learning Greek palaeography. His colleagues, Louis Renou and Pierre Chantraine, did not however encourage me: both had burnt their fingers in their youth on Greek sources on India, the first editing Ptolemy (1925), the second Arrian (1927). Finally, the new standard reference edition and translation was completed nearly thirty years later, by Lionel Casson.7

14This anecdote is an eye opener and perhaps a warning to Indian students who would venture into the field of ancient classical western erudition without being fully equipped to evaluate directly the original sources before using them to support arguments. It was, for example, unfortunate and misleading for students that the old compilation of G. E. Gerini, dated 1909, Researches on Ptolemy’s Geography of Eastern Asia (further India and Indo-malay Archipelago) was reprinted in India in 1974 without a word of caution, after C. R. Boxer (on the Portuguese and maritime history of South-east Asia) Paul Wheatley (The Golden Khersonese, 1961) or O. W. Wolters (For example Early Indonesian Commerce, A study of the origins of Srivijaya, 1967) had considerably renewed our approach to the subject; this is not to mention the research carried out over the last nearly fifty years by archaeologists from Australia, Japan, North America or France, on South-East Asia maritime traffic and marine artefacts, (see the bibliographies of Kenneth Hall or Pierre-Yves Manguin), while the active awareness of local scholars considerably enriches the available documentation.

  • 8 Quoted in Alagankulam An Ancient Roman Port City of Tamil Nadu, Editor T. S. Sridhar, Dept. of Arc (...)

15That is why we cannot think today of drawing a picture of Tamil Nadu from 2nd c. BCE to 2nd c. CE without integrating, for example, the results of the work accomplished at Arikamedu by the late Vimala Begley, the important recent field work of Tamil archaeologists in the hinterland at Kodumanal nor a graffito found in Alagankulam, famous for representing a ship which Lionel Casson has identified as a three-masted ship, “the largest type of Greco-Roman merchantman afloat” and “doubtless among the ships used on the long and demanding route between Greco-Roman Egypt and India. The graffito may well be a portrayal of a such ship that the artist saw in an Indian port.”8

16We have, thus, enough documents attesting to the Roman connection from the 2nd c. BCE, to 2nd c. CE; and Roman coins from the early 5th c. together with Pāṇṭiya coins show the continuity of a commercial activity which presumes a fully fledged civilisation covering many centuries. Simultaneously, the latest and quite comprehensive panorama of South and South-East Asian archaeology now expected from the forthcoming publication of the Acts of the Conference on Early Indian Influences in Southeast Asia, held in Singapore on 21-23 November 2007, is equally very rich. We understand that it is also a plea for a better integration of Indian archaeologists into the new problematics of comparative research on maritime archaeology in Eastern Asia.

17In the case of epigraphy and archaeology, updating is a never ending task, and there is always the possibility of controversies being fuelled by an unexpected discovery. For example, while I was proudly revealing the Jambai inscription to a French audience in 1982, some scholars were beginning, perhaps unfairly, to question it in Madras, so that it was some time before its true importance was finally accepted by everyone. This was also partly due to some overreaching speculation on the origins and date of the (Andhra) Satavahana/Satakarni dynasty, in memory of the theories of J. Przyluski in the nineteen-thirties on the Munda origin of the horse name, while the discovery of a bilingual Satavahana coin in Tamil and Prakrit was more crucial than any myth. What may we then extrapolate today, in 2008, from the quite promising preliminary results of excavations recently conducted at Paṭṭaṇam (Muziris) in Kerala? Dare we already speak, claiming to be breaking the news, that on this very important site we may be dealing with vestiges from the 5th c. BCE, when, at the same time, Dr. Cherian himself cautiously expects more results from a wider exploration “for a clearer picture of the chronology of the site” (The Hindu, 9 Jan. 2008). Previous experience suggests caution.

18It seems, nevertheless, that after nearly half a century of daring hypotheses and heated controversies, a large corpus in Tamil Brāhmī script, on rocks or pottery from around the beginning of CE, has become a well established historical landmark. The cautious conclusions of Y. Subbarayalu may be accepted: that trade contacts with the north, existing as early as the Iron Age (Megalithic Age), intensified from the time of Ashoka, encouraging Tamil traders to develop their own script from the knowledge borrowed from Prakrit speaking merchants, while the Jain monks who probably accompanied the trading groups were more concentrated around political and cultural centres: hence their presence, as attested to by rock inscriptions round about Madurai, capital of the Pāṇṭiya kings, where there was also a large concentration of the Tamil poets of the Caṅkam anthologies. Take heed however, since inferences here are drawn almost exclusively from the comparison of names of persons, about fifty per cent of which are of Prakrit origin, and of course there is no evidence there as would assist in reckoning the intervals between the time of the inscriptions and the time of the anthologising of the poems, the date of collection being, naturally, different from the actual, incommensurable, period of their composition. In terms of literature we are still on very insecure ground.

19On the historical level, the complete opposite effect is produced; the increasingly wide synchronisation of archaeological evidence puts back, to before the beginning of the first millennium, contacts with the Occident as well as, increasingly, with all of South East Asia. Archaeologists, especially those interested in marine archaeology, suggest an integration of South India into cultural networks, ancient but unfortunately without written traces of their beginnings. Even less well established is the communication between the pioneers who have developed their researches on South East Asia while India, which also begins to have its word to say, must deplore the linguistic obstacles between its researchers and the new generation of scholars from South East Asia. A proto-history is in the process of coming into being, attesting to important changes and assuming the existence of a structured hinterland, which it intends to explore. The systematic exploration of the material information remains to be outlined for the most fragile material, that is, cloth, and even more glassware and ceramic, a territory on which Noboru Karashima marks the points, since the dating of Chinese ceramics is more reliable than that of Roman pottery whose itinerary is more complex. There remains the study of ships and shipbuilding yards and the details of port installations and relations with the hinterland. India, as regards marine archaeology, has a serious backlog to make up for the researches first undertaken on the west coast by R. Nagaswamy have not, over a long period, given rise to any follow up. Further, epigraphy is not the answer to everything and tells us more about the merchant guilds than about maritime warfare or naval shipyards; Sri Lanka is richer in information (Epigraphia Indica XXII, p. 87 an epigraph dated 1175 mentions Matotam, Uratturai, Mattival, Pulaicheri, Vallikamam…).

20What now obviously remains in question is no longer the existence of a cultured Tamil society during the period of such brisk maritime intercourse, but rather how, where, and when are we to anchor the early literary production in Tamil. In other words, where does Caṅkam literature fit in? But our pulavar are no historians and if a school of historians exists, one that takes the trouble to put literary texts and the epigraphical corpus together, as for instance, M. G. S. Narayanan and R. Champakalakshmi and their disciples, Rajan Gurukkal or Kesavan Veluthat, their work has more authority in history than in literary exegesis, though in Kerala the work of Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai showed the way to a high standard of critical acumen. Writing in Malayalam, with the sole exception of a collection of articles translated into English, (Studies in Kerala History, Kottayam, 1970), he questioned, from at least 1958, the early date given to Caṅkam literature. Granted that more ancient texts might have been lost, (was it on his part a mere captatio benvolentiae?), he considered that Tolkāppiyam along with the entire surviving corpus could not be earlier than 7th c. CE. This date should now probably be considered as a possible terminus ad quem.

  • 9 «Les châtiments de l’enfer sont toujours la dernière nouveauté qui se présente dans ce domaine. » (...)

21In the theoretical realm, in the particular case of classical Tamil, it is historical speculation which first of all appears fragile, and ephemeral too, but surprisingly it is less so than one might have believed. Even though the bringing to completion of the bibliography represents a tedious task,9 creating the impression of an ancient edifice regularly buried beneath the mass of fresh information, we discover, paradoxically enough, that the so called renewal of themes comprises an incalculable number of “cyclical” repetitions, and that, essentially, plenty of formerly diffused hypotheses are still quite plausible or, more exactly, grow old only to be reborn through formulations we sometimes find expressed, word for word, by past generations.

22While historians and proto-historians struggle to grasp a definite chronology through positive data only, another trend of dating ancient Tamil literature is today putting the finishing touches to a complete cycle from which we revert to the state of the question in the middle of the 19th c., the short period during which the literature taken as being the most ancient was Bhakti literature since the forgotten Caṅkam had not yet been recovered.

23Learned Tamils in fact were discovering it progressively from 1850 to the turn of the century and devoted much energy to affirming both its originality and its antiquity. From then on both these qualities have naturally been exaggerated: Dravidian nationalism, on the defensive, minimised the relationship with the ambient Sanskrit culture and regional historians called upon approximate and uncertain synchronisms to guarantee the maximum antiquity for their particular visions. Such excesses did disservice to their cause with western scholars, otherwise well informed of the controversies, such as Julien Vinson, bristling at mythological argument being introduced into historical discourse and refusing to extrapolate from a refined ancient culture the historical existence of that epoch of a literature which no Tamil writing was, in their opinion, able to fix as before the 7th c. The fundamental controversy thus turned around palaeography which was then establishing itself as a standard discipline.

  • 10 In the pamphlet “French, another effort to be republican”, inserted into La Philosophie dans le bo (...)

24At the extreme of a purely bookish approach, however, the actual historical debate has lost its place and stopped making sense; it would otherwise have to face up to a dilemma that is impossible to resolve. In fact, as far as texts are concerned, the most extreme chronology comes back in this perspective to the starting point at the middle of the 19th c.: Caṅkam literature, at best, would have started from the 8th c.; and more probably, far from preceding Bhakti literature the antiquity of which is also brought into question, it would even have been inspired by it and therefore have been later. In a word, it must have been the eulogies of the gods by the religious poets of the Bhakti movement which gave the secular authors the occasion to practise their scales in all forms of court literature as found in the somewhat artificially antiquated collections called Caṅkam poetry. Sade has presented the argument more briefly in a single blank verse “Qui peut servir des rois doit adorer des dieux”10 (To serve kings, one must worship gods).

  • 11 Latest echoes of the debate in Herman Tieken “A propos three recent publications on the question o (...)

25Simultaneously, the originality of the Tamil Caṅkam is also eroded by another set of philological argumentation based on the earlier existence of Sanskrit Kāvya and its formulations in theoretical texts on poetics. The very quality of the poetry is dissolved from within, thanks to the work of the termite theoreticians of the poetics and of textual analysis. A new wave of learning, having swept away, with some justification, the false certitudes and uncertain chronological anchorages, now sets out to drown everything still afloat in a comparativist tidal wave which dissolves, in the implacable monotony of any Indian literature (starting with the Sanskrit masterpieces), everything that might be taken as original accents springing out of the Tamil soil. Rhetoricians harry beneath their grammarian’s rule all that would contravene the laws of genres as defined by the theoretical texts. Nothing is any longer either genuine or invented since everything may be learned and copied from texts attested to earlier.11

26Briefly speaking, while history is well on its way to asserting the antiquity of Tamil culture, Caṅkam literature should, in contrast, be treated as in no way different from the medieval culture common to the whole of India: it would be nothing but a regional variant which, at the beginning of the second millennium of our era, has succeeded in artificially reconstructing, with a great deal of archaisms, a mythic past. This could even be explained, perhaps, as a simple reaction of re-appropriation by the Pāṇṭiya kings faced with the long hegemony of the Cōḻa monarchs, whose origins are to be sought far more in the North, in Bengal and Orissa, from whence they had their rājaguru-s come; in such a movement ideology was inseparable from the development of an agrarian settlement policy whose stakes we are quite hazy about but which epigraphy may, we hope, progressively reveal to us as joint intricacies of politics and religion under the Cōḻa.

  • 12 It is no longer permitted to ignore the importance of the scientific exchanges between textualists (...)

27When all this will tip over into history, no one knows. In the meantime, however, we must recognise, starkly, that it is epigraphists and archaeologists, and perhaps also students of Buddhism, as they have at their disposal testimonies written in the first centuries CE, who will, in this context, henceforth be responsible for keeping history moving and, too, that closing history away in literary specialization is less likely to produce any solid new element. Further, in the meantime, the vast field of Tamil medieval literature is not explored for its intrinsic value. New perspectives on indology invite us to treat medieval Tamil literature on a par with Sanskrit texts for a better understanding of the religious reality, not only considered for textual parallelism between Sanskrit and Tamil texts with the aim of comparing two rhetorical attitudes or two grammars, but also digging into the vast fields of rituals, puranic studies and religious doctrines, and all that oriented towards the anthropological approach to the problems which is gaining ground globally everyday.12 This is the best way to associate Tamil and Sanskrit for a properly comprehensive study of medieval Tamil culture, including the lessons of epigraphic documents which may offer more secure ground for dating and quantifying data.

28To fill in, entente is still difficult too, anyway between an official position supported by a pan-Indian governmental ruling which recently made Tamil the second classical language of India after Sanskrit, and the vision that the American Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock has attempted to impose on the whole of South and South East Asia of a “Sanskrit cosmopolis”: this view was immediately opposed and questioned by the periphery (which insists on the regional variations) into which more than a century of Tamil “independence” obviously refuses to be integrated.

29Beyond all the fantasies and controversies of these vast utopia, two facts important in terms of methodology are to be underlined.

30The first is that the vision of that cosmopolis is a vision condemned to remain theoretical because exclusively literary, in defiance of the fact that it is no longer possible to think scientifically about Sanskrit through texts alone. Its concrete social support is yet to be clearly defined socially and historically, especially in its relationship with power, not that it was always the exclusive language of princely and royal courts. It is a brahmin milieu which must find its place in a more holistic “indological” vision of the whole Hindu world and, even more, of the so-called “Hinduised” world of South East Asia.

  • 13 Paper presented at the Conference on Early Influences in Southeast Asia, 21-23 Nov. 2007 Singapore

31An article by J. Bronkhorst on “The Spread of Sanskrit in Southeast Asia”13 correctly insists upon that reality. Pollocks’s cosmopolis does not, according to its own author, rest upon any functionalist reduction of Sanskrit, such as the pragmatic concept of a lingua franca or koinè, adapted for commercial or diplomatic usage, which the historian gladly agrees with, or as the metaphysical vision of the ideological legitimization of power which goes on indefinitely seducing anthropologists. The mere rejection of functionalism is not enough to disassociate Sanskrit from the brahmins, while to invoke the principle of “politics as aesthetic power” can only push away or shirk the question. For there is, behind the vision of Sanskrit as of a language in which the gods are poets or grammarians, or both, the vision of post-Maurya India marked by Bronkhorst: the brahmins are installed in their traditional capacity as keepers of knowledge useful in the functioning of the kingdom in Borneo, in Champa, in Burma, and in Cambodia; “brahmins stand beside the king to perform the rituals just as they do in the most southern part of India”. A nice way to suggest that it is the alliance of politics and religion which rules over the world, but without, however analysing this complex combination.

32To put it plainly, there has been a desire to bury Greater India and to dust off the Hinduization of South East Asia, but what has been put in its place is an oikoumenè: a cosmopolis which is to assemble, in Sanskrit and in the hands of the brahmins, all the hierarchy of power, where the kṣatriya recognise the supremacy of the brahmins as far as rituals and texts go. In this way is reaffirmed, without its genesis being made entirely clear nor any pronouncement as to its functioning being issued, the “dumontienne” vision of homo hierarchicus where the purohita triumphs definitively at the king’s side as the king’s ritualistic “major ego” as Louis Dumont formulates it.

33This discourse, however, overlooks the second fact: the existence of another equally cosmopolitan oikoumenè, the buddhist oikoumenè, celebrated in India in a grandiose manner on the occasion of the First International Conference on “Buddhism and National Cultures”, New Delhi, October 10-15, 1984, which had as its climax the address of the Closing Session delivered in the presence of Indira Gandhi by Prof. Lokesh Chandra, specifically entitled “Buddhist Oikoumenè”. That oikoumenè is demonstrated by the entire life’s work of Lokesh Chandra himself, and is widely represented by the international range of Buddhist studies from Ceylon to Korea: “In the course of 2,500 years it has exercised an abiding influence on the minds and horizons of India, Indo-Greek principalities that arose in wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great, Central Asian kingdoms, the Middle Kingdom of China, Korea, the Land of Morning Calm, Japan, the Country of the Rising Sun, Vietnam, Tibetan Region, Mongolia, Siberia, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Kampuchea and Indonesia”. The abstract speculation of some Sanskrit scholars does not seem to be disturbed by such a fundamental parallel. Bronkhorst has however rightly insisted upon it; from the moment of looking at the sources of South East Asian history it must be taken into account.

  • 14 After the works of Shu Hikosaka, see the two volumes published by the Institute of Asian Studies i (...)

34The works of Peter Skilling may contribute to the unravelling of all the complexities of Buddhist communities throughout South East Asia, without up till now presenting the revelation of South India. As far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, after the recent Japanese inventories which were eager to uncover all the, if possible ancient, traces, Peter Schalk, on the contrary, insists on demolishing all the “pseudo” evidence for a significant Buddhist presence in Tamil Nadu before the Pallava, even though some archaeological findings and the testimonies of Sri Lanka obviously give us another image.14

  • 15 Jean-Pierre Osier, in les jaïna Critiques de la mythologie hindoue, Paris, 2005 emphasises the var (...)

35It would not be frivolous carefully to measure afresh the place held in the cultural destiny of Tamil India, or even of the South Deccan, by the two “fire walls” against Hindu hegemony which were the two heresies, Jaina and Buddhist. One particular aspect of that opposition has been the use of derision15 which has certainly been welcomed by the Tamil psyche, always prone to criticise, and even in popular literature to lampoon, the brahmins and their rites or myths: in modern times we could easily trace it from the sectarian polemical literature, such as the Irucamaiya Viḷakkam, or the texts of Ayothi Das Pantitar.

  • 16 Recent survey in P. M. Joseph, Jainism in South India, Trivandrum, 1997.
  • 17 Outline for a parallel between Jain and Saivite hagiographies in T. P. Meenakshisundaram, “Tamil a (...)

36Periodically, archaeologists and historians make a reassessment of the vestiges of Buddhism in South India. The latter, are at the moment, of foreign, notably Japanese, inspiration. The cultural Jaina presence has never really receded16 even if the aggressive Saivism of M. Arunachalam, in defiance of all likelihood, attributes to it an aggressive policy towards Tamil ancient culture, which he has not been able to substantiate. Even if it is on the borders of Tamil Nadu, particularly in Karnataka, that its most representative monumental presence stands, here too literary studies demand a bringing to light, and a more extensive comparative examination, of medieval literature of puranic inspiration.17

  • 18 See pages devoted to this subject with bibliography, in the article on Tamil Dalit literature in t (...)

37What is certainly neglected in a panorama of the whole, is the permanence of Buddhism in South India as of the 8th and 9th centuries and the astonishing vitality of its modern resurgence. It is something like the resurrection of an old affront when an offensive return of Buddhism takes place, with Ayothi Das Pantitar, bent on demystifying and desanctifying the Hindu values of homo hierarchicus. Behind these contemporaneous political strategies18 might there not be, first of all, the permanence of two ground swells which, both born in India, left her, submerged the whole of Asia and continued on through time in a significant way?

38Peter Schalk does not accord its true place to the modern movement that anticipated the positions of Ambedkar in Tamil Nadu. The phenomenon is important; it is necessary to refer to the writings on Ayothi Das Pantitar, and to read Lakshmi Narasu, Religion of the Modern Buddhist, posthumously published by G. Aloysius, which usefully completes the author’s other publications and justifies Lakshmi Narasu’s presentation by Ambedkar in the following terms:

  • 19 Lakshmi Narasu, Religion of the modern Buddhist, Edited and Introduced by G. Aloysius, Wordsmiths, (...)

“Professor Narasu… fought European arrogance with patriotic fervour, orthodox Hinduism with iconoclastic zeal, heterodox Brahmins with a nationalistic vision and aggressive Christianity with a rationalist outlook, all under the inspiring banner of… the teachings of the great Buddha.”19

  • 20 It is not specifically under the purview of Sascha Ebeling, Transformation of Tamil Literature in (...)

39How can we thus stumble from the great narrative of Professor Pollock into a sub-sectarian publication, by a christian, the work of a neo-Buddhist theoretician, for the benefit of Tamil Dalit ideology? There is nothing erratic here, and we won’t disown this strange contrastive encounter, as it allows us to broach the important problem of the relations between two rather different types of critical literature. It is unfortunate that western indologists debate in English in a world of their own of restricted circulation, possessed of their own cultural background and most often ignoring the possible existence of secondary sources, a grey literature in various Indian languages. At the same time, their Indian counterparts have little knowledge of what is at stake for them in the western discourse. Exceptions exist to be sure, and a new generation of NRI research scholars in Indian studies may bring about significant changes. However, when we deal with the history of Caṅkam literature, it becomes evident that there has been an entire century of internal Tamil debate, which a new generation of scholars conspicuously ignores.20 What have been, and what constitute today, the roots and the ideology of Tamil literary criticism? After a century and a half, what do we know about its content and its methodology? We know, for instance, of its focus on the recovery of Caṅkam literature, but was it considered as myth or as history? Several original research works by Sumathi Ramaswamy have described and partly deconstructed a passionate nationalist mythology, but its detailed history is yet to be undertaken. This is the way we should now look at the task of coping with a bibliography covering more than 150 years.

40Decolonisation is certainly no more an original research theme and we know that Edward Saïd’s extrapolations are particularly unconvincing where India is concerned, as his documentation on the area is weak. So, the time has come for a much more original assessment of the production of that period, especially because new generations of Tamil students know too little about it and, unfortunately, now have practically no access to the publications of that early period nor to the princeps editions of Tamil classics.

41And here another distressing topic cannot be avoided: the evaluation of our documentary resources. To start with, who, I wonder, remembers the following announcement in The Indian Express, on Sunday, November 1, 1987, through which Roja Muthiah advertised the sale of his collection: “A FAMOUS LIBRARY FOR SALE. About ONE LAC old and RARE TAMIL BOOKS 1828-1960 including Tamil Magazines. Fifty thousand article cuttings from various English and Tamil Magazines in all subjects. ONE LAC cuttings from newspapers. ONE LAC Pictures and Prints, and 50000 Drama Notices, Cinema-Herald and Notices, Invitation Cards, Greeting Cards, Rama Varma Prints etc. (fully difft.). Books in English, Sanskrit, and Grantha, about 3000[…] NO CATALOGUE. Interested persons’visiting invited.”

42The collection had been proposed to the British Museum Library (to Dr. Albertine Gaur) and to some French Libraries but no one could afford it. Later, James Nye was able to initiate a programme from Chicago, for the preservation in Chennai itself of these fragile sources which conferred on the collection the dignity of a new conservatory of knowledge. It may take over from older libraries and their brittle collections: Connemara, Madras Literary Society, Maraimalai Adigal Library, Madras Archives etc., not to mention the numerous private reading rooms, and lending libraries scattered all over Tamil Nadu, in Cuddalore, Kumbhakonam, and the Tamil Caṅkam in Madurai etc., which, for some generations, catered for local cultivated readers who were actually providing Caṅkam literature with its modern audience.

  • 21 See Burning Memories, a video documentary by Someetharan presented by Nihari Film Circle and Produ (...)

43Such treasures are dwindling and may disappear due to neglect. Worse, as regards the recent past of Tamil culture we have witnessed an irretrievable loss of international dimensions amounting to cultural genocide, when during the night of 1st to 2nd June 1981, the Jaffna Public Library was burned down along with its 97,000 books. It contained, among other unique deposits such as important private donations, the collections and archives of the American Mission in Jaffna, (the harvest of a whole century of activities, handed over in 1959) which had done so much for Tamil language and culture.21

  • 22 L’argent et les Lettres, Histoire du capitalisme d’édition, 1880-1920, Paris, Fayard, 1988.

44Tamil scholars may understandably feel emotional about this crime but there are other areas which call for their attention, and beyond the crucial problems of manuscripts or archives preservation, new ways of approaching documentation are now opened to researchers. To cite the names of Robert Darnton or Roger Chartier is unfortunately mere wishful thinking as long as structures such as the French Research Institute on the history of texts (IRHT, Institut de recherche et d’histoire des textes), for manuscripts, and the Institute of Contemporary Publishing Archives, (IMEC, Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine), for the modern history of publishing, evoke no echo: particularly the latter which supposes a very close cooperation of the research structures with the publishers, something which is yet to take place in India. The history of printing does exist and the thesis of R. Venkatachalapathy gave a hint of sales practices, but quantifying enquiries have yet to be undertaken; in Europe, while research dealing with the reading practices through the ages runs from the medieval church structures (or temples, or maṭam) to blogs on the internet, scholars such as Jean-Yves Mollier22 have developed studies on the financial aspect of publishing capitalism.

45But we must return to the fundamentals of methodology. Any reflection on literary criticism must be linked to learning how to read and must thus be a pedagogical approach. “A critic, said Emile Faguet, is just a man who knows how to read and who teaches others.” (“un homme qui sait lire et qui apprend à lire aux autres”). In classical Tamil, the situation is without ambiguity: for centuries literary criticism was passed on exclusively through commentaries and their transmission and, right up till today, mostly through oral teaching. While in the West the role given to the author may ultimately become a barrier between the text and the reader, in Tamil it is the frightening amount of the “intertextuality” that, along with its own significance and the world of references we must reconstruct through a proper reading of the commentaries, that may be standing between us and the original text.

46Two contemporaneities are, so to speak, always facing off: that of the work and that of the reader. But over long time spans more readers have accumulated more readings which are so many prisms through which we gain access to the text; the result of this is that the current reading is disturbed:

“To read an ancient author,” writes Michel Butor, “is never to read just the one […] The body of his writings is but the core of a huge ensemble comprising all that has been written on their subject, and that at every degree: critics of critics of critics.” (Répertoire III, p. 16).

«Lire un auteur ancien, ce n’est jamais ne lire que lui[…] Le corps de ses écrits n’est que le noyau d’un énorme ensemble comprenant tout ce qui a été rédigé à leur sujet, et ce à tous les degrés; critique des critiques des critiques.» (Répertoire III, p. 16).

47The cumulative effect of modern exegeses, so often general and superficial as well as terribly repetitive has alienated the younger generation of Tamils from the direct practice of the original texts and discouraged the western reader from pursuing the study, for which he badly needs introductory tools. Our personal endeavour has always favoured a return to reading the sources directly, but always with the help, and in the light, of the most basic traditional formulations, those of the most authoritative commentators. What stands the test of time is only the material that has in terms of philology, been most rigorously worked on; it remains the most solid: translation; literal exegeses; attention to the reading of what the texts spontaneously say rather than to the speculations that may be drawn from and then substituted for them.

48We have understood that, along with academic enquiry, the great debate that has been going on for more than a century on Tamil studies features essentially a vindication, a plea in favour of the most ancient and most original possible origins. There is a link here with the constructive forces which forged Dravidian nationalism: the cultural trilogy of Caṅkam literature, Bhakti, most likely to be Saiva but whose Vaishnava aspect is not to be minimised, and music: the Tēvāram and Carnatic song, kīrtaṉai and kuṟavañci.

49There is, thus, an existential connection between the popular political aspirations of the culture that Tamils share in daily life and the need to preserve at all costs the originality and antiquity of a literature which is, in some sense, their myth of origin, a golden age which is the basis of, and gives legitimacy to, present day aspirations. This is the point at which the debate often obscures what should in fact be the first concern of scholars, to serve and celebrate the intrinsic quality of the works which remain to us. It is also important constantly to reaffirm that the originality of a literary work cannot simply be measured in terms of the erudite comparativism of literary history but must fundamentally be considered in terms of its intrinsic qualities. One might suppose that after Walter Benjamin’s considerations on language, translation and history it would no longer be necessary to refine upon this point, and that we would have learned that if history and literature have the words in common (“Writing history means quoting history”), they don’t always get on well together and it rarely helps to associate them clumsily.

  • 23 Naṟṟiṇai Text and translation, 2008, IFP, Pondicherry.

50Finally, a plea must also be made for a forgotten link in the interests of creating more empathy with traditional Tamil culture: the charisma of the great examples must be rediscovered, a gallery of illustrious ancestors, so to speak, a little like the one that V. I. Subramoniam reconstituted at his Institute of Dravidian Linguistics at Thumba. Current biographies dealing with music, dramatic art, or even cinema, have accustomed us to reading the edifying stories of emblematic figures. What is holding us back from doing the same for the pioneers of Tamil literary research? Vaiyapuri Pillai has come out of limbo and his essays have been reissued; the French Institute acknowledges its debt to a humanist and Tamil scholar such as N. Kandaswamy Pillai.23 But we await, some form of homage to P. N. Appusamy, for example, who advised Vaiyapuri Pillai at the time of the edition of the Puṟattiraṭṭu, as early as 1939, for the particular care he brought to the philological quality of the edition, with some critical apparatus, but who is known only as the exigent, and too infrequent, translator of a few Caṅkam poems of which he notated scrupulously by hand the editions on his personal copies interleaved for that purpose. And then, what use are the linguists making of his remarkable articles in Tamil on popular science?

51The reputation and the lasting merit of what is called the popular edition of Tamil classics, financed by Murray Rajam, rely on the exceptional care in the proof reading and the quest for better lessons, but today’s linguists have not had the privilege of associating with his anonymous team of sub-editors; and the publications of Trust Sadhana are no more than the belated witness to their collective work. It would be gratifying if, in the euphoria over Tamil as the second classical language of India, justice were to be done to these generations of anonymous scholars and learned amateurs who are far too often forgotten.

52Coming back to P. N. Appusamy: he was a good example of a most open minded and modern offspring of a traditional Tamil milieu: a lawyer, a true Tamil scholar, as his intimacy with the scientific work of Vaiyapuri Pillai and his friendship with Murray Rajam show, a brilliant socialite within Madras society bristling with associative cultural life of music, drama, and amateur companies; he was further known for his newspapers chronicles popularising science in a Tamil which dared to face the purism of pandits and borrow, when necessary, from the riches of English and Sanskrit.

  • 24 See The Plough and the Star, Stories from Tamilnad, Asia Publishing House, 1963. Later on, when I (...)

53Arriving in India in 1963, I eagerly picked up the first official anthology of Tamil short stories just issued by the Government of Madras. To my bewilderment and disappointment the introduction, written by P. N. Appusamy himself, did not give a single quote from any of the 26 authors who had contributed a story, but gave instead “a brief but illuminating survey of the literary and cultural background of Tamilnad”.24

54This is how I discovered the existence of a gap between classical studies and contemporary studies in the Tamil academic world, a gap I never experienced when I visited Calcutta, where a university lecturer in Sanskrit working on śilpa śāstra was also engaged in staging a play by Pirandello in his own Bengali version and welcomed into his small circle painters such as Paritosh Sen and a photographer and film producer, Barin Saha, a former student at the Paris IDHEC, (Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques). I never experienced a gap of this nature in Trivandrum either, where I was introduced to contemporary literature by M. Mukundan and K. Ayappa Panikar and where a poet, D. Vinayachandran, a university lecturer in Malayalam helped me to understand how one can quite naturally and swiftly shift from the most Sanskritised Malayalam poetry to Maṇipravāḷam or pure classical Malayalam meters and, then, to the very daring modern poetry he was himself composing and singing. Obviously, I missed some opportunities, but in the nineteen-sixties the French Institute of Pondicherry had not integrated contemporary Tamil literary production into its collections. This policy has fortunately changed and the gaps in the library have been filled: but how was it that a Tamil pulavar could develop an allergy to contemporary writing in his mother tongue?

  • 25 See the review in IJDL, Volume IV Number, 1, January 1975, pp. 162-174.

55It is not that openings onto the richness of contemporary Tamil were not occasionally offered. Such openings seem, however, to have taken place on the initiative, not of indologists as such, but rather of the linguists among them, inasmuch as they were interested in practising the language less for its cultural content as for its structure. For example, Mahfil, a Quarterly of South Asian Literature, published at the University of Chicago, had several translations and critical reviews to its credit in the mid nineteen-sixties. But it was only in 1973 that The Smile of Murugan, by Kamil Zvelebil, became the first international publication to devote as much as two whole chapters to contemporary prose and poetry, on a par with the classical periods. The book generated controversies and it is true that some of the author’s comments are not very complimentary and his choices were not unanimously accepted.25 He mentioned in passing the lack of interest in contemporary Tamil prose of such a sensitive reader as A. K. Ramanujam, who surprised me too when I happened to meet him by confessing his relative ignorance of the field.

  • 26 Edited by Norman Cutler and Paula Richman, New Delhi, 1992.
  • 27 Modern Tamil Short Stories: A Sampler. Journal of South Asian Literature Volume 27, Number 1 (Wint (...)

56While it seems that the absence of any serious debate within contemporary Tamil literature contributed to the lack of a criticism and of literary criteria, it appears, on the other hand, that whenever the act of translation is involved, some empathy is thereby created with fairly positive effect. The best evidence is perhaps provided by the collection A Gift of Tamil, Translations from Tamil Literature in honor of K. Paramasivan,26 as it represents the homage of more than one generation of American students to their guru at Madurai, who initiated them simultaneously into the language and the living culture. Coincidentally or not, the same year, a special issue of the orientalist journal of the Michigan University published a collection of modern Tamil short stories,27 dedicated to the publisher in Chennai who had guided the choice of texts. These are, by the way, two striking illustrations of the crucial part played by just a handful of Tamil intellectuals in conveying literary information out of Tamil Nadu. I used to say that foreign scholars in India are often subdued to their informants; it even happens that they act as scribes of their informants, but, sharing the informants’ limitations they could at least try to remember that any information needs to be checked.

  • 28 Kuṭṭi Iḷavarasaṉ, a joint publication of Cre-A: Alliance Française, Madras and Institut Français d (...)

57Translation is a key word throughout these pages because it is itself a quest for both style and substance, if not for a message, and may therefore be an effective substitute for that critical attitude, the absence of which we have just been regretting. As a matter of fact, it was through translation that I became involved with contemporary literary activities. At the Alliance Française in Chennai, I was engaged in revising, along with V. Sri Ram, the Alliance’s president, the translation of Le petit prince by A. de Saint-Exupéry into Tamil.28 I thus came to know Cre-A: and its office, which then resembled an art gallery with Adimulam paintings, its director S. Ramakrishnan, Sundara Ramasamy, a self-conscious writer much concerned with the Tamil literary milieu and its output, N. Muthusamy and the Kūttuppaṭṭaṟai dramatic activities, the team at work on the first edition of the Cre-A: dictionary of contemporary Tamil and, finally, in that context, Kannan M. who now heads the programme of contemporary Tamil culture at the French Institute in Pondicherry which effectively combines literature and history in all their dimensions.

  • 29 Chantal Delamourd, Aspects de la nouvelle tamoule contemporaine (Université de Paris III, mars 200 (...)

58Such interlocutors have continuously helped me to arrange my readings in modern prose and poetry, with the result that I at last dared to introduce contemporary Tamil literature in my teaching at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, to direct a thesis on Tamil short stories29 and even with their assistance, to brush up the panorama of Tamil short stories I had awaited in vain forty years earlier from the pen of P. N. Appusamy. I am obviously heavily indebted to them but it is my work as a translator which alone has most definitely governed my choices and commitment: one cannot resist the charming facility of Ashokamitran; one must overcome the intricacies of Mauni; one cannot restrain himself, after reading Pumani, from starting out on a quest for a Tamil dalit literature, even if it is a bit elusive; one cannot involve himself with the poetry and the personality of (Piramil) Dharmu Sivaramu without trying to have his work translated for the beauty of the images as well as for the wisdom of the message his story, Laṅkāpuri Rājā delivers; one cannot read poets like Nuhman or, above all, Vilvaratnam, nor the novels of K. Daniel, without being concerned with the neverending tragedy of the Sri Lankan Tamils and the way they overcome it all over the world.

59I therefore attempted to share the discovery that contemporary Tamil literature has something to say and is also sometimes able to express it beautifully, even though its inclusion in the programme of instruction at the old Sorbonne, where my austere colleagues seemed to be amused by the pulp fiction jackets of some of the Tamil publications I was perusing, was far from a foregone conclusion.

60The philosophy, so to speak, behind this involvement, which has been simply an attempt, in fact, to give its rightful place to history, is expressed in an issue of The UNESCO Courier (march 1984) I worked on, which is titled “The living culture of the Tamils” and is echoed as well in a recent co-publication of the French Institute and the Tamil Chair of the University of California, Berkeley, Negotiations with the Past: Classical Tamil in contemporary Tamil (2006). It essentially expresses the desire to propose a vision, as holistic as possible, of two millenia of Tamil culture, keeping in mind that the past and the present flow together towards the future and demand equal attention. Indologists, too, rarely respond to this challenge or, if they do turn to the present, it is for the prestige anthropology confers on the popular through the magic of folklore. Trying to cope with as many aspects of this living culture as possible in that 1984 issue of the UNESCO Courier, S. Ramakrishnan, a qualified economist who began his career in marketing before he founded a publishing company to promote high quality contemporary Tamil literature, asked the question: “Was the traditional culture of the Tamils merely the culture of a particular class? Whether in literature, music or philosophy, was the thinking that of the dominant group? It is said that Caṅkam literature does not mention caste differences, but the majority of people can have had little access to the cultivated arts and the conceptual levels of religion. Independence brought a greater sense of social equality and an opportunity for the majority to express itself. With rapid economic and technological progress, and the acceptance of values dictated by urban societies, there is a danger that indigenous culture may be gradually eroded. It is essential that popular forms of expression and ways of life do not disappear and that the true essence of Tamil culture survive.”

  • 30 Translation is a trickster, one trick being the particular “effet d’hysteresis” which consists in (...)

61For an indologist, the most natural expression of this living Tamil culture is found in its contemporary literature. In 1985 the choice of the INALCO was to celebrate Tamil literature in French translation with Rangoon Rādā, a novel by C. N. Annadurai, while a few French readers who had the opportunity to discover JJ cila kurippukal in a French version browsed through it as through yesterday’s paper. It is difficult to censure those choices given that the English translation of JJ appeared only in 2003. It may be a few more years before the book is considered as a significant landmark in the history of Tamil mentalities.30 If Pama’s Sangati (Caṅkati) has been translated and published it is partly because, in the eyes of her militant publishers, she combined the qualities of woman, Dalit and nun who had renounced the nunnery. Salman Rushdie, on the contrary owed his initial popularity in great part to the novelty of his writing, a quality which, predictably enough, has now turned to his disadvantage; but at least the debate was set up on the grounds of literature, which is not always the case with the Indian writings in English which now invade the market. It is only thirty years since Indian academics thought it necessary to plead in favour of English works produced by Indian writers. Nowadays, for commercial reasons, freelance translators able to translate from the Malayalam, for example, in fact translate from English because the demand is greater and the work better rewarded. Furthermore, there has never been in France the demand for short stories that there is in India, particularly stories in Tamil; France is always especially reluctant to welcome selections from various authors rather than from a single writer: marketing requires the presentation of writers as individuals rather than of their ideas or styles. Worse still, the production itself of short stories in Tamil is nowadays decreasing. But, just as the variations of the stock exchange have never discouraged investors, the hazards of literary production in Tamil will not prevent us from remaining vigilant in the expectation of its flourishing again.

  • 31 Œuvres complètes, Variations sur un sujet, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, p. 364 (ed. 1951), Hannah A (...)
  • 32 For example, Action Poétique No 101, Poètes de l’Inde (for Tamil, Pasuvaya, Dharmu Sivaramu, Hari (...)

62Particularly, we maintain the utmost interest in poetic creativity, both for its intrinsic value and for the sake of the language. “The poem that philosophically makes good the defects of languages is their superior complement”, as Mallarmée said.31 Poetry somehow communicates, and perhaps the more easily because it naturally addresses an audience that is sensitive and well prepared. This was the case during the Year of India in France in 1985-1986, when some literary journals opened their pages to selected translations from modern Indian poets32 and the Maison de la poésie at the Pompidou Centre in Paris was packed with attentive listeners for a two hour session devoted to Tamil poetry, the time being equally shared between classical and contemporary authors. If such occasional gatherings rarely have any follow up, they reveal nonetheless that modern poets in Tamil would find an audience in Paris in French translation; an anthology is still, after so many years, in preparation. In prose, a few isolated attempts have revealed some samples of Tamil short stories but our own anthology had to wait till 2002 to find a publisher.

63It must be added that the panorama of the living culture of the Tamils today is completed by a world where it is especially alive: the Tamil diaspora. We mentioned Sri Lankan Tamils: the Tamil community traditionally installed in France experiences cultural shock from the new settlers from Sri Lanka who have started the production and diffusion of their own Tamil books and journals. A similar phenomenon is even more momentous in Scandinavia, Canada and North America and the cultural output of those communities cannot any longer be ignored, even in India.

  • 33 Concerned authors insist on that neologism which adds to diversity an implied contrastive referenc (...)
  • 34 See Lumière No 208 Septembre 2001-Edition Spéciale (Cultural journal of The Tamil Temples of Mauri (...)
  • 35 Christian Barat, Nargulan, Culture et rites malbar à la Réunion, Recherches universitaires réunion (...)
  • 36 Florence Callandre, Koylou, Représentation divine et architecture sacrée de l’hindouisme réunionna (...)
  • 37 See F. Gros “Problems and policies in language and literature”, in Streams of Language: Dialects i (...)

64France, for its part, receives perhaps more signals of the vitality of a Tamil diaspora when it is closely associated with another cultural phenomenon more specific to La Réunion, Mauritius or the West Indies (Guadeloupe or Martinique). In those territories which are sometimes awkwardly called, though only by Pondicherians, “the French islands”, the present is witness to two different trends, one being a return to indigenous roots therefore favouring Tamil, while the second is a quest for an original form of “diversality”33 which naturally favours creolisation, both in way of life and in language. While in Mauritius, I happened to be more associated with Tamil traditionalists,34 and, in La Réunion, I had the good fortune to be able to observe closely the fluctuations and interactions of Hinduism and creolisation over two decades and, in fact, over two generations of academic research symbolised by two important theses, unfortunately ignored in India: Christian Barat’s Nargulan (1989),35 and Koylou by Florence Callandre (1998), whose research continues towards a second edition, with more comparative data collected in, for example, the Seychelles.36 Both the books give an accurate picture of the actual forms of Hinduism practised by the Tamil population of La Réunion and its integration into local society. It is fascinating to see how the “creolised” traditional, (though not so orthodox in strict Saiva observance) priests of the sapel malbar, as Hindu places of worship are called in Créole, are now confronted with a revivalism of Hindu orthodoxy which invites śilpin-s from Chidambaram or stapathi-s from Mahabalipuram to build neo-Cōḻa temples to Subrahmanya, the moot point being the degree of acculturation of this movement into the Tamil population. I must confess, however, that quite another form of fascination now comes from the West Indies, where creolisation, which appeals deliberately to a multicultural world literature, with Edouard Glissant, Patrice Chamoiseau, Raphael Confiant etc., offers to the present Tamil diaspora a model and a marvellous incitement to transcend itself.37

  • 38 He does not seem to refer to Sylvain Lévi, whose unpublished inaugural lesson at the Collège de Fr (...)

65In a conclusion, it occurs to me that instead of some trivial details of my personal itinerary, I might have concealed myself behind the mask of Henri Michaux, whom I like quoting. In May 1967 he provided a new preface to A barbarian in Asia, first published in 1933, but the book resists its author’s attempts to change it. Michaux landed in India in 1931. His memory full of irritating pedantic discourses,38 he discovers the common man (“l’homme de la rue”) and through him attempts to understand and create an empathy, his concern expressed in a set of disquieting, even shocking, paradoxes. Years have passed and the common man has changed as did Michaux’s illusions: “the fact is that there is too much lacking in this journey for it to be real” (C’est qu’il manque beaucoup à ce voyage pour être réel), politics, for example, he says:

  • 39 Henri Michaux, Œuvres complètes, tome 1, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1998, pp. 280-281.

« Comme on le voit, ce voyage était mal parti. Je ne vais pas le rattraper. Je ne le pourrais pas. Je le voudrais souvent, mais impossible de me remettre sur ses épaules. On peut seulement retirer, dégager, couper, faire quelques raccords, vite fourrer quelque chose dans un vide, soudain gênant, mais non pas le changer, non pas le réorienter.39 »

“As we see, this journey was likely to go astray. I am not going to retrieve it. I couldn’t. Often, I would like to, but (it is) impossible to hoist myself on its shoulders again. One can only withdraw, clear off, cut, touch up a few places, quickly stuff something into a void, suddenly troubling, but not change it, nor veer away from it.” So let it be.


1 la fraîche in Coll. «jeune poésie nrf», Gallimard 1958. Lucienne Desnoues (1921-2004) is a lesser known author in the line of Pierre Reverdy or Colette. On Armand Minard, first read the note he wrote on Jules Bloch in 1954 in the Annuaire 1954-1955 of EPHE, Section des sciences historiques et philologiques, then see his bibliography by Georges-Jean Pinault in Bulletin d’Etudes Indiennes 15, 1998 and a notice in the Yearbook of EPHE, 4th Section, the year 1997-1998 issued in 1999.

2 See for example, the Proceedings of the First International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies, Kuala Lumpur, 1966.

3 To widen that horizon, Roland Lardinois, L’invention de l’Inde, Entre ésotérisme et science, CNRS Editions, Paris, 2007 is an essential reference; this analysis, by a true disciple of Pierre Bourdieu, will probably be translated in English before the French milieu concerned is fully aware of its importance.

4 Whence the sometimes excessive insistence on taking into account from their first striking formulation the discoveries of Tamil-Brāhmī readings by I. Mahadevan and R. Panneerselvam and from the inscriptions of Jambai and Pullankurici.

5 Marr accepted the information found in the colophons and meticulously listed the possible indications in the texts relating to synchronisms between authors, dynastic lists and other relations, whether quarrelsome or amicable, between the princes, between the poets and those who were their patrons, between the place-names and the known occupants of the places. It was an almost impossible task for which he has sometimes been reproached. There remains of that patient effort a kind of monument whose fractal vision, in which each detail has its sense within the whole, a call to grasp a coherence in what is accepted as a homogenous collection.
It was the same mass of information that N. Sanjeevi presented a few years later in the form of “Research Tables on Sangam Literature”, Caṅka ilakkiya ārāiycci aṭṭavaṇai, Madras University, 1973. Thus presented, Caṅkam literature is a world, impressive in its plenitude but without any real dialogue with the outside world. It is in that perspective that much learning has been spent in the quest for indices as might confirm preconceived theses without bringing the traditionalists into question, playing the truth game with them to the very limits of the possible.

6 See Journal Asiatique CCXLIX, 4, (1961) pp. 441-459 with bibliography, and, for more details J. Pirenne, Le royaume arabe de Qatabän et sa datation d’après l’archéologie et les sources classiques jusqu’au Périple de la Mer Erythrée, Louvain, 1961.

7 The Periplus Maris Erythraei, Text with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary by Lionel Casson, Princeton University Press, 1989.

8 Quoted in Alagankulam An Ancient Roman Port City of Tamil Nadu, Editor T. S. Sridhar, Dept. of Archaeology Govt. of Tamil Nadu, Chennai, 2005, pp. 69-73 with plates, including an engraving of similar ships on mosaics found at Ostia, a port to Rome, dated 2nd –3rd c. CE.

9 «Les châtiments de l’enfer sont toujours la dernière nouveauté qui se présente dans ce domaine. » (Hell’s punishments are always the latest novelty in that field) Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk, [Arcades] 676.

10 In the pamphlet “French, another effort to be republican”, inserted into La Philosophie dans le boudoir.

11 Latest echoes of the debate in Herman Tieken “A propos three recent publications on the question of the dating of old Tamil Caṅkam poetry” in Asiatische Studien/Etudes Asiatiques, LXII-2-2008.

12 It is no longer permitted to ignore the importance of the scientific exchanges between textualists and anthropologically oriented scholars such as those who gathered in Heidelberg (Sept. 29-Oct. 2, 2008) around the theme “Ritual Dynamics and the Science of Ritual”.

13 Paper presented at the Conference on Early Influences in Southeast Asia, 21-23 Nov. 2007 Singapore.

14 After the works of Shu Hikosaka, see the two volumes published by the Institute of Asian Studies in 1997 and 1998, Archaeological Atlas of the Antique remains of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu and Buddhism in Tamil Nadu, Collected papers. Contra. Peter Schalk (Editor-in-Chief), Buddhism among Tamils in Pre-Colonial Tamilakam and Ilam, Uppsala 2002, 2 volumes.

15 Jean-Pierre Osier, in les jaïna Critiques de la mythologie hindoue, Paris, 2005 emphasises the various modes of irony, satire and other derisive devices used by the Jains, more than by the Buddhists, in their confrontation with Hindu images and texts. He even puts forward the hypothesis that this attitude has perhaps appealed to the laity, favouring thus the permanence of Jainism in its religious dimensions in India, while Buddhism survived more in the realm of philosophical controversies.

16 Recent survey in P. M. Joseph, Jainism in South India, Trivandrum, 1997.

17 Outline for a parallel between Jain and Saivite hagiographies in T. P. Meenakshisundaram, “Tamil and other cultures” Proceedings of the third International Tamil Conference Seminar, Paris, 1970, editors X. S. Thani Nayagam and François Gros, PIFI No 50, Pondicherry, 1973, pp. 127-159.

18 See pages devoted to this subject with bibliography, in the article on Tamil Dalit literature in this book.

19 Lakshmi Narasu, Religion of the modern Buddhist, Edited and Introduced by G. Aloysius, Wordsmiths, Delhi, 2002; quote on back cover. The Essence of Buddhism by the same author, first published in Colombo in 1907 was reprinted in India in 1985 and 1993.

20 It is not specifically under the purview of Sascha Ebeling, Transformation of Tamil Literature in the nineteenth century.

21 See Burning Memories, a video documentary by Someetharan presented by Nihari Film Circle and Production, 2008. It starts with an English version of a Tamil poem by M. A. Nuhman, the French translation of which had already been applauded (along with the Tamil original) during a lecture I delivered on Tamil Poetry at the Maison de la Poésie at the Pompidou Centre in Paris on the occasion of the Year of India in France on 5th March 1986.

22 L’argent et les Lettres, Histoire du capitalisme d’édition, 1880-1920, Paris, Fayard, 1988.

23 Naṟṟiṇai Text and translation, 2008, IFP, Pondicherry.

24 See The Plough and the Star, Stories from Tamilnad, Asia Publishing House, 1963. Later on, when I came to know P. N. Appusamy, he confirmed that this had been quite deliberate.

25 See the review in IJDL, Volume IV Number, 1, January 1975, pp. 162-174.

26 Edited by Norman Cutler and Paula Richman, New Delhi, 1992.

27 Modern Tamil Short Stories: A Sampler. Journal of South Asian Literature Volume 27, Number 1 (Winter, Spring 1992), Asian Studies Center, Michigan State University.

28 Kuṭṭi Iḷavarasaṉ, a joint publication of Cre-A: Alliance Française, Madras and Institut Français d’Indologie, Pondicherry, [1981].

29 Chantal Delamourd, Aspects de la nouvelle tamoule contemporaine (Université de Paris III, mars 2001). To switch from studies of the origins of the genre to the contemporary scene, we note the time gap of twenty years with R. S. Kennedy, Public Voices, Private Voices: Manikkoti, Nationalism and the Development of the Tamil Short Story, 1914-1947, University of California, Berkeley, Ph.D. Dissertation, 1980. And now, with Sascha Ebeling, the study of the contemporary recedes to the nineteenth century.

30 Translation is a trickster, one trick being the particular “effet d’hysteresis” which consists in delaying the revealing of a work for one, or even several, decades after the publication of the original, thus considerably altering the possible interaction between a “contemporary” text and a new audience, confronted with quite a different context. And, of course, we should never forget that the international fame of Chemmeen, the Malayalam novel of Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai rests mostly on the English version of Narayana Menon, who did an enormous job of editing, analysed in detail by K. Ayyappa Paniker in “The Chemmeen Myth” in The Literary Criterion, Vol. XII, 1976, No 2-3, Special Number on Indian Writing in English pp. 75-86.

31 Œuvres complètes, Variations sur un sujet, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, p. 364 (ed. 1951), Hannah Arendt, Introduction, Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Pimlico, London, 1999.

32 For example, Action Poétique No 101, Poètes de l’Inde (for Tamil, Pasuvaya, Dharmu Sivaramu, Hari Srinivasan, T. S. Venugopalan).

33 Concerned authors insist on that neologism which adds to diversity an implied contrastive reference to universality.

34 See Lumière No 208 Septembre 2001-Edition Spéciale (Cultural journal of The Tamil Temples of Mauritius) on Mootoocomaren Sangeelee (1901-1996).

35 Christian Barat, Nargulan, Culture et rites malbar à la Réunion, Recherches universitaires réunionnaises 1989.

36 Florence Callandre, Koylou, Représentation divine et architecture sacrée de l’hindouisme réunionnais, Ila Université de la Réunion, 1998; second revised edition in press. On the same culture, we cannot ignore the works of Jean Benoist or of Jean Bernabé.

37 See F. Gros “Problems and policies in language and literature”, in Streams of Language: Dialects in Tamil, Edited by Kannan M., Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2008, pp. 1-20.

38 He does not seem to refer to Sylvain Lévi, whose unpublished inaugural lesson at the Collège de France is now edited by Roland Lardinois: Sylvain Lévi, Génie de l’Inde Edition établie par Roland Lardinois, Paris, 2008.

39 Henri Michaux, Œuvres complètes, tome 1, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1998, pp. 280-281.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2009

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