Kavya in South India

Tieken, H.J.H. H.J.H.Tieken at LET.LEIDENUNIV.NL
Tue Dec 18 13:02:54 UTC 2001

Up to now, Hart's remarks concerning my book Kavya in South India. Old Tamil
Cankam Poetry (Gonda Indological Studies X), Groningen 2001 have been
general. Actually, they had been written before he had seen, let alone read
my book. However, a few days ago Hart was more specific, addressing in some
detail my paragraph on the arrangement of the poems in the anthologies.
Before reacting on Hart's comments I would first like to provide some brief
context to the discussion.

   In the first part of my book I have argued that the villagers who are
made to speak in the so-called love poems (Akam) are not, as has been
assumed by Hart and others, the authors of the poems but characters in the
poems. The authors of the poems do not belong to the village but have to be
sought in a cosmopolitan milieu found in the city. I have done the same for
the historical poems (Puram). The poor, starving bards who in the poems are
wandering from one patron to the other, trying to make a living by their
poetry, are not the authors of the poems but, again, personae in the poems.

   In both the love poems and the historical poems we are dealing with
stock-characters represented in fictional situations. As far as the
historical poems are concerned, they had not been composed by the bards
featuring in them but by later authors who were trying to bring back to life
an earlier bardic poetry.

   In the introduction I have noted that I had been somewhat embarrassed at
having to prove the fictional nature of scenes of Cankam poetry, but the
idea that in, for instance, Puram we are dealing with actual,
"tape-recorded" conversations by historical persons is fairly wide-spread in
Tamil studies. Another idea current in Tamil studies is that the Cankam
poems are extempore, on the spot compositions. The poems do indeed contain
some characteristics which are otherwise typical of such poetry. However,
anyone familiar with Cankam poetry will agree that the poems cannot have
been composed on the spot. In this connection I have mentioned the length of
the sentences and the resultant complex style of the poems, which is a far
cry from the simple adding style of epic poetry. These facts had already
been noted by Hart in his 1975 book, but, as I have tried to show, his
conclusions are a half-hearted compromise between regarding the poems as
oral or written compositions.

   As far as I know, nobody has tried to make clear by whom, in what way,
and to what purpose the poems have been memorized and passed on to be put in
anthologies only centuries later. And this brings me to the compilation of
the anthologies.

   In the majority of the anthologies the poems seem to have been put
together more or less at random. Content does not seem to play any role at
all. However, instead we find that each poem echoes certain words from the
preceding poems. As an example I have quoted Kuruntokai 344 (the
presentation below may not be as clear as the one on p. 96 of my book as it
may well be the case that the tab positions are lost in the transmission):

336                                             pirinticinole
337                                                     mulai   nirai
338 annal eru           punkanmalai
340     katalar                                 peyar
341                                     katalar
342             tan     punkan
343 annal eru
344 annal eru   tan     punkanmalai     katalar peyarum mulai   nirai

The echoes are not restricted to lexemes. Occasionally, they involve
suffixes, as in aku-mati (Kur. 18) and inai-mati (19) and in un-iiyar (27),
tal-ii (29), mar-iiya (30) and kul-iiya and tal-iiya (31); particles, as in
kuruk-um (25) and katuvan-um (26); and similar phrases, as in varutalum
varuuam (88) and nuvaralum nuvalpa (89). Also some rare instances involving
synonyms have been noted, as in aruntu (26) and un (27).

   According to the current interpretation, the Tamil anthologies contain
merely a selection from a boundless reservoir of floating, orally
transmitted poems. However, the type of concatenation met with in, for
instance, the Kuruntokai introduces a complication. For, while it may be
relatively easy in the case of 344 to find in the vast corpus of existing
poems another one containing the words annal and eru, to find one which in
addition also contained the word punkan(malai) must have been much more
difficult. In addition to that, the poem should not have been shorter than 4
lines or longer than 8.

   My conclusion was, and is, that the idea that the compiler selected the
poems from a reservoir of existing poems has to be abandoned. Instead, I
suggested that the poems were composed for the first time at the moment of
their inclusion in the anthology, if only because it might after all have
been easier, starting from words in the preceding poems, to compose a new
poem that to search one's memory for one.

   This conclusion has been extended to include all eight Cankam
anthologies. I take this opportunity to point to the Kalittokai and in
particular to the inclusion of the kuravai poems in this collection. As I
have suggested, the Kalittokai poems are Tamil counterparts of the lasyas
and catuspadis of the Sanskrit Kavya tradition. The kuravai poems are
hallisaka scenes transplanted to Tamilnadu. How did these hallisakas, which
belong to the category of festival songs, find a place in a collection of
lasyas and catuspadis? As I have tried to show on p. 185 ff., this can be
explained with reference to a misunderstanding in the poetical tradition of
Sanskrit, which misunderstanding is attested for the first time only in the
ninth century, namely in Abhinavagupta's commmentary on the Natyasastra.
This same misunderstanding is also found in Bhoja's Srngaraprakasa (tenth or
eleventh century).

   Hart now argues that the chance of identical words occurring in the poems
is so great that it is actually impossible to find a poem which does not
have one or more words in common with any other poems. In this connection I
would like to note the following. If we turn to the scheme given above, the
word annal occurs only 6 times in the 400 poems of Kuruntokai, the word eru
altogether 9 times, punkan 7 times, and peyar (noun and verb) 25 times. And,
as I have noted in footnote 15 on p. 98, also in the Purananuru "common"
words appear typically in clusters of poems. Take the verb nikku/ninku:
150-153-154, 247-249-250, 392-393-397-398-400 or the verb pay:
23-24-25-30-31, etc.

   Whatever the value of the statistics put forward by Hart, the prediction
which he abstracted from it does not appear to come true.

All the points adduced by Hart in his earlier comment (the one written
before he had read my book) are of course directly or indirectly addressed
in my book. A point I have treated only briefly is the language of the
poems. According to Hart and others the Cankam texts abound in archaic
forms. I am, however, dealing with the language of Cankam poetry in an
article, which is soon to be offered for publication. What I would like to
mention here is that, while the Cankam texts are indeed full of curious
forms, what is unique is not necessarily old. Often the need to prove this
was not even felt by scholars as the occurrence of the forms in question in
Cankam poetry was believed to take care of that. To claim, as Hart does,
that the forms are "demonstrably much more archaic" (than the ninth or tenth
century) is premature.

Finally, I hope that this reaction of mine will not provoke a similar kind
of discussion as we have recently witnessed in connection with Axel
Michaels' book on the subject of the pandit. As far as I am concerned, this
is my last reaction before the publication of the complete version of Hart's
review of my book in JAOS.

Herman Tieken
Instituut Kern
Universiteit te Leiden

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