the Heart of
Tamil National Consciousness
"There is no doubt that the culture of the Tamils belongs to
the great and immortal treasures of the world's civilisation..." Dr. Kamil.V. Zvelebil
".. It is the fight for national
existence which sets culture moving and opens to it the doors of
It is at the heart of national consciousness that international
consciousness lives and grows. And this two-fold emerging is ultimately
the source of all culture..."
Frantz Fanon at the
Congress of Black African Writers, 1959
"..மொழியும் கலையும் கலாசாரமும் வளம் பெற்று வளர்ச்சியும் உயர்ச்சியும்
அடையும பொழுதே தேசிய இனக் கட்டமைப்பு இறுக்கம் பெறுகின்றது. பலம்
பெறுகின்றது. மனித வாழ்வும் சமூக உறவுகளும் மேன்மை பெறுகின்றது. தேசிய
நாகரிகம் உன்னதம் பெறுகின்றது.."
"I do not want my
house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want
the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as
possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any of them. Mine is not
a religion of the prison house. It has room for the least among God's
creatures, but is proof against the insolent pride of race, religion or
What is Tamil culture? The attempt
to define, often results in sweeping
generalisations - and sweeping generalisations end up as meaningless clichés.
In early 1996, in the Tamil Circle, a series of articles written by C.Kumarabharathy of
Wellington, New Zealand looked at Tamil culture from the standpoint of an expatriate Tamil
in an emerging post modern world. His reflections
provided food for thought.
"..We tend to think (implicitly), that culture is embodied in Bharatha Natyam, Film Songs,
Films, Dramas and having thus externalised "Culture", we then send our children
to 'study' them. This way, parents 'make up' for their supposed lack of culture, by the
alleged accomplishments of the children. It is generally, not clear to us, that behaviour,
our conflicts and relationships also form the bedrock of culture. The dance and songs are
external manifestations of this inwardness..."
The external manifestations of Tamil culture may be found in the songs and dances, in
the cuisine and dress forms, in the customs and rituals of the Tamil people. But, as
always, the external and the internal go together. The earliest literature that we have in
Tamil, the Eight Anthologies,
was itself classified into two main groups: 'internal' (aham) and 'external' (puram).
"Definitions of culture.... in the anthropological rather than the normative
sense, are notoriously difficult and unsatisfactory. It is probably best to approach this
problem by using this term without attempting too much in the way of formal definition,
and looking at what culture does." (Professor Ernest Gellner, Cambridge
University - Nations and Nationalism, Basil Blackwell, 1983)
"...culture consists in the way analogies are drawn between
things; in the way certain thoughts are used to think others; in figure of speech, in
which a term is transferred to something it does not literally apply to... Culture
consists in the images that make imagination possible, in the media with which we mediate
experience. All the artefacts we make and the relationships we enter into, have in that
sense 'cultural' consequences, for they give form and shape to the way we think about
other artefacts, other relationships..."
If culture is the distilled essence of the way of life of a people, then, in the case
of the Tamil people, the distillation process has covered a time span of more than two
thousand years. And, today, the Tamil people, living in many lands and across distant seas
acquire strength from the richness of their own cultural heritage - not only because that
that culture has something to do with their own roots and their way of life but also
because they believe that that culture has a significant contribution to make to the
Five decades ago, Czech
Professor Dr. Kamil.V. Zvelebil writing in
'Tamil Culture' made an appeal under the heading "The Tamil
Contribution to Worlds Civilisation". He said:
"There is no doubt that the culture of the Tamils belongs to the
great and immortal treasures of the world's civilisation.
From my own experience,
however, I can say that even those who claim to have a wide outlook and deep education,
both Indians and Europeans, are not aware of this fact. And it is the task of the Tamils
themselves, and of those sympathetic mlecchas who try to interpret Tamil culture, to
acquaint the world's cultural public with the most important contributions of Tamil
culture to the world's civilisation.
As far as literary works are concerned, it is necessary before all to make them
accessible to a wide public of readers by means of artistic translations into the worlds
great languages; with regard to works of arts and architecture, it is necessary to make
them a common treasure of the world with the help of publications giving detailed and
perfect reproductions. This may be achieved through the UNESCO as well as through the work
of individual scholars and local Institutions; this should also be one of the main tasks
of the Academy of Tamil Culture.
The following works of art and literature are among the most remarkable contributions
of the Tamil creative genius to the world's cultural treasure and should be familiar to
the whole world and admired and beloved by all in the same way as the poems of Homer, the
dramas of Shakespeare, the pictures of Rembrandt, the cathedrals of France and the
sculptures of Greece:
1. The ancient Tamil lyrical poetry compiled in The Eight Anthologies; this poetry is so
unique and vigorous, full of such vivid realism and written so masterfully that it can be
compared probably only with some of the pieces of ancient Greek lyrical poetry;
2. The Thirukural, one of the great books of the
world, one of those singular emanations of the human heart and spirit which preach
positive love and forgiveness and peace;
3. The epical poem
Cilappathikaram, which by
its "baroque splendour', and by the charm and magic of its lyrical parts belongs to
the epic masterpieces of the world;
4. The school of
and Saiva, which is one of those most sincere
and passionate efforts of man to grasp the Absolute; and its supreme literary expression
in the works of
5. The philosophical system of
a system, which may be ranked among the most perfect and cleverest systems of human
6. The South Indian bronzes of the Chola period,
those splendid and amazing sculptures belonging to the best creations of humanity,
7. The Dravidian temple architecture, of which the
chief representatives are perhaps the temples of
These seven different forms of contribution without which the
world would be definitely less rich and less happy, should engage the immediate attention
of all who are interested in Tamil culture; they should all dedicate their time and
efforts to make known (and well and intimately known) to the whole of the world these
heights of Tamil creative genius." (Tamil Culture - Vol. V, No. 4. October,
To those contributions listed by Professor Zvelbil, may be added the Classical
Dance of the Ancient Tamils - the Bharatha Natyam and the poetic works of
Subramaniya Bharathy and Kaviyarasu Kannadhasan, which
being recognised today as ranking with the best in the world.
Professor Kamil Zvelebil's words in 1956 that
"it is the task of the Tamils themselves... to acquaint the world's cultural public
with the most important contributions of Tamil culture to the world's civilisation",
continue to retain their power to influence and inspire more than forty years later.
And, today, the internet and the world wide web have rendered that task,
hopefully, less difficult. The "Pongal-2000" Project of the Institute of Asian Studies (Madras),
the Institute for
Indology and Tamil Studies of the University of Cologne and the University of
California-Berkeley and Project Madurai
launched by Dr.Kalyanasundaram, serve as
examples of that which can be achieved on the web.
But culture is not something from top to down.
"...I don't believe culture can be done top down. You have to
have a really energetic, organic and powerful culture and to do that, the
only way is bottom up. If you try to encourage creativity through camps,
workshops and courses, you will get only technicians because that is how you
train technicians, not thinkers..."Cultivating culture from the bottom up, Lung Ying-tai,
Again, Partha Chatterjee has pointed out the dilemma faced by the
"Nationalism denied the alleged inferiority of the colonised people; it also
asserted that a backward nation could 'modernise' itself while retaining its cultural
identity. It thus produced a discourse in which, even as it challenged the colonial claim
to political domination, it also accepted the very intellectual premises of 'modernity' on
which colonial domination was based. How are we to sort out these contradictory elements
in nationalist discourse?.. how does one accept what is valuable in another's culture
without losing one's own cultural identity?". (Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought & the Colonial World - A
Derivative Discourse - UNU & Zed, 1986)
How does one accept what is valuable in another's culture without losing one's own
cultural identity? The cultural identity of a people and their political freedom go hand
Frantz Fannon was right to point out in the
Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for
"The nation is not only the
condition of culture, its fruitfulness, its continuous renewal, and
its deepening. It is also a necessity. It is the fight for national
existence which sets culture moving and opens to it the doors of
creation. Later on it is the nation which will ensure the conditions
and framework necessary to culture. The nation gathers together the
various indispensable elements necessary for the creation of a
culture, those elements which alone can give it credibility,
validity, life and creative power. In the same way it is its
national character that will make such a culture open to other
cultures and which will enable it to influence and permeate other
cultures. A non-existent culture can hardly be expected to have
bearing on reality, or to influence reality."
It is only in freedom that the exchange between different cultures will remain
voluntary and not enforced.
In the longer term, it is true that the growth of
nationalism will lead to a voluntary pooling of sovereignties, in a regional, and
ultimately in a world context - but the crucial element must remain the voluntariness
of the process.
"Nationalism is first and foremost a state of mind, an act
of consciousness .. the mental life of man is as much dominated by an ego-consciousness as
it is by a group consciousness. Both are complex states of mind at which we arrive through
experiences of differentiation and opposition, of the ego and the surrounding world, of
the we group and those outside the group .
It is a fact often commented upon that this growth of nationalism
and of national sectionalisms happened at the very same time when international relations,
trade, and communications were developing as never before; that local languages were
raised to the dignity of literary and cultural languages just at the time when it seemed
most desirable to efface all differences of language by the spread of world languages.
This view overlooks the fact that that very growth of nationalism all over the earth,
with its awakening of the masses to participation in political and cultural life, prepared
the way for the closer cultural contacts of all the civilisations of mankind, at the same
time separating and uniting them." (Hans Kohn: The Idea of
Nationalism , A Study of its Origins and Background. New York. 1944)
The effort to acquaint the world of the important
contributions of Tamil culture, is not the expression of an exaggerated nationalism.
At the same time, we are not unmindful of Thomas Macaulay and
his notorious efforts at cultural imperialism.
"The languages of Western Europe civilised Russia. I cannot doubt that they will do for the Hindoo what they have done for the Tartar
... We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect."
Thomas Macaulay - Minute on Indian Education,
Frantz Fannon's words in
and Culture are apposite
colonial war have no concern for the confrontation of cultures. War is a
gigantic business and every approach must be governed by this datum. The
enslavement, in the strictest sense, of the native population is the prime
necessity...It is not possible to enslave men without logically making them
inferior through and through. And racism is only the emotional, affective, sometimes
intellectual explanation of this inferiorization..."
culture is a culture of great antiquity and it has made, and will continue to make, a rich
contribution to world civilisation. That is not to say that Tamils do not need to address the
evils of the caste system that has divided
as a people. They do. And it is not to say that Tamils do not need to address
the evils perpetuated on women in their society.
They do. Professor
Hart was right to
point out in the Forum on Brahminism & the Tamil Nation
"..Yes, of course Brahmins have had their own political agenda to
push. They have been responsible for many things that I feel are
entirely unconscionable. But is this any different from the other high castes? I have heard many many stories of high non-Brahmin castes killing and abusing Dalits. You can't blame the Brahmins for this. In fact, the most pernicious example of the caste system was in the
Tamil areas of Sri Lanka, where there are virtually no Brahmins and never have been....Tamil culture has not suffered because of one group. It
has suffered because of the caste system and
because of its treatment of
women... Let's promote inter caste marriage,
let's get rid of dowry and give women independence and self-respect, and above all, let's avoid a victimization complex which only plays into the hands of those who have a vested interest in continuing the inequities that exist in Tamilnad. If every Brahmin were to disappear from Tamilnad, the Dalits and others who are exploited would
benefited not one iota..."
Tamils have gained, and continue to
gain, by their interaction with other peoples and other cultures - particularly those of
the Indian sub continent. No people are an island unto themselves. Chauvinism
does not advance the culture of a people. The words of the Tamil poet Kanniyan Poongundran in
Purananuru (Poem 196), written two thousand years, serve as a useful
reminder of the truth of that which Frantz Fannon wrote - "..It is at the heart of national consciousness that international
consciousness lives and grows. And this two-fold emerging is ultimately
the source of all culture...".
|To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not form others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Death's no new thing; nor do our bosoms thrill
When Joyous life seems like a luscious draught.
When grieved, we patient suffer; for, we deem
This much - praised life of ours a fragile raft
Borne down the waters of some mountain stream
That o'er huge boulders roaring seeks the plain
Tho' storms with lightnings' flash from darken'd skies
Descend, the raft goes on as fates ordain.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise ! -
We marvel not at greatness of the great;
Still less despise we men of low estate.
- English Translation by Rev.
G.U.Pope in Tamil Heroic Poems: