தமிழ்த் தேசியம்

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamil Culture - the Heart of Tamil National Consciousness > The living culture of the Tamils - Tamil Nadu

The living culture of the Tamils - Tamil Nadu

 S. Ramakrishnan
UNESCO Courier, March, 1984


The words "Tamil culture" immediately evoke the image of the towering gopuram (entrance gateways) of the Hindu temple, at once a commanding grandeur and solemnity; of a beautiful dancing girl, decked out in all her finery, graceful and lovely; to the literary minded, of the squatting sage Tiruvalluvar with his palm-leaf and stylus; to the gastronomically inclined, of idli (a rice and lentil batter) and sambar (lentils, vegetable and tamarind).

When we attempt to understand what constitutes Tamil culture in terms of an average man's life, particularly in the context of the present day, we encounter elements which cannot be isolated and defined, yet are deep rooted in a society which has always been instinctively aware of its strengths and weaknesses.

Over the centuries Tamils have spread outside their territory and in this process have planted signs of their presence many of which can be found even today. The Tamil community thus represents a population outside Tamil Nadu also. In their own land Tamils have been subject to significant foreign influences and, today, the admixture of these influences is so complex that it is difficult to talk about "typical" or "native" Tamil culture. Today's fashions, food habits, life-styles, values are all products of this long history of interaction.

For the first time in the known history of two thousand years the land of the Tamils has definite boundaries and this has brought about a greater cohesion among Tamils. Particularly since Independence and the creation of States based on linguistic regions, Tamils have had a land with which to identify their language and culture. With the introduction of Tamil as a medium of education at all levels, an attempt has been made to update the language after it lay submerged and subjugated for nearly three hundred years under the impact of the English language.

The recent establishment of a university at Thanjavur--Tamil University--crystallizes the aspirations of their society. The objective of this university is to strengthen the various applications of the language in a modern context and to enquire systematically into its past so that a relationship can be stabilised between tradition and modern life.

The emotional togetherness that has come about has been aided by the planned economic activities in the State. The most striking result of the economic programmes is the high degree of mobility seen among the people. Tamil Nadu is among the very few States in India in which almost every village is connected by road or rail. This mobility has affected the personal, economic and social life of average Tamils. The facility of communication has began to narrow down regional differences in life styles.

A mobile population is an informed population. Tamil Nadu is one of the States in the country with a high rate of literacy. It must be remembered that one of the first three universities to be established during the colonial era (1857) was at Madras, the present capital of Tamil Nadu. Educational facilities are growing so rapidly that between 1979 and 1981 the number of boys at higher secondary schools increased by 45.1 per cent and that of girls by 66.5 per cent. Education is no longer confined to traditional general education. It has diversified and new branches of training are constantly evolving. While the number of universities offering general education has risen, separate universities for technical subjects have also been established. Tamil Nadu now has one Agricultural University, one engineering and technological University, as well as a National Institute of Technology. Significantly too, women are entering professional colleges in increasing numbers.

In Tamil Nadu, the reading habit is widespread. Every week 1.73 million copies of eight popular magazines are sold and read by approximately 8.5 million people. In one segment of the reading public--the urban Tamils--42 per cent of those above fifteen years of age read a daily newspaper and 46 per cent read a weekly publication. The second most widely read weekly in India is a Tamil weekly.

These magazines shape public opinion on all vital issues, but their main motive is entertainment. They cater for popular tastes; the three most common themes are cinema, religion and politics--almost in that order of importance. Cinema gossip and news dominate.

There are no large-circulation magazines catering for specialist tastes and preferences and serious writers have to find another forum in the small-circulation magazines.

A far more influential medium in Tamil is the cinema. More than a sixth of the total number of permanent theatres in India are in Tamil Nadu. This gives some indication both of the extent of rural electrification (99 per cent of all towns, villages and hamlets have been electrified) and of the penetration of the cinema into rural areas.

The popularity of the cinema is maintained and increased by the popular magazines. Similarly the commercial channel of the government-controlled radio is dominated by film music and programmes on films.

In Tamil Nadu the demands of the film world gave birth to a "poster-culture". When talkies were introduced, the population was largely illiterate and magazines were only just beginning to appear. Posters were the only major medium to announce new films. Now poster-oriented publicity has spread to other areas of public life and today one finds th walls of Tamil Nadu plastered with posters, with those for the cinema still the largest and most colourful.

The high rate of literacy and the degree of worker mobility have contributed to the process of industrialization in Tamil Nadu. As a result of a planned economic programme a wide range of industrial products are manufactured in Tamil Nadu creating an incredible range of industrial and consumer products and large-scale cement, fertilizer, refining and automobile industries. The latest addition is the construction of an atomic power plant to meet the energy needs of a growing society.

Textile and leather industries have traditionally been strong in Tamil Nadu. Two major ports cater for the needs of industry and a well-organized transport system keeps people and goods on the move. In order to create local employment and to prevent large scale migration to cities, dispersal of industry is encouraged by a well thought out system of incentives. A big chain of industrial estates for medium and small-scale industries in the non-traditional areas has been established in an attempt to minimize regional imbalances. Thus both in technology and end-products Tamil Nadu has revealed pronounced adaptability to change.

Industrialization has brought about dramatic change in peoples' life styles and mode of working. Farm equipment, ferstilizers and micro-nutrients have altered the agricultural scene. Increasing numbers of farmers are installing motor-pumps to draw water, dispensing with traditional methods and, in the process, sweeping away into disuse and oblivion their charming and evocative work songs.

The electronics industry with its transistors, stereos and television sets has changed the rural landscape, offering new forms of entertainment and providing employment to increasing numbers of school-leaving girls. Domestic appliances ranging from pressure cookers to grinders have replaced traditional modes of cooking, offering new leisure opportunities to the housewife in a family structure which has changed much.

Industrialization brings in its wake urbanization. Tamil Nadu has the second highest urban population in India. The migration of rural populations to the town and the transformation of rural areas into new industrial, urban areas continue unabated. this has brought about enormous pressure on space in the urban areas.

Housing is becoming more and more difficult; open spaces are filled with concrete blocks; slums are growing; sanitary conditions crumble under the impact; water facilities are becoming inadequate; children have less space to play. Traditional house architecture is disappearing and today, flats, with their cell--like rooms and limited moving space are the reality. Although the Government is making efforts to alleviate the problem through housing and slum clearance programmes, the requirements are fast outstripping the efforts.

These changed conditions have resulted in a need to adapt traditional modes to the new constraints. Women are more free and have better opportunities to ge education and jobs. However, they continue to be bound by traditional tasks and modes of behaviour such as looking after the home and maintaining a distance from men. Even in Madras city, there are still State Government buses meant exclusively to carry women during peak hours.

Marriage as an institution is a good example of how tradition and modernity can co-exist or be a source of friction. Marriage is an important event in the life of an individual in any society, but in Tamil Nadu in reveals a great deal about Tamil society's attitude to the man-woman relationship and its place in society. Most marriages are still arranged by the parents and determined by the astral bodies governing the individuals' chart.

Religion continues to be a dominant force in the lives of Tamils. In fact, one observes more pronounced increase in the interest in religion and occult beliefs. At a time when the average man's life is determined by economic motives and security, this may be the new kind of insurance he seeks against economic and physical insecurity.

Observance of religious ceremonies is marked among the newly educated, employed population--both men and women. The spread of electronics is helping religious activity; cassettes, discs and microphones have invaded places of worship.

Educated middle-class housewives organize bhajan (worship through song) groups in towns and it is not an uncommon sight to see women commuters on their way to work absorbed in the reading of simple stotras (poems in praise of deities) No important function, domestic or business is organized without consulting the almanack and fixing an auspicious hour. Magazines pour our information on the movements of astral bodies and their effect on the average Tamil's life.

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 Sangam 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 shall survive.

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