In normal circumstances, I would have read aloud my verses in English at the ninth Chennai poetry festival last week, but the event was naturally cancelled following the terrible calamity of the floods. A far greater ‘poetry of life’ poured from the hearts of the Chennaivasis through calls and posts offering free practical help to one another. Like people in other parts of India, the Tamils are an eloquent race and one of their best lines, often quoted in my childhood by my mother is ‘Yathum oorey yaavarum kelir’, ‘All towns are our towns, all people are our people’.
This is the first line of a poem by Kaniyan Poongunranar, the astronomer and poet-philosopher born in what is now called Sivaganga district in Tamil Nadu. He lived in some period during the Sangam Age, the ‘Academy Era’ of poetry identified with the Pandya dynasty capital of Madurai. Scholars date the Sangam Age from about the third century BCE to the fourth century CE. Poongunranar was apparently discovered to have been an astronomer from the epithet Kaniyan. In this poem, he compares life to a wooden raft borne away by the gushing waters of the natural laws, and upholds human equality as did other ancient Tamil poets.
The poem was taken up as exemplary by the Self-Respect Movement begun in 1925 by the Tamil social activist ‘Periyar’ to promote rational thought and remove social and gender inequality. Such important literary works of the Sangam Age, lost for centuries, were discovered and brought out into the public domain over five decades by UV Swaminatha Iyer (1855-1942), a student of Mahavidwan Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and a protégé of scholar-educationist Thyagaraja Chettiar.
He was nudged to undertake this work by his friend Ramaswami Mudaliar. Iyer began with the publication in 1887 of the ancient Tamil Jain epic ‘Jivaka Chintamani’ - and it seems a fine instance of the enduring ‘poetry of life’ that besides other religious establishments, the Jain temples in Chennai were greatly praised for their untiring distribution of food during the floods.
Enthused by how well his efforts were received by the public, UV Swaminatha Iyer made it his life’s mission to hunt for and bring out other lost building blocks of Tamil heritage, for which he became fondly known as ‘Tamil Thatha’ (Tamil Grandfather). He trudged ‘nagari-nagari dwaare-dwaare’ to remote villages dreaming by the banks of the Kaveri since the ninth century and Tamil people across communities responded whole-heartedly to his quest.
When this determined dreamer showed up at their doors on a bullock cart or having splashed for miles through paddy fields or trekked through forests, babbling about old books, they entered into the spirit of his search and willingly parted with rare palm-leaf manuscripts stored for lifetimes in wooden chests and lofts.
His sensational finds included the lost epics Silappadikaram (Jain) and Manimekhalai (Buddhist), the Patthu Paatu (’Ten Idylls’ on Nature, believed to be the oldest collection of Tamil verse, c. 300 BCE-200 CE) and its companion anthology, the Purananuru, in which the poem ‘Yathum oorey’ occurs. A lyrical pattern, indeed, of people cooperating for something worthwhile.
The views expressed are personal.