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Islamic Tamil litterateurs bridge India-Lanka divide

world Updated: May 24, 2007 15:12 IST
PK Balachandran
tamil

Down the ages, Muslims of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka have shared a mother tongue - Tamil. In the past, they had strong economic, cultural and religious ties besides the linguistic bond.

But due to the development of different politico-cultural situations in the two countries in the 20 th century, the two communities had drifted apart.

However, apparently due to the changing political and cultural scenario in Sri Lanka, especially in the last two decades, there has been an urge to reach out to each other again.

And it is only natural that the Tamil language and the existence of a thriving Islamic literature in Tamil on both sides of the Palk Strait, should provide the foundation for a new and multifaceted relationship.

Islamic litterateurs from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka have so far come together seven times to bridge the divide, and will be meeting for the 8 th time in Chennai later this week.

Chief Minister M Karunanidhi and his deputy K Anbazhagan, both outstanding men of letters, will participate.

Renowned Tamil Nadu poet, Kavikko Abdul Rahman, who straddles secular and religious literature, will be a leading light.

"We'll celebrate the Muslims' contribution to Tamil literature; seek pathways in thought and action in keeping with the changing times; and dialogue with writers from other religions to bring about inter-religious harmony," says writer, orator, and Sri Lankan cabinet minister Rauff Hakeem.

So far, the conferences have re-published dozens of rare books, he says.

There will be workshops on a variety of theological and social subjects, including the status of women.

"Aiding this process is the very nature of Tamil literature, which has accommodated varying ideas. Tamil literature has had Saiva, Vaishnava, Jain, Buddhist and Islamic works. An outstanding early Islamic work was Umaru Pulavar's Seera Puranam the Prophet's history," notes Siraj Mashoor, a young litterateur.

"Such conferences also give Tamil-speaking litterateurs across international borders a sense of collectiveness," Mashoor adds.

Before the advent of West Asia, Sri Lankan Muslims went to Tamil Nadu to acquire an Islamic education.

"Muslim poets and preachers from South India helped Sri Lankan Muslims keep the faith at a time when the Portuguese and the Dutch were persecuting them. Between 1600 and 1900, as many as 2,000 literary works, including epics, poured out," Rauff Hakeem recalls.

A substantial section of Sri Lankan Muslims are of Indo-Arab-Lankan or Arab-Lankan origin. According to Marina Azeez, Arab traders had settled in Malabar in Kerala, and in Kayalpattinam in Tamil Nadu, as early as the 7 th.Century AD and had then spread to the eastern and western coastlines of Sri Lanka.

Over there, as in Tamil Nadu, they married Tamil women because Tamils lived on the coast and were also in trade. The admixture produced a dialect called "Arabic Tamil" which was a combination of Arabic and Tamil and written in the Arabic script.

In the 19 th and 20 th centuries, literature in Arabic Tamil was produced. Alas, Arabic Tamil as a literary medium, is now extinct,with modern Muslims preferring to write in standard Tamil.

According to Mashoor, the Tamil literature's second novel "The History of Asan Bey" was written by Siddi Lebbe, a Sri Lankan Muslim.

In more recent times, Jinnah Sherifuddin wrote epics on Muslim heroes.When the Madurai-Kamaraj University in Tamil Nadu established a chair in Islamic Tamil literature; it was a Sri Lankan Muslim, Prof. MM Uvais, who occupied it first.

Many Muslims excel in modern poetry, inspired by Kavikko Abdul Rahman.
Prof.MAM Nuhuman is a recognised progressive Tamil literary critic.

The ethnic conflict in North-East Sri Lanka resulted in Muslims producing "heart rending" poetry, says the noted literary critic, Prof. K Sivathamby. Muslims, like the other minority, the Tamils, had also taken to "resistance poetry" with verve.

Solaikili's "weird language and surrealistic images are haunting," says Sivathamby. A "galaxy" of young Muslim poets are writing with "conviction," he adds, describing Vedanti, particularly, as being "brilliant".

With the war driving the Tamils out of Sri Lanka, Muslims have become the custodians of the Tamil language in the island. Today, they have a strong presence in Tamil journalism also.

"If one is able to hear the sound of Tamil today, even in the remotest Sinhala area, it is because of the Muslims," points out a grateful Sivathamby.