The Relation of Tamil and Western Literatures – K. Kailasapathy



Source: The Indian Review of World Literature in English, Vol. 2, No.II – Jul, 2006

( Speech delivered under the auspices of the Dept. of Cooperative Literature, Madurai Kamaraj University, Tamil Nadu, India. Link to the article: )

My grateful thanks are due to the Vice- Chancellor and the other authorities of the Madurai Kamaraj University for the honour they have done me by asking me to deliver these lectures. I have chosen “The Relation of Tamil and Western Literatures” as the theme of my lectures.

Very soon we shall begin celebrating the birth centenary of our greatest modern poet-Subramania Bharathi (1882-1921). A century is a brief moment in the life of a people whose cultural history goes back, at least, to two and a half millennia. Nevertheless, the last hundred years or so have a significance for exceeding the length of the period. This was a period when Tamil literature, was responding to external influences from the West, especially to English influence and at the same time trying to express its sense of nationality and the consciousness of its own tradition. It is paradox that the period which saw intense western influence has also been the period of the ‘National Resurgence’. For one of the first and chief things observable in the group of pioneers who heralded the Tamil ‘Renaissance’ in the middle of Nineteenth Century, both in Tamil Nadu and Ceylon, is that they were impelled to study their own history, and their own legends, their own customs and folk lore. It is a strange phenomenon that the modern movement that began to manifest itself during the latter half of the Nineteenth Century and gathered momentum by the turn of the century, should draw its initial sustenance from the conscious intellectual endeavor, in contrast to the mechanical repetitions of traditional arrangements that characterized life during the previous few centuries- that the foundations for a new literature were laid. This phenomenon will be familiar to cultural historians as inevitable process in the passage of a literature from colonial rule to national independence and maturity. And the poetical works of Bharathi exemplify this apparent paradox. Accordingly the occasion of the centenary celebrations of the Mahakavi will be most apposite for a retrospective appraisal or evaluation of the relation of our literature to Western literatures. One recalls here Dr.V.Sachithanandan’s admirable piece of work The impact of Western Thought on BHARATI.

It will be evident enough, I hope, from the title of my lecture that I do not propose to go over the areas of Western impact on Tamil language and literature or to enumerate the results of such an impact. The story has been often told: the development of prose; the preparation of lexicons; the emergence of the modern movement; the rise of a critical awareness; these have been some of the direct consequences of the confluence of Tamil and Western literatures. To recapitulate them here would be to labour a truism. V.R.M. Chettiar’s observation is typical

Modern Tamil Literature has had its growth and expansion both in style and range of subject matter through the influence of Western Literature, in all its varied aspects of poetry, drama, fiction and literary criticism. [1]

The reason for my explanation is that the subject of my lectures is not simply the impact of the West on Tamil language and lecture, but the nature of the relations between Tamil and Western literatures in the specific context of the growth of Modernism in Tamil. In another sense what I hope to discuss is the manner in which Tamil has responded to Western literary concepts and works and the over all significance of this relation between the two. I shall therefore not attempt a chronological account of the relation but rather a presentation of cultural history and criticism linking past and present.

It is common knowledge that dates are often arbitrary and a convenient date for reckoning the beginning of the relation between Tamil and Western or more specially English literature can be anybody’s prescription. One could choose any one of the following: 1812, the year The College of Fort. St.George was established in Madras; 1835, the year Macaulay minuted that all higher education in India should be conducted In English; 1854, the year The Department of Public Instruction came Into being; 1857 the year Universities were established in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras; 1879, the year the first Tamil novel was published; 1891, the year P.Sundaram Pillai (1855-1987) published Manonmaniyam a play in verse and professedly influenced by English models; 1896, the year, of publication of A Professor’s Holiday being the speeches and writing of Professor P.Ranganada (1844-1893); or 1901, the year V.G.Suryanarayana Sastriar (1870-1903) better known as Paritimatkaligar brought out Tani-Pacura-Togai, a book of Tamil Sonnets with English Echoes and Notes. The English version of the Tamil Sonnets were rendered by G.U.Pope (1820-1907) of Balliol College, Oxford, who did yeoman service to Tamil language and literature by teaching them at Oxford and translating Tamil classical works into English. As has been aptly observed [2] the missionary Pope “contributed much to the elevation of Tamil studies and Tamil religion as legitimate subjects of study for oriental scholars”. Every one of the events mentioned above shows the impact of English education on Tamils and signifies a turning point in their literary and cultural history.

Our first need, then is to select a date, preferably a decade, precise enough to be watershed, yet flexible enough to include a variety of developments that could be considered seminal to the development of Modern Tamil literature. My predilection is for 1857, not because I have a bias towards university, but considering all its attendant consequences for many individuals and the society as a whole, the establishment of the University of Madras naturally enough compels our consideration. Clearly we must appreciate the importance of the event in all its ramifications. To trace the consequences on detail would take us on a course that would be inappropriate here. It is enough to recognize the fact that the early products of the University were a band of outstanding men who were incredibly versatile in many fields. The fact is that at that stage, that is, the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, specialization had not set in so much that a man could combine the pursuit of science with other liberal pursuits. They were in some ways, like the Renaissance men, Let me cite a few examples: Poondi Ranganada Mudaliar was a professor of Mathematics, a brilliant chess player with profound interest in Philosophy and equally at home in the composition of Tamil traditional poetry. He was an able speaker and writer in English V.P.Subramania Mudaliar (1857-1946) was a qualified veterinarian who pursued philosophy and psychology, translating some works of Herbert Spencer. He also translated the first half of Milton’s Paradise Lost into Tamil. Undoubtedly an ambitious task. He was also a poet with considerable originality as could be seen from his Ahalikai Venba. (Incidentally it may be noticed that the author had been influenced by Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece in handling this theme) V.Kanagasabhai Pillai (1855-1906) who wrote the pioneering work The Tamil Eighteen Hundred years ago (1940) was considered a prodigy. He was actively interested in history, archaeology, philology and numismatics. His English translations of a few Tamil poetical works appeared in the Indian Antiquary. L.D.Swamikannu Pillai (1865-1925) was a polyglot in several languages. Likewise he was equally at home in mathematics, politics, history, astronomy, philosophy and literature. He wrote verses in English. He was well known for his amazing memory. His contribution to Indian Ephemeris is considered very high and original. P.Sundaram Pillai (1855-1897), although a product of Maharajah’s College, Trivandrum, was of a similar mould. An outstanding Tamil scholar, he was a pathbreaker in chronological studies, pursued epigraphy, philosophy, psychology and science. He was inclined towards mysticism, a fact clearly evident in his creative work. He himself makes mention of it in his Preface:

  • It has not been thought necessary to exclude altogether such reflections, descriptions and minor incidents and details, as were found auxiliary to the moral and artistic effects of the play. To the spiritually inclined, some of the incidents may appear capable of allegorical interpretation and the stanza at the end of each act will perhaps be found helpful in the direction.
  • It will be also observed that the metre used in the simplest in the language and the nearest approach to the English Blank verse, which not only saves the distortions and obscurities that rhyme often brings in its train but is also specially favourable to that continuity of thought and expression so needful in dialogues.

One could add more names to this list. Certainly C.W.Thamotaram Pillai (1832-1901), T. Chelvakesavaraya Mudaliar (1864-1921) and A.Madhaviah (1872-1925) need to be included. These men were graduated of the University that was established in 1857 and not only justified their higher studies, but were also men of extraordinary calibre; nearly all of them combined a scientific-historical outlook and a genuine respect for tradition. They were equally adept in versifying in Tamil and English and almost all of them wrote excellent prose in both languages. Even if it is taken as a purely arbitrary date, 1857 could be accepted as a legitimate landmark in our modern cultural history.

At this point I am impelled to make a few remarks on this preliminary topic from Sri Lankan perspective. That there is a Sri Lankan perspective is often overlooked by scholars. I make these remarks not as reproach but simply as a reminder that in the making of the modern movement Sri Lankan scholars, especially of the last century have made distinct contribution. Someone remarked that an age is always too crowded for seeing in it few things that are by definition unique. There was something unique in the educational facilities available in Jaffna during the middle of the last century that have an important bearing on the relation between Tamil and Western scholarship.

This is not the place to discuss the process of modernization that took place and is taking place, in Tamil society and its ramifications in all aspects of social life. Suffice it to say that the intellectual awakening and fervour that were concurrent with this change were largely due to the impact of the West, which for all practical purpose was most prominent in the field of education and the resultant upheavals in social values. Due to a number of factors some of which were fortuitous of this ‘Renaissance’. The educational contributions of some of the Christian Missionaries in Jaffna to this efflorescence cannot be exaggerated. [3]

By the 20s of the last century Jaffna had seen the establishment of Seminaries where systematic education was imparted at a very high level. As a result there arose a generation of Jaffna scholars who distinguish themselves in different walks of life and in many branches of Tamil studies. There was distinct esteem in Madras for Jaffna scholars and a person like C.W.Thamotaram Pillai was certainly reckoned to be an outstanding intellectual of his time. The very mention of such names as Henry Martyn (1811-1861), William Nevins Sithamparapillai (1820-1889), Carroll Visvanathapillai(1820-1880), J.Arnold Sathasivampillai (1820-1895), Arumuka Navalar (1822-1879), C.Wyman Kathiravelpillai (1829-1904), T.Chellappapillai (1837-1902), K.Senthinatha Aiyar(1848-1924), T.Kangasundarampillai (1863-1924), A Muthuthambipillai (1858-1917) will be sufficient to indicate the calibre of personalities who constituted the Jaffna school. Of course, almost all of them came from families with access to traditional learning. In a sense English education was super-imposed on their Tamil learning. Bur what proved to be of crucial importance was the quality of English education they were exposed to, at Missionary institutions like the Batticotta Seminary and Jaffna Central School. For instance it may be noted in passing that C.Arumukam who was to become famous in later years as Navalar, ‘orator’ joined the Jaffa Central School in 1834 and spent fourteen years there both as a student and teacher. At the school he was deeply influenced by the Rev. Peter Percival who later became Professor of Indian Languages and Literature at Presidency College, Madras, and was also the founder-editor of Dinavartamani (1855) which was perhaps the first newspaper in Tamil.

Missionaries of the stature of Daniel Poor and Peter Percival, like Alexander Duff (1806-1878) in India, were not mere evangelists. They were of the strong conviction that “nothing short of a wide-spread system of elementary Christian education in the vernacular tongue, and a thoroughgoing system of scientific and theological instruction, both in Tamil and English, were the appropriate means to be used”.

A perusal of the courses taught at the Batticotta Seminary would show very clearly their broad vision and aims. Besides Christianity, Science and Philosophy claimed a great share in the work of the institution. Consequently emphasis was laid on both pure and applied sciences: Mathematics, Philosophy, Natural History, Astronomy, Chemistry; as far as the Humanities and Social Sciences were concerned, besides English Literature, Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Sanskrit, Geography, Geology, History, Political Economy, and Book-keeping were taught. Although motivated by the zeal to preach and spread Christianity, there is no doubt that the education provided by the Seminary was remarkably liberal in character. Of course, subsequent changes in policy and orientation were to bring this enlightened experiment to an end. But during the early phase, under the principal-ships of Poor and Hoisington at the Batticotta Seminary and Percival at the Wesleyan School, Science and Philosophy held a dominant position in the curriculum. It was therefore not surprising that Sir Emerson Tennent, the sober and scholarly Colonial Secretary of Ceylon made the following observations in his Christianity in Ceylon (1850).

The course of education is so comprehensive as to extend over a period of eight years of study. With special regard to the future usefulness of its alumni in the conflict with the Brahmanical system, the curriculum embraces all the ordinary branches of historical and classical learning and all the higher departments of mathematical and physical science combined with the most intimate familiarisation with the great principles and evidence of the Christian religion… The knowledge exhibited by the pupils was astonishing; and it is no exaggerated encomium to say that, in the course of instruction, and in the success of the system of communicating it, the collegiate institution of Batticotta is entitled to rank with many European Universities.

The Batticotta Seminary was started in 1824 and came to an end in 1855. For thirtyone years it had provided the Ceylonese in general and the Jaffna Tamils in particular, higher education that was unique at the time in India and Ceylon. Serampore College in Calcutta was, of course, establishment in 1818 and imparted higher Western learning at University grade. But its overall scope was somewhat narrow than that of the Batticotta Seminary, which at one stage taught even Western medicine. The Vellore mission hospital was established on the experience of the medical school in Jaffna pioneered by Dr.Samuel Fisk Green (1822-1884). An experiment was made to teach medicine in Tamil. The Universities of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras were founded in 1857, two years after the closing of the seminary. Under the circumstances it was no wonder that two of its products comfortably passed the first Bachelor of Arts degree examination of the University of Madras in 1857 without further preparation; C.W.Thampoterampillai and Carroll Visvanathapillai earned a place for themselves as the first graduated of Madras University.

It was the scientific and philosophic education which Thamotarampillai and others received at the Seminary in Jaffna that enabled them to blaze new trails and carry out investigations covering a vast range of subjects. The liberal education they imbibed also kindled their spirits and people like Arnold Sathasivampillai and Thamotarampillai wrote original works in prose and verse. Sathasivampillai, for instance, published Naneerik katha Sangrakam in 1869 which has a special place in the history of modern Tamil prose literature in that it was probably the earliest attempt to write short stories in Tamil. He was also the first to publish in Tamil a history of Tamil poets Pavalar Charithra Theepakam (1881), and Galaxy unknown among Tamil scholars, Sathasivampillai produced a book that is even now most valuable. In his Preface to the first Edition the author said:

Although we Tamils can boast of our Poetic Science and Poetic Literature, and affirm that few nations on earth can boast of as many poets as the Tamils, yet it is strange and humiliating that no attempt has ever been made, either in ancient or modern times to make a collection of the biographies of the numerous poets and poetesses that lived in southern Indian and Ceylon.

Likewise it was this sense of history and scientific spirit that launched C.W.Thamotarampillai on his pioneering attempt at periodization of the history of Tamil literature and into textual criticism in which he was a pathfinder. In both the periodization of literature and textual criticism he must have been influenced by Western methodology. One is tempted to imagine Thamotarampillai engrossed in a variorum Shakespeare, with its lines of text at the top of the page, and multitude of surmises and conjectures at the bottom and contemplating on some classical Tamil text. Modern scholars are apt to wonder at the advanced theoretical and conceptual framework with which he carried out his critical work. I will go even further and say that not more than one or two person after him have improved on his rigorous methodology. It is interesting to compare one of Swaminatha Iyer’s editions full of aids for students and explicatory material, with one of Thamotarampillai’s containing a critical Preface, explaining the method adopted in arriving emendations.

The purpose of my digression was to delineate the background in which the relation between Tamil and Western literature was established. More than the specific and individual influences, the very exposure to Western liberal tradition and writings animated the first generation who strove to create Tamil works, often in the image of the literary works that moved them. In creating new forms and genres they openly expressed indebtedness to certain models and authors. What is important to observe is that although a few did attempt to write in English- like B.R. Rajam Iyer (1872-1893), A. Madhaviah, M.S.Purnalingam Pillai (1866-1947), and S.M.Natesa Sastriar (1859-1916)- most of the early writers chose to express themselves in Tamil The best talents imbibed the literary spirit and manner from Western works and tried to “help the cause of Tamil Literature” by their creative efforts. Accordingly the use that is made of the Western exemplars, and not the fact of their having been influenced, is the useful test by which the better known Tamil works can be judged. The Australian critic Morris Miller has aptly stated: “Interactions between literatures are common features of literary growth, and in reacting to English influence we are not on that account to be depreciated”. [4]

Having discussed some aspects of the historical and educational background in which Western literature influenced Tamil, I would like to say something of the Tamil response to these influences. I have earlier referred to the particular circumstance-colonial rule-under which the relation between Tamil and Western literature was born. Comparative studies show us that a general pattern exists wherever European culture came to dominate through conquest and colonial rule some less ‘advanced’ society. The general progress consists of three stages: the first stage is the period of imitation of the models provided by the dominant culture; the second stage is characterized by intense

And sometimes passionate debated between the forces attracted to indigenous sources and those drawn towards foreign models. During this state advocated of nationalism and regionalism will appear to be triumphant. The third stage and the emergence of more balanced views resulting in greater self confidence and un-self-consciousness. I do not aver that modern Tamil literature has traversed the whole gamut. We certainly have not experienced the third stage. We can comprehend it by reading about it but not feel it as actual experience.

At this stage I wish to raise a fundamental issue about the influences I have referred to earlier: the liberal education and the resultant spirit of enquiry in the pursuit of knowledge, History and Science no doubt provided new perceptions and insights. And these were the benefits of English education. And yet it might appear that this change and progress was not exactly what we would expect them to be. It is true that the writer and scholars who benefitted by collegiate education were critical, cautions and liberal. They had adopted new approaches to literature-both creative and critical. If one were to compare Arumuka Navalar and Mahavidwan Meenakshi-sundarampillai (1815-1875) the distinctions will become clear. Arumuka Navalar had spent fourteen years in a Christian Institution, without being converted to Christianity, and yet became the greatest champion and reformer of Saivism. In religion he was orthodox, uncompromising and Agamic to the core. Undoubtedly he was a conservative. But he was also a great innovator in many matters. He was a pioneer in textual criticism, in the writing of text-books, in the creation of a unique prose style, in criticising malpractices in the management of temples and in attacking the impiety and illiteracy prevalent among many Brahmin priests. How does one judge him? On the other hand consider Meenakshisundaram Pillai. He was perhaps the last great traditional versifier. He wrote nearly a hundred works. There is no evidence that he wrote anything in prose. He was the chief Tamil scholar at the Thiruvavadu-thurai Mutt. For all purposes he was oblivious of all societal issues and questions of literary innovation. He is of course remembered as the guru of Swaminatha Aiyar (1855-1842), Thiyagaraja Chettiar (1826-1888) and a few others. In fact Meenakshisundaram Pillai was the very antithesis of modern Tamil scholar. This dichotomy has been vividly described by a recent western scholar.

By the late ’seventies the native community seemed to be spilt between two jarring elements corresponding, on the one hand, to the pre-university leaders- ignorant, timid and superstitious-and, on the other, to the products of the universities. Each faction continuously appeared to thwart the other. [5]

The point is that when we speak of Western influence we should not use it as a cliché or blanket term. The Western sources and models that influenced the Tamil writers did not repeat themselves in the works they inspired. The answer is not difficult to find. The two societies had not much common. The apparent and very often surface similarities of the two literatures should not obscure the fact that the two atmospheres are not identical. Many of the early Tamil writers acquired their literary taste on the basis of their reading in English be it for examinations, entertainment or edification. That being so, there was bound to be, and in a large measure there continues to be, a discrepancy between actual and literary situation in their immediate environment, but more important their social organization itself was considerably different. Naturally these were decisive constraints on the realization and execution of the influences. Thus when we speak of the historical and scientific spirit that permeated among the English educated Tamils during the latter part of the last century, we should not conclude that the spirit was identical with what prevailed among their counterparts in the West. Compared to the moribund literary tradition that was lingering in the Monasteries and in the minds of some people, the attitude and approach of the new English educated scholars and writers were no doubt invigorating. The English educated writer did take a step forward, but he also retracted two steps backward. Inspite of his acquired rationality and the proddings of his inner thoughts he was willing to be conditioned by the climate of ideas and feelings and assumptions of his public and acquiesce in them. Let me illustrate my point. The author Poondi Ranganada to whom I have already referred to was a celebrity in his life time. He was awarded the title of Rao Bahadur by the Imperial Government and was a member of the National Indian Association and Cosmopolitan Club in Madras. He was a typical representative of the English educated elite hobnobbing with the rulers of the day. To me he allows himself too much acquiescence with surrounding superstition and bigotry. He made the following candid statement in a paper read at Madras in 1884.

I may feel sincerely that the way in which religious ceremonies are performed and mantrams uttered by my family priest is a mockery of things solemn, a profanation of things sacred, and yet this solemn mockery, this sacred profanity must be endured, or I run the risk of being reviled as an apostate. I may feel that the best thing I an do for my stupid son is to keep him single, until such time at least as he is able to shift for himself and earns enough to maintain a wife and children with; but such is the tyranny of custom that he must be married as soon as he arrives at man’s estate even though I have to bear the burden of supporting, it may be to the last day of my life, my worthless son and his wife and all the creatures they may bring into existence. It may seem to me to be a profligate waste of money to spend hundreds and thousands of rupees in connection with a marriage on gifts to the well-to-do, food to the pampered, on dancers, and songstresses, on processions and illuminations and on the various shows and festivities that are imagined to be an integral part of marriage, but I must do as others do, or I shall be taunted as a miser, and suspected even by my friends as a possible renegade. [6]

We find here the split between the public and the private. There is a victorian hypocrisy behind this rationalization or self justification. It is a clear case of double standard. Bruce Tiebout McCully has succinctly described this state of affairs:

The broad barrier that separated the public, outer life of the educated Hindu, that is, his life as an officer of the state or as a teacher or lawyer from his private inner life, resembled the double life of the somnambulist. [7]

It is a reflection of the split personality of the author that the major creative work he wrote in Tamil was Kachchikkalambagam. Kalambagam literally ‘mixture combination’ is a comprehensive hyper genre which admits great variety both in metre and themes. [8] In Tamil literary tradition it was considered a challenging and demanding genre. The maxim ”ellampadi kalambagam padu”, meaning one should take it up having gained experience in handling other forms indicates how onerous it was. The fact that he wrote reasonably good prose befitting his time but chose to labour on a very traditional verse form shows that “he kept his verse and his prose in two different compartments”. Ranganada Mudaliar’s reaction was not an isolated instance. The next name I like to cite is of slightly later date and certainly better known. A.Madhaviah was another writer, at home both in English and in Tamil I quote from his English novel Thillai Govindan, published under the guise of a posthumous autobiography. These are among the concluding passages:

My quest was not to unravel the great mystery, or draw the veil from off the unknowable; I only wanted some principle to guide me in daily life a rudder to my barque which would not appear monstrous to my reason. And this I found in that most amazing and perplexing book, the “Bhagavat Gita”. .. Do thy duty, and do it with utter indifference to the fruits of action, preached the “Githa” in one place, and I felt that this alone could ensure peace of mind. Theosophical literature also formed a portion of my studies, and mostly through its means I was convinced, as far as conviction is possible in such a subject, of the truth of the doctrines of reincarnation and karma. So far I had become richer in faith, or perhaps duller in reason, and the result was not restlessness but peacefulness of mind.

In a work of fiction these words of the hero, Thillai Govindan, need not be ascribed to the other. And yet on circumstantial evidence and other clues they could very well reflect his mind. The temptation to quote from a review of the book is irresistible. The Englishman Frederic Harrison with whom George Eliot was on intimate terms and held in high regard by her [9], had this to say:

He goes as a student to Madras, falls in with Christian Missionaries, repents and amends his life, becomes a disciple of Ingersoll and Bradlaugh of Beasant, Huxley and Tyndall. He takes up the study of law, but eventually becomes a Government inspector of police in a rural district. The inner life of a native official is a curious revelation. Still more is the story of his young wife’s maladies. Still more is the story of his young wife’s maladies, fancies, and the pilgrimages to the shrines, and the domestic and conscientious struggle of a practising Brahmin who was a Spencerian philosopher. He then becomes a political reformer and agitates for wholesale revision of native laws and customs. He becomes a delegate to the National Congress. His motto is, “India, with all thy faults I love thee still”. He studies “Sartor Resartus”, “Robert Elsmere”, the Bible, Thomas A Kempis, theosophy and George Eliot. But he finally reverts to “reincarnation” and “Karma”. He gives himself to mediate on the Vedas and adopts the practices of a Yogi. In that he finds peace and rest. It is a curious book-how far literal memories, how far invention we need not inquire. But it is a fascinating picture of the contrasts and confusions of Hindoo antiquity suddenly plunged into the whirl pool of modern Europe. [10]

The sort of regression referred to by Harrison need not be taken on its face value. However the passage quoted shows a definite trait discernible in a number of Tamil novels: preoccupation with religion characertizes many of them. From Rajam Iyer’s Kamalambal Charithram (1896) and K.N: Subramaniam’s Poytevu (1946) to K.S.Ramamurthi’s Valithunai (1980) mysticism, Vedanta, Karma, reincarnation and similar subjects have been the primary concern of many novelists. The question is not one of religion per se, but of its compatibility with the novel as a literary form. For, it will be remembered that not withstanding the prevalence of puritanism and the presence of religious concerns in the early English novels, they have no priority of status. We see in the history of English novel, the gradual emergence, and the gradual shaping and ripening of a secular viewpoint which was but a reflexion of the “new type of Englishman, empirical, self-reliant, energetic, and with the sense of a direct relation with a God made in his own mage.” This naturally led to the emphasis on character itself which came to be considered the distinguishing mark of the novelist. Of course character was seen in the context of its gradual infolding in its environment. And it is through the interaction of man and his milieu that we get a glimose of the quality of his physical, social, emotional and intellectual experience. This trend in English literature began with Daniel Defoe and that is why he is often considered to be the first English novelist. lan Watt’s observation is pertinent:

The jury does not normally allow divine intervention as an explanation of human actions. It is therefore likely that a measure or secularization was an indispensable condition for the rise of the new genre. The novel could only concentrate on personal relations. Once most writers and readers believed that individual human beings, and not collectivities such as the Church, or transcendent actors, such as the Person of the Trinity, were alloted the supreme role on the earthly stage. [12]

Here again the striking difference between the main trend of English and Tamil novel comes into bold relief. If, for instance, we analyse the novels of Rajam Iyer, Madhaviah, T.M.Ponnusami Pillai, Idaikkadar (T.Nagamuthu), K.N. Subramanian, Chidambara Subramanian and K.S.Ramamurthi, we at once perceive in them the basic assumption of the reality of the spirit. It is an a priori assumption. Whereas spirituality should be presented only through “the subjective experiences of the characters”. many Tamil novelists betray something of the reverence accorded to the Sruti, the Vedic revelations, in their treatment of religious concepts. In other words the intrinsic merit of religious belief and its innate excellence are taken as articles of faith. But in the west the growth of the novel was surely facilitated by a world view centred on secularism and individualism. It is true that in a novel like Valithunai, and attempt is made to present the idea of religious self-scrutiny from the individualist and subjective plane, and also treat it within the naturalistic tradition. Nonetheless incidents implying Divine providence, retribution and fate seem to impinge on the consciousness of the characters, and their actions appear to depend upon a transcendental scheme of things. To continue my argument, I would like to touch upon one more novelist-B.R.Rajam Iyer. Widely acclaimed as the first modern novelist, it has become a habit in recent years, of suggesting that the main tradition of the Tamil novel begins with him. A contemporary of Iyer, P.Sundaram Pillai himself no mean scholar, gave the work superlative praise. There is no gainsaying that Kamalambal is one of the best achievements in Tamil fiction. What is of interest to notice here is the vast difference between Rajam Iyer’s work and the novels of George Eliot despite the assertion of some critics that two authors are comparable and that Iyer was influenced by Eliot. (There is of course an observation by K.N.Subramanian that Kamalambal was consciously modelled on Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield). Let us consider Rajam Iyer and George Eliot. Historically speaking it is easy to see that the novels of both the authors mark a definite change in the nature of the fiction in their respective languages. As is well known George Eliot was not primarily concerned with offering entertainment but to “explore a significant theme-a theme significant in its bearing on the serious problems and preoccupations of mature life”. [13] As Joan Bennet has remarked in her George Eliot: Her Mind and Art, unlike many of her contemporaries she never succumbed to the “wish to provide the sort of entertainment the reader demanded”, nor was she moved by “wish to propagate specific views”. The same thing may be said of Rajam Iyer, although his wish to propagate Vedanta often protruded in his art. In the strong preoccupation with moral issue, in their possession of descriotive powers and many other matters there are no doubt conspicous similarities between the two. However the profound dissimilarities too cannot be overlooked. Foremost among the difference is their religious faith. By the time she came to write her novels George Eliot’s conversion to religious agnosticism was complete. Her close association with the Positivists, her translation of Strauss’s Leben Jesu, her study of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theo-logico-Politicus and Rthics, her acceptance of the findings of contemporary science, especially heredity, and other intellectual pursuits placed man in the centre of the universe. The study of Spinoza had helped her to free herself from the Procrustean bed of dogma.[14] As lan Watt says, novelists like George Eliot have “inherited of Puritanism everything except its religious faith”. For her ethical religious and social norms and conventions were products of history “evolved in time and changing with time”. After her conversion to agnosticism and her release from dogmatic religious beliefs, “metaphysical speculations did not disturb her and she was content to devote her own attention to the world of all of us.” [15] In 1859, when Darwin’s Origin of Species was published and much debate and controversy ensued, George Eliot accepted the theory with assent and understanding.

Now when we consider Rajam lyer the differences are very striking. In religious matters he was the opposite of George Eliot. His life was very short-just 26 years. Although he was a lover of poetry and contemplated leading the life of an aesthetist he quickly outgrew that thought and began to purse the Vedantic ideal of religious unity. As has been observed by G.S.K., the editor of Rambles in Vedanta, which contains the writings of Rajam lyer, “Already, Mr.Rajam lyer had apparently come under the influence of Vedanta philosophy of which the conclusions are largely adopted in his novel … … … Now the Vedantin too works for happiness but works with the immediate object of realising an absolutely permanent happiness without causing the least injury to others. Now the Chief value and peculiarity of Mr.Rajam lyer’s life consist in that he so early felt and recognised the value of such happiness and of an ideal so purely transcendental and impersonal, under conditions apparently out of the way of and hostile to such recognition and succeeded in realising his own Self-the one without a second”. Those two words, ‘transcendental’ and ‘impersonal’ describe his works. No doubt like most of Eliot’s novels, lyer’s Kamalambal and his unfinished novel in English A Dewan Bahadur and C.I.E., offer a beautiful microcosm of Tamilian village life in the early years of the last century. There are passages of poetic intensity, particularly in Kamalambal. And yet the dominant note is one of mysticism. In the author’s own words, the novel records “the innermost experience of a restless soul which struggled much, and after a long course of suffering, has at last found a fountain all undefiled and pure to slake its thirst of ages”. [16] It may not be an autobiographical novel, but Sreenivasan bears too close a resemblance to the author in as much as Maggie Tulliver bears a much closer relationship to George Eliot than my character in “The Mill on the Floss. What is pertinent here is the fact that the making of sublime spiritual experience central to the novel by lyer, vitiates the emanation of modern consciousness of the characters in the context of a changing and developing society. This is weakness that has crippled many Tamil novelists since Rajam lyer’s time, The ‘commitment’ to Vedanta rather than freeing the author, in actual fact restricts his vision of human life which in a deeper sense hampers his art. It is accepted axiom that character is conditioned by environment and its potential for growth and lack of it is limited by the world around it. In other words, the external world is very much with the novelist and only in its physical context does he present characters and through them his vision of life. As pointed out by Bannett. “the difference in quality between George Eliot’s novels is closely related to the degree of success with which she gives life to the social world surrounding her central characters”.[17] This was something which Rajam lyer, as a Vedantin, could not really comprehend and totally subscribe to. I shall allow him to speak for himself:

The ideal society, according to Vedanta, is not a millenion on earth, nor a reign of angles, where there will be nothing but through equality of men, and peace, and joy-the Vedanta indulges in so much Chimeras-but one, where religious toleration neighborly charity, and kindness even to animals from the leading features, where the fleeting concerns of life are subordinated to the eternal, where man strives not to externalise but to internalise himself more and more and the whole social organism moves, as it were, with a sure instinct towards God. This ideal will be steadily presented in these pages… (italics author’s)

This brings us back to the words ‘transcendental’ and ‘impersonal’. On a close analysis we would find that George Eliot’s emphasis is very different from Rajam lyer’s. While lyer believed that man moves instinctively towards God, George Eliot took the position that through his “capacity for resolution and moral effort” man retains his free will. It is this basically contradictory worldviews that account for the qualitative differences in the works of the two writers. “The superficial and technical similarities between the novels such as the author intervening in the narrative and commenting upon his characters, of turning aside to lecture the reader, or even (in the case of George Eliot, in her earlier works) underling the didactic element, should not lead us to draw dubious conclusions. The question of religious faith and attitude to God, let us alone the social world they lived in, are of paramount importance in evaluating the nature of their work.

In commenting on Rajam lyer and others after him, who have handled the spiritual theme, it must be pointed out that they have, consciously or unconsciously been influenced by our epic tradition. The epic, as well all know, is a closed and established form with built-in conversions. In it there is no separation of contradiction between matter and spirit. But the novel, as we have seen earlier, emerged in a milieu which saw secularization as the main intellectual trend. Writing on the historico-philosophical conditioning of the novel and its significance, George Lukacs observed:

The novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God… The novel hero’s psychology is the field of action of the demonic. Biological and sociological life has a profound tendency to remain within its own immanence; men want only to live, structures want to remain intact; and because of the remoteness, the absence of an effective God, the indolent self complacency of this quietly decaying life would be the only power in the world if men did not semetimes fall prey to the power of the demon and overreach themselves in ways that have nor reason and cannot be explained by reason, challenging all the psychological or sociology foundations of their existence.[18]

Fredic Jameson’s comment on Lukac’s observation is equally interesting.

Each novel is a process in which the every possibility of narration must begin in a void, without any acquired momentum: its privileged subject matter will therefore be the search in a world in which neither goals or paths are established before hand. [19]

Let me return to my point of departure: I had said that inspite of a liberal education and a certain amount of close acquaintance with science and history-all through English education-our early novelists differed very much from the Western novelists of their time. What is remarkable is that most of the early Tamil novelists were sufficiently familiar with the works of George Eliot and others of her generation. They were also adequately aware of the philosophic and scientific theories of the leading English and to some extent of the European thinkers of the day. We know for certain that men like P.Ranganada, V.P.Subramania Mudaliar and V.G.Suryanarayana Sastriar had a sort of ‘direct’ access to Herbert Spencer through David Ducan who came to Madras around 1868. Ducan had started working for Spencer about that time, editing his works for publication. Ducan was Professor of Logic and Philosophy in Presidency College, Madras, and people like Ranganada were his personal friends. Not only in Tamil Nadu but all over India, Spencer’s immense influence on Indian intellectuals as well as on British Civil Servants has been testified to by S.K.Ratcliff. Charles H.Heimsath has in his Indian Nationalism and Hindu Social Reform (1964) given copious references to the vogue Spencer enjoyed in 19th Century Indian and to his influence on contemporary Indian writing. Auguste Comte’s (1798-1857) books too were part of the reading material of Indian intellectuals through Harriet Martineau’s translations. The Positive Philosophy of Commte had become popular among the English educated. Yet one cannot help marvelling at the fact that how little the Positivist philosophy and scientific theories like Darwinism had real influence on the consciousness of most educated Indians. Their writing on these matters were not all of a piece. Heimsath’s comment is illuminating:

After the establishment of the University system in Madras there was a rapid spread of Western ideas through the ranks of the higher educated. … The new ideas however, seemed to affect their thinking without changing to nay great extent their religious observance and modes of social behaviour. When the social reform movement did get fully underway in Madras, in later decades, it stressed peripheral issues;…. social welfare work was always a more popular form of organized endeavour than social reform. [20]

This sociological fact has far reaching implications for the understanding of Tamil writing that were done seemingly under Western influences. The Tamil elite were at best eclectic, drawing different things from different schools and system.

An interesting passage occurs in Prathapa Mudaliar, the first work of prose fiction in Tamil. In the anecdote related by Devaraja Pillai about the brahmin Anandaiyyan who aped the Eurasians, Anglo-Indians and other denationalised groups, he is rebuked for reading atheistic author; the motley assortment reads like a list of proscribed authors: L.Lecky, Stephen, Bain, Darwin, Comte, Mill, Herbert Spencer, Huxley, Hume, Collins, Tyndall, Voltaire. It is said that as a result of reading these authors, Anandaiyyan had come to deny the existence of God, Good, Evil, heaven, hell and the scripture. He had become an Epicurean. The anecdote is designed to censure rationalist thought by overt criticism and innuendo. His immoral behaviour is plainly attributed to the corrupting effect of these irreligious tracts. The point is made explicit by Vedanayakam Pillai himself in the Preface.

In writing this story, I have not followed the example of those novelists who depict human nature as it is, not as it ought to be, and who thus exhibit bad specimens of humanity which are often mistaken by the young and inexperienced for objects of imitation. I have represented the principal personages as perfectly virtuous in accordance with the opinion of the great English moralist Dr.Johnson.

We see here the lumping together of diverse personalities ranging from social thinkers, political philosophers, economists and natural scientists. Perhaps what was thought to be common to all of them was their acceptance of philosophical realism with its method of the study of the particulars of experience by individual investigators. Probably almost all of them would have held the scientific inquirer to be “free from the body of past assumptions and traditional beliefs”. Students familiar with the philosophical system of India will at once recognize the striking resemblance between the treatment of the Charvaka school in the Hindu polemical writing and the portrayal of atheistic thinking in Prathapa Mudaliar. By painting the ‘westernized’ Anandaiyyan as despicable and degenerate and describing him as a slave of sensual pleasures who believes in ‘eat’ drink and be merry’, Vedanayakam Pillai was falling back on Indian philosophical orthodoxy to buttress a christian critique of materialism. Needless to say neither standpoints are particularly conductive to an objective treatment of character and actuality. Ian Watt has put it laconically.

The novel is the form of literature which most fully reflects the individualist and innovating reorientation. Previous literary forms had reflected the general tendency of their cultures to make conformity to traditional practice the major test of truth; The novel is thus the logical literary vehicle of a culture which, in the last few centuries, has set an unprecedented value on originality, on the novel; and it is therefore well named. [21]

In this sense Prathapa Mudaliar would appear to have obvious shortcomings.

In the post-Enlightenment era and particularly during the age of industrialisation science became part and parcel of life. Laws of nature were paralleled by natural laws of social progress; this was the fundamental thinking of the Positive philosophers. In other words, natural philosophy and social philosophy went hand in hand in Europe. There were, of course, many variations on this system but it was pervasive. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) applied the theory of Evolution to society. As has been described by Hofstadtr, “Spencer was the embodiment of Social Darwinism”. He took the idea of the survival of the fittest and applied it to the social world. The Indian elite who devoured Spencer’s philosophy took to his social thought very readily but discarded the scientific elements in it. The idea of progress naturally appealed to them. But they ignored the fact that the idea of Providence was incompatible with it. This anomalous separation of ideas affected their creative works adversely. Science is more than mere reasoning. As the pioneers of Scientific methodology Hume and Bacon and others emphasized reason alone does not constitute the scientific method. “Reason gains its power only when it is joined with observation, which is were the inductive or empirical method enters”. It needs no special argument to say how vital observation and empirical method is to the serious novelist. I would like to close my comments on this point with a quotation from Engels’

Dialectics of Nature:

Natural scientists believe that they free themselves from philosophy by ignoring it or abusing it. They cannot, however, make any headway without thought, and for thought they need thought determinations. But they take these categories unreflectingly from the common consciousness of so called educated person, which is dominated by the relics of long obsolete philosophies, or from the little bit of philosophy compulsorily listened to at University (which is not only fragmentary, but also medley of views of people belonging to the most varied and usually the worst schools), or from uncritical and unsystematic reading of philosophical writings of all kinds. Hence they are no less in bondage to philosophy. [22]

While analysing and assessing the type of influence exerted on Tamil literature by Western thoughts it will be worthwhile to ponder upon Engels’ perceptive pronouncement.

Speaking of Tamil fiction it may be pointed out that notwithstanding a fairly continuos and consistent connection with English literature, the influence of English fiction has been uneven and generally speaking unproductive. The early novelists Vedanayakam Pillai, Rajam lyer, Madhaviah, Natesa Sastriar and Ponnusamy Pillai had finished their major works by the first decade of this century. Their staple of English reading comprised the Victorian novelists and their predecessors. They were not exposed to European fiction which began to appear in English translation in the second half of the century. The Russian and French fiction became influential in England and as Walter Allen aptly phrased it, “ the result so far as England was concerned, was the mutation of which the modern English novel was the product. “[23]

The early Tamil fiction writers had, if they chose to read, English novels from Defoe (1660-1731) to Meredith (1828-1909), by the Eighteen-eighties the era of the later Victorians had come to an end. It is a fact to ponder that no major English influence, however weak and ineffective, is to be detected in Tamil fiction after the first world war. During the twenties and thirties of this century the main motto of our fiction writers appeared to be, ‘make’ em laugh, ‘em cry, make’ ‘em wait’. The tradition of Rajam lyer was revived in the late forties and fifties by novelists like K.N.Subramanian and Chidambara Subramaniam (1912-1977) both of whom were avowed Vedantins. In the works of the latter writers one can hear echoes of European novelists. But on the whole Western influence by way of particular authors of books seem to have come to an end.

An isolated instance of Gorky’s impact on Ragunathan in his Panchum Paciyum (1953) does not constitute a definable influence.

What is more tangible and palpable is the growing ascendancy of the psychological novel in contemporary Tamil which ultimately must be traced to Western influence. Looking back, it must be said that K.N.Subramaniam’s Oru nal (1950), albeit consciously modelled on Joycean technique heralded the advent of the psychological novel. Sundara Ramasamy, R.Chudamani, Neela-Padmanabhan, T.Janakiraman, L.S.Ramamirtham and a few others have dealt with the inner life of characters making, thereby, private experience the sum and substance of their novels. Whether the influences have come directly from the propounders of psychological theories or through Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), James Joyce (1882-1941) and their like is a matter for further study. Someone remarked that there are at least seven schools of psychology batting for recognition and dominance in the field. I do not known how many schools have reached our writers. But reading Jeyakanthan. Indira Parthasarathy and Janakiraman and a few others one can be certain that Freudian school has come to stay.

But one passing comment may be in place. Whether it be fiction, poetry, drama or criticism it looks as though the impact is felt after atleast three or four decades. We have been several years behind the times. This tradition was established by the early novelists discussed a while ago and maintained by our so called avantgarde. Joyce, Proust and Virginia Woolf belong to the decade of the first world war. Tamil writers began to evince interest in them only in the late fifties and sixties. It is true that Puthumaipithan (1906-1948), K.N.Subramanian and C.S.Chellappah have made passing remarks about ‘interior monologue’ and ‘stream of consciousness’ in their works, somewhat earlier. [24] However the significance of the psychological novels and an interest in their creators manifested as a phenomenon amidst us almost fifty years behind the times. Even then except for a few journalistic essay of an introductory nature, there is not a single study on this subject. The same thing may be said of the Imagist movement, which crystallized around 1910 in England but had a longer history in France. The revolt against conventional metres and diction was the essential features of this movement. It was only in the sixties that the tenets of the Imagists were invoked by our ‘new poet’ and critics. The literary magazine Eluthu, played a key role in this. And again, if consider the cult of aestheticism, of Art for Arts sake, associated in the minds of many with Oscare Wilde (1856-1900) and in some ways with the Bloomsbury group in London, and the literary coterie centred around T.K.C. in Tamilnadu., “the thought that good and pleasant states of feeling were the only things in life that were ultimately valuable , and these states of feeling arose primarily from the enjoyment of love of friend-ship or admiration of beauty, in art, in nature, or in human beings” seems to have motivated both the groups. Even so T.K.C and his associated did not proclaim the credo of art for arts sake; they were too cultured to do that. It is only since the sixties that the cry had assumed a virulent form. These instances would indicate felt there is a time lag in Western influence being felt in Tamil and even when they do so they are often metamorphozed into something very different from the originals.


  1. R.M.Chettiar, Critical Essays, Karaikudi, 1955.P.32.
  1. Eugene F.Irschick, Politics and Social Conflict in India, California, 1969.p.279. Pope, along with Caldwell contributed in no small measure to what is called the “oriental Renaissance” in Europe. These men helped open the minds of many European scholars and researchers of “entirely new influence blowing from the Orient”. see, Amaury De Riencourt, The Soul of India, London 1961,p 258.
  1. On some aspects of Christian missionary activities in Jaffna see, K.Kailasapathy, “Arumuka Navalar: the Central Years (1834-1848)’, The Central, Jaffna, 1979; K.Kailasapathy, “Arnold Sathasivampillai and the Tamil Renaissance” Jaffna College Miscellany (Centenary Publication), Jaffna, 1981.pp.81-87.
  1. Morris Miller, “The Relation of English and Australian Literatures”, in 20th Century Australian Literary Criticism, ed Clement Semmler, Melbourne, 1967.p.13.
  1. Bruce Tiebout McCully, English Education and the Origins of Indian Nationalism, New York, 1940.p.221.
  1. A Professor’s Holiday (2nd ) Madras, 1896.p.73.
  1. McCully op., cit., p.220
  1. See, K.Kailasapathy, Thamil Naval Illakkiyam, (2nd edn,) Madras, 1977.p.31.
  1. On George Eliot’s association with Harrison, see, Joan Bennett, George Eliot-Her Mind and Her Art. Cambridge, 1962.p.26.
  1. Thillai Govindan, London 1916, Introduction. Harrison’s passages are quoted from the Positivist Review,
  1. Walter Allen, The English Novel, (Pelican Book) London, 1959.p.38.
  1. lan Watt, The Rise of the Novel, (Penguin Books) London 1963, p.87.
  1. see F.R.Leavis, The Great Tradition, London 1948.p.7.
  1. Joan Bennett, op.cit.,p.42.
  1. ,p.72.
  1. Rambles in Vedanta, (reprint) Delhi, 1974.p.72.

The Indian Review of World Literature in English, Vol. 2, No.II – Jul, 2006

  1. Ibid, p.82.
  1. George Lukacs, The Theory of the Novel, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1971,pp.88-90.
  1. Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form, New Jersey, 1971 p.172.
  1. Indian Nationalism and Hindu Social Reform, New Jersey 1964,p.112.
  1. ,p.13.
  1. Dialectics of Nature, Moscow, 1954,pp.278-279.
  1. ,p.219.
  1. Puthumaipithan’s short story entitled “Kayittaravu” is a clear example of a piece of writing in the Joycean mould written in the early forties.


In dealing with the relation of Tamil Literature and Western Literatures, I shall now consider the Romantic movement, which probably, has been the most important influence to come from the West. My overall approach is both theoretical and documentary. I shall not try in this lecture to cover all the ground. The main features of the influence and the manner in which the Romantic elements inspired many Tamil writers to reach out for artistic fulfilment will be indicated. The various parts of the general movement will be delineated and traced to their sources of inspiration. The remarkable endurance of the Romantic elements in Tamil culture, often unrecognised and unquestioned but nonetheless germane to much of the literary effusion, is in itself proof of the relevance of these elements to our modern movement. Ever so often, there occur in the arts certain major eruptions which seem to affect all their products and radically change their temper. European Romanticism is a convenient illustration.

The origin of the word Romantic is too well known to need restatement. However, since there is no indigenous Tamil word synonymous with it, and as I have just said, the impact of Romanticism has resulted in the marking off much of modern Tamil literature from the literature of the original meaning of the word and its semantic extensions will be useful. It is interesting to contemplate on the fact that while appropriate terms have been coined in our language for classicism, realism, Naturalism and such other technical expressions, a satisfactory and acceptable word, coextensive in sense for Romanticism is yet to be found. I am sure the implications of this merit some thought. But I should not tarry to much at this point. And I do wish to give the impression that in saying this I know the reasons. Perhaps one difficulty is that Romanticism means not one but many things. That will, I hope, become clear in the course of my talk.

Now, the world “romantic”, it need hardly be stated here, is derived from romance. And romance as most of us known is a type of medieval tale that originated in the language descended from Latin in those lands that had provinces of Rome. These languages were collectively called romance languages. The romantic tales were mostly tales of chivalry-dealing with love and adventure- and consequently came to be associated with these two things. Written usually in verse with scenes and incidents remote from ordinary life and interspersed with the improbable, or fairly-tale element the romance was highly dramatic. From this came the expression “romantic”, meaning originally love, adventure, scenic beauty, improbability and make-believe. The romances were popular in Europe in the 15th and 16th Centuries. But Romanticism as a movement flourished in Europe in the Nineteenth Century although its beginnings were in the last quarter of the preceding century. As often happens different people prefer different dates. Ernst Fischer for instance argues that Romanticism was the dominant attitude of European Art and literature from Rousseau’s Discourses until The Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engles.[1] From Europe the movement spread to America. As a result it was a European and American movement broadly pervading through the literary and artistic effort of more than a century-if we take into account its prelude and the aftermath of the main achievements. Being a pan-continental and trans-continental movement its efflorescence varied from country to country both in time and degree. But everywhere it manifested a strong reaction to existing cultural and artistic norms and values. Generally speaking Romanticism as a European phenomenon lasted from about 1780 and 1850. By Mid Nineteenth century the major figures associated with the movement were dead: Byron Shelley, Blake, Keats, Scott, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Hazlitt, Pushkin, Lermontov, Goya, Buchner, Chateaubriand, Beethovan, Chopin, Schubert, Bellni, Balzac, Stendhal, Goethe, Schiller, Kleist Novalis and Wackenroder. [2]

What is to be borne in mind is that hardly any creative endeavour was left untouched by these Romantics: literature, painting, sculpture and music of course benefitted most. As has been pointed out by Jacques Barzun, all the forms, ideas perceptions, tendencies, genres and critical principles had been put forward which the rest of the nineteenth century was to make use of in its further development. [3] In term of their attitudes and actions the following may be recapitulated: in poetry the Romantics chose to admit all words in contrast to what may be called a specialized poetical diction, By ‘all words’ was meant the ‘language such as men do use’; in mythology a departure was made from the sole reliance on the Classical that is Graeco-Roman to Celtic and Germanic; in drama they reacted to the strict adherence to the classical “rules” of the unities and exercised great freedom in handling observable diversities; (It is to the lasting credit of the Romantic generation that it admired Shakespeare and extolled his artistic greatness); in painting they rejected the prescription of the Academy which restricted them to antique subject and took in a new artistic method; in music defying the rules prohibiting ““he use of certain chord, tonalities, and modulation” they exploited the sound of instruments in order to achieve musical effects;(the secularization of sacred music was to a large extent accomplished by Romantics); In their attitude to the past, they repudiated the prevalent assumption that nothing worthy has taken place after the fall of the Roman civilization; they rediscovered the Middle Ages and drew sustenance from them. The Novels of Walter Scott (1771-1832) particularly the historical novels, which, he practically invented exemplify this aspect of the Romantics’ interest. In fact one of the salient aspects of the Romantic Movement was its serious concern with history. The reverence for the past shown by some of the Romantics really remarkable. In their response to cities and urban centres the Romantics shared certain common features. They travelled to far off lands and continents and gave a new dimension and literary respectability to the word “exotic”; (It is a well known fact that German Romantics like Schelling, Schleiermacher, Goethe, Schiller, Novalis, Schlegel and others responded to the discovery of Indian Culture with cries of ecstasy); their inclusiveness in accommodating folk arts that were despised by the earlier period gave an impetus to the flowering of new art forms enriched by the influx of folk literature and folk music. When we come to religion and politics too the Romantics were unorthodox in many ways. Not all of them were conformists and some of them were non-believers.

While these were the chief characteristics and positive contribution of the Romantic movement it must also be remembered that it was at the same time basically the result of a conscious revolt against the rigid but important conventions and rules of Neo-classicism. This deliberate revolt against dead habit and decadent tradition gave the Romantics a sense of struggle or as Goethe put it, a feeling of strife meaning resistance, opposition and eventual success of failure. Although many Romantics suffered from a deep feeling of strife meaning resistance, opposition and eventual success or failure. Although many Romantics suffered from a deep feeling of melancholy and were often pessimistic, there were others who were imbued with voluntarism, which was a characteristic feature of romantic art Byron’s poetry reverberates with it.

I spoke before of the English educated Tamils and their arrival at the literary scene during the middle of the last century. Here dates are relevant. Throughout the 19th Century educational horizons were widening.

Beginning from the days of Macaulay’s reforms in 1835 all higher education in India had been conducted in English. The aim of the British rulers was to bring up a class of men who would be “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect”. For this purpose and a result of conscious policy of discouraging too much of “scientific” education for the natives, a classical type of curriculum was encouraged by the Britishers. “Right away, this new educational system was weighted down by an almost exclusive emphasis on literary pursuits, as distinct from scientific and technical instruction”. [4] Everything was well set for the Europeanization of India’s elite. In 1854 every province had been the creation of a Department of public Instruction which tried to help schools run on Western models. Thus in the 1850s the study of the English language and its great literatures by the Tamil elite become a matter of course. And through the English language contact was established with the literature of Europe. It is true that although the Tamil elite felt attracted to the English language and studied with avidity, they never became anglicized to the extent that some Bengalis were swept off their feet. But there was sufficient necessity to study English administration.

So when the study of English was taken up earnestly by Tamil who like all others under British rule, thought it held the key to the power and prestige of the British people in India, it was mainly the literature of the Romantic period that was immediately available to them. Of course the literature of the previous ages were no doubt there, and were eagerly studied, but the past itself was rediscovered and selected and presented by the Romantics. What Buddha Deva Bose (1908-1974) says in connection with Bengali literature may mutantis mutandis be said of the Tamil context:

The predisposition, as we might call it, was nowhere more manifest than in literature: it was the literature of Europe, rather that its physical or social science which, for the Bengali mind, had extra ordinary, elixir-like qualities. Indeed, the elixir was at first used as an intoxicant, for it was really Shelly and Shakespeare that our ancestor got drunk on, sherry and champagne being merely pretexts Shakespeare, Shelly and Blake, the literature of the English tongue, this from the beginning, is what England has meant to certain sections of Bengalis, and in the politically disanglicized future, will mean to increasingly larger number. This has been an inspiration in the literal sense: our literature was in-spirited and renascent. [5]

While the new educational system generated a strong inclination towards English certain other things were also happening, the most important of which was the discovery of ancient Tamil grammatical and literary works. The Sangam Corpus, Tolkappiyam and most of the post-Sangam works in particular were almost lost to the Tamil literary world by the Eighteenth Century which was on the whole a period of darkness and desolation for the Tamils.[6] In this situation of degeneration and paralysis the discovery of the ancient texts came forth as a light of ray and hope. And a I said earlier, the modern movement was paradoxically enough partially fecundated by the springs of the ancient past.

In many ways one can see analogy between the European Renaissance and the Tamil awakening. It will be recalled that influx of fugitive scholars from the Eastern Roman Empire bringing valuable manuscripts with them, contributed to the discovery of Latin writers like Catallus, Lucretius and the main body of Greek literature which led to a revival of classical studies and humanistic pursuits. Of course there were also other important factors that stimulated and assisted the Renaissance. But the impact the rediscovered writing of classical antiquity and revival of learning cannot be undervalued. They determined to a large measure the forms in which the Renaissance manifested itself. For instance the structural rigidity of the classical tragedy in Europe resulted from the influence of the early plays.

The discovery of these ancient texts gave a sense of satisfaction and pride to the small group of those Tamil intellectuals who were taught by the English academics and missionaries that the Indians had no classical literatures of antiquity. The rediscovery of these poetical and grammatical works was the sudden revelation of the past glory and greatness of the Tamils. When the reputed English historian James Mill (1775-1836) wrote History of British India (1818) virtually nothing was known of the period before the Muslim conquest. In fact Robert Caldwell (1814-1891) wrote A Comparative Grammer of the Dravidian Languages (1856) a seminal work that has had such an abiding influence over subsequent generation of Tamil Scholars, without knowing the existence of the Sangam Corpus and Tolkappiyam. For it was only in 1883 that C.W. Thamotarampillai published the critical edition of Collathikaram and Porulathikaram respectively.

The complete edition Tolkappiyam was published by him in 1885. In 1887 he brought out the first critical edition of Kalitokai, one of the Eight Anthologies of Sangam poems. It was only in 1889 that U.V.Swaminaths Iyer’s edition of Pathupattu saw the light of the day and five years later Purananuru was published. To put it briefly the bulk of the Sangam texts, Tolkappiyam and the post-Sangam texts with their medieval commentaries were published between 1890-1925.

The rediscovery of Tolkappiyam and the Sangam poems gave a fillip to the notion of classicism among the Tamil scholars English mentors took such pride, As much as Renaissance and post-Renaissance writers and artists in Europe fell under the spell of the works and norms of classical antiquity, the Tamil Scholars too, thought it fit to be governed by the prescriptions of the earliest works. In the minds of many Tamil scholars a sort of parity had been established between European and Tamil classicism.

It has been observed in the European context that Classicism was a movement aiming at uniformity. It was also elitist in attitude, Tolkappiya’s aphorism ulakam enpatu uyatntor metre, “the term world denotes the noble ones must have satisfied the ego of several English educated Tamil scholars who were privileged to have had that education and the attendant benefits. In imitating the early authors and adhering to the ancient grammars the neo-Classicists of our recent past were seeking a stability within known limits. Given their social status they preferred certainly and stability in literary endeavour which gave them scope, high honours and satisfaction. That is one reason why many of the neo-Classicists had a penchant for poetry than prose. Prose was still in the making and had no classical models to go by. Steeped as they were in a convention of bookish culture, they chose the meters for the several genres on the basis of similarity with ancient usage. Likewise their subjects too were generally didactic in character. They emphasized the efficacy of the rules or to put it in another way insisted on the priority of rules over meaning. Let us consider a few illustrations: S.Somasundara Bharathi (1879-1959) was a childhood friend of Subramania Bharathi, who took up to law and had a lucrative practice. Like many others of that era-K.N.Sivarajah Pillai, K.Subramania Pillai, S.Vaiyapuri Pillai- he turned to Tamil Studies and at one time, occupied the Chair of Tamil at annamali University. It goes without saying that he was one of English educated elite. Of the Tamil poems he wrote Mari Vayil and Mangala kurichi pongal nigalchi have been praised by traditional scholars as exemplary pieces. In the preface the author has said that the poem has been executed in accordance with the rule laid down by Tolkappiyam. The metre chosen is thalicai kcccakam and theme falls under the broad category of akathinai, ‘love’, to a modern reader, the poem along with the commentary like explanation, could easily pass off as an early poem. Except for its virtuosity there is virtually nothing in it command itself to a modern reader. (In passing it may be noted that Somasundara Bharathi’s prose was equally pedantic, falt, uninspiring and a plate echo of the scholastic commentators of the late medieval period). V.G.Suriyanaraya Sastriar wrote essay, plays, novels and poetry. A favourite pupil of Dr.Miller at the Christian College he had studied English, Philosophy and Tamil. Most of his Tamil poems were in traditional metres- Kalivenba, aciriyappa, kaliviruttam, aciriya viruttam and the like. It is small wonder that N.Balarama Iyer, one of the poet’s disciples brought out an annotated edition subsequently. The poems were in need of glass and commentary if they were to be used by modern readers. Sastriar wrote these ‘chaste’ poems on various occasions. One was an Elegy on the death of Lord Tennyson (1892) and another elegy on the death of Queen Victoria. The instances could be multiplied, but hardly necessary. However I would like a quote the words of another neo-Classicist-M.S.Purnalingam Pillai-himself a teacher of English and the author of Tamil literature (1929) the first history of Tamil literature in English.. The passage is taken from his Introduction to Sastriar’s Rupavathi (1895) which could as well be the literary credo of the neo-Classicist. After complimenting Sundarampillai’s Manomaniyam as “eminently classical as it is in direction, metre and matter” he goes on to comment on Rupavathi.

As a drama, what Manonmaniyam is in verse, Rupavathi is in prose, Though it is not praise to say that both are free from the Pigeon-Tamil which obtains so much even among the scholars of Southern India, who however imbued with western knowledge and stirred up by western example from their wonted lethargy to a sense of national literature. Only pander to the taste of the low and the vulgar, the choice and chaste diction of these two dramas our new-fledged writers would do well to consult. if they would provide for their earnest readers opportunities of knowing what the classical Tamil is, and what great purposes it can be made to serve. Our Sastriar has in Rupavathi pressed into his service, wherever necessary, the felicities of Tamil diction, pure and unmixed and given the reading public not only an intellectual feast but so vivid a portraiture of the ways and manners of princes and people of the age the literary witenagemont in Madura that their imagination cannot but be quickened, exalted, and ennoble.

Certainly Punalingam Pillai has set the neo-Classical doctrine in the best light. That scholars like Suriyanarayana Sastriar were grappling with the concept of classicism can be seen in other instances too. In an essay entitled uyartanic cemmoli,’ classical Language’, we see Sastriar arguing eloquently that if Sanskrit can be considered a classical language, then Tamil should equally be considered one. He puts forward arguments against the classification of Tamil as a Vernacular Language by the Universities commission. Perhaps Sastriar was the first Tamil scholar to translate the word ‘classical’ into Tamil. It was under these circumstances that the European Romantic movement began to attract the minds of many Tamil writers. They gravitated towards Romantic faith as a result of the failure of neo-Classicism to satisfy their felt needs. But more important was the immense upheavals’ that were taking place in the society and consequently in the minds of man. The longing for freedom- both physical and psychological –was tormenting many sensitive person. As the Romantic Shelley himself said of his time, many were moved by “a passionate desire to transform the world.” Boris Suchkov has described the seence of the artistic leap from Classicism to Romanticism.

Romanticism was extremely sensitive to the mobility and pulse of history and, breaking with the cannons of Classical works, and with the objective form of realist works, it made subjective freedom of expression its manner, regarding only the free soaring fantasy of the writer, not subject to any laws or prescriptions as being capable of presenting the dynamics of life. Indeed, the works of romanticists reveal a free treatment of composition, liberties taken with the order of narration, and a free choice of place and time for the action. The author’s presence is felt throughout, and many romantic works are really protracted monologues. The feelings in romantic poetry are intensified and exaggerated, and on the whole romantic concentrates on man’s inner world, looking on life and history as the theatre in which people’s passions and ideas are realised, determining by their fortutous play and flux, the flux of life. [7]

By now it would have become clear how much of modern Tamil literature answer these descriptions. There are two ways by which we can hope to see the dynamics of an artistic movement: the manner in which it affects the lives of the artistis and the extent to which it permeates their creativity. By Romantic life we generally mean a person’s deep concern with ideas and things and a passion for realising his aspiration in action-by changing the world or the self. The passion and energy for action can be seen in the Artist’s chosen means-studies, researches, involvements, sacrifices and political options. Partly resulting from this passion for involvement and action was the proverbial; unhappiness of the Romantic, often due to unhappy love, invalidity, opiate addiction, poverty or persecution. This suffering in turn induces self-pity and egocentric display. The crux of the matter is that the Romantics felt it impossible to go on writing almost entirely in conventions that were already well accepted and felt that new conventions were urgently needed and had to be created. These remarks, obvious as they may seem are meant to serve as a convenient frame work to what follows. For I wish to discuss a few writers beginning from Bharathi who may be described as generally representative of the Romantic movement. One word of explanation; I have referred to conventions used by our writers-both the neoclassicists and the Romantics-and may probably speak about the Realists. I should not give the impression that these are purely external matters, adopted and articulated by writers by simple choice. These conventions penetrate deeply a writer’s personality, and what is more important they are intimately related to and arise from the cultural interests of the social group or class to which the writers concerned belong. This being so we must not lose sight of the social factors that have vital bearings on the matter.

Now, Bharathi very deliberately turning his back on what our neo-classicists of the late Nineteenth Century found “poetic”, tried to create his own idiom, although it must be remembered that certain poets within the confines of the religious tradition-like Gopalakrishna Bharathy (c. 1785-1875) and Ramalinga Swami (1823-1874) were intuitively tending towards it.

Bharathi’s verse, finding the prevailing form and metres inadequate to cope with his new creative impulses, breaks through the rigidity of convention and reaches out to the common man. In an article titled Punarjanman ‘ Rebirth’ in the sense of renaissance, he wrote as follows:

Books of ancient times were written in the language then in vogue. As time change, language too changes, old words became obsolete yielding place to new ones. Poets should adopt words that will be clearly understood by the people of their age Different epochs require different expressions. Good poetry is that which conveys exquisite inner visions in easy and elegant style. When poetry becomes obscure or ornate it creates to be enjoyable and will repel the populace.

Elsewhere he said, certainly referring to the neo-classical verse, “sincereity disappeared giving place to mere verbal embellishments. But the great Kamban thought differently when he compared the bright, clear cool flow of the Godavari to great poetry”. His most lucid proposition on the language of poetry was made in the Preface to Panchalisabatham, ‘Vow of Panchali’ (1910):

He who produces an epic in simple style and diction, easily understandable metres and popular tunes will be infusing a new life into our language. The meaning must be crystal clear even to the neo-literates; at the same time, the poem must not be wanting in the graces and refinements that are expected of an epic.

This was a new poetic manifesto-the manifesto of Tamil poetry of the 20th Century. I don’t need to point out that Bharathi was consciously appealing to a general reading public away from the exclusive elite that chiefly read poetry when he began to write. He was describing a style simple to follow and to understand. Needless to say Bharathi’s proclamation is reminiscent of the “advertisement” prefixed by Wordsworth’s definition was his intent to choose modest and familiar themes, subjects drawn from “humble and rustic life”, expressed in “the real language of men”. I don’t want to make too much of the resemblance between the theory of poetry of Wordsworth and Bharathi, but the similarity us striking and relevant. What is significant is the recognition that poetic modes reflect the degree of the poet’s self-awarness and self-knowledge Bharathi belongs to an overall reawakening of consciousness and self conscious modernization that took place in India. Poets in other Indian languages shared this trend, proclaiming a “new sensibility, a new meaning, a new abundance” in poetics.

“This intellectual awakening was bound, sooner or later, to percolate down into the world of action and politics”, for, ‘ all the great movement of our century, in India as elsewhere in Asia, are all inclusive movements, grounded at first on a blind revolt against the forcible imposition of a western culture that is finally rejected, and then on a search for a new world outlook in which ethics, economics, social structure, politics and religion are all bound together’. [8] It is not surprising therefore, that Bharathi too had this all inclusive ‘weltanschang’ Patriotism in his poetry is metamorphosised into new religion. The poem ‘To Liberty illustrates this. Politics pervaded his entire being. Even in his most subjective personal moment his imagination is firmly rotted in the mundane realities of the world around him – a world of nationalist aspiration, political persecution and subterfuge. Bharathi maintains fluid lines between his personal and public experiences. For instance, while writing of his adolescent love ‘Autobiography’, a poem that shows him in one of his intense lyrical moments, he compares his avid anticipation of his loved one, with that of the British spies waiting in stealth for freedom fighters to pass. The intensity of his longing transcends mere adolescent nostalgia and transforms itself into a mature realistic experience. Like-wise, in Kannan Pattu, ‘The Song of Krishna’, while dwelling on the image of Lord Krishna as the father, he cannot help but bring vignettes of contemporary political life-of baton charges and prison life. Bharathi’s poetic imagination with its simultaneous response to the ethereal and the earthy takes politics in its stride. For he could sing fiery lyrics of resurgent nationalism in the same breath as he sings poems of mysticism. Now if we turn to the Western Romantics, especially the English Romanticists we see them as active agents in the spreading of political doctrines. Crane Brinton in The Political Ideas of the English Romanticists make the following statement:

In the first place, romanticism as a way of thought is a part of that vast change in men and things, the Revolution, and as such has many links with the political changes of the Revolution, …Almost to a man, the English romanticists were actively interested in politics. It is just here that the political opinions of men of letters become especially valuable.

Although Bharathi was, unique in this among his Indian contemporaries, yet he can easily be assimilated into the world tradition of romantic poetry, Ernst Fischer says, “Romanticism meant rebellion pure and simple, a trumpet call to the people to rise against foreign and homebred oppressor, an appeal to national consciousness, a struggle against feudalism, absolutism and foreign rule”. Thus Byron responded to the distant struggle for Greek independence. Shelly felt for the underdog in Ireland, Greece and other parts of the world. He had a passion for reforming the world, to purge world of exploiters and oppressors.

Kings, priests and statesmen blast the human flower even in its tender bud; their influence darts like subtle poison through the bloodless veins of desolate society”

His Queen Mab was sweeping in its condemnation of kings nobles, priests and judges. Like Shellys, Bharathi too was imbued with the spirit of freedom and was equally ecstactic of people in other lands fighting against brute force and tyranny. Bharathi’s poem ‘Nee Russia’ seems to have been considerably influenced by Shelley’s Ode to Liberty and Byron’s Ode to Napolean Bonaparte. The poetic recapturing of scenes of the past in Isles of Greece-Don Juan-is present in Bharathi’s poem Endaiyum Thayum. When Bharathi says, “It was on this land, our mothers as maidens spent moonlit night in dance and frolic’ one finds distinct echoes of the following lines in Isles of Greece

The Isles of Greece, the isles of Greece

Where burning Sappho loved and sung,

Where grew the arts of war and peace

Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung

Eternal summer glides them yet…

Speaking of Byron, it may be worthwhile to note that all the English romanticists he was the one to be high esteem in Europe and elsewhere. The German Goethe acclaimed without any reservations that Byron’s Don Juan was a ”work of boundless genius”. And Mazzini, himself a man of vision and action said, “Byron gave a European role to English poetry. He led the genius of England on a pilgrimage through Europe”. There is no doubt that Byron who was one of the great emanicipatory forces of Nineteenth Century Europe, was during the later part of the Century and even at the beginning of the present Century giving its mood and colour to Indian literature. Perhaps he exerted the widest influence throughout India more than any English poet except Shakespeare. Arabinda Poddar’s graphic account of Byron’s influence on Bengali writers is applicable to other parts of India as well. In “Lord Byron and the Literary Renaissance in Bengal” he points out that besides H.L.D.Derozio (1809-1821), the poet leader of ‘young Bengal’ such outstanding poets and dramatist as Madhusudan Datta, Rangalal Bandyopadhyay, Hemchandra Bandyopadhyay, Nabinchandra sen and D.L.Roy were deeply indebted to Byron.

Bharathi’s aestheticism drew sustenance from the English Nature Poets, especially John Keats. In Kuyil Pattu, ‘The song of Kuyil’ (Cuckoo) there are definite traces of his acquaintance with Keats’ ‘Endymion’ and ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. On this I would like to mention Dr. V. Satchithanandan’s perceptive article “Keats, Shakespeare and Bharathi’s Kuyil Pattu” published in Essays on Bharathi (1962).

Bharathi expounds the lines of Keats- “Beauty is truth, truth, beauty” in once of his essays. This is not to maintain that Bharathi’s appreciation of beauty was derived from external sources. During the dark period, Indian poets, owing to dire poverty, servitude and ignorance had almost forgotten the concept of beauty. In these circumstances the English romantic poets provided the impetus necessary for Bharathi to reestablish aestheticism in the mainstream of Tamil poetry. Thus in his passionate defence of freedom in all its form emancipation of the oppressed, the woman, and the underdog, Bharathi’s thoughts were penetrated by the same philosophy of expansion and democracy that inspired many European Romanticists. For instance, Shelley, whom as we all know, Bharathi admired and in some ways emulated, expected a great deal from women; not the women of his environment and time, but the new woman like Cythna who was also in Shelley’s view the natural woman. Once woman is liberated she would become the most precious of allies. Shelley held that emancipated woman will help reconstruct the glorious new would. It has been pointed out by some scholars that Bharathi Puthumai Penn is an amalgam of Shelley’s new woman and the concept of Shakthi in the Indian tradition. On the whole it is generally agreed by students of comparative studies that in the pervading lyricism and aestheticism of his poem Bharathi had much in common with the English Romantic poets. Of course it must be remembered that they were not the only ones who enlivened and enlarged his vision.

Besides his voluntarism and the impelling hunger for freedom, which were essentially in the realms of feeling and action, Bharathi also imbibed certain modes of literary expression from the romantic poets, the most productive of them being the lyric. It is common place of aesthetic criticism that lyricism was inseparably connected to European Romantic faith. Hegel in his Aesthetics accurately defined its essence:

Lyricism is a kind of basic element of romantic art, the tone in which the epos and drama also speak, and which pervades, like some universal aroma of the soul, even works of the plastic arts.

Bharathi is essentially a lyrical poet. It is his lyrics that afford ample evidence of his greatness as a poet. Walter Pater considered lyric poetry to be “artistically the highest and most complete form of poetry” which is “precise because in it we are least able to detach the matter from the form, without a deduction of something from the matter itself” He felt that the very perfection of such poetry often appears to depend, in part, on a certain suppression or vagueness of mere subject, so that the meaning reaches us through ways not distinctly traceable by the understanding. [11] In his lyrics Bharathi achieved the immediate communication of a dominant emotion; “ A stray word or gesture set his imagination afire, and out of the confrontation and explosion emerged a lyric perpetually alive in an orbit of its own”. In one of his brilliant lyrical poems, ‘Moonlight, stars and the wind’ he speaks of poetic inspiration.

Here he comes, the angel of the wind bringing to my ears the thousand and one sounds of men’s life on earth. There is the voice of a bell swinging towards me, a dog barks, a beggar cries piteously for a handful of rice, somebody slam the street door, from the east floats the walling of a conch, men talk and argue and quarrel, a child weeps-ah, who can count the notes that the wind brings? I sit and weave them all joyously into songs”

These are the concluding lines of a poem the begins with the poet urging his mind-bird to freely float in the sky, to reach out to the far star-cluster, and to speed across space in joyous frenzy. And then almost abruptly the poet listens to “the thousand and one sounds of men’s life on earth”. In a poem like this we see Bharathi making a voyage of the outer and of the inner world. The noteworthy fact about him is that his feet are firmly planted on the earth and his mind is often “voyaging through strange seas of thought alone”. A perfect blend of the two voyages is to be found in his Gnanaratham, an allegorical work in prose that combines utopia and reality, an allegorical work in prose that combines utopia and reality, bringing into full play the poets’ descriptive powers. Here we have the source and strength of his poetry: the unique counterpoint of tumult and peace, of sublimity and mundane, the ethereal flight of the abstracting mind and the physiological responses that constitute the basic substance of the poets’ imagination and impulse.

So much for the most salient features of romantic strains in Bharathi’s life and poetry. But these and some other features are to found., naturally enough in the works of others too. Take for instances the lyric Although the lyric found its first and best response in Bharathi, a few before him and already begun to prepare the ground.

V.G.Suriyanarayana Sastry had published two volumes of poems in 1901 and 1902. Reference has already been made to Tani-pacuratogai. In spite of the very favourable opinion expresses by G U. Pope who translated the forty-one ‘short poems’ into English, there was little sign of its influence upon the main stream of poetry in Tamil. The post-Bharathi generation has almost neglected it. The new poetic mood and taste found no place for Sastriar. It is true that he broke some new ground in introducing the sonnet- a form eminently suited for lyricism. In fact in his preface the author spoke with adoration of Spenser, Milton and Shakespeare as great English poets who had enriched the sonnet adapted from Italian. However as the English translator himself candidly admitted, “these short poems could hardly with propriety be called sonnets”. Besides the prosodical and other ‘technical’ factors which, in the eyes of the translator vitiated the quality of the poems, there wasn’t the intense depth of feeling and the free play of imagination leading to special insight or intuitive perception. The interplay of insight and imagination is the predominant feature of Romantic poetry. However Sastriar’s second volume showed certain changes. There is in these poems the note of veritable experience. Although the metre and the diction were conventional there was something personal that he was trying to express; The provenance of all the poems were actual experiences: death of his teachers, eminent personages, and close friends; walk on a beach; an evening near the lake; in memory of his mentor; and walk through the city. These had personal reference and walk through the city. These had personal reference and meaning to him and did give some “indication of a new departure in Tamil poetry’; but he could never throw off the neo-classical influence upon him. His long rhymed lines were chaste and correct and at times quite expressive of certain moods, but compared to the short lyric measures of Bharathi one feels the absence of a higher musical quality. The value of his work remains chiefly academic and historical.

It is appropriate at this point, to say something of the nature poetry that abounds in Tamil in the modern period and which undoubtedly owes its main inspiration to the English Romanticists. As I mentioned a moment ago we already notice in Sastriar’s poetry descriptive pieces that have no precedent for them. I need not dwell on the treatment and interpretation of nature in Sangam poems is as the necessary and sympathetic background or ‘situation’ for the human act. Nature has no independent existence on its own merit for its won sake. As Father Thaninayagam has aptly said, “he scenery was changed to keep in harmony with the human sentiments that were dramatized”. [12] There was no indulging in nature description nor extolling of nature-rapture. It was as though the luxuriant tropical nature had to be kept under careful control by the human beings. Nature finds an insignificant place and role in the manifestly didactic works of the post-Sangam period. It finds an incidental role in the devotional hymns of Sambandhar in whom ‘divine’ nature generated the poetic spark and brought about the instant incandescence. But generally speaking the bhakthi poets were animated by Puranic mythology rather than by natural scenery. The place of natural scenery in the in the epics is purely functional and in late medieval literature nature virtually disappears. Therefore the appearance of nature poetry in twentieth century Tamil is almost entirely due to the Western impact. And in this the influence of the Romanticists was of cardinal importance.

At about the time when Suriyanarayana Sastriar published his ‘short poems’ – Poets’ Feast (1902) – Subramania Bharathi began writing his first poems: Thanimai irakkam ‘Sorrow in Loneliness’, Yan, ‘I’ and Chandrihai, ‘Moonlight’. These too, were sonnets. At first sight, these poems appear to be no different from those of Sastriar. Here is late Nineteenth Century elitist subject – matter, bookish and literary. The familiar features of scholastic style and form – archaisms of vocabulary and syntax, conventional epithets, stock allusions and metrical patterns – that were to be seen in current works. For instance, the poem Chandrihai begins with the word ‘Yanar’ meaning freshness, goodness, fertility and new income. It is part of Sangam diction. Young Bharathi himself must have given some thought about its usage. For in a footnote he has given a gloss; Yanar means beauty. The Wordsworthian inspiration is evident. And yet a second glance at these early specimens gives an inkling of Bharathi’s poetic craft. We get the impression that a more subtle process than the mere reproduction, or worse imitation of certain models is involved in his art. As Periyasami Thooran observed, already we can see Bharathi’s poetic fire sparking in these poems. Considering the totality of his work it is quite clear that Bharathi did not engage himself in pure descriptive poetry. Both in his lyrics and in the longer poems like Kuyil Pattu and Panchali Sabatham are interspersed exquisite passages exhibiting great power. And in these passages, the mature poet absorb and re-creates some imageries and descriptions of English nature poets. I shall limit myself to one single illustration. Towards the end of the first canto in Panchali Sabatham the Pandavas are on their way to Hastinapura at the invitation of Dryodana. During the journey while resting, Arjuna takes Draupadi for an evening walk. Under the pretext of adhering to the epical requirement of describing the sun set, Bharathi allows Arjuna describe with the minuteness of a painter, “the modifications of effect as the sun goes down and the lights change.” The passage show Bharathi in one of his inspired moments. Not satisfied with his poetic portraiture he has added a prose description in the notes. While reading the glorious passage one is suddenly reminded of “An Evening walk”. The corresponding passage in Wordsworth’s poem runs as follows:

How pleasant, as the sun declines, to view

The spacious landscape change in form and huel

Here, vanish, as in mist, before a flood

Of bright obscurity, hill, lawn, and wood;

There, objects by the searching beams betrayed,

Come forth, and here retire in purple shade;

Even the white stems of birch, the cottage white,

Soften their glare before the mellow light,

The skiffs, at anchor where with umbrage wide,

You chestnuts half the latticed boat-house hide,

Shed from their sides, that face the sun’s slant beam,

String flakes of radiance on the tremulous stream:

To a careful observer Bharathi’s evocatory passage will be oddly reminiscent but not all echo of Wordsworth’s poem. After Bharathi, nature poems have become regular subjects. Indeed hardly any volume of poetry comes out without containing a section ‘on nature’. Such is the instance on landscape as a subject-an important subject- for our poets that one has to remind oneself that the idea should be traced back to nature poets. It is to be observed in this connection that to the English almost all the major lyrical poets after Bharathi-Bharathidasan, Desikavinayakampillai, S.D.S. Yogi, Kambadasan, Nanal,

Somu, Pattukottai, Kalaivannan, Vanidasan Thiruloka-sitaram, ‘Mahakavi’ (T.Rudramurti), Murugaiyan and Nuhuman- the last three from Sri Lanka, – have to their credit admirable nature poems. Bharathidasan’s Alagin Cirippu is indeed a tour de force, exhibiting the poet at his best. Avoiding pure description, which can at best be an aesthetic exercise, he has successfully accomplished the task of once gain making nature become the “theatrical property” in the way the Sangam poets did. In passing it may be noted that the English nature poets had an original advantage which is more crucial, were able to draw from the landscape painting of their day. The parallel that comes to my mind in the Tamil literary tradition, is one of a later time and belonging to different context the poetry of the Bhakthi poets whose descriptions of feminine figures were matched by the temple sculptures of their time.

Besides the Romantic poems on nature there were also other influences at work. Swami Vedachalam (1876-1950) who later renamed himself as Maraimalaiyadigal, translated six essays of Joseph Addison (1672-1719) the leading English essayist of the early 18th Century. Addison, as is well known, propounded a theory of artistic imitation. Through his tangled and tortuous arguments he presented a theory on the relationship between art and nature. He was apparently inspired by the sensationalist philosophy of John Locke. The clam and moderate Addison was no romanticist, but his analogy between a poem and a picture had considerable attraction for belletristic scholars. Vedachalam’s translations of Addison’s essays appeared between 1904-1905 in his journal Gnanasagram. They were published in book form in 1908 under the title Cintanaikkadduraikal.[13] Later when Maraimalaiyadigal came to write Kumutavalli (1911)- an adaptation of a mediocre story from English-he included many lengthy descriptions in it.

In the twenties and thirties there arose a movement in India calling upon people to return to nature. The slogan ‘Back to Nature’ had its genesis in Gandhian anti-industrialism and Tagorean natural life. It also had echoes of Rousseau and Tolstoy. Rousseau preached the idea of the true relationship between men and nature. Although Rousseau has been assailed by his critics for idealizing the “natural man” or ”noble savage”, his essential teaching was against the artificialities of civilization. Something of Rousseauism entered the Tamil poetic consciousness through the English nature poets. The concept of ‘Back to Nature’ evoked sympathetic chords in many Tamil minds already attuned to the Romantic quest for transcendental unity. While the response was greater in poetry, prose writer too were not completely free from its influence. For example K.S.Venkataramani’s Murugan the Tiller (1927), idealises villagers and the village life, clearly projecting the message of back to the villages. Few others followed suit. T.L.Nadesan who wrote under the pseudonym of Sangararam, published two books in English: The Children of the Kaveri (1926) The Love of Dust (1938). The latter was translated by the author himself as Mannasai (1941)-perhaps the first Tamil novel dealing with village life. Certainly it was a landmark in the history of Tamil fiction.

R.Shanmugasundaram’s Nagammal (1941) is another novel that belongs to this category. In the process of writing a novel on village life, Shenmugasundaram created the vogue for the regional novel. Kongunadu became a symbolic locality in his novels. It must be said, however, that there is nothing nostalgic in his treatment of village life. In Nagammal, for instance, strained relations in a family unit create innumerable problems, especially for the heroine, where only the mental toughness of the characters and a steely adherence to rational self-interest guarantee survival. Shanmugasundaram’s novel owes something to Hardy’s novel like Return of the Native and Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the balanced treatment of the relationship between man and nature. The nature novels lost their vitality by the late fifties.

Intimately related to the interest in Nature, and the notion of the nobility of village life is the Romanticists’ enthusiasm for popular cultures. The Germans took a lead in this matter and evolved the concept of the Volk. Out of this grew the passion for folk-lore and folk studies which have become the basic ingredients of cultural nationalism. It is not wrong the basic ingredients of cultural nationalism. It is not wrong to assume that the revival of folk studies and its growing importance in our literature is largely due to the romantic impulse.

I said earlier that there was also other influences at work. Besides the Romanticists, Shakespeare has always been with us. A glance at Shakespeare in Tamil Translation (1974)- a Critical Bibliography published by your university will demonstrate the abiding interest of the Tamils in that great poet. The earliest translation of one of his plays appeared in 1874. But it must be recognised that interest in Shakespeare has been largely confined to either academic or highly amateurish circles. It never kindled the creative sparks. Likewise there were other major and minor western writers whose influences are conspicuous on individuals. Whitman has certainly been a two way traffic. Even a little known Belgian poet like Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916) seems to have inspired Bharathi. But on the whole the most significant influence on 20th Century Tamil poetry has been the Romantic Movement. One sure way to ascertain this would be to look at the scanty but available translations. Of the major poets probably Desigavinayagam pillai did the most number of translations: Blake, Emerson, Tennyson, Fitzgerald, Swinburne and Edwin Arnold were rendered into Tamil. In some other poems his indebtedness to Wordsworth and Burns is patent. If one were to take at random two Volumes of translations, the range of poets translations from English poets. The choice and selection of poets reveals the translator’s predilection: Shakespeare, Charles Kingley, E.W. Wilcok, James Montgomery, Thomas Randolph, Prancis Bacon, Robert and Elizabeth Browning, Wordsworth, Carlyle, James Shirley, Bryon, Samuel Johnson, John Dyer, Thomas Cooper, Walter Raleigh, Southwell, Robert Burns, Longfellow, George Crabbe, Anna Barbauld, Beaumont and a few anonymous poets. It will be evident that most of the poets and poems chosen have a moral purpose. The next slender volume is Oru Varam (1964) translations by the Sri Lankan poet, R.Murugaiyan. Here again the choice indicates the personality of the translator; Micheal Drayton, Shakespeare, John Donne, Robert Herrick, John Suckling, William Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, John Lehman and Ezra Pound.

It now remain to say a few words on the intellectual atmosphere of the Romantic poets and the interplay of literature and science in Europe.[14] The Tamil literati in general, the very idea of the interplay of science and literature might sound incongruous if not absurd. Owing to various factors arising out of our history and in particular our social organization and values, there has occurred, over the last few centuries, a bifurcation that has taken the whole of the development of what is called modern literature in the west has taken place during the last two hundred years or so, it cannot escape our recognition that this development has also taken place under the shadow of the multifarious of science. Consequently, it is logical to expect that a mutual fertilization would have enriched both. This is not the place to trace in detail the various scientific theories and hypotheses that stood behind some of the literary concepts and statements of the great poets and novelists. Although their approach was different their interest in science was deep-rooted and enduring. For instance, Whitehead has pointed out how Shelley’s knowledge of astronomy, meteorology and physics coloured the imagery of some of his more mature poems. As F.A. Lea has remarked in Shelley and the Romantic Revolution (1945), “the stained carpets and tea-cups full of chemicals in Shelley’s room at University College symbolize one of its characteristic developments.”

Coleridge too, it will be recalled was very widely read in not only philosophical literature but also in scientific treatises. Those familiar with John Livingston Lowes’ The Roas to Xanadu which is microscopic analysis of the genesis of Coleridge’s masterpiece, will know something of the “strange alchemical process of its creation”.

The German Romanticists were even more absorbed in scientific lore. Schlegel, Von Kleist, Goethe and Novali were up-to-date with the scientific discoveries of their time. Those who imagine the Romanticists, in particular the Germans, to have been preoccupied with the occult and macabre should remember this close link between science and literature that has existed during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. As much as the men of letters were attracted and hypnotized by the dazzling developments of science too have had a fascination for the poet’s way of knowledge. Eminent scientists like Erasmus, Darwin, Sir Humphy Davy, Dalton, Oken, Faraday and Henry Vaughan and many others were equally at home in the world of poetry. In fact in recent years some English thinkers have opined that the gap that separates the two may be unhealthy and potentially dangerous. I do not mean the provocative words of Sir C.P. Snow alone; others have expressed similar ideas and sentiments in slightly different ways.

School textbooks and popular writing have exaggerated the opposition between the two and portrayed the European romantic writers as purely speculative and subjective. Subjective they were, but not without inhaling and absorbing the scientific spirit that was all around them. At the higher realms the minds met and cherished one another. Biographers of Wordsworth have not failed to draw our attention to the sublime admiration in which he held Newton. It has been said that among the inspiration of Wordsworth’s life at Cambridge none was more enduring and ever-fresh than the memory of the statue of Newton- the embodiment of pure intelligence:

I could behold

…Newton with his prism and silent face,

The marble index of a mind for ever

Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone…..

The general attitude of the poets of the 19th Century towards science was perhaps best articulated by Wordsworth himself. To do justice to the man and the subject I have to quote a lengthy passage:

If the labours of the men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impression which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s arts as any upon which it can be employed, if the time shall ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective science shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the being thus produced as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.

I do not want to labour the point. Although Romantic literature of the West, along with other literatures of the preceding and subsequent periods have profoundly influenced modern Tamil literature, there has been a distillation and rarefaction on the part of the recipients. There has even been a strong tendency to mystify the essentially rational and philosophic western works. It is true that a poet like Blake may be an exception to the rule. But even he was not immune to scientific ideas. It need hardly be emphasized that such rarefaction has resulted in stupefying the minds of our writers who have often take the shadow for the real. But I think I have spoken enough of this unproductive approach. It is only in recent years that poetic apertures have been opened to view science and its implications in their proper perspective. In this, two names come to my mind immediately: Kulottungan (Dr.V.C. Kulandaiswamy) and Murugaiyan. Both these poets have made our poetry intellectually more serious than many usually think it is. There are a few younger writers who are struggling to resolve the apparent conflict between naturalistic and imaginative views of the world. This is very vital for us, for if English Romantic poetry was successful and momentous it was because it was able to synthesize points of view, which to many of us remain irreconcilable. A clear understanding of this problem will help our writers to decide not only the type of literary culture but also the world which they would want to build. The analysis of the relation between Tamil and Western literatures brought to my mind forcefully an astute observation of that pioneer sociologist Adam Ferguson (1723-1816). “Nations borrow only what they are nearly in a condition to have invented themselves”. A comparative study of Tamil and English literatures seems to confirm the veracity of this statement. Thank you.


  1. The Necessity of Art (Pelican Books) London, 1963. p.53.
  1. Jacques Barzun, Classic Romantic and Modern, New York, 1961, p.98.
  1. , p.99.
  1. Amaury De Riencourt, The Soul of India, London, 1961. p.290.
  1. Buddhadeva Bose, An Acre of Green Grass, Calcutta, 1948.p.60-61.
  1. The Pathetic state of traditional Tamil scholarship during the 18th and 19th Centuries is vividly described in an article in the Siddhanta Deepika (Nov.1897). “Within our own times we know of a whole class of Pandits who neither knew nor heard of any of these ldyls except the first Tirumurugarruppadai, which, as a part of the XI Book of Saiva lore, has even been popular, though not well learnt and understood by all. When Maturaikkanchi was first introduced as a text for the B.A. Examination of 1894, we know how even Pandits of first grade Colleges were grumbling and murmuring against it. We know also of some cases in which some Pandits, who owned stray copies (Mss.) of some of these ldyls, gave up in despair all hopes of deciphering what the nature of their contents were. Even in print now, these are only bitter cups in the hands of some of the otherwise able scholars”.
  1. A History of Realism, Moscow, 1973. pp.75-76.
  1. Riencourt, op.cit. pp.296-298.
  1. Indian Literature (Proceeding of a Seminar) ed. Arabinda Poddar, Simla, 1972. 116-124.
  1. Quoted by Suchkov, op.cit. p.76.
  1. Walter Pater, “The School of Giorgione” in The Renaissance (Modern Library edition) pp.110-111.

The Indian Review of World Literature in English, Vol. 2, No.II – Jul, 2006

  1. Xavier S.Thani Nayagam Landscape and Poetry, (2nd) Bombay, 1966. p.139.
  1. Maraimaliyadigal wrote a lengthy Preface in English to the second edition of the book. Although the greater part of the Preface is taken up with the author’s favourite theme of the “Aryan-Tamil” controversy, he also writers his appreciation of Addison. The following is typical of his praise. “In English literature, leaving aside the immense good rendered by the immoral works of such master poets as Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley and others, When we come to take into account the numerous benefits that accrued first to the English people and next through them to humanity at large, from the prose writings of literary men no name stands higher in our estimation than that of Joseph Addison.” The Preface Is interesting for several reasons, of which the most important is the manifestation of his elitist attitude.
  1. On this I am indebted to Ernest De Selincourt whose chapter “The Interplay of Literature and Science during the Last three centuries” in Wordsworthian And Other Studies (Oxford, 1947) is illuminating. I have also leaned heavily on Graham Hough, The Romantic Poet (London 1953) and F.A.Lea, Shelley (London 1945).


About the author: 

Kanagasabapathy Kailasapathy (5 April 1933 – 6 December 1982) was a Sri Lankan journalist and academic. After university graduation,  Kailasapathy joined Lake House as a journalist. He became editor of the weekly edition of Thinakaran and then served as its editor-in-chief of between 1959 and 1961. Kailasapathy then left journalism to take up a career in academia. He was the first president  of the Jaffna Campus of the University of Sri Lanka and served in that position between August 1974 and July 1977. Kailasapathy wrote numerous articles and more than ten books during his life.