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Kuruntokai: An Anthology of Classical Tamil Love Poetry (An Old and Rare Book)

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Item Code: NAM318
Author: Dr. M. Shanmugam Pillai and David E. Ludden
Publisher: International Institute of Tamil Studies, Chennai
Language: English
Edition: 1997
Pages: 490
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch x 5.5 inch
Weight 520 gm
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Book Description

We present in this volume a complete translation of the Kuruntokai, a classical Tamil anthology of love poetry, rendered from the original as compiled and edited by Dr. U. V. Swaminathaiyar (2nd Edition, 1947).

This is a joint effort in the fullest sense: it is inconceivable that the translations could have been completed in their present form by either one of us without the other. Our intent is both to translate with scholarly accuracy and fidelity to the original, and to render the translations in a pleasing and readable English format. We feel that there are crucial features of Tamil literature that become more explicitly elucidated when it is subjected to the process of translation: so we fully intend to add to modern understanding of classical Tamil literature by confronting and seeking to resolve problems of translation. At the same time, we are concerned that the classical literature of South India be made available to a much wider audience than is now the case: so we also intend to portray the beauty, depth and complexity of the original as fully as possible in an English version.

Our collaboration enables us to take many of the traditional problematics of translation head on. We are a native speaker of Tamil and a native speaker of English; a South Indian linguist and an American student of Tamil. We collaborate in constant struggle between the accuracy of the translation and the beauty and comprehensibility of the English. This struggle is especially important when translating this type of literature, for a literal rendition of the classical Tamil can produce very bizarre English; and, at the same time, a more free-flowing English rendition can obscure or distort beyond recognition the intent and integrity of the original.

Neither of us aspire .to be poets. Moreover, many of the beauties and characteristics of poetry cannot be portrayed in translation: that which is most beautiful in poetry is least subject to translation. When our English is awkward or difficult to understand, it is because problems of grace and style 'have not yet been overcome, On the other hand, though our bedrock is accurate translation, we do not present a critical edition, nor do we attempt to justify and document every single choice we have made in our portrayal of the original. The ambiguities of the classical Tamil poems arise at every level of analysis: the meanings of words, the syntax, the grammar, connotations and implications of phrases and images, as well as the intent of entire poems - - - all these are subject to myriad interpretations', Choices on all these matters must be made definitively in translation, and cannot be accounted for in every case if the text is to be unburdened with extensive technical footnotes.

Some explication of our method is required, here, so that the reader may have some notion of the systematic logic through which these myriad choices have, been made. There is a second reason for a brief explication of our process: if it is all successful, it may serve as a -tool for future, translation of the vast body of Tamil poetry that remains beyond the appreciation at non-readers of Tamil.

We will consider our method here in three parts:

1. the translation of the poem itself; 2. the presentation of the poem on the page, with other material: and, 3. the arrangement of the poems in this volume

1 To illustrate some phases and the logic of choices inherent in these translations, let us take a relatively simple poem: number twenty four in this volume. The original in transliteration reads as follows.

neytal parappil pavai kitappi
nin kuri vantanen iyal ler konka
celkam celaviyan konmo alkalum
aral arunta vayirra
narai mitikkum en makal nutale

A word-by-word translation might be rendered as follows, with grammatical indicators represented in parentheses.

neytal expanse (in) doll laying
your meeting I came/constructed-chariot man (voc.)
I go. Make go (imp.) evening (conj)
ara1 eaten stomach (gen.)
crane trample my baby forehead.

The three finite verbs indicate three sentences. The vocative address of the man in line two could be construed as prefacing the entire poem, or could be attached to any one of the sentences. We translate this vocative as attached to the imperative verb ("make go!"), which is a command ordered' to the man by the speaker of the poem. Lines one and two remain as one sentence: "Laying my doll on the expanse of neytal, I came to your meeting". Neytal can mean both water-lily and the region of the seashore. Number is rarely indicated in these poems for the nouns. And here there is no designation of number for the nouns neytal, chariot, ara1 (a kind of fish), stomach, crane, baby, and brow- - -all of which could be construed to be singular or plural. Choices concerning number must be made on the basis of contextual evidence.

In the case of neytal, the word would denote "water-lilies" if plural. and "seashore", if singular. We take it to be plural, designating the flowers that grow in the seashore region; the "expanse" becomes a "bed" of lilies. The word denoting "meeting place" (kuri) is a technical term in the poetry, meaning "the meeting of lovers ". Here it is rendered as the place of the meeting. The first sentence of the translation emerges thus:

I laid my doll
on a bed of water-lilies
and came to the place
of your meeting,

Note that the participial construction of the original has been altered to an English structure conjuncting two finite verbs. The participle is used so often in Tamil that translation into English is often made smoother and clearer by splitting up extended Tamil sentences and conjuncting finite verbs, or by making two or more sentences in English, where only one exists in the Tamil. This practice is followed throughout the anthology.

Having decided to place the vocative in close proximity to the imperative verb, the second sentence takes shape. The man addressed is described as having "constructed chariot(s)". This way of attaching attributes to nouns is basic to classical Tamil: it is called noun-attribution, and is done by merely placing nouns that are attributes immediately in front of the nouns that possess these attributes In many cases the attributes themselves are in turn modified by extended phrases presenting descriptions of scenes that take place in his town, on the path he travels, etc. See, for example, poem 217. Though such attribution precedes the noun in Tamil, in English it must follow the noun, in a phrase or clause introduced by a relative pronoun; when these phrases are long, literal translation becomes very awkward, for too much material intervenes between subject and predicate. In such cases, we have chosen to repeat the noun as a pronoun: in some instances, this is done by splitting one sentence of Tamil into two or more of English; in others, one-sentence construction is retained, with the use of a colon--- as in poem 217.

That man
from the village where carp
in the pond
snatch ripe mangoes as they fall
from trees beside the field:
he flattered me with big words
when he was here.........

But our present example is simpler: he is described as being one with the attribute of "constructed chariot (s)". We take "constructed" to mean "well- made", and translate ter in the plural, as "chariots", though it could equally well be singular.

Complexities increase in the last three lines. "I go" is clear enough: the speaker of the poem, having come to their meeting, is leaving. What is the object of 'make go"? This question cannot be resolved by analyzing the grammar of the poem, nor by looking merely at this poem in isolation. As with the word kuri; recourse must be made to the poetic tradition of which this poem is a part. The speaker of the poem is female, and has come to the meeting of lovers only to leave again. With a familiarity with the narrative tradition of classical Tamil love poetry (for which see the Introduction), it becomes clear that the speaker is the girl's friend, who speaks here to the girl's lover, after having accompanied the girl to the meeting. "Make go", then, means "see that she goes": she is telling him to see that his lover goes home before her parents miss her and suspect their clandestine meetings. Her friend places her in his care, and instructs him to send her home. Perhaps the girls had told their parents they were going to play on the beach, and -they left the beach for the meeting. If he does not make sure she gets home in time, the secrecy of their meetings will be in jeopardy.



I The Kuruntokai

The Kuruntokai is an anthology of 401 love poems belonging to the earliest strata of extant Tamil literature. This strata consists of Eight Anthologies (ettuttokai), Ten Idylls (pattuppattu), and a grammatical work called the Tolkappiyam, which codifies the semantic, grammatical. and prosodic constituents of poetry This corpus of literature is called Sangam Literature in virtue of a legend that three sangams (academies) were held in the ancient days, from which this literature emerged. The legend further holds that the grammar Tolkappiyam is a work of the second sangam, and hence antedates the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Idylls, which are products of the third sangam.

Precise dating of literature is problematic, and the subject of some controversy. The poems and grammar are said to have been composed in their present form between 300 B.C. and 300 A.D., though there is evidence in the literature of an oral poetic tradition that might extend to a much earlier period. In addition, the existence of a grammar codifying the poetic tradition makes it seem logical that a corpus of poetry...now lost to us preceded the composition of the Tolkappiyam. The poems were compiled into anthologies long after their composition, however, but sometime before the ninth century A D., when they are refered to as anthologies. The Kuruntokai is said to have been compiled by one Purikku, about whom nothing is known.

The poems have come down to us through the centuries inscribed with stylus on manuscripts of palm-leaf. These were passed on generation to generation within South Indian families, and re-copied every three hundred years or so to protect the poems from the ravages' of white ants. The palm-leaf manuscripts were compiled and edited' through the labors of Dr. U.V. Swaminathaiyar, the first edition of the Kuruntokai appearing in 1937. In his introduction to this edition, Dr. Swaminathaiyar concludes, through an analysis of the names of the poets whose work is included in the anthology, that the Kuruntokai contains the oldest poems in the Eight Anthologies.

Each manuscript had at its head a sentence called a kurru ( refered to in English as the colophon), which identified the speaker and narrative context of the poem: these speakers and contexts are part of the poetic tradition codified in the Tolkappiyam. We will discuss them more fully shortly. In any case, the colophons seem clearly to be additions to the poems, added long after the original compositions, perhaps during the process of their compilation into anthologies. Dr. Swaminathaiyar's edition, from which we translate in this volume, includes these colophons, the poems, lists of variant readings, and commentaries on the meaning of the poems.

Sangam poetry as a whole (excluding the Tolkappiyam) comprises 2381 verses, sung by 473 different poets, and ranging in length from three to three hundred eighty-two lines. Each akam poem is a dramatic monologue, never spoken by the poet in the first person, but by a character in a narrative context that is part of the tradition itself. The characters have particular episodic moments when they may speak. Each poem is placed in specific geographical region, during a certain time of the day and year, and utilizes elements of natural imagery for a depiction of its central message. There are particular verse forms that are appropriate for certain types of poems; and, in all, twenty-seven different elements of prosody...from the placement of sounds in the line to the orchestration of nature imagery within a poem that are essential for the proper composition of a Sangam poem. These are detailed in the porulatikaram, the chapter on prosody in the Tolkappiyam.

Sangam poetry is divided into two major categories: Akam (pronounced "aham"), and Puram. Akam means "inside". "heart", "that which is internal, enclosed, and subjective"; and, "home". Akam poetry is love poetry. Puram means "outside", "external". Puram poems are, in some sense, all those that fall outside the category of Akam, which is far more rigorously defined in the tradition. Akam poetry deals solely with the moods of love, expressed in rich and complex, yet minutely organized, symbolic imagery, Puram poetry deals with people in historical time, moving in society, with the affairs of states, wars, and the lives of kings; it includes satire, elegy, battle-hymns, flatteries and reveries. Puram poems may embody feelings; but feelings are expressed in the context of social activity, and about a wide range of topics from the poverty of poets, to the graciousness of kings, to the brutality of war.

In Akam poetry, in contrast, no character can be identified by name, and each poem is situated, not in historical time, but at a moment within a paradigmatic course of love. The love relation portrayed in Akam poetry is not the relation of a legendary or real couple; but rather, a love relation that is a paradigm of all love relations, portrayed as an archetype, through statements by various characters in the relationship, at specific episodic moments in its unfolding. Each character is an archetype, speaking in a culturally archetypal (if not idealized) relation of love. When the same character responds differently in different poems to the same narrative situation, this should be seen as portraying two different archetypal responses, not as contradiction. The paradigmatic narrative course of love and the nature of the statements made at moments in it are described in the Tolkappiyam. and in commentaries, written on it and on the poems themselves.

The Kuruntokoi is an Akam anthology. compiled on the basis of its meter and the length of poems included within it. There are three meters used, in the Eight Anthologies: aciriyappa, kalippa, and paripatal. The Akam poems using each of these meters were gathered together, and one anthology was compiled from poems using each of the last two meters: they were named after their respective metrical qualities ... Kalittokai and Paripatal. The poems using dciriyappa meter were divided into three anthologies, on the basis of the number of lines in the poems. The Ainkurunuru ("five short hundreds") consists of five hundred of the shortest poems, each between three and five lines in length. The Akananuru ("four hundred Akam poems") is the collection of the longest poems in aciriyappa, and is called the "long anthology" (netuntokai). The Kuruntokai ("short collection") is an anthology of 401 poems that are between four and eight lines in length. However there is one poem which has nine lines. There are two hundred and five poets represented in the anthology, excluding the author of the Invocation. However the names of the poets of ten poems were not inscribed on the manuscripts at the disposal of Dr. Swaminathaiyar when he compiled the printed edition.




Preface VII
Transliteration Scheme XXI
Introduction 1
The Arrangement of Poems in this Volume 25
Chart of Akam Imagery 30
Invocation 31
Poems of the mountain region 33
Poems of the forest region 189
Poems of the lowland region 243
Poems of the seashore region 283
Poems of the wasteland 355
Appendices: 447
I. Index to Numbering 449
II. Index to Numbering 452
Ill. Fauna 455
IV. Flora 459
V. Chieftains 464
VI. Chart of Speakers and Regions 465


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