I have been intrigued by A. Madhaviah ever since my childhood many decades ago in the United States, a place and culture we had reached by steamship after a month's journey. It was there, one sultry summer, that we sat around Amma as she read aloud Madhaviah's startling first novel, Padmavati Charitram. To ears that were growing accustomed to the nasal drawl of American English, the complex, sonorous tones of literary Tamil seemed poignant and rich; and the story opened a door to a place and time which appeared remote, yet palpably close to us inside that room. Amma read well, but it was Madhaviah who told the tale.
I began this biography in order to reclaim for this humanist a space that is rightfully his in Tamil Nadu. As a historian I have had three guidelines. The first major goal has been to maintain the integrity of the historical method, which resurrects the past through the critical evaluation of valid sources, some of which are rare. I also wish to make this social history endeavour accessible to the general public to whom it correctly belongs, and to whom it is most relevant. I do not wish to contribute to the current trend of mystifying history through jargon that is comprehensible only to the elect few in academic circles. While I endorse the invention of more appropriate terminologies stemming from new, innovative analysis, I wish to avoid any discourse through which ivory-tower pedants usurp Indian history from its rightful owners, the general population.
The second aim has been to steer away from hagiography, which creates the illusion of factual truth although it is chiefly myth. I have also avoided the style of voyeuristic writing and facile denigration, sometimes common in biographies. It is heartening to note that the initial rosy glow of nationalist rhetoric has abated substantially, and that the process of the demythification of Indian history has been seriously set into motion. At the same time, there has also been a disturbing counter trend of denigrating those individuals who aspired for freedom, and who awoke in Indians a consciousness of their human rights. In such biographies, they have been removed from their former exalted pedestals as unimpeachable leaders. However, this fall from grace has reduced them not into men and women with human failings, but as dwarfed, failed heroes. It is the historian's task to avoid recreating false devatas and also false rakshasas, but it remains our work to resurrect complex human actors from the many narratives of history.
Finally, I wished to recover Indian history from those historians who often falsely credit the social reform movement, with all its myriad regional diversities, to the foreign impetus of an apparently benign colonial presence. The Raj interlude in India's long history provides us with a short, periscopic view of jostling cultures in fairly recent times. While western cultural and political influences certainly provided the landscape for Indians to re-evaluate their institutions and norms, Indian history is replete with other examples of dissent and scepticism initiated both by the elite and the marginalized. The social reform movement could not have maintained its authenticity or its momen- tum if it were inspired entirely or largely as a response to western criticism. While Indians were excited by the late century's declarations of human equality, they were not empty vessels ready to be filled with the nectar of western thought. Moreover, enduring social change is rarely a unidimensional transfer of ideas from agents to objects, but the result of a complex, bilateral process of subtle, cultural osmosis. The Orientalist rediscovery of ancient texts fuelled the search by Indians for parallel indigenous paradigms on justice, gender equity, and rational- ism, in their own scriptures as well as in western texts. Madhaviah looked for such homologies, as did some other reformers, and they thrived in their discovery of a pre-western tradition of humanism in South India. This guaranteed the strength of their framework for modern Tamil-Indian humanism. That many ordinary people have unconsciously absorbed such ideas is apparent in the deep, but subtle rejection of some longstanding traditions. Surely, Madhaviah's fame even in his own lifetime informs us of his success in spreading such views.
This biography concerns the personal and intellectual development of this complex individual. It analyses published and unpublished records in a scholarly framework, in six chapters. The first chapter introduces Madhaviah as an author who contributed to the resurgence of Tamil literature, and as a humanist who challenged gender and caste inequities in south India. Chapter 2 is entitled 'Youth: Perunkulam and Madras', and it describes his early life and the Tamil roots of his humanism. Chapter 3, 'A Framework for Modem Indian Humanism', examines his reading of western humanist literature, his early works, and his complex relationship with missionaries. Chapter 4, 'Faith, Reason, and Social Justice', discusses his literary corpus, religious peregrinations, and ideas on religion as a social institution. Madhaviah clearly placed humanity, not God, at the centre of the universe; he felt that the social functions and aspects of religion affected ordinary human beings more deeply than did theological abstractions, which are the esoteric preoccupation of its elite practitioners. Chapter 5, entitled 'Gender and Caste', examines his portrayals of women-from girl children and brides to widows-his family life, and also his views on caste and conversion in the colonial landscape. Chapter 6, 'Conclusion: The Tamil-Indian Patriot', discusses his last years and works, and addresses the problem of multiple identities in India. In this chapter, I examine the efforts of this memorable reformer, an upper-caste Tamil, to rejuvenate his ancient mother tongue while transforming it into a modem vehicle for national consciousness.
I wish to thank my sister and colleague, Vasantha Surya, for enlivening this work through her translation of Madhaviah's Muthumeenakshi. I had often wished for fine examples of Tamil literature to share with my diverse students of Indian history. When I began this biography, I immediately appealed to Vasantha to translate Madhaviah's poignant novella about a child-widow. Our joint endeav-our has been possible due to shared experiences and visions of womanhood. Vasantha Surya's translation subtly captures the mind of a child-bride from a past era, and this fictional tale becomes historically relevant through this biography of the author-reformer.
Most importantly, I gratefully acknowledge Madhaviah's descendants who have facilitated the writing of this biography. These include his remarkable daughter and painter, Mrs Mukta Venkatesh, who graciously granted me a scintillating interview despite her advanced age, sharing her written accounts of her father before her own demise. His grandchildren, A Madhavan and Girija Madhavan, shared the rare, invaluable collection of Madhaviah's correspondence and poems; M. Krishnan's memoirs of his father; and P. N. Appuswamy's short publications in Tamil on his uncle and mentor. His granddaughter, T Meenakshi, gave me her insights and allowed me into her extraordinary library of Madhaviah's original works in Tamil and English; while T Venkataraman, the old grandchild who remembered him personally, shared his reminiscences. I have drawn extensively from private letters to Madhaviah from his missionary teachers-William Miller, Charles Molony, F. A Nicholson, J. R Henderson, William Skinner, George Pittendirgh, R F. Ardrill in Palayamkottai; from Governor Pentland; from nationalists like Mahatma Gandhi, C. Sankaran Nair, Sarojini Naidu, Rabindranath Tagore, and Annie Besant. I especially thank A Madhavan and Girija for letting me read these illuminating documents on the life and mind of A Madhaviah.
In the colonial climate of the Madras Presidency in the nineteenth century, young Tamil men first encountered English literature in schools whose teachers were often Christian missionaries, both European and Indian. As missionaries in this evangelical era sought to convert Tamils, they began to learn Tamil, and to their amazement, they found that the language had a long history of literary accomplishments. Around the same era, a few Tamil pandits, U. V Swaminathier (1855-1942) and C. V Damodaran Pillai (1832-1901), at Tiruvavaduturai Saiva monastery, had embarked on a major project. This memorable task was to restore, compile, interpret, and publish various ancient palm leaf manuscripts from the Tamil Sangam era literature (ca. 200 Be-AD 400). Thus inspired by two traditions, gifted Tamil writers soon perceived the potential of western genres, such as the novel and short story, to depict the nuances of their regional cultures, In 1879, Vedanayakam Pillai published the first Tamil novel, Pratapa Mudaliar Charitram, a rambling, semi-Puranic romance that was soon adopted as a school text. In 1893-4, Rajam Iyer's Kamalambal Charitram; a novel about a Tamil brahman family, was serialized in the literary journal, Viveka Chintamani In 1896, the editor, C. V Swaminathier, published this as a complete volume, In 1898, A Madhaviah published his first major prose work, Padmavati Charitram; which is often described as the third Tamil novel.
However, it is less well known that, as early as 1892, Madhaviah had already published the first six chapters of 'Savitri Charitram', a realistic expose of injustices against women, as a serialized novel for Viveka Chintamani. The twenty-year-old radical was a college graduate with a profound distaste for the irrational, pseudo-religious customs prevalent in upper caste society. Although the young author wrote English poetry and prose, it is significant that he had already chosen the novel as the ideal medium to articulate his views on humanism and gender equity. Madhaviah's most outstanding literary legacy is in the field of modem Indian prose, especially the novel in Tamil and in English. A growing middle class literati craved prose entertainment which centered around Indian themes, voiced Indian concerns, and featured Indian heroes and heroines, villains and victims. Madhaviah was a literary pioneer who helped define the blueprint of the Indian novel in both Tamil and English. Later writers would emulate his effective use of dialogue, and his precise delineation of female and male characters.
By November 1892, Viveka Chintamani suspended the publication of'Savitri Charitram' due to a disagreement between the author and the editor. However, in 1903, Madhaviah revised and completed this novel, which was published as Muthumeenakshi . This was a searing portrayal of a girl who yearned for an education, but whose life was shaped by a pre-pubescent marriage to an older widower, marital rape, and early widowhood. Her redemption came with her eventual remar- riage to a childhood mentor and sweetheart. Madhaviah's daughter, Lakshmi, translated the novel in 1915 for Social Reform Advocate and Social Reform Weekly. The theme of widow remarriage remained controversial in the pre-war years in Madras;' by 1924, however, the reading public appeared to be ready for its humane message, and Madhaviah published the complete novel.
Before his untimely death in 1925 at the age of fifty-three, Madhaviah poured out his views on humanism and rationalism in a prolific array of over sixty Tamil and English novels, poems, plays, essays, historical fiction, and translated works. He was a pioneer Indian novelist who wrote fiction in both a regional language and in English. His writings include non-denominational collections of Tamil hymns such as Podhu Dharma Sadgeeta Manjeri (Hymns for all Religions, 1914), and Pudu Mathiri Kalyana Pattukkal (Modem Wedding Songs, 1925); English love poems for the Madras Christian College Magazine; patriotic English essays for The Hindu, and his Tamil essays for Swadesamitran, Tamil Nesan; and Panchamritarn, the last two being journals that he edited.
Drawing sustenance from his Tamil-Indian roots, Madhaviah's humanist vision yet transcended the boundaries of gender, caste, religion, and ethnicity. In the contemporary quagmire of Hindu ritual-ism and Christian proselytization, he reminded his readers of their indigenous ethical traditions, quoting from Tiruvalluvar's Sangam era aphorisms, and retelling heroic Indian tales for children. In 1914, he highlighted the message of non-sectarian dharma for children in an English school-book version of the Ramayana; and in Nanda: The Pariah Who Overcame Caste (1923), he retold the romantic legend of a low-caste saint, a skinner of carcasses, who won salvation through the power of his bhakti Madhaviah's search for the roots of Indian rationalism inspired him to write Siddharthan (1918), a romanticized biography of the Buddha in Tamil. National pride prompted him to write such fictional accounts of Tamil kings as the novel Vyaya Martandam (1903), and the plays Tirumala Setupati (1910) and Udayalan (1918), the last being inspired by Shakespeare's Othello.
His English works, however, were geared for Indians educated in western-style schools, and for western readers familiar with India. Adopting a semi-autobiographical voice in these works, he suggested that Indians borrow selectively from the West, in particular from the rationalists of the European Enlightenment, and from the humanists who were Christian. Madhaviah was among the earliest to write of Indian concerns in English. His major English works include the novels, Thillai Govindan: A Posthumous Autobiography (1903); Satyananda (1909); Clarinda (1915); and Lt Panju (1915-16), as well as Thillai Govindan: A Miscellany (1907), a set of essays in the fictitious voice of Thillai Govindan. Clarinda is a romantic novel about a historical personage, an eighteenth century brahman widow who converted to Christianity after the death of her lover, a wayward English soldier. Madhaviah evokes sympathy for a virtuous, aristocratic, and wronged Hindu widow who converts out of choice. The novel is a quixotic commentary both on India's dignified traditions, scarred by misogyny and misanthropy, and on English political perfidy, which has been partly alleviated by their notions of social justice.
During the last two years of his life, Madhaviah published the Tamil journal, Panchamritam; whose contributors ranged from Indian nationalists, a Christian friend, to his famil members. Madhaviah also wrote an addendum to his first work, and the incomplete serial was called 'Padmavati Charitram: Munram Bagham' (Third Part). In this journal, which was printed in a large shed outside his home in Madras, Madhaviah gave free expression to his patriotism and to the urgent need to discard outdated customs. While he praised the high ideals of Hindu tolerance, love of the Divine, and Vedanta as a philosophy best expounded by Ramakrishna and Vivekananda in the present era, he also attacked the social stigma on inter-caste dining and unequal sexual mores between the genders. He condemned rituals associated with child marriages which not only debilitated women but also drove men of conscience who disagreed to break with their caste members by marrying Christian and Muslim women.
The biographer is able to resurrect Madhaviah from varied sources, some from existing library collections, others from rare collections preserved by his descendants. Some of the literary corpus is now irretrievable, but the major works remain. In his prose and poetry, Madhaviah revealed his own personality almost as clearly as he portrayed his fictional characters. This is an insider's view of the author's self-perceptions, and also of how he wished to be seen by others. Questions arise, of course, not only on what he wanted to say, but also on why, how, and to whom he wished to address his views. Outsider viewpoints can be retrieved from oral and written family histories, and the responses of missionaries and famous nationalists to Madhaviah's prior letters to them. Unfortunately, those letters written by Madhaviah, and his personal diary, are now irretrievable. Thus, the letters from missionaries and nationalists form only one side of the dialogues. However, they are invaluable since they are clear and detailed replies to his own purposeful descriptions of his latest endeavours, to his queries on their literary opinions and on publishers, or to his request for a foreword that would promote his book. The correspondence thus encapsulates the nuanced inequalities of relationships in colonial and nationalist India.
This historical lacuna has induced some biographers to focus exclusively on the literary contributions of a cerebral Madhaviah, rather than on the complex, flesh and blood individual. They tend to begin with the mature intellectual at the end of his life, a writer already acclaimed for his seminal contribution to Tamil prose. While this retroactive gaze may accurately record his literary legacy, its frozen methodology precludes the biographer from exploring historical causality and his personal development, which can be pieced together from various other sources. It also prevents us from investigating the shaded boundaries between the private family man and the public persona. Madhaviah, talented writer and firebrand I' former, infected his wife and children with his high ideals, and dedicated himself to earning a livelihood for his large family by serving as a cog in the colonial bureaucratic machine. An exclusive focus on his writing can be misleading in another respect as well. Madhaviah’s great accomplishment is that he was instrumental in shaping the stylistic contours of the Tamil novel, and of modern fictional depictions of women. He can be credited with having explored a remarkable range of genres, and for his prolific corpus of Tamil and English works composed in a short lifespan. Madhaviah burnt the candle at both ends-roaming the countryside as a tax inspector by day and writing at night. His prose thus varies in caliber, and the aesthetic merit of some works surpasses that of others. His fame rests more surely on his innovative redesigning of western genres for modern Tamil use and for his use of Tamil and English fiction to reform society. Therefore, in many ways, Madhaviah the reformer’s ideological motivations, and ask why the artist presented himself and his culture in specific ways.
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