Debating India

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The politics of prayer

Sumathi RAMASWAMY

Friday 15 January 1999, by RAMASWAMY*Sumathi

Article paru dans Frontline, Volume 16, n?01, Jan. 02 - 15, 1999.

In the wake of the controversy about ’’Saraswati Vandana’’, an assessment of ’’Tamizhthai vazhttu’’, the official song of Tamil Nadu.

The furore caused by the proposed singing of the "Saraswati Vandana" at the recent Conference of State Education Ministers in New Delhi, and its possible introduction into the school system, has triggered a controversy in Tamil Nadu over another hymn, the "Tamizhthai vazhttu" (Praise of Mother Tamil). This was instituted in 1970 by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Government of M. Karunanidhi as the official song of the State to be sung at the commencement of all official functions, and in schools. While pro-Hindutva elements insist that the two songs are analogous and that the opposition of the DMK and its allies to the "Saraswati Vandana" is misplaced, anti-Hindutva forces insist that a song celebrating the Tamil language is not comparable to a sectarian prayer in praise of a recognisable Hindu goddess such as Saraswati. The difference of opinion between the two sides points not just to the complicated status of deities and extraordinary beings in India’s modernity, but also to the problematic role of religiosity in its public life and culture. But first a few words on the lesser known of the two personages implicated in the recent controversy, Tamizhthai, and the hymn in praise of her that is the subject of the current debate.

While the "Tamizhthai vazhttu" became the official "prayer song" of Tamil Nadu only in June 1970, it was first published more than a century ago by a well-known Tamil litterateur and amateur historian, P. Sundaram Pillai, as the invocation to his play, "Manonmaneeyam". From then, the song lived on in the writings and public celebrations of Tamil enthusiasts along with other popular poems on Tamil and Tamizhthai (including Subramania Bharathi’s on the glories of the language). Indeed, as early as in 1929 M. S. Purnalingam Pillai noted (perhaps too enthusiastically) that the song "has become a household word among the Tamils and is recited in every Tamil society." Versions of the song have routinely appeared in Tamil textbooks, especially since the 1970s, and although today it is widely sung at all official functions and in schools and colleges across the State, it would be fair to say that few outside a narrow circle of Tamil literati clearly recognise who they are felicitating when they sing the hymn.

The chief protagonist of the song Tamizhthai is a complex and many-layered figure whose trials and tribulations as goddess, queen, mother and maiden all rolled into one I have analysed at length elsewhere. What is worthy of note here is that while the Hindutva claim that the "Saraswati Vandana’’ is not sectarian in its celebration of the spirit of learning is totally spurious in its attempt to mask the essentially (high) Hindu nature of its object of praise, the insistence by her supporters that Tamizhthai is entirely a secular figure without any religious associations is also questionable. It is true that Sundaram Pillai’s original song appeared as an invocation to a secular play. Nonetheless, in its longer version, its verses - which today’s official State song does not incorporate - clearly challenged Sanskritic Hinduism, and what was presented as the latter’s disparagement of Tamil, its scriptures and its traditions. Why do we need the "Veda" and the "Manusmriti" when we have the "Tiruvasagam" and the "Kural", Sundaram Pillai demanded.

In the century or so since his time, the response by Tamil intellectuals, reformers and politicians to this question has ranged from upholding the parity of the Sanskritic and Tamil (scriptural) traditions to the fashioning of an alternative religiosity centred on Tamil Saivism (vehemently seen as not Hinduism) to a total rejection of religion in the name of an atheistic materialism. Through all these struggles, Tamizhthai has been transformed into a "goddess" whose very divinity remains intriguingly ambivalent.

This ambivalence is quite apparent in the hundreds of poems and songs on Tamizhthai that have been published since Sundaram Pillai’s hymn in 1891, in which she variously figures as a goddess who is presented as the Ultimate Being; as a victorious queen who rules over the fine Tamil land; as a compassionate but endangered mother who needs the love and support of her wayward children; and even as a beloved who evokes passion and desire in her ardent devotee. This ambivalence is also visible in the attempts by her followers to capture her materially and visually in posters, drawings, cartoons and statues. In many contexts she has been presented as a secular mother figure with whom every Tamil speaker regardless of religious affiliation can identify; in others she appears as a four-armed goddess, suspiciously akin to Saraswati in her posture, her clothing and her accompanying paraphernalia. In the official State poster of Tamizhthai that the M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) Government published in 1987, its producers appear to have been unable to break away from the vice of Hindu iconographic traditions, so clearly Hindu is her persona, her two arms notwithstanding. In the Tamizhthai Kovil in Karaikudi to which Karunanidhi lent his blessings in 1993, despite the Dravidian movement’s attack on Hinduism’s multi-limbed, multi-headed personages, Tamizhthai sits in the sanctum as a four-armed goddess in a structure that looks remarkably like a Hindu temple. She has also put in an appearance over the years in the occasional Tamil textbook. Yet neither in Karaikudi nor anywhere else is Tamizhthai formally worshipped, as Saraswati routinely is, through rituals and ceremonies. Nor does she belong to just one religious community: again and again, her devotees insist that she is the mother of all Tamil speakers, regardless of whether they are Hindu, Muslim or Christian. In fact, even Tamilians who are Muslim and Christian have written poems and songs on her, as have poets who have formally declared themselves to be atheists. All the same, in both word and visual, the undertow of Hindu religiosity is apparent even in the works of some of the most "atheistic" of her followers, belying the current claim that Tamizhthai is purely and utterly a secular personage. To make such a claim is to ignore the complex history of the figure, as indeed of the various movements, both for and against Hinduism, in which she has participated, if only tangentially, in this century.

Nothing perhaps illustrates this as clearly as the Tamizhthai vazhttu itself, the subject of the recent debate, for the DMK Government instituted the hymn as the State’s "prayer song" in 1970 only after adopting some significant changes - changes which betray the complex struggles over religiosity and the meaning of deity that have dogged Tamizhthai’s chequered career for much of this century in Tamil cultural politics. For one, where Sundaram Pillai’s 1891 song bore the revealing title "Tamizhdeiva Vanakkam", or "Homage to Goddess Tamil", the state’s "prayer song" is called - more neutrally and more secularly - "Tamizhthai vazhttu", or "Praise of Mother Tamil". Further, Sundaram Pillai has clearly likened his Goddess Tamil to Siva himself, a comparison that the DMK Government understandably excised on the grounds that an appropriate prayer song for a modern Tamil community should have no religious or sectarian associations. The erasure is also understandable given the DMK’s origins in the Dravidian movement with its iconoclastic antagonism to religiosity and especially to scriptural Hinduism. And yet, the Government order that gives official recognition to the hymn explicitly refers to Tamizhthai as the "goddess of Tamil", and the poem itself is characterised as a "prayer song" to be sung in lieu of other "prayers" that had hitherto been sung. Such slippages in turn only index the progressive accommodation with mainstream Hinduism that is a striking feature of the DMK’s cultural policy from the 1950s. They are also a reminder that while Tamizhthai may have been deployed to help loosen the grip of Hindu deities over Tamil speakers, she herself has been unable to escape taking on the mantle of Hindu goddesses like Saraswati.

All this of course only underscores the tenacious visibility of religiosity in general and Hinduism in particular in the public expressions of colonial and post-colonial modernity in India. The current debate around the "Saraswati Vandana", "Vande Mataram" and other similar hymns also raises the question of whether young students even need to resort to public "prayers" at the start of the school day, thus compromising the spirit of secularism that is especially important to uphold in multi-religious milieux.

Nonetheless, it is also necessary to recognise that Hindutva intellectuals are wrong in their contention that hymns like the "Saraswati Vandana" are no different from the "Tamizhthai vazhttu". Unlike the former, the latter poem, both in its century-long history and in its current incarnation as the official song of Tamil Nadu, bears all the marks of the continuing struggle to protect the diversity and plurality of Tamil public life from the juggernaut-like weight of majoritarian (Sanskritic) Hinduism which has once again reared its head in the BJP’s national agenda for "Indianising, nationalising, and spiritualising" the school room. Saying yes to the "Saraswati Vandana" by falsely invoking the example of the "Tamizhthai vazhttu" is conceding that the struggle has been lost.

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