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Classical Tamil literature can teach us a thing or two

LITERARY TRUTH: ‘Tirukkural’ and ‘Sangam’ contain some of the greatest epic poems about a great civilisation

Johan JaaffarI WAS introduced to Tirukkural by a teacher in 1970. We were doing a play based on the great Indian epic Mahabharata for a sendiwara production. We were in fact trying something different, a modern interpretation of the animosity between the Kauravas and Pandavas.

I was familiar with the Malay and Javanese adaptation of Mahabharata in the form of Pendawa Lima, as shown in wayang kulit and wayang wong. Ramayana became Sri Rama in the Malay world. The teacher, who was a student of Tamil literature, told me since I was familiar with Mahabharata and Ramayana, which were originally in Sanskrit, why not read some verses from the best known Tamil poems, the Tirukkural?

It was, in fact, a translation into Malay by Ismail Hussein in 1967. Ismail later became a professor at the Malay Studies Department of the University of Malaya (UM).

I found out later that Ismail was not the only one who had translated the Tirukkural into Malay, Ramli Thakir did it in 1964. I found it fascinating. Tirukkural was believed to have been written by a poet, Thiruvalluvar, some time between the 2nd and the 5th centuries. This collection of 1,330 Tamil couplets in 133 chapters is one of the most important works in Tamil.

I had the opportunity to learn more about Tirukkural when I did an optional paper in Classical Tamil Literature at UM. It was an eye-opener. I was also introduced to Sangam literature, another important body of literary works in Tamil (not to be mistaken for a Hindi movie of the same name).

These are poems written by hundreds of poets, many who remained anonymous. Sadly, many of the poems were lost, though some were recovered. It was a collection of literature unlike any other. Written between 200BC and 200AD, the poems were reflections of the value systems, worldviews and psyche of the Tamil people. These poems were about the inner self (agam) and the outer self (puram).

But more importantly, Sangam literature is best reflected by its classification of emotions in accordance to climate and geographical changes. The landscape involved (tinai) is divided into kurinji (mountainous region), mullai (forest), marutham (agricultural area), neithal (coast) and paalai (desert). In short, it was the first environmentally sensitive poems the world has ever known.

What can one learn from Tirukkural and Sangam literature? A lot. A race does not live in a vacuum. Its people created works of literature, performing arts, painting and sculptures as manifestations of their genius and intelligence. Literature do not lie. Classical literature in any language and race is a mirror of its society. To win hearts and minds, learn their literary works. The English did that when they colonised this country.

The Indian diaspora is unique. Not unlike the Malays, every ethnic group within the diaspora has its own identity. The Tamils, an important entity of the diaspora, have a great literary and cultural tradition to be proud of.

Attempts have been made to introduce classical works to the young. Just like the other races, Tamil youth find it hard to relate to the works of the Tirukkural of Sangam literature. Many of the Tamil leaders themselves are unfamiliar with these works.

Literature is never an exciting subject in schools even for arts students. Perhaps it was the way literature is taught. Anyone worth his salt would not find Odyssey or the Iliad interesting, or Ramayana, La Galigo or Sejarah Melayu for that matter. But we need to understand each other. It is not just by casual encounters that we get to know each other. We are brought up “differently” with biases, prejudices and misconceptions about each other.

With the spirit of Deepavali, perhaps it is about time to learn more about the Tamils — their trials and tribulations, history and traditions and hopes and aspirations. Let’s begin by understanding their great literary traditions — even in its simplest forms — the much translated Tirukkural and the works of the Sangam era hailed by many as “the best literary effort in their 2,000 years of existence.”

To all my Hindu readers, I hope it is not too late to wish En Ithayam Kaninthe Manggalam Perugiya Deepavali Nal Valthukkal.

.The Tamils have a great literary and cultural tradition of which they can be proud. AFP pic

Read more: Classical Tamil literature can teach us a thing or two – Columnist – New Straits Times

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