This book brings together for the first time in English all the major essays written by Francois Gros on Tamil literature. An impressive range of topics is covered here from studies of Cankam literature and devotional texts of the Tamil Bhakti traditions to contemporary Tamil novels and short stories. Many of the essays include an overview of French Indological work over past three centuries made available to the English speaking scholarly world for the first time here. While the author urges European and American scholars of Tamil history and culture to take the intellectual discourses of Tamil scholarship seriously, he insists at the same time that Tamil not be ghettoized but should rather be read alongside texts in other South Indian languages, with reference to the evidence to the evidence of epigraphy, numismatic, archaeology and art history.
These articles bring a multiplicity of
opposing sides into face to face confrontation; arguments flow in from all sides while additional references at the same time destabilizing the apparently stronger positions. By bearing witness to Tamil in all its forms and by addressing Tamil culture through the medium of Tamil literature, these articles repeatedly remind us of the diverse, composite and tolerant depths in which we live.
“The power of that literature derives from the marvelous alliance between the unreality of its conventions and the realism of its images which reveals to us its unreality of its conventions and the realism of its conventions and the realism of its images which reveals too us its public in context and enchants us as well. For almost a millennium this pendulum movement allowed the literary current to remain alive, guarding within a civilization, which was becoming more and more Hindu in the shade of its palaces and sanctuaries from the beginning of this era, an original humanistic flavor, close to popular indigenous traditions but certainly capable of magnifying them, of mythologizing them and certainly of mystifying us too.”
“….prefiguring what was soon to become the pride of Tamil literature, the songs of the Alvar, they are something more than simple precursors. It must be recognized that Paripatal, after having give us the first hymns to Murukan, offers us as accompaniment the first Tamil litanies of the Bhakti of Vishnu; it is usually acceted that Bhakti was born in Dravida, most especially beside the Tamiraparani, but it is at Maturai, on the banks of the Vaiyai, that we hear its first song.”
“…..it is the humble satisfaction of the philologist, who might be imagined busy minutely weaving shrouds for dead gods, to make contact through these songs with the beliefs, the joys and the sorrows of a living people.”
Deep rivers: Advise to the discerning traveler
Town ending road and road extending town: do not choose one or the other; rather alternate one after the other.
Mountain encircling, hemming in, and imprisoning your view; until it’s released by the circular plain. Leap from stone to stone, step to step but tread lightly on the pavement where the foot falls flat and firm.
Seek relief from sound in silence; let yourself be drawn back from silence toward sound. keep to yourself if you can and know how; and then at times let yourself flow back into the crowd.
Beware of electing a retreat. Do not put your faith in the power of a durable virtue; but burns and bites and gives pungency even to that which is tasteless.
And thus, without a single false or pause, with neither nor halter, nor any special merit or hardship, you will attain, my friend, not the marshland of immortal delights, But the intoxicating eddies of the great river Diversity.
Going from bookshop to bookshop with my Srilankan Tamil friend Cena, May 2006, Toronto, it struck me that I didn’t know Cena’s full name. I asked him if it was Cenatipati? “No. it is Paramcoti Cenavaraiyar”, he said Surprised, I said, “Isn’t that the name of the classical Tamil commentator?” and he confirmed that it was. Joking, I asked him, “What is your brother’s name ten, Naccinarkiniyar?”. He was no longer smiling as he said, “Yes, my younger brother’s name was indeed Naccinarkiniyan, he was sixteen, when he died in Jaffna, he was a militant”. I stared at the street as he went on. “My father was a Tamil teacher, from Nelliyati, Jaffna, you know, and he named us all after classical Tamil commentators, one elder brother Peraciriyar lives in Trikonamalai,another, lives in Colombo, and a younger one is here in Canada, Amirta Cakarar. None of us is with our parents who are alone at Nelliyati, they live there and, I am here Cenavaraiyar, working for a courier company in Toronto”. This is the contemporary Tamil world interwoven with the living classical world that Francois Gros describes.
Francois Edouard Stephane Gros, was born and grew up in Lyons, France, He belonged to the generation of the Second World war and like many European children was sent to the country during hostilities, for safety’s sake and because of food shortages. Having received a classical French education, he studied pre-history under Ander Leroi-Gourhan and learnt anthropology from Louis Dumont, and sociology and economic history under Daniel Thorner; senior to him at Fondation Thiers, Paris, was Michel Foucault .He worked as a French Teacher in Algeria during the war of liberation.
He has been visiting the French Institute of Pondicherry in various capacities since 1963, to study Tamil language, literature and culture. Should you be walking on the seaside promenade of an evening in Pondicherry you might even meet him on his daily walk and should you brave an initially abrupt response you will find yourself on a rarre journey, through france, India, the Tamil landscape and Pondicherry with excursions into food, a conversation, exhaustive and packed with erudition entertainment. A man of literature first and a collector of books in the manner of a Walther Benjamin, he has a comprehensive and rare collection of classical and contemporary Tamil books, journals and of European books dealing with South India at his home in Lyons.
He has founded of a number of research programmes at the French Institute of Pondicherry: the Grammatical encyclopedia of Tamil, Architecture and Cultural Geography of Tamil landscapes, Contemporary Tamil culture and the Historical Atlas of South India, to name a few. He has associated and worked with many generations of Tamil scholars: P. N. Appusamy, N. Kandasamy Pillai, V.M. Subramania lyer, Ku. Pa. Sethuraman, Pa. Sundaresan, R. Nagaswamy, T. V. Gopal Iyer, Y.S. Subbarayalu, again to name but a few. Both as part of his research work and apart from his research work, he has been the mentor and guide for many European, American, Indian and Tamil students and researchers working on South Indian languages, literature and culture. He was an active consultant on the translation and lexicographic projects of the Chennai based Tamil Published Cre-A (French-Tamil Translations of L’Etranger by Albert Camus, Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery, Cre-A’s contemporary Tamil dictionary). As far as Tami studies are concerned, he may be the only western scholar other than kamil Zvelebil to do in-depth research in both classical and contemporary Tamil. While most scholars of classical literature are averse to anything contemporary, Francois Gros is an exception in that he is enormously interested in both; his masterly grasp of written Tamil and its registers carries him equally through the deepest and most obscure waters of the classical and allows him enter into the spirit and experimentation of the modern.
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