From Back of the Book
In Hundred Tamil Folk and Tribal Tales we have a rich variety of tale – types of a major South Indian oral tradition. Sujatha Vijayaraghavan’s lucid English translation here beacons a serious engagement in Indic studies. It locates this body of work at the interface between folklore, anthropology, sociology and public culture of a y – gone era.
This handy collection provides an easy access to the cultural registers and linguistic mores of a tribal/folk population at a crucial juncture of colonial modernity. Furthermore, she translates not merely the tales as she finds them in the Tamil original (naatupura kathai kalanjiyam), but distinguishes and rocognises the tribal tale, otherwise unnoticed in a proverbial ocean of Indian folklore. As a vibrant vein of wit and wisdom in Draidian lives and traditions, the tribal – tale receives the first – ever straight look in these pages.
Sujatha Vijayaraghavan is Professor of English at Pondicherry University, Puducherry. Her teaching and research interests include Postcolonial Studies, Translation and Folklore Studies and Oral Literatures. She has also rendered into English a sizeable body of contemporary Tamil fiction and classical poetry.
Gender and divinity
The transformation of the female into a goddess is the thematic of many a folktale in Tamil Nadu. Within the context of the home is the conflict between patriarchal and matriarchal cultures influenced by social and religions institutions with power endowed upon the former and the onus of sustaining the home, village and culture on the latter. Tales that from the Anandayi cluster from which the first one is given in the following section, reflect women’s bodies as a source of sex and maternal nurture. Women as a person or social agency of power is invariably deified before she is valued and the methodology of her worship literally iconises her. This tale remarks on the domestic hierarchy and the control of female’s life by the male, as do other Anandayi tales. Simultaneously, it also comments on the significance given to the birth of the female child in the family, whose presence is considered auspicious. The female goddess could be represented by temporary icons or symbols by the family or community that deifies her, because her worship is an annual and not a daily feature as it is of female deities in temples. Associated with fertility ritual this annual feature is also an occasion for the many branches of a family to gather together and renew the sense of communal life. This is in contrast to the nuclear family – life in urban areas.
Another interesting feature in the tale is the way in which the narrators create their identities with topical references. References to villages, village deities, festivities, the towns near by and domestic and food habits feature in the tale as indicative of the way in which the narrator comes into being in the tale. A tale may appear in two different districts with slight variations, but the appropriation of the tale by the narrator not only makes room for the many possible versions of a tale, but also emerges as part of that particular region’s oral heritage and in this particular emergence, enables the emergence of the people of the region. Household chores and details of housekeeping, recipes, references to mutual stereotyping by one region’s people of another, references to the flora and fauna of the landscape, all together form a rich mosaic of detail that reinforces the emergence and existence of the tale through the narrator/listener/participant’s identification with these details.
The stories in this section are collected from the former south Arcot district (which is now divided into the Villupuram and Cuddalore districts) comprising the circles of Cuddalore, Panrutti, Tittakudi, Virudhachalam, Kattumannarkoil and Chidambaram. The last mentioned is famed the world over for its exquisite temple with one hundred and eight sculptures on the postures of Bharatanatyam as bas – relief. From time immemorial belt has been the field of many historical events.
Traveling in a passenger train on a hot summer day, I was joined in the empty compartment by a young man who watched me intently for a while before he made up his mind and requested me to help him fill up an application form. I learnt that he was a fitter – mechanic in a reputed automobile spare parts factory in the metropolis and was hoping to do a part – time diploma course in mechanical engineering. After the form had been filled and doubts cleared, I relaxed with my eyes closed. In a few minutes the young man, thinking perhaps that I was asleep and encouraged by the noise of the moving train, began to sing in a melodious voice. He was singing verses from Villiputurar’s Mahabharatam, a popular version of the Mahabharata in Tamil also known as Villi Bharatam. His pronunciation was flawless and his voice clear. I did not stir for fear of disturbing him. After a while – he had been singing the passages on the triumph of truth and righteousness in the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas – he decided to switch over to some percussion music. Using his hands on the long wooden seat – it was a second – class compartment and did not have cushioned seats – he played a swift beat with expert ease. Then he reverted back to vocal music again, this time reciting verses from the Nalayira divya pirapantam (The sacred collect of four thousand, comprising lyrical compositions of Vaishnava saints also called Azhwars. Roughly placed between the fifth and eighth centuries, these were later retrieved and compiled by the scholar – saint Nathamuni in the tenth century). The performance must have lasted for almost a hour. Things are changing rapidly today and one can hardly come across someone who knows even a hundred out of the four thousand verses, or passages from Villi Bharatam, unless of course it is learnt out of personal interest. The young man had learnt all these from the elders of his village which lay between Thirukazhukundram and Kanchiuram.
As it happens in the villages of Tamil Nadu, in his village too, the annual festival was being held for eighteen days at the Draupdiamman temple. Earlier most villages celebrated the event for forty – one or forty – eight days. Now because of migration to cities in search of employment, the gradual disappearance of professional story – tellers who used to be supported solely by the village communities and the rise in expenditure such an event demands, it has shrunk to eleven or eighteen days. Still the village folk put aside a generous portion of their moderate earnings for this annual festival which keeps an important form of oral literature alie. We owe a debt of gratitude to these many hundreds of village folk put aside a generous portion of their moderate earnings for this annual festival which keeps an important form of oral literature alive. We one a debt of gratitude to these many hundreds of villages which have the time, inclination and munificence that is sadly lacking in other, more sophisticated societies of which I too am a guilty member. By day the Villi Bharatham is recited an thousands of subsidiary stories in the epic are narrated by professionals. At night, eighteen important episodes of the Mahabharata are dramatically enacted, one a day, to the accompaniment of vocal and instrumental music. The young man in the train was going home for the performance at night. Unseen and unheard like the mythical river Saraswathi, there are many literatures in this country, that lie not in print alone, but in the blood of the people who carry them as part of their lives.
Oral literature is rich and varied in Tamil Nadu. Its temple is well – known the world over for their antiquity, exquisite art and most importantly for the way in which they function as the central point around which the life of a community or place revolves. There is no village in Tamil Nadu that does not boast of at least a simple brick structure if not a stone temple, irrespective of its size, around which a large corpus of legend and folktales grow and circulate. History is as much the prerogative of the smallest hamlet here, as it is of large towns and cities. Many folk performances comprising song, dance, or tales reflecting rich folklore are passed on from one generation to another in the precincts of the temples, especially in the open spaces that run around it, during the religious and seasonal festivals that occur throughout the year. Folklore has myriad expressions through myths, legends, folktales, proverbs, riddles, folk verses, folk song, folk music, folk dance, ballads, folk belief, folk superstitions, folk customs, folk cult, folk gods and goddesses, rituals, magic, witchcraft, folk art and craft and many kinds of artistic expressions of oral culture, all of which constantly revert back to the village and its region as the central point of action.
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