Tamil: A Biography

Tamil : A Biography, Hardback HARDCOVER

$35.00 • £25.00 • €31.50

ISBN 9780674059924

Publication: September 2016

The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press

Spoken by eighty million people in South Asia and a diaspora that stretches across the globe, Tamil is one of the great world languages, and one of the few ancient languages that survives as a mother tongue for so many speakers. David Shulman presents a comprehensive cultural history of Tamil—language, literature, and civilization—emphasizing how Tamil speakers and poets have understood the unique features of their language over its long history. Impetuous, musical, whimsical, in constant flux, Tamil is a living entity, and this is its biography.

Two stories animate Shulman’s narrative. The first concerns the evolution of Tamil’s distinctive modes of speaking, thinking, and singing. The second describes Tamil’s major expressive themes, the stunning poems of love and war known as Sangam poetry, and Tamil’s influence as a shaping force within Hinduism. Shulman tracks Tamil from its earliest traces at the end of the first millennium BCE through the classical period, 850 to 1200 CE, when Tamil-speaking rulers held sway over southern India, and into late-medieval and modern times, including the deeply contentious politics that overshadow Tamil today.

Tamil is more than a language, Shulman says. It is a body of knowledge, much of it intrinsic to an ancient culture and sensibility. “Tamil” can mean both “knowing how to love”—in the manner of classical love poetry—and “being a civilized person.” It is thus a kind of grammar, not merely of the language in its spoken and written forms but of the creative potential of its speakers.


Review by  , ‘Open Letters Monthly,’ September 27, 2016

David Shulman, the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at Hebrew University, opens his new book Tamil: A Biography in a scholarly playful tone that’s virtually calculated to make the blood of everyday normal folk freeze in their veins:

A language is never a thing, even if its speakers sometimes do whatever they can to turn it into one – to make it an “it.” The ideas people have about their language may be things, and as such may have a history; even so, the language will always exceed those ideas and, given certain basic conditions, will continue to grow and thus to fulfill the organic, uncertain, and lively destiny encoded in its grammar. Old languages like Tamil, given to intense reflection over many centuries, write their own autobiographies, in many media, though we may not know how to read them. Sometimes they ask the assistance of a ghostwriter, a biographer, like me.

David Shulman

A language is not a thing? It exceeds its ideas and uses? It can grow independent of its speakers, maybe sneaking out after supper to attend pop music concerts? Languages write their own autobiographies? They ring up their agents to hire ghostwriters from the Valley, for a nice up-front fee and some comfortable residuals but no cover credit? And these ghostwriters then do what, exactly? Write a biography of a thing that isn’t a thing?

There are few things more alarming than a scholar in a puckish mood, but the reckless glee can also be contagious. Shulman intends to take his readers through the cultural and literary history of Tamil, a language spoken by some eighty million people in South Asia, a language with roots reaching back through many centuries of works, poems, criticism, schools of criticism. Shulman knows that most of his potential audience has never heard a single spoken syllable of Tamil and couldn’t pick the Tantiyalankaram out of a police lineup, and when, on page 68, he finally comes out and says “I’ll try to keep things as simple as I can,” we can sense that his heart is in the right place. And since no professor in the 100-year history of Hebrew University has ever said “I’ll try to keep things as simple as I can” and then succeeded, we can’t even really hold Shulman’s failure against him.

He tries with a will for about 69 pages, but the usual linguistic suspects start creeping in, and pretty soon you can’t turn around without bumping into Whorfian determinism or diglossia and polyglossia. There’s a technical murk throughout the book that will baffle the general reader to the same extent that it pleases Shulman’s fellow specialists. Those kinds of technicalities are endemic to any study of a language’s biography, and although Shulman dishes diphthongs with the best of them, he saves his narrative, time and again, with an ardent enthusiasm that tries its best to reach outside the specialist huddle. “Good Tamil is clarity itself, an intense and luminous, or translucent, form of being,” he writes, “It is clearer than clear. It is also delicious.”

The Tamil in Tamil certainly comes across as clear and delicious. Shulman is a priceless advocate of the language and its many masterpieces, and given the abstruse nature of his subject, it’s really marvelous in a way how persuasive he is when rhapsodizing about a literature most of his readers will likely never have heard about. He completely avoids the trap that tends to close on lengthy linguistic studies like this – he always remembers that languages are personal things, shaping the experiences of people:

Those who want to read more of the Tamil bhakti poets can now easily find annotated translations. Anyone who visits a Tamil temple is likely to hear a pilgrim gently singing these very poems as he or she comes within sight of the image of a god or goddess. When you see the deity, you might feel the familiar, unappeasable longing, tearing at your very breath, disrupting “normal” metabolic processes, driving you to the limit of sensation and thought; and at the same time, you might feel block, disconnected, lost in the stony surface of self. These two moods tend to coincide.

That offhand mention of easily-found annotated bhakti translations is downright charming – why, I just saw one left on a park bench this morning. But the wonder of Tamil is that it actually moves you to go and find such a translation, to go and sample this vast and complex and, you’re now thoroughly convinced, beautiful literature and see if it can live up to its biography. And for that, all hail the ghostwriter.

A Genealogy of Deep Whisperings

Review by N Govindarajan, The Book Review Literary Trust, New Delhi, January 2017

Foucault, in The Order of Things, remarks that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, language had lost transparency and its major function in the domain of knowledge and was the immediate and spontaneous unfolding of representations. He also observes that from the nineteenth century language became the object of knowledge. It acquired its own particular density, a history, an objectivity and laws of its own, which continue to dominate even today in every field of life. Ever since the acceptance of families of languages (IndoEuropean family of languages, Dravidian family of languages etc.) from orientalists like William Jones, Francis Whyte Ellis to the present-day linguists, scholarly explorations in languages have always drawn our attention. In India languages are seen as divine revelations, special gospels directly from gods. It is impossible for Indians to display their identity without their own language. They even locate their self within their language. States Reorganization Act (1956) and renaming the States according to indigenous pronunciations are two examples worth mentioning. Any study in any Indian language is keenly observed; especially studies in Sanskrit and Tamil evoke interest. Sheldon Pollocks erudite discourse on Sanskrit, Language of God in the World of Men, has continued to be a source for debate. Now a new book on Tamil has come. David Shulman, a scholar in Tamil, has written a biography of Tamil. Simply titled as Tamil: A Biography and published by Harvard University Press, Shulmans book certainly compels our serious attention. Writing a biography of Tamil is not new. From the beginning of the twentieth century many scholars have attempted a history of Tamil. Two such attempts may be noted. K.S. Srinivasa Pillai wrote Tamil Varalaru in 1922 and in 1941 R. Raghava Iyengar produced a work on the same title. Both are important because they have a broader outlook and less of a pro-language pride. Although titled as history both works concentrated on biographical aspects such as origin/birth, infancy, development etc., of Tamil language and literature. Srinivasa Pillai focused on literature and geography to some extent and tried to establish the uniqueness of the language but without bias. R. Raghava Iyengar’s work has keen observations on Tamil as a language and culture. He identified and collected the sutras of Agastya as quoted by many commentators in their respective commentaries and compiled those in an orderly fashion in his book. These two works tried to address the history …


Indologist Shulman’s ‘Tamil’ Dismantles Tamil Nationalism and Questions Its Legacy

Review by Kumuthan Maderya, ‘PopMatters,’ December 23, 2016


For a tome that takes us back to antiquity, resurrecting interred wisdoms with resplendence, its most profound resonances are castigations against a moribund present. When forces of parochial tribalism fulminate against pluralistic societies, revisiting a culturally dynamic past is a stark reminder of our contemporary shortcomings. In hindsight, facets of modern nationalism like language chauvinism and linguism appear antithetical to the dynamic, fluid, and organic ways languages and cultures have historically evolved through exogenous interactions. Though it’s not his main purpose, in a new book, David Dean Shulman, Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jersualem, shows that language chauvinist movements like Tamil nationalism are political prevarications detached from historical reality.

Indologist Shulman’s Tamil: A Biography is a towering achievement in the field of cultural history and philology that is a compelling evolution of one of the oldest languages in the world from antiquity to modernity. (There are also cogitations about the condition of Tamil in post-industrial society). Passionately and yet objectively written, the book is as much annals of the language as it is a thoroughly researched panegyric to it. The narrative intertwines morphologies of the language in terms of grammar, syntax, phonetics, and phonology as well as the cultural manifestations of the language such as philosophy, poetry, prose, and song. It’s consciously congruous with the etymology of the word tamil. While there’s no consensus, we are told it may possibly refer to “the proper [process of] speaking” / the rules governing language or simply “sweetness” in expression.

The word tamil is also a derivative of the Sanskrit term for the Dravidian family of languages. You do not have to be Tamil to appreciate the significance of this book. In fact, it appears intended for anyone with an interest in the cultural history of the language, regardless of background. Shulman takes great pains to ensure that no reader is alienated by the context. Constant cross-references to other cultures are made, whether to the Hebrew Bible, Homeric poetry, Mozart’s music, Greek, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, illuminating the development of the language through comparative philology. Tamil is situated in a global network of languages.

There are two main themes in the book: one is to showcase the corporeal and asomatous features of the language. One whose early literati shaped it to “express processuality” both endogenous and exogenous to subjectivity—“in the external domain of objects no less than in the internal world of thought, feeling, and awareness.” Tamil literature is as much concerned with making sense of the physical realm as it is with an appreciation of the metaphysical. The other theme, more controversially, is to trace the synergy between Sanskrit and Tamil in broad strokes throughout history. The discussion about the complex relationship between Sanskrit and Tamil is “still clearly alive and full of passion in current debates about language and culture in the Tamil world.”

Shulman uses Carnatic music scales to name his chapters, overtly stating his sonorous intentions that “the book is built like a concert.” The book is structured to open with basic knowledge about the language and its genesis. Chronothematic chapters dealing with linguistics and literature as well as the philosophical concerns embedded in the language and its poetry in each time period follows accordingly. The narrative begins from second century B.C. “the moment when prehistory becomes protohistory”—when the first known Tamil inscriptions in the Brahmi script were written, to the development of classical Tamil Sangam literature canonized between second to eight century A.D., to the flourishing medieval and late medieval period Tamil literary works, to the development of modern Tamil, and reaches colonial times with the intellectual community of a “Tamil renaissance”.

While all the chapters in the book are of superlative quality, one particularly stands out for interweaving historiography, anthropology, philology, and lyricism into discourse on medieval Tamil. The Chola kingdom of South India (c. mid-ninth to mid-13th century) is considered by many to represent the apogee of ‘Tamil civilization’. The chapter deals with both the hagiography surrounding the Chola establishment of a so-called Tamil empire (the book concedes that the term is open to debate) as well as the material reality of Tamil’s emergence as a “transregional language” in Asia. The language is referred to in records found from South India and Sri Lanka all the way to Southeast Asia and as far as China. Corroborating with sources from around the world, Shulman uses traded commodities, diplomatic exchanges, and monuments to prove that by the first millennium “Tamil had clearly become an international language” used in the incipient global economy. The chapter also notes the development of a nascent Tamil diaspora community, which by the eleventh century starts to become prominent.

Underscoring a recurring theme, Shulman speaks of a “Sanskrit-Tamil symbiosis” in state courts suggesting that while the Chola kings used Tamil as the official language of their state, they were also happy to incorporate Sanskrit. Just like the major Pallava and Pandya kingdoms before them. The Cholas also provided the munificent patronage that “created a courtly milieu” responsible for a flourishing Tamil literary culture in South India. Prominent among the literati is the 12th century temple bard Kamban, whom Shulman hails as “the most gifted of all Tamil authors.” Lionized as among the greatest literary compositions in the language, Kamban’s Tamil Ramayana represented the apotheosis of cultural achievements of the Chola kingdom.

In the same chapter, a poignant matter is raised about the Tamil notion of ‘truth’ and its connotations in Tamil literary works. We are reminded that the concept and definition of truth is “always culturally determined.” In Tamil, the notion of truth is related to the consequences of utterance and phonology. The spoken word must accompany commitment to what is said in order to maintain the integrity of the utterance, which once articulated will always live out its life in the world. In Tamil, “truth is connected to sound” and the very being of the person articulating the words. To not carry through on an utterance is tantamount to questioning the very “aliveness” of the speaker—their interiority and breath. Another dimension is that truth is also seen as “unerring.” To not fulfill what has been articulated was considered a great humiliation, a stain upon an individual’s fame, and antithetical to heroic virtues. Reading the book at a time when “post-truth” is selected as the international word of the year, the espousal of the trope of truth in medieval Tamil is a tragic reminder of humanity’s regression. We have sufficient reason to believe that for a long time in history, speaking the truth was the essence of life; not any longer it appears. True speech or the metaphysical consequences of truth was a major thematic preoccupation of the Chola period Tamil literary works.

How the “deep interpenetration” of Sanskrit and Tamil turned to downright antagonism is a question the book answers. Dravidian or Tamil nationalism was an ideology in South India created by self-styled language purists to defend Tamil and Tamils from being dominated by languages like Sanskrit and Hindi. The “complex dynamic of Sanskrit-in-Tamil and Tamil-in-Sanskrit” that was a structural feature of Tamil’s linguistic evolution was ruptured as a corollary of the anti-Brahminism movement in South India. As Brahmins were vilified for their position at the apex at the top of the caste hierarchy and privileged role in the machinery of the British Raj, they were also deemed “bearers of an alien, Sanskritic culture.” Stemming from anti-Brahminism, Dravidian nationalism, as an ideology in late colonial and postcolonial India was the “marriage of linguism with long-standing social and economic resentment.”

With great aplomb the book clinically dismantles the whole project of Tamil nationalism and questions its legacy. While the rediscovery of Sangam-period works in the 19th century was a trigger, Shulman also shows how “conceptual input” from orientalist scholarship in British India was fundamental to fossilizing the linguistic chauvinism of Tamil nationalism. The colonial bureaucracy, in accordance with imperial ‘divide and rule’ strategies, actively encouraged the artificial chasm between Sanskrit and Tamil just as it set Brahmin against non-Brahmin and kept the north and south at odds. Despite the presence of language specialists in the colonial bureaucracy, oriental scholarship conjured up narratives of a romanticized untainted primordial Tamil that antedated Sanskrit that they depicted as a foreign entity. The orientalising project misrepresented classical Tamil texts by vitiating the Sanskrit-Tamil symbiosis. We are reminded that linguism, like nationalism, “tends to flatten out the object it purports to celebrate.”

Sublime and riveting, Tamil: A Biography proves that good linguistic and intellectual history can be written without resorting to either esotericism or jargonism. Moreover, when seamed by cultural history to showcase the emergence of the science of language concomitant with cultural expression enriches both streams. Casual readers would find the philology palatable because most of the spadework to compact and elucidate the material has been done for them. Presciently, the book warns us that insularity and provincialism are relatively recent developments and that throughout history all languages have developed in interaction with others. The heights of cultural achievements have come from synergy and symbiosis, not isolation and retreat. The book will unsettle even the most obdurate Tamil language chauvinists and that is a testament to Shulman’s meticulous research and persuasive argumentation.

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