History of Tamil Literature

The oldest of the Dravidian languages is  Tamil.  Tamil literature has had unbroken development over twenty centuries. Dating ancient Tamil literature is, however, a problem. Most scholars agree that Tolkappiyam is the earliest extant Tamil grammar and literary work, as some of its archaic structures and considerations of stylistics place it earlier than what has come to be called Sangam literature. So it would be reasonable to accept its date as somewhere round 3rd century B.C. But some scholars place it as late as 4th or 5th century A.D. This work may be called the fountainhead of all literary conventions in Tamil literature. The influence of Sanskrit on it was peripheral. Tolkappiyar who wrote it is supposed to have been a disciple of Rishi Agastya, the purported author of the Agattiyum a magnum opus and grammar of letters—which, however, exists only in small pieces quoted by medieval commentators.

The earliest known phase of Tamil literature is termed Sangam literature-because the anthologies of odes, lyrics and idylls which form the major part of that literature were composed at a time when the Pandyan kings of Madurai maintained in their court a body of eminent poets who unofficially functioned as a board of literary critics and censors, and this association of scholars was called `sangam’ by later poets. The Sangam anthologies are in two parts—the Aham (dealing with love) and Puram (dealing with war). Much of the earlier work is lost but the Sangam literature is generally dated between 300 BC and 200 AD. The anthologies that were made in about 4th century AD to preserve existing works are the Ten Idylls (Patirruppattu) and the Eight Anthologies (Ettuthogai).

Thiruvalluvar’s Thirukkural, accepted as a work of great importance, has drawn from the Dharmasastra, the Arthasastra and the Kamasutra and is written in a masterful style. The chapters deal with virtue, wealth and pleasure. The Naladiyar is an anthology in the venba metre. The Patamoli by Munurai Araiyar adopts the novel method of exemplifying morals by proverbs.

The epics Silappadikaram by Ilango Adigal and manimekalai by Sattanar belong to the early centuries of the Christian era. There are three more epics written later in the series-Jivakachintamani (by a Jain author), Valayapati and Kundalakesi, out of which the last two are lost.

The end of the Sangam age saw the advent of devotional poetry, Saiva and Vaishnava. The Saivo hymnologist Tirujnanasambandar wrote several Tevaram hymns. The other Saiva Nayanars are Thirunanukkarasar, Sundarar and Manikkavachakar (who wrote Thiuruvachakam). The Alvars were of the Vaishnava tradition, the most famous of them being Nammalvar (Tiruvaymoli) and Andal (Thiruppavai). The Vaishnava poets work is called the Divya Prabandha.

Ottakuttan was the poet-laureate of the Chola court. The village of Kuttanur in Thanjavur district is dedicated to this poet. Kamban rendered the Ramayana in Tamil. He called it Ramanataka. Not a mere translation by any means, it is a celebrated work on its own with original touches in plot, construction and characterization.

After the Cholas and Pandyas the literature in Tamil showed a decline. But in the fifteenth century Arunagirinathar composed the famous Tiruppugazh. Vaishnava scholars of this period wrote elaborate com­mentaries on religious texts; personalities like Vedanta Desikar, Manavala Mahamuni, and Pillai Lokacharya were patronised by the discerning Tirumala Nayaka of Madurai. Brilliant commentaries were written on the Tolkappiyam and the Kural.

Christian and Islamic influences on Tamil literature are to be perceived in the 18th century. Umaruppulavar wrote a life of Prophet Mohammad in verse, Sirappuranam. Christian missionaries like Father Beschi introduced modern prose as a form of writing in Tamil. His Tembavani is an epic on the life of St. Joseph. His Aviveka Guru Kathai may be called the forerunner of the short story in Tamil. Vedanayagam Pillai and Krishna Pillai are two Christian poets in Tamil. Other works of note in this period were Rajappa Kavirayar’s Kuttala-tala-puranam and Kutrala-kuravanchi, and Sivajnana Munivar’s Mapadiyam, a commentary on the Siva-jnana-Bodam. R. Caldwell and G.M. Pope did much to project Tamil to the world at large through English studies and translations of Tamil classics. Vedanayakam Pillai’s Pratapa Mudaliyar Charitram was the first novel in Tamil.

In the 20th century Tamil has made immense progress. Subramania Bharati’s poems have inspired readers to national and patriotic feelings as he writes of personal freedom, national liberty and equality of human beings. There is a spiritual strength in his Kuyilpattu, Kannanpattu and the dramatic poem Panchali Sabadam. He got the title ‘Bharat’ of a literary contest. He also founded the daily India and worked for Swadeshamitran. Journalism achieved the heights of literature with V. Kalyana Sundara Mudalir and V.O. Chidambaram Pillai. The modern short story was pioneered by V.V.S. Iyer and well established in the writings of Pudumaippithan, C.R. Krishnamoorthy (‘kalki’) and M. Varadarajan. C. Rajagopalachari did much to reinterpret the classics in simple prose for the common people to understand.

The post-independence period has brought up several promising writers—Ka-Na Subramanyam, P.V. Akilandam (Jnanpith Award winner), Indira Parthasarathy, Neela Padmanabhan, Jayakanthan and others.