Tamil Oratory and the Dravidian Aesthetic

Tamil Oratory and the Dravidian Aesthetic: Democratic Practice in South India

Bernard Bate
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/bate14756
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  • Book Info
    Tamil Oratory and the Dravidian Aesthetic
    Book Description:

    This is a book about the newness of old things. It concerns an oratorical revolution, a transformation of oratorical style linked to larger transformations in society at large. It explores the aesthetics of Tamil oratory and its vital relationship to one of the key institutions of modern society: democracy. Therefore this book also bears on the centrality of language to the modern human condition.

    Though Tamil oratory is a relatively new practice in south India, the Dravidian (or Tamil nationalist) style employs archaic forms of Tamil that suggest an ancient mode of speech. Beginning with the advent of mass democratic politics in the 1940s, a new generation of politician adopted this style, known as "fine," or "beautiful Tamil" ( centamil), for its distinct literary virtuosity, poesy, and alluring evocation of a pure Tamil past.

    Bernard Bate explores the centamil phenomenon, arguing that the genre's spectacular literacy and use of ceremonial procession, urban political ritual, and posters, praise poetry are critical components in the production of a singularly Tamil mode of political modernity: a Dravidian neoclassicism. From his perspective, the centamil revolution and Dravidian neoclassicism suggest that modernity is not the mere successor of tradition but the production of tradition, and that this production is a primary modality of modernity, a new newness-albeit a newness of old things.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51940-3
    Subjects: Anthropology, History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures and Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  6. A NOTE ON TAMIL WORDS
    (pp. xxiii-2)
  7. INTRODUCTIONS
    (pp. 3-17)

    This book asks why democratic Tamil politicians speak in a way that strikes many as literary and ancient. They climb onto the speaking stages set up on the streets of cities, towns, and villages, and they speak in a proper, highly elaborate register of Tamil (centamil), a literary—or perhaps better, scriptural—language pervaded with archaic forms—lexically (i.e., in words), morphologically (in the meaningful elements of words), syntactically (in the arrangements of words), and poetically (in the meaningful organization of the messages themselves and in the deployment of tropes). As a scriptural register of Tamil, centamil contrasts with the...

  8. 1 THE DRAVIDIAN PROPER
    (pp. 18-37)

    On almost any night during my stays in Madurai (a city of approximately 1.2 million souls in the mid-1990s state of Tamilnadu) the sounds of “public” speaking could be heard; someone walking through the streets in the evenings invariably came across several platforms set up, or being set up, for speakers of one kind or another, political, literary, or religious. And there were times, during the election season of 1989, for instance, or during the series of three large political conferences that took place from August to October in 1994 (which will be described in chapter 4), when the cityscape...

  9. 2 THE KING’S RED TONGUE
    (pp. 38-67)

    We begin this chapter the Tamil way: with poetry. The following poem was written during the Sangam period of the Tamil academies (sangam), ca. first–third centuries C.E.:

    Pari! Pari! so many

    red-tongued poets praise

    this king of singular excellence

    But not just Pari:

    Don’t the rains, too,

    play some part

    in protecting the world around here?

    (KAPILAR, PURANANURU 107)

    The word for “red” (cen) in “red-tongued poets” (cennapulavar) could just as easily be translated as “fine,” “cultivated,” “good,” “skillful,” “beautiful,” or even, as George Hart and Hank Heifetz have translated it (2000:73), “eloquent.” It is the same root as...

  10. 3 WALKING UTOPIA
    (pp. 68-96)

    Democratic meetings and processions are some of the most important events of South Indian urban life. They are equaled, and occasionally surpassed, only by the largest temple festivals celebrating the greatest deities. The sounds of the political meeting compete on many evenings with those of temple festivals: recorded bhakti or cinema music; live folksingers who make the circuit around the state representing the “folk” to urban and rural audiences; or schoolteachers and college professors debating aspects of contemporary social life with references to the classics of the Tamil literary canon. The Madurai soundscape, fading softer and more distant, growing louder...

  11. 4 ON LIFE, MOONLIGHT, AND JASMINE
    (pp. 97-117)

    And so we have seen that praise is not merely praise, but an indexical icon, an emblem—of antiquity and of cultural authenticity—and an embodiment of Tamilness deployed in political discourse as an integral element of political legitimacy. As we will see in this and the following chapters, the panegyric can wax somewhat florid: “O, Full-moon,” “O, Jasmine Flower that spreads its essence,” “O, Child-like Tamil! O, Budding Moonlight!” Thus do some contemporary politicians of Tamilnadu hail their leaders on wall posters, on ceremonial arches erected to welcome them, and on the political stage itself in fervent, heartfelt oration....

  12. 5 BHAKTI AND THE LIMITS OF APOTHEOSIS
    (pp. 118-146)

    Though politicians will ridicule their opponents for engaging in what they describe as “hyperbole,” they will do so in the very same breath that praises their own leaders with equally, and even more, florid images. Posters plastering the walls and advertising hoardings of Madurai for Vai. Gopalswamy’s pilgrimage from Kannyakumari to Madras hailed him as “The Storm of Revolution,” “The Third Chapter” (of modern Dravidian politics),¹ and even “The Alexander of the South Lands.”

    Remarkable as these epithets are, political praise generated by the AIADMK represents the most extreme manifestation of this logic. The poem below was placed in a...

  13. 6 KAVITHA’S LOVE
    (pp. 147-163)

    The devotional practices described in this book—this bhakti, this love written large on the streets and walls of Madurai, in newspapers and in epic dramas—is of course not subjectless, authorless, bhaktar-less. It is also not mere sycophancy, as one level of analysis and much popular discussion of these things in Tamilnadu might suggest. Rather, people with genuine emotional stakes in their leaders produce this material, call their leaders “Mother” and “Family Deity”; most important, they believe it. The leader enters the bhaktar’s dreams at night, protects her in times of trouble, offers hope to her on a personal...

  14. 7 SPEECH IN THE KALI YUGAM
    (pp. 164-182)

    I’ve argued in this book that with the advent of mass democratic politics in Tamilnadu, a new mode of oratory emerged in political communication. Spoken primarily by elite, literate leaders to an illiterate electorate, this new mode of political oratory is marked by a form of Tamil modeled on the written word called “beautiful Tamil” (centamil), in contrast to the language of “everyday life” (nadaimuraitamil), “bent,” or “vulgar” Tamil (koduntamil, kochaitamil). What most people speak at home and on the streets, with family and friends, is called “vulgar” (kochai), as opposed to what only the very privileged few have mastered...

  15. AFTERWORD: DRAVIDIAN NEOCLASSICISM
    (pp. 183-186)

    This work has discussed how a particular form of language, “fine” or “beautiful” centamil, was deployed in political oratory during the postcolonial era of democratic politics in Tamilnadu, India. What we have called the centamil revolution embodied a “proper” distinction between leaders and the people, a political distinction between the DMK and the Congress Party, and a civilizational distinction between the Dravidian and the Indo-Aryan civilizations. A new, archaic, feminized, literary, and therefore “proper” mode of speech was markedly different from the ordinary speech of people in their everyday lives. It was distinguished from the plain speech of a previous...

  16. NOTES
    (pp. 187-198)
  17. Appendix: KAVITHA’S SPEECH
    (pp. 199-234)
  18. GLOSSARY
    (pp. 235-238)
  19. REFERENCES
    (pp. 239-252)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 253-263)