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50 years of Sri Lankan Tamil literature


50 years of Sri Lankan Tamil literature

Karthigesu Sivathamby, Professor Emeritus, University of Jaffna.

(This article appeared in TAMIL CIRCLE magazine)


Since the ethnic riots of 1983, the pattern of life has changed in the Tamil-majority northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka and these changes have inevitably been reflected in recent Sri Lankan Tamil literature.

BY the close of the 1940s, when Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) became an independent nation (1948), Sri Lankan Tamil literature was 600 years old in terms of the first literary work known (Sarasothi Malai, an astrological work). However, in terms of the first known Sri Lankan Tamil poet (Eelattu Poothanthevanar) this literature is as old as Sangam poetry. Poothanthevanar's poems are found in the Sangam anthologies (100 B.C.- A.D. 250).

By the time we come to the mid-20th century, Sri Lankan Tamil literature had already experienced the kingdom of Jaffna (14th to 16th century), and the Portuguese and the Dutch periods (1520-1796) and brought out its own responses to them.

The British period saw the literary activities of
(a) Arumuga Navalar (1822-1879), the Saiva Tamil protagonist who outdid Christians by employing their strategies (tracts, prose versions of old texts in verse, school texts) to fight back what he called Christian intrusions, and of
(b) Sidee Lebbe who firmly established the Islamic identity of the Sri Lankan Moors in the 1880s. The period of joint missionary activities (by the Anglican Mission, the American Mission and the Methodist Mission) which saw the spread of education and the extension and expansion of translation activities was over by the close of the 19th century; and Sri Lankan Tamil literature, with the addition of Upcountry Tamil literature (the literature of the Tamils of the plantations), was now on the road to modernity.

By the 1940s, daily newspapers had already been started (Eelakesari and Virakesari in 1930 and Thinakaran in 1932) and journals committed to the growth of modernistic, socially purposive literature (Bharati and Marumalarchi in 1946) had also started coming out.

At the time of the country's independence, Sri Lankan Tamil literature was a valued part of the overall Tamil literary tradition, enjoying much respect in Tamil Nadu and in the Federated Malay States (which had a substantial Tamil population).

Some of the significant characteristics of Sri Lankan Tamil were by this time easily distinguishable. They were:
1. dichotomous development of religio-literary traditions (Saiva-Tamil, Christian-Tamil literature and Islamic-Tamil literature) and secular literary developments, each enjoying popularity at its own level;
2. Muslims enjoying an ethnic identity that was separate from that of Tamils; and
3. a sense of region-consciousness. Although Sri Lanka is geographically small, one could identify nine Tamil sub-cultural regions - Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Vanni, Jaffna, Mannar, the North-West districts, Colombo, the Southern districts and Upcountry. Each region has its own specificity. The influence of Jaffna was hegemonic until independence.

By the 1950s, two trends began to surface, one denoting the emergence of a Tamil consciousness all over the island in response to the emerging Sinhala nationalism, and the other a Marxist-inspired literary movement which was nationalistic and at the same time was opposed to social oppression and deprivation. The former expressed itself largely in terms of the Dravidian ideology and of the poetry of Bharathidasan, which were then very much in vogue in Tamil Nadu. But it was the latter trend of opposition to social oppression and deprivation, led by the Progressive Writers' Association, that created an unprecedented literary impact.

This movement brought about a certain togetherness among the emerging young writers of the various regions, especially the Upcountry region and the Southern districts (Muslim writers), and it was forging ahead as a truly Sri Lankan Tamil literary movement with the writers from the North and the East playing an important role. Equally important was the writing this movement triggered against social exploitation and the caste system in the North. For the first time in Tamil literature, the victims of social oppression wrote about their sufferings, their humiliations and deprivations. Tamil Nadu had to wait till the 1990s for Dalits to write about themselves. In fact, K. Daniel, the eminent novelist who wrote Panjamar, is considered the forerunner of Dalit writing.

This movement had the benefit of the services of literary critics in providing a theoretical orientation and literary legitimacy to the content and mode of writing. This new writing of the late 1950s and the early 1960s was nurtured well by Thinakaran, with K. Kailasapathy as its editor (1958-1962).

The impact was electrifying. In a culture where literature had been the handmaid of social conservatism, it soon led to bitter polemics in defining the role of tradition and the social function of literature. A debate ensued, and the progressives (this writer was involved in it deeply) and the punditry were locked in a bitter controversy. This, of course, was in the arena of polemics. But its social reverberations were far-reaching. Almost all, from people in the academia to the average member of the reading public, were involved. But in the field of creative writing there was another confrontation. Progressive writing was condemned by some persons as too doctrinaire, and by some others as unaesthetic too. The progressives insisted on the message. Realism as a literary strategy was very much a debating point.

Of the counter-positions expounded and argued effectively, the most important was that of M. Thalayasingham, a socio-literary activist. He argued that one has to take cognizance of a dimension beyond Marxism, and spoke of a sense of spiritualism as essential to literature. He did not deny the validity of Marxism but argued for a spiritualism that lies beyond Marxism. Looking back, it was his perception about the emerging political trauma that is significant.

The period from the mid-1950s to the end of the 1960s with its literary debates and creative efflorescence marks an important phase in the development of modern Sri Lankan Tamil literature.

In poetry, the chief figures were Murugaiyan, Mahakavi, Neelavanan and Puratchikkamal, with the younger poets such as M.A. Nuhman, Shanmugam Sivalingam, Maruthoorkkani and Jeyapalan (coming in slightly later) making effective contributions. One could see the efforts of the stalwarts of New Poetry getting recognition by the late 1960s. Murugaiyan wrote highly intellectual poems. Mahakavi, on the other hand, was emotive using subtle but loaded imagery. Poetry was a very lively art during this period, especially because of the kavi arangus in which poets read out their poems. There was Sillaiyoor Selvarajan, a master rhetorician whose instant verses were very attractive comments on politics as well.

In fiction, this was a period of a good harvest. One could say with confidence that it was during this period that typically Sri Lanka Tamil fiction, with the smell of the terrain, was being produced and recognised as such in Tamil Nadu. Varadar, Daniel, Dominic Jeeva, Raghunathan, Kavalur Rajathurai, Se. Ganesalingan, S. Ponnudurai, K.V. Nadarajan, Nanthi, N.S.M. Ramiah, Telliwatte Joseph, Dickwella Kamal, Senkai Azhian, Sembian Selvan, Muttulingam and Bhavani Alvapillai are a few of the names that cannot be missed in any critical evaluation of that period. Understandably, it was the short fiction that provided the creative matrix for most of these writers. A substantial number of these writers came from the Dalit group. But one should not forget the role played by writers such as Ganesalingan, who exposed the social rigours of Jaffna feudalism.

By the early 1970s, some of these writers had graduated to full-fledged novel-writing, chief among them being Ganesalingan, Daniel, Ilankeeran, Nanthi, Senkai Azhian and Se. Yoganathan. Ilankeeran and Ganesalingan were the early novelists of the progressive movement.

By the 1970s, with the ideological controversies yet raging but not with as much sharpness as earlier, there came into the scene a second generation of writers in both the progressive and the non- and anti-progressive fronts, who were able to make a rich contribution to the growing corpus of Sri Lankan Tamil poetry. Among the poets of the 1970s one could notice Puthuvai Rathnadurai, Sivasegaram, Mu. Ponnambalam and Vilvaratnam as highly articulate, and among fiction writers Santhan, Theniyan and Sattanathan and the late Kathirgamanathan emerge as major writers of this phase. Social change, which was the burning problem of the day earlier, had now become an accepted social reality, and these writers concentrated more on the characters (and the humanity that underlies), while for earlier writers social acts and the incidents of oppression were more important.

Dominic Jeeva's Mallikai was the chief forum for the publication of progressive writing and the role of Jesurajah's Alai in bringing out other writings was significant.

In the 1970s, contemporary Sri Lankan Tamil literature was part of the educational curriculum at the university entrance level, and this paved the way for the participation of teachers and students in the literary debates of the day. Writers became important social figures.

In the mid-1970s, conditions began to change. From about 1974 the political atmosphere became highly charged. With extra-parliamentary strategies gaining ground (and with the corresponding decline of Parliament as a forum for political debate), politics was becoming increasingly activistic. State intervention increased and militancy began to appear among the youth. With these changes, literature ceased to be open, and there was more unsaid than said. The regular media - newspapers and the radio - did not function in an open manner and thus the range of writing was restrained.

By the beginning of the 1980s there was a dramatic collapse (the 1983 ethnic riots). From 1984 uncertainty and gloom spread to the North and East and the pattern of life changed. In this situation the role of literature began to assume importance. It was an important medium of expression but could not be practised as openly as needed and desired.

Poetry, understandably, was the first to record these new changes and experiences. An anthology of poems edited by Nuhman, Cheran and Jesurajah was titled Maranathul Valvom (We Live Amidst Death), 1984, and it summed up the emotional climate of these areas. Living amidst death had become the order of the day. Nuhman's translation of Palestinian poets opened up a new vista to young Sri Lankan readers. It was Cheran, the son of Mahakavi, a new arrival of the 1980s, who recorded with authenticity and sincerity the changed feelings and emotions. His anthologies, Erandavathu Sooriya Uthayam (The Second Sunrise) and Yaman, though slender in size, left a deep impression. On the burning of the Public Library, he wrote:

What took place?
My city was set on fire
My people became faceless.
On my land, my breeze
on all the estampage of the Alien.
With your arms inter-locked behind
your back
for whom were you waiting?
Fire has writ large its message
indelibly on the clouds.

A new era in Sri Lankan Tamil literary sensitivity and expression had dawned.

FIFTEEN long years have now passed, and looking at the period, one could see some contours emerging. The period could now be seen in slots - 1984-1988, 1988-1990, 1990-1995 and 1996 onwards. Throughout this entire period, poetry has remained the dominant form. Cheran, Puthuvai Rathnadurai, Vijayendran and Jeyapalan are important names. Agonies and aspirations, and pathos and anxieties are inscribed with great sensitivity.

Here one should not fail to notice the differences in the experiences and sufferings of the different regions. The Batticaloa experience was very different from that of Jaffna and Vanni, and Solaikkili has recorded it in his poems in unforgettable terms. His weird language and surrealist images are haunting.

Another major upheaval in the poetic experience was the Muslim-Tamil clashes in the East and the uprooting of Muslims from the North. These experiences have given rise to heart-rending poetry. Muslim poets such as Vedanti have written brilliant poems. Today there is a galaxy of young Muslim poets writing with conviction. Of the younger poets who were able to register their arrival in the 1990s, Natchathiran Sevvinthiyan, N. Atma, Deva Abira and Aswagosh are notable.

Fiction, being by nature more analytical than poetry, took some time to find its expressiveness. All the torment of living in war-torn environs, and the agony that characterises human relations in such uprooted, disjointed situations, are brought out well in the short stories of Ranjakumar, Uma Varadarasan and Tirukkovilur Kaviyuvan. The intensity and the depth of suffering, its unprecedentedness, must be read to be believed. Ranjakumar's Kosalai (the mother of Rama in Ramayana) is a brilliant portrayal of the hapless mothers whose sons run away from home. Kaviyuvan's stories reveal how social institutions such as the family have been ripped apart. S.L.M. Haniffa has written some brilliant short fiction during this period depicting the changes among Muslims.

Much of these writings are not freely available and even if available, cannot be discussed openly. Even a brief perusal will reveal how life has changed and suffering has become all-pervasive.

The most important outcome of the post-1983 period is the emergence of an expatriate branch of Tamil literature. Sri Lankan Tamil refugees now living in France, Germany, Britain, the Scandinavian countries, Canada and Australia keep alive their identity and hope for a return through their writings in Tamil published in various little journals coming from these countries. Some of these writers have proved their worth. One could detect an emerging trend in their current writing. Along with their longing for their homes and villages, they are now beginning to speak about the problems they face in integrating with the societies they live in. Colour problems loom large. In poetry, we find new symbols and images, new to Tamil expression but rooted in the Western tradition. Pine trees and snowfalls are no more alien to the Tamil poetic landscape. Jeyapalan, Vijayendran and Aravinthan are important among the expatriate poets. Karunakara Moorthy and Partipan are notable fiction writers.

Feminist writing has come to stay. There is more of feminist and gyno-criticism than real creative feminist writing. Even here poetry has done better than fiction. There has been some significant feminist writing coming from the theatres of war.

The socio-political experiences Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims have undergone have no parallel in the Tamil experience in other countries; nor were such experiences there in the past. Thus this literary corpus, especially since the 1980s, is unparalleled in terms of the experience it has recorded and the genuineness and sincerity with which it has been produced.

The role of Sarinihar, an alternative journal, has been laudable. Besides providing space for much of contemporary Sri Lankan Tamil literature, it also serves as a mediating point between the local and the expatriate writers. It is also a forum for criticism.

In criticism it should be admitted that the literary theories of the post-1960s have had no major impact. The lively debates on post-structuralism and post-modernism characteristic of literary criticism in Tamil Nadu are absent here. Nonetheless the need for "fresh readings" and reappraisals is being argued with fervour.

A theatrical upsurge since the late 1970s has brought about a rich theatrical culture, especially in the North, and there are now some eminent playwrights. They stand shoulder to shoulder with Professor Kanapathipillai of the 1940s and 1950s. Shanmugalingam's theatrical writings constitute another artistic diagnosis of the ethnic war. Children's theatre and educational theatre too have done well. Murugaiyan and Mahakavi had in the 1960s and the early 1970s written commendable verse dramas.

In fact, theatre was able to do what literature (publications) was unable to do during the last quarter of this century. To go into it would be to enter another sphere; and this has to be done separately.



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