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A Century of Tamil Poetry in Sri Lanka

An introductory note by K. Kailasapathy, University of Ceylon, Jaffna Campus

[courtesy: James Thevathasan Rutnam Felicitation Volume, edited by Karthigesu Indrapala, Jaffna Archaeological Society, June 1975; released July 1980, pp.70-75.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of this poetry is its conscious break with the past – at least in the utilization of words if not in attitudes.

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

James T. Rutnam 1905-1988
James T. Rutnam 1905-1988

James Thevathasan Rutnam (1905-1988) was one of my mentors in journalism and Tamil historical studies, the two fields in which I became interested while being a science undergraduate at the University of Colombo in the early 1970s. Due to the rigid educational curriculum then prevalent at the universities of Sri Lanka, I could not follow any courses in social sciences or linguistics while being a science undergraduate. So, I turned to the writings of indigenous, independent scholars like Rutnam for self study. June 13th marks the 103rd birth anniversary of Rutnam and, to felicitate his memory, I have transcribed an essay on two eminent Eelam Tamil poets by Prof. K. Kailasapathy that appeared in the James Thevathasan Rutnam Felicitation Volume. Though this volume was released only in 1980, the essays and articles of the volume had been written in 1975, when Rutnam reached 70 years. I also provide a postscript at the end of the essay to place it in its socio-political context of that period. Please note that the spelling of names of persons, the words in italics and the words within parenthesis are retained as in the original, though alternate spelling of some names are more familiar now.

Professor Kailasapathy’s Essay

1972 saw the centenary of a little known poet of Jaffna ‘Turaiyappapillai’ who is better known and remembered as the founder of Mahajana College in Tellipalai. In the historical background of our recent past, Turaiyappapillai’s educational contribution came to be esteemed higher than his undoubted literary merit and achievements. Probably the man himself worked harder on his projects for the school than on his poems and plays – which he wrote with an ease and dextrousness that is considered ‘traditional’ by some self conscious modern poets. In fact Turaiyappapillai did turn out many songs for different occasions at the request of others. He did what behoves a person of his position – a learned man in a village to do – wrote all kinds of verses for every occasion – from addresses of welcome to elegies. All this Turaiyappapillai did, but he also wrote a few poems that were quite different – poems that were new to his audience.

T.A. Turaiyappapillai was born in 1872 and died in 1929. Although he had developed an interest in poetry rather early – in the 1880’s while he was a student at Jaffna College, his first book of poems appeared only at the beginning of this century (1901). In his preface to Kitaraca Mancari, a collection of lyrics, the poet wrote:

“The nature of my present work is such that I think no apology is needed for offering it to the public. I claim it to be unique, at least as far as Jaffna is concerned; for, without following the beaten track of composing lyrics on personal, religious or dramatic themes, which have had, at any rate, a portion of their share of attention at far worthier hands than mine and in spite of the thought that praising God is the noblest use to which the poetic genius of one can be put, my muse has preferred to sing on subjects of moral and general utility, the verses which can be used irrespective of creed. The poet then went on to say that his attention was drawn ‘to the great need there was in Jaffna for a number of lyrics of this kind; and on the subject of social and literary interest, treated in a liberal and progressive spirit’ and that there ‘was a new and appreciative audience in the modern educated Jaffna which wanted a poet of modern temperament, talents and views.’”

I have quoted this rather lengthy passage from his preface for the simple reason that it adumbrates a number of features that characterize modern Tamil poetry in Sri Lanka.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of this poetry is its conscious break with the past – at least in the utilization of words if not in attitudes. When Turaiyappapillai claimed his work ‘to be unique, at least as far as Jaffna is concerned,’ and to have been sung ‘without following the beaten track’, he was in effect proclaiming a manifesto of a new school of poetry. It is in that sense that his work marked a break in the tradition of Tamil poetry in Sri Lanka. (In passing it is worth mentioning that Turaiyappapillai was a contemporary of Subramania Bharathi, that great National Poet of India, and could be compared to him in certain respects. There are, in fact, quite a few features common to both the poets, especially in their patriotism and zeal for social reform.

It is for these reasons that I have chosen Turaiyappapillai as a landmark in considering modern Tamil poetry in Sri Lanka. The century beginning from his birth is a convenient and well rounded date to discuss the subject.

I mentioned the conscious break with the past which the poet attempted. There was also another aspect to this movement. It is generally well known that from about the 13th century onwards many literary works in Tamil were produced in Sri Lanka, especially in Jaffna, where several schools existed. Although we find in these works vague notions of the country in which they arose, namely Sri Lanka, and notwithstanding the fact that some of them were works of outstanding merit, and constitute part of our literary heritage, they were by and large imitations of works in South India. For, merely because they were written by Tamils who were in Sri Lanka, it does not follow that the works themselves portrayed or reflected the life and thoughts of the people in Sri Lanka. I do not specifically think of nationalism here, for this was a pre-Nationalist period in any case, but of the type of literature that had no particular concern with the historic sense, which in itself is a by-product of man’s place in time and conditioned by the here and now. Furthermore, the medieval works were inherently antithetical to individuality or originality. The immediate surroundings of the poets had no real significance. They had no need for them. A kind of strict adherence to certain themes and styles was all that was expected of the old authors. Poetry had ceased to be socially relevant or artistically experimental. It was almost entirely repetitive and derivative. Formulae had superseded true creativity.

It is in this context that Turaiyappapillai’s professed novelty or modernity assumes its real significance. One of his best works is the Suteca Kummi. Suteca means one’s own country and kummi is a poem composed in a metre adapted to the kummi dance – the dance performed with clapping of hands to time and singing, especially by girls. The kummi dance is, of course a universal and very popular folk dance all over the world under different names. It could even be called the basic folk dance giving ample scope for group participation. Now, almost all the poems composed in the kummi metre before Turaiyappapillai (both in South India and Sri Lanka) were religious in character and content. In using this traditional metre for an entirely new theme – the secular theme of nationalism and ardent patriotism – the poet was certainly being true to this credo of writing verses on ‘subjects of social and literary interest, treated in a liberal and progressive spirit.’

There were also other areas of revolt. He used the colloquial in his poems and plays with a boldness that was a rarity in his time. Looking back, one can see the important innovations made by the author of Suteca Kummi:

(1) To admit into the classical diction of poetry the language of day to day speech.

(2) To use old tunes and metres for new themes and content.

(3) To treat contemporary social and national problems in poetry and thus give it a utilitarian function.

(4) To consciously broaden the readership of poetry and to reach out to the people as a whole.

These were significant changes in the history of Tamil poetry, and it is increasingly becoming evident that Turaiyappapillai had played an important role in this transformation. And yet neither Turaiyappapillai nor even Navaliyur Comacuntara Pulavar who came after him really penetrated the life of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, as the modern poets, yet a while. Perhaps influenced by his English education and as a result of his deep involvement in the social demands of his time, Turaiyappapillai used the language of common speech, and folk metres and tunes to activate, what he called, ‘the educated classes’ of his time. Bur ironically enough, his preoccupation with contemporary themes on the one hand and his attempt to use traditional metres on the other, seem to have been at least in his case working in opposition and the poems failed to generate the kind of interest the author very much wished for.

Somasuthara Pulavar 1880-1953
Somasunthara Pulavar 1880-1953

The reasons for this failure are manifold and complicated, but one point may be mentioned in passing. The bulk of the readers of poetry at this time came from the middle class, and they were greatly influenced by revivalist sentiments and purist tendencies that were the mainsprings and hallmark of the language-oriented renaissance. As such they viewed with disdain the zealous attempts of Turaiyappapillai to introduce the spoken idiom into the hallowed diction of classical poetry. Whatever the reasons might have been, the fact remains that early attempts to modernize the language of poetry met with opposition and disinterest. This was a pity since it delayed the modern movement by a few years.

As a consequence, a reaction set in, and a more literary and semi-classical diction began to be cultivated, while the concern with social themes remained somewhat unchanged. This movement, if it could be called one, produced another major figure – Comacuntara Pulavar from Navaly in Manipay. Like Turaiyappapillai he too was bilingual – i.e. he knew English and Tamil (perhaps Sanskrit and Pali, too) and was quite sensitive to modern problems. Besides, he wrote most of his poems in the twenties and thirties of our century – a period that witnessed a more developed national awakening than that of Turaiyappapillai. It is said that Comacuntara Pulavar composed several thousand poems. He was no doubt prolific. But a very large portion of them were derivative and traditional. His main achievement was his capacity to capture the very soul of Jaffna in his verses. He was steeped in the village life of Jaffna and some of his best poems are vignettes of the daily life in that region, and with a real strength and honest simplicity of their own. His poems for children have a special place in our literature. And he was a pioneer in this branch. Such simple themes like the school holiday, or the scarecrow or a picnic were made into exquisite poetry by him and have remained some of the favourite songs of our children.

Back in the thirties, he had composed an original poem titled Ilankai-VaLam – ‘The Bounty of Lanka’. Here for the first time perhaps we get an integrated view and vision of a united Mother Lanka. Having been a school teacher and perhaps with his experience of taking children on picnics, Comacuntara Pulavar has written the poem in the form of a conducted tour of Sri Lanka. Almost all places of historical and tourist interest are described. His treatment of the Botanical Gardens has a charm that lingers in the mind. He says that Mother Earth had endowed this unique garden so that it would be a miniature world in itself showing all the flora in one place. This is a new born child, and the Mahaweli gently flows around it nourishing it with its water and breeze. It is true that several poets before Comacuntara Pulavar had sung of the Mahaweli and Kataragama in their works. Sinnatampi Pulavar, for instance, had in his Paralai Vinayakar PaLLu, a poem noted for its ‘classical finish and literary polish’ extolled the scenic beauty and grandeur of Sri Lanka. (The Pallu poem is considered one of the ninety-six varieties of early Tamil poetry. The poem abounds in dramatic situations, partly arising out of the conflicts between the two wives of the PaLLan. Although the poem has a set pattern as far as metre and matter are concerned, the characters hail from different places according to the inclinations of the poets. In the Nana PaLLu, for example, the man is from Jerusalem and the woman from Rome. Thus, the PaLLu poem had provided ample scope for the Tamil poets to describe Sri Lanka.) These poems depict the first phase of the evolution of Ceylonese Tamil literature. Needless to say they had many limitations and shortcomings. Although local scenery was incorporated into these poems, one cannot say that a single unmistakable type had emerged. Certainly the names did make a change. But the change was only in the outward appearance, in the attire and costume. The dominant spirit itself was the same as in the literature of South India. Besides, these poems did not treat the lives of individuals or groups in any concrete manner. For instance, although the name of a village in Jaffna was mentioned the peasant or landlord described in the poem was no different from his counterpart in South India. In other words the people were set types and had no particular relationship to the places mentioned. This was partly due to the nature of the literary forms themselves and partly the way in which these early authors viewed reality. The literary forms mentioned above were largely derivative and inspite of their apparent popularity and rusticity looked upon the epic and romance for sustenance.

But it was Comacuntara Pulavar who saw the whole country – not as a conglomeration of places – but through the life of its people. Although Comacuntara Pulavar did not possess the reformist zeal of Turaiyappapillai, he did have a humanist approach to life that often manifested itself in his poetry.

In the wake of Comacuntara Pulavar we have a number of poets, especially Nallatampi, Saravanapavan, Pulavarmani Periyatampi and Venthanar, who continued the political tradition of Turaiyappapillai. Periatampi Pillai’s Ilankai Mani Tirunatu ‘Glorious Mother Lanka’, written in the 30’s, was a clarion call to nationalism.

But the real breakthrough occurred in the mid-fifties when a band of young poets, notably Mahakavi, A.N. Kandasamy, R. Murugaiyan and Sillaiyur Selvarajan introduced into their poems the concept of social consciousness with a sense of urgency and passion which has since then remained the main trait in our poetry. This has also set our poets apart from their counterparts in South India whose social commitment is much less than that of our poets. (Besides, the predominance of the DMK in South India has diverted the concern of many a poet into racial myths and linguistic chauvinism resulting in puerile jingoism). But this idea of social commitment should not be over-emphasized. For the best of our modern poets Mahakavi and Kandasamy (both of whom have lamentably passed away) and Murugaiyan have a deep grounding in classical poetry. This has enabled them to experiment boldly with words and metres and search for a truly modern idiom appropriate to their expression. The fact that they were also exposed to modern poetry of the West, gives a new dimension to their works making their creations, in the words of a fellow critic, ‘provocative, wide-ranging, psychologically penetrating and technically skillful.’

In recent years some of the younger poets have popularized the recitation or presentation of their poems in public platforms commonly referred to as kavi-aranku, where several hundred people listen to the poems with rapt attention. Very often the poems are concerned with the burning issues of the day, both national and international. The most successful of these poets are able to communicate to the listeners involved ideas and intellectual concepts through words that are both contemporary and effective. S. Maunaguru, M.A. Nuhuman, V. Kantavanam, Puthuvai Ratnadurai and S. Jeyapalan may be mentioned in this respect.

Fortunately for contemporary Tamil poetry in Sri Lanka, some of the leading poets are also able critics and along with other literary scholars, a new school of literary criticism has been flourishing in the very recent past. Thus the creative process has become inseparable – as it should be – from the critical process which is its best guarantee. I began this note with Turaiyappapillai, who until recently was respectfully referred to as a pioneer in education. It was during the centenary celebrations that the critics revalued his poetry and other writings and established his reputation as a serious literary personality. The present writer himself has contributed towards this revaluation – a revaluation that has helped towards the understanding of our modern literary movement more clearly and in proper perspective. Here is proof of the active role played by critics in the growth and evaluation of modern Tamil poetry in Sri Lanka.


Postscript by Sachi Sri Kantha

In this essay, written in 1975, Kailasapathy introduced the literary contributions of Paavalar Thuraiyappa Pillai (1872-1929) and Navaly Somasundara Pulavar (1880-1953), to the non-Tamil audience. These two eminent poet-educators from Jaffna were contemporaries of Indian poets Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Subramanya Bharathi (1882-1921). For a proper evaluation of what Kailasapathy had included (and omitted!) in this essay and also for the tone of its contents, one has to level it with the political and cultural currents of 1975.

Dr. Kailasapathy held the post of President of Jaffna Campus in 1975. The Jaffna campus was opened on Oct.6, 1974 by the United Front government (consisting of SLFP, Trotskyist LSSP and Stalinist Communist Party) led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike, that had gained power in May 1970. Kailasapathy’s appointment was a political appointment and he had a tough act to perform. He had to play a pacifying ‘fire extinguisher’ role for an unpopular government among the Eelam Tamils. As such he tooted the tune of “integrated view and vision of a united Mother Lanka” in his literary expositions. In some occasions, he went overboard in his political commitment. Check the names of poets Kailasapathy had listed as “trend setters” in this essay. Those who subscribed to the political platform advocated by Kailasapathy were included. Puthuvai Ratnadurai emerged as the ‘court poet’ of the Pirabhakaran period. But notable omissions by Kailasapathy deserve mention. The names of Swami Vipulananda and Kasi Anandan – two outstanding poets from East Eelam – are missing! At the time when this essay was written, Kasi Anandan was the most popular poet among Eelam Tamils. But as an activist advocate of militant nationalism among the Tamils, his name was anathema to the then Sirimavo Bandaranaike government. Kailasapathy’s notable omission of Kasi Anandan’s name in this essay is jarring indeed. Kasi Anandan reached 70 years recently. His poetic contributions to the growth of Tamil nationalism as well as social satire remain overlooked and under-rated by Tamil academics who have held positions at the universities of Sri Lanka.