Appreciation of Tamil texts, a novice friendly ten-hour web series by the erudite professor S. Raghuraman, helped to demystify and reintroduce the beauty and relevance of iconic ancient Tamil texts. A thorough overview of 2500 years of Tamil legacy was split into the ages such as Sangam, Epic, Ethics, Medieval or Bhakti and Contemporary age until Subramania Bharati.
A welcome burst of positivity during lockdown led us down the proverbial rabbit hole, organised by Upasana Arts and supported by Arts Council UK. Appreciation of Tamil texts is a part of Upasana’s larger project Ojas, which takes pride in making cultural heritage more accessible along with a focus on reconnecting with your roots through holistic education and an enhanced understanding of Bharatanatyam practice and performance.
With the hope of spreading positivity to as many as possible, we reached out to the bustling dance fraternity including the networks of ABHAI and Prayathnam and within two days received more than 250 registrations from cities in India, such as Madurai, Coimbatore, Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai and Rajkot, and from countries across the globe from the US, UK, Europe, Singapore and Australia. As one can imagine, we had to overcome many initial technical hiccups from malfunctioning laptops to disconnected time zones, until we finally decided that all the recorded sessions would be rigorously edited and uploaded in Upasana Arts’ YouTube channel, to be disseminated to eager rasikas. To accommodate visual learners and support the nuanced teaching style, detailed notes were collated and circulated with questions being regularly clarified. Jayanthi Sivakumar, a participant from the UK observes, “It’s been a pleasure to hear the scholar S. Raghuraman share his expertise on ancient Tamil literature and its relation to dance. His explanation was clear, simple and easy to understand. All thanks to him for bridging the gap and reinstating the pride in our heritage.”
Feedback clearly suggested that given the complexity of the content, it was beneficial that recordings be available to replay multiple times, cross refer and loop back to different sessions. Participants who were keen to have live virtual face time with sir were invited across two different days to accommodate international time zones.
The professor’s innate style managed to simplify and deconstruct the most complicated content with beautifully illustrative examples and relatable citations across various artistic disciplines like music, dance, drama, cinema, and literature along with detailed historical, cultural, social, philosophical and psychological contexts. He patiently covered concepts with his wit as he often repeated himself with the knowing smile of an experienced teacher. Referring to his classes, vidushi S. Sowmya recounts, “Asking Sir a doubt was like asking a veteran to teach Sa Pa Sa!” His own personal academic rigour and eclectic interests helped frame our learning within a wider context, establishing and reiterating that Tamil was not only an ancient and comprehensive language system with technical rigour and maturity in all linguistic aspects like grammar, phonetics, prosody and poetics, but also that Tamil texts were a true fount of knowledge in subjects like literature, politics, geography, commerce, arts, science, sociology and psychology. An understanding of the Sangam texts such as Tolkappiam, Meipattiyal and Silappadikaram, reflects not only Tamil’s antiquity, butalso their relevance to this day.
It is impressive that a text like Tolkappiam from 7th century BC is so scientific, methodical and timeless that its syntax and grammar rules are followed to this day in linguistics. Tolkappiam is not only systematic and comprehensive but also unique in its insightful understanding. It expounds that every Sangam poem is based on the speaker, the listener, and the context, each leading to a nuanced narration and consequent reaction.
It is interesting that for a book on grammar, it even includes a seminal chapter on human emotions and rasa theory, Meipattiyal. Sringaram alone is detailed as an independent chapter with four types and is further segmented as ‘kalaviyal’—love before marriage, and ‘karpial’—love after marriage, with each having a possibility of twelve stages.
The depth of Sangam texts reflects how arts, ideology and society, were far beyond the reaches of present understanding. For instance, the Koothanool by Sattanar (Tolkappiar’s contemporary) uniquely defines emotions based on the gunas—rajas, tamas and satvik. The Panchamarabu from the 5th century CE speaks of: aan kai: male hand (gestures); penn kai: female hand; pothu kai: neutral hand; and alli kai: eunuch hand.
Literatures like Silappadikaram are classic ethnographic records of Tamil Nadu, a window into the wider socio-political-economic context of the first century, along with its flora and fauna. Silappadikaram’s third chapter of Pugar canto, Arangetru Kathai, and Achiar Kuravai from Madurai canto, are seminal texts in the traditional Dravidian dance and music system respectively, and to this day inspire engagement, research and study.
An interesting session on music in Silappadikaram brought together the husband-wife expert duo of Vanathi and S. Raghuraman in exploring vidwan S. Ramanathan’s research. Additionally, the dancers— Anjana Anand shared her firsthand experience of translating the Silappadikaram, and Sreelatha Vinod shared her experience of working with Sir as mentor to perform Silappadikaram for Natyarangam’s Kavya Bharatham festival in 2003 at Narada Gana Sabha in Chennai.
Curious about legacy and heritage, even as early as 5th century CE, the bhakti movement established autonomous research institutions called ‘ghatika’ in Kanchipuram with the primary purpose of collating past literature and publishing a commentary to make it accessible. Their rigorous, deep-rooted and advanced research methodology led to the discovery, collection and codification of Sangam texts and a commentary was written for Tolkappiam and Silappadikaram after 1000 years. This is an artistic legacy to be acknowledged and be proud of.
This project undertaken by Upasana Arts brought together a discerning group and a benevolent teacher to revel in the pure joy of learning.
(Bharatanatyam dancer, teacher and Artistic