Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The love-poetry of ancient South India

Frankly, I am not very big on poems. But the ancient Sangam poetry of South India is simply amazing.

Why? Not because it is richly evocative of the beautiful South Indian landscape. And not because it is full of stunning metaphor.

To me Sangam poetry is amazing because it represents a truly secular ancient Indian literature. Frankly, I'm a little tired of hearing that Indian art is primarily religious. Sangam poetry is not! And it is a huge body of work.

These glorious poems, composed as early as 2500 years ago, freely speak of love and longing, of people and their motivations, of daily life, war, peace, shyness, beauty, desire, infidelity, anxiety, parting and sorrow ... it is universal poetry, that reaches out directly to every human. And yet it is so erudite! So well written! So in tune with nature, so beautiful and appealing. How rare, to find a jewel like this!

See this poem, for example, of a woman beset by doubt. Having given her body, she worries her lover may not be true to her:

What she said: 
No one was there but he,
                                the Thief.
If he denies it, what shall I do?
Only a heron was witness
                 its thin gold legs like millet stalks
                 it was eyeing the araal fish,
                 in the gliding water
on the day
he took me.

Stunning, no? You can almost see the riverside seduction, hear the soft water flowing, and picture the unconcerned bird, looking for prey.

Here is another one, this time by the woman's friend, who comforts her.

What the friend said:
Of course
he doesn't know how you pine for him.
Your young lover from the mountains
             where the green stemmed bamboo grows,
             so springy that if you bend it back
             it flashes upward to touch the heavens
             as swift as a spirited horse
             when its tether is loosed.
he loves you too
your radiant beauty captivates him
and he frets like a bull calf
tied up in his stall
when the spring comes.

What wonderful words of comfort. You can picture the young lover, impatient, chafing (perhaps work keeps him away?). You can visualize the hilly forest land from where he comes. And look how beautifully the poem uses the flexible and strong green bamboo as a metaphor for the virile young lover!

Sangam war-poetry is no less beautiful than its love-songs. Pride and beauty, strength and glory, tragedy and futility, all of it is expressed in these poems. See this one, for example - it is a song of lament on the death of a chieftain:

On the death of Anci, the bard lamented thus:
If he found a little liquor,
he would give it to us.

If he had more,
he would drink happily
while we sang.
Where is he now?

If he had even a little rice,
he shared it
in many plates.
Where is he now?

He gave us
all the flesh
on the bones.
Where is he now?

Wherever spear and arrow flew,
he was there.
Where is he now?

With his palms scented
with lemon grass,
he caressed my hair
smelling of meat.
Where is he now?

The spear that pierced his chest
pierced at once
the wide eating bowls
of great and famous minstrels,
pierced many begging palms,

and, dimming the images in the eyes
of men he sheltered,
it went right through the subtle tongues
of poets
skilled in the search
for good words.

Where is he now,
father, mainstay,
Where is he now?

No more,
no singers any more
nor anyone to give anything
to singers.

As in the cold waters
jalap flowers blossom,
large, full of honey,
but die untouched, unworn,

there are many now living
without giving
one thing
to others.

If you have heard the weeping and lamenting of women in Tamil Nadu, you will no doubt see how closely this poem resembles reality. It gave me goosebumps, actually.

Sangam poetry is written in Tamil, but the "Tamilakam" area that the poetry refers to includes most of South India (Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh), Sri Lanka and the Lakshdweep islands. All the varied scenery of these lands feature in the poetry -  flowering mountains, lush waterfalls, forests with elephants and tigers, rivers, fertile fields and a bountiful coastline. In fact, the poetry itself is classified into "types" based on five broad types of  geographical divisions of the land.

1) the hills (kurinji) - the hills contains scenes of poems on pre-nupital love, the lover is often a man with a tall spear, from the mountain
2) the dry lands (palai) - these provide the backdrop to poems of separation and distress
3) the jungle and woodland (mullai) - poems which contain hunting expeditions, or describe the brief parting of lovers
4) the cultivated plains (marudam) - these contain scenes of post-nuptial love or the wiles of courtesans, and scenes of sieges
5) the coast (neydal) - scenes of pitched battle are described on the coast, and also there are poems with songs of fishermen's wives parted from their lords

Each region has its own appropriate flowers, animals and people; and so the poetry weaves all of those into the theme in a beautiful way. Every poem is classified thus, and that is what makes Sangam unique among world literature.

I said earlier that Sangam poetry is secular, not religious. That doesn't mean there are no references to Gods in the entire Sangam literature. The warriors pray to Lord Murugan, God with the spear (vel), guardian of the mountain tribes. But that is not an over-riding theme, blotting out other secular aspects.

I could go on and on, writing more about the Sangam period, it's landscape and its characteristics, but in these days of wiki and what not, I am sure you will find everything you need quite easily. If you want to read some poems online, this is a good link: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/hansens/Kuruntogai/Home.Html

Discovering the love-poems of South India has opened my eyes afresh to the beauty of the land, and the glory of its ancient people. I have been literally drowning in shringara rasa, to tell the truth. I hope you enjoy discovering Sangam literature as much I am doing now!