Articulating the Tamil Modern: Debates in Tamil Literary Criticism
Panel:‘Vernacular’ Theorisations of ‘Literature’ in Modern South Asia
This paper is a preliminary investigation of the debates that took place in the early decades of the twentieth century on the question of Tamil modernism. With the emergence of many short-lived little magazines in Tamil, there arose multiple and often opposing notions of what constituted a modernist aesthetic. In fact, these literary magazines were, like in many other Indian languages, the platform where these debates emerged and took place. From the 1930s to the 1970s and 80s (Manikkodi, Kachatathapara, Ezhuthu, Kanaiyazhi, Aaraichi, to name a few) there were at least five to six major literary journals that variously shaped the trajectory of Tamil modernism in its relationship to Tamil society and politics. This paper will confine itself to the initial efforts to found a field of Tamil literary criticism and its attempts to define the modern. What was remarkable about this initial phase was the attempt to negotiate with the weight of premodern Tamil prosody and a long history of Tamil poetic works, which were accompanied by elaborate commentaries. While the study of Tamil prosody and poetics had already been well established by the late nineteenth century, modern literary critics in the twentieth century drew from various strands of Sanskrit and Tamil classical texts and from European Romanticism to create aesthetic categories like rasa, dhwani, akam, puram, experience, taste, interiority etcetera to enable an ‘objective’ evaluation of modern Tamil literature. I shall focus here on the debates between K.N. Subramaniam, one of the most prolific Tamil literary critics, writers and translators and T.K. Rasikamani,a scholar of premodern Tamil and his literary disciples.