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Dr Radhika Jaidev

References to nature and physical landscapes in Sangam literature

Premalatha (1985) informs us that there were several works of literature that combine music and dance in the pre-Christian era, the most important of which is known as Isainunukam, which roughly translated means, the subtleties or intricacies of music.

Premalatha (1985) surmises that Isainunukam is likely to have dealt with the science of music because the work itself is lost. Thus, we can only speculate that similar works such as Mudunarai Perungkurrugu (Seyirriyam, Pirisai) and Sirisai must have dealt with “great or major modes and lesser or minor modes in music and the minute as well as precise divisions of musical scale” through the reference made to them and their contents in later anthologies (Premalatha, 1985 p. 88).

The earliest available Tamil classical works with references to music are the literary works of the Sangam period. Among them, two important works were the Ettutogai, a collection of eight anthologies and the Pathupattu or an anthology of ten poems. The Ettutogai as the name itself suggests (‘Ettu’ meaning eight) comprised eight anthologies They were Natrinai, Kurunthogai, Ainkurunooru, Kaliththogai, Aganaanooru, Padhitruppaththu and Puranaanooru. A point to note is that the poems in these anthologies were not all composed at the same time and there is no known record to show how far apart in time they were composed. What has been documented, however, is that they were compiled into anthologies much later, based on their common themes or thinai.

A thinai roughly translates as an overarching theme or ‘poetic landscape’ that depicts a specific time, place and season in which the poem is set. The background elements are characteristic of that landscape including the flora, fauna, inhabitants, deities and social organization. Classical poets broadly categorized two types of thinai, namely, Akam thinai (that which depicted the inner self, love, feelings, emotions) and Puram thinai (that which dealt with war, heroism, philosophy and morals). Consequently, Akam thinai was associated with love poetry, relationships or specific stages in the development of a relationship while Puram thinai described war, different stages of battle or particular patterns of thought. Later literarians superimposed both themes to produce akappuram poetry that contained mixed elements of akam and puram poetry, and then purappuram, which contained peripheral puram themes. Here is an example of a Kurunthogai, verse 40 by Sempulapeyaneerar. The poet’s name itself refers to red soil and pouring rain, a possible reflection of the weather conditions and landscape of the area he hailed from and these references are also present in the poem itself .

The pervasive influence of nature in several of these literary works can also be seen in the Tolkapiyam. The Tolkapiyam is not only the earliest comprehensive text on the Tamil grammatical system, it is also the earliest known authority on ancient Tamil civilization, culture and most of ancient Tamil music system (Premalatha, 1985). It is from the Tolkapiyam that we know that the southern part of the country was divided into four main regions or distinctive physical landscape, vegetation and crops. These were mullai or the pastoral region, kurinchi  or region of hilly terrain, marutham  or arable lands and coastal belts or neithal To these was added, much later, a fifth description of landscape, namely, wasteland, arid land or palai .

Each of these regions had its own presiding deities, diet- possibly a consequence of what was easily attainable as food, occupations, percussion instruments, music as well as flora and fauna. These aspects were the key elements that contributed to the unique and characteristic culture of the people residing in each of these regions and they shaped their lives, occupations, lifestyles, thoughts and imagination which were, in turn, depicted in their music and dance. Thus the literature and poetry of that period captured and depicted all of these aspects in what has been referred to as thinai or poetic themes that were thick with descriptions of the environment activities, emotions, societal practices and many other aspects of the time. There are references to seven thinai in all, five of which are geographical and associated with specific landscapes, and two of which are nongeographical and not associated with any specific landscape. As stated earlier, four of the geographical landscapes which occur naturally in the South are kurinchi referring to mountainous regions and symbolically associated with union; mullai refers to forests which, in turn, is associated with waiting; marudam refers to cropland symbolically associated with quarreling; neithal (also spelt as neidhal) refers to seashore associated with pining. The fifth – palai, or arid land, is associated with separation and it is documented in the Tolkappiyam as not being a naturally existing landscape.

From these basic associations of landscape and subject, a wide range of themes suitable for each landscape were derived. Thus, for example, the Iraiyanar Akapporul, an extensive early medieval discourse or treatise in the Akam tradition of love poems in Tamil literature, states that as a result of the association of the kurinchi landscape with union, it was also associated with the fear of separation, reassurance, the hero’s or heroine’s discussions with their friends, their being teased or taunted by their friends, their replies to their friends, the friends’ role as the intermediary, the meeting of the lovers, grief and doubt, and other similar themes (Jeyalakshmi, 2003) According to the Tamilneri vilakkam, a 9th-century text on poetry, the love themes described by the five thinai or poetic landscapes constitute “the Tamil way of life” or “the Tamil way of love”

linked to the geographical and physical landscapes of the country, there were two other categories of literature approximately from the same period which were known for their themes of kaikilai and perunthinai. By contrast, these two non-geographical thinai or themes dealt with emotions that were non-conforming, and therefore were not associated with any specific landscape. Kaikkilai, dealt with unreciprocated or onesided love, while perunthinai, dealt with ‘improper’ love or love against the rules of custom (Premalatha, 1985).

(to be continued)

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