Master Valluvan, the long-misunderstood Tamil Mentor

Master Valluvan, the long-misunderstood Tamil Mentor

by T. Wignesan

“The Kurral owes much of its popularity to its exquisite poetic form. A kurral is a couplet containing a complete and striking idea expressed in a refined and intricate metre. No translation can convey an idea of its charming effect. […] The brevity rendered necessary by the form [composed in the Venpa metre] gives an oracular effect to the utterances of the great Tamil ‘Master of the sentences.’ They are the choicest of moral epigrams. […] Tiruvalluvar is generally very simple, and his commentators very profound.”
                         Rev. G.U. Pope, Former Fellow of Madras University

[Pardon these futile measly words from your great Potiya height: they can hardly belittle your true worth.]

Under what leaky hutment roof by stamped-mud floors
trembling clair-oscuro straw-wick kuttuvilakku
on the stark anvil of crisp phrase and sparse syntax
by the raging nama-nir rhyming brine
at Mayilapur’s S.Thomé sandy doors
while peacocks danced to your innate pulsating chimes
have you chipped away at uncut gems

Those the Yavanas brought with the monsoons
or such as your sea-daring captain friend Elela-Cinkan’s
Even those the Christian missionaries preached
            in daredevil enticement
after St.Thomas fell to a vel stuck in his bosom
                                                                         or of
those like you who were stamped underfoot

Caste in cast-iron strictures
Priest only to the proclaimer paraiyar drum-beaters
The warp and woof of intricately woven venpa verse
elevating your weaving clan to fresh artistic heights

in the humbled ways of your birth
on whose steps have you pitched your ears
whose wisdom have you had to pilfer
whose ways have you had to ape
whose mere thoughts have you then had to set aright
and remould into inextinguishable lines

Or had you tread the ahimsa path of gentle-foot Jains
Treading gently the earth for fear of loping boot pains

Seven alliterative blockbuster words struck so
they rhymed initially in juxta-positioning lineal parallels
                       pausing but in the fourth
to resume breath in the fifth
Leaving the interstitial morphemes in resonating ellipses

The economy of your parsing has wreaked havoc down the ages
                                 in all trans-explicatory tongues
Tough-minded men come from afar
with other gods to serve
and sacrifices to make in the name of their Lords
bent your versification to limp rhyme
                       and left meaning a hung pursuit
in the hands of plagiarists professors preachers
not knowing nor divining the reason for your craftsman’s
concatenation of weighted phonemes
advanced theories for your elastic pregnant mind
strung myriads of pages in exegeses
(much perhaps to your amusement now)
                               each staking a claim to posterity
the villainous hanging on your lips

In a time devoid of papered learning for the poor
When to be born a Sudra or Pariah was a sin
When masters were those top-heavy manically-mantric Brahmin    
Preying on the duped loyal sycophantic Vaishyas
wishing to earn karmic merit with their agricultural gain at their altar    
such servant-financers as they by legions now lay their souls down
as even the long-gone royally leisure-dispensing Kshaktriyas

how would he who sought the spread of knowledge
not seek to encapsulate learning in mnemonic couplets
         arranged according to rigid design
for those who could not count either

Ten fingers in the hand so
Ten the number of facets of a thought
        a subject
            a theme
even if theme subject thought were stretched too thin

Whether or not relations with the uncultured enamour
Do not seek to succour what should sour

What does it matter if you gain or lose inferiors
Who feather their own nests and leave you in a mess

Those who look to the benefit that accrues from friendship
And those who covet largesse are thick as thieves

Better be content to walk alone than surround yourself
With friends who’d ditch you like wild stallions in battle

It’s better to sever than solder vile ties
With the petty-minded who’d fail you in need

By far it’d serve you better to be snubbed by the wise
Than be warmed by the company of narrow-minded fools

It’s infinitely more useful to bear your enemies’ scorn
Than court raucous revellers who’d warm you up with guffaws

Friends who’d proffer help remonstrate and find fault
Might as well shun them with scarcely a farewell

Friends who please by word and yet act otherwise
Crop up as a rude shock even in dreams

Turn away from the friend who snuggles up in private
While he seeks to denounce you in a public place

            [Tirukkural, Chapter 82: “Evil Friendship”]

No-one contests your calligraphic diamond cutter’s skills
Nor your codifier rôle of existing customs beliefs
     of kingly comportment
         of the wife’s place
             of manner of securing friendships
                  of the obtention and dispensation of education
                       of the seductions in the dainty maiden’s coyness
Nor of your infinite wisdom of the times
Nor of your observation of the passing of life about you
Nor alas! of your inveterate nay obsessive need to pontificate
                in what is evident to even the half-baked


What mattered was to get the lesson through
even one in ten was well worth the while
if remembered by the unfortunate by birth
who never traversed the threshold of class and caste
who never even buckled exceeding numbers on their toes

To you the ten-by-tens by one-hundred-and-thirty
perhaps you planned a florilège
                                            in old age
by weeding out for posterity’s privileged classes
the few quoted over and over

katka kasatara karka karrapin
nitka atatkut taka

vilampu suttapun arum arate
navinal sutta vatu

and you might never have thought
the mighty today are like those trodden poor of your day
at least were shackled to ignorance by force by godly fear
a racially discriminating Overlord

now the privileged in blindness give you lip-service
                                                             and a lot of money
hoping by this gesture to earn your merit
not earn YOU merit
      and the society’s accolade

You remain abused still
by the undistinguishing crowd
who upon the mention of your name
                     rise to feel proud
of what then
in their shored-up selves
                                       of belonging in
the self-same pigment and tongue

None of your real worth passes into them
Nor the reason for your epigrammatic lines

Should I then beg forgiveness for this affront

Some apart
much remains redundant
inapt by way of pointing to fresher vistas
and these that follow the rarity of your verse
imbibe nothing else from this age’s handy cornucopia
                     of instant wisdom

Your lines served an eminent purpose in your time
now we bed our minds down by encyclopaedic libraries
             we live on another planet
Your chain-ganged lines served to teach the meek
     the lame of mind
the dislocated of your time

Yes some still wallow in the same myth
not from want of will
but from the fear of rebirth
imprisoned in conditioned belief

and the essor of Dravidian identity
only defering to the feigned purity of Aryanising blood
reverts to the same mythic belief
some kind of imagined power of breed

History is in the past
   It cannot help the present to liberate itself
        If one has not understood the difference
If one has not disowned and let fall meaningless myths

If you dear Valuvan lived in these times
Would you not have disowned your own lines

well perhaps some or more
not all finding their way into a florilège of your choice

for you know how love in the third part changed with moeurs
                        changing with the times
so has the art of governance
       and the unconscionable ways and practices of the artha classes
other precautions more pressing than mere friendship
              would have compelled you to jettison many a couplet

Who knows even your first ten would have found their way
                                    into a bin
ethical lines of advice
would turn sour in today’s ear

No child would heed to the letter your admonitions of behaviour
Nor no wife take her place in the humiliating role of kitchen-helper
No king will base his reign on your strict plans of concern for etiquette
No youth seek virtue in the puritanical preachment of bygone      

One singular contention
            No peasant revolution
                  No women’s liberation
                         No religious reformation
                                                     grace your pages
the establishment the status quo the traditional hierarchy the Almighty
All find mindful foundation
                   in your ardent didacticism
and extend licence to those who cry sacrilege
in the coming dismantling of the clans of castial power

Is poetry only meant for teaching what is time-honoured
              what is authorised
what seeks not to rock the ship of fate

Helas! My universally-renowned peerless ancestor!
                                   I’d like to think
You’d be the first to have recognized the always changing world
The first to have accepted the parting of ways
For your intelligence your foresight and hindsight
                                                        Your immensely powerful quill
would have sought other remedies
   other means to convince
         a wayward world
               a world far too gone and worldly-wise
to hatch the nuances of your admonishing word
      all afresh

N’empêche your name is a comet
                                                     hurtling down the ages


T. Wignesan


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