Salem in Tamil Nadu seems to be emerging as a centre for Tamil literary centre. May be Salem citizens might even claim they are already in this position!

Salem in Tamil Nadu seems to be emerging as a centre for Tamil literary activities. May be Salem citizens might even claim they are already in this position! There was a time long ago when Tirunelveli in the deep South of the state was considered to be the very centre of Tamil scholarship and much of the creative writing of the first half of the 20th century. From there came to great poet Bharati, master of the short story writing, Pudumaipithan and his immediate circles, the list is really long and distinguished. The great nationalist leader V.O.Chindambaram Pillai was also a great Tamil scholar and a close friend of Bharati.
But after Independence the centre of literary activities shifted to Chennai, the state capital and I imagined that Chennai retains this position to this day. After I myself organised some literary meets in Chennai, I found out the city is also deeply flawed in intellectual pursuits. The major reason is politics and cinema! Politicians in TN are becoming a peculiar breed! I had just now gone through a column by H.Y.Sharada Prasad, a Kannada personality and he says the more sardonic or sarcastic remark when he writes of Yes, Chennai seems more noisy and fear-inducing political backwater! Nobody outside the state might care for the peculiar breed of Tamil politicians but in Chennai they seem to control not only the public spaces, the city is dotted with large cutouts, the walls are filled with much hated politicians names Tamil Intellectuals.

So, when I called the intellectuals and writers in Chennai some brave souls turned up but the usual circuit names shied away! For obvious reasons! There is so much fear and cowardice in the Tamil intellectuals. Intellectuals too have to be survive, don’t they? Yes, these one-time government servants who are used to curry the favour of fear-inducing politicians who often come from humble origins and yet after they got the power they have all gone to extreme politics of one type or other and so these poor souls don’t find much use to associate with any higher issues of the minds!

So, I find even the great men and women who came to my meets didn’t have much to say by way of freer expression of bold and innovative thoughts.
When I convened such meets in the district towns there were in fact much a more freer and bolder expression of ideas and opinions.

So, Salem came as an eye-opener! Not only the usual literary types, older writers and scholars turned out there were a sprinkling of younger faces, there was much idealism and new literary earnings and aspirations.
Much more unique about the Salem meet was the real strength of the Salem society and cultural mileu. There were the city’s bigwigs, if I can say so, the industrialists and achievers who were also great patrons of literature and culture. So, I was duly impressed by such stalwarts like N.Ramasamay Udayar, the long-time follower and comrade of the great Kamaraj and “Love-O “Nagarajan, a public figure who is also a friend and patron of writers and promoter of many social causes. Doctors, lawyers, small businessmen, NGO men, besides a large number of teachers and scholars made the Salem meet a great cultural experience.

Salem has this great literary tradition for long. The city, more than other district centres, had a long history of modern Tamil cinema, here came the original script writers and poets who later dominated the Tamil poltiical and literary scene, like M.Karunanidhi and the poet Kannadasan and many others. It was also city that saw the birth of nationalist movement, there were a number of London-returned barristers, besides the Dravidian movement itself which saw the city a congenial place.

There is much social harmony and the socio-economic disparities are not jarring, the education spread is wide and deep. I was delighted to meet my old literary giants, the great scholar, “Silamboli” Sellappan who has played a critical role in the development of modern Tamil language and literature, having been associated with the government in key official positions.

He made a great speech and his critical opinions were quite in keeping with his persona: balanced, couched in chaste Tamil and delivered in a measured manner so that he made a deep impact on the audience. The other great speech of the evening was by ,again my old friend, a senior poet, Murugu Sundaram, a long-time associate of the great Tamil poet, Bharataidasan (whom I had the privilege of meeting and conversing while I was a student at Santiniketan and on a visit to Pondichery). Murugu Sundaram is a great poet and a seasoned orator. His very (baritone?) voice enthralled me! He had (as his speech revealed) read my long book (of 310 pages) page to page and his quotations of the apt lines really won me over! These two literary stalwarts won the day. Salem has a great many literary friends for me: the leading poet Tamilnadan read an insightful paper on Tamil and world literature. L.Vincent gave a forceful introduction that set the tone of the evening’s proceedings. There were present so many personalities who in their own ways have contributed to the literary tastes of the Salem audience: Pavalar Ezhunayiru and Kavithalaya Chandra Shekar and many others. There were some interesting young editors of small literary magazines. I find these small magazines are often more independent and they have no angularities and their views and writings show me a new trend for more catholicism in tastes and open minded literary temperaments.

Tamil literary scene
Now ,what is Tamil literary scene today? I find the whole environment in the state very distorted. It is a long and tragic story. The post -Dravidian scene, as far as literature and culture are concerned is thoroughly corrupt by vulagr cinema and vulagr politics! Imagine in any other part of the world film stars, heroes and heroines, dialogue writers capturing power in a democracy! So, it is!

I cant dwell on this sensitive subject here. But what I found in Salem was similar to what the Malayalam writer Paul Zacharia wrote on the late O.V.Vijayan Incidentally, I knew Vijayan well. Zacharia wrote: Vijayan suddenly became the voice of a whole generation of Malayalis who had lost the art of dreaming in the murky world of so-called revolution. Vijayan “invented a new Malayalam”. In Kerala it is Communism, in TN it is the Dravidian entrapment. I am often on the phone with my Malayalam friends, Kamala Das is my long time friend, I speak to poets, Prof. Ayyappa Panickar, Artur Ravi Varma and many others. What a sense of fine refinement in speech and manners, uplifting thoughts. In contrast Tamil society seems a closed one, it is not an open society, not a free society, where fear reigns. How can a society produce that creative energy where creative minds are fearful of the politicians! There is much for me to say.

James Joyce
Just now I read a brief monograph on James Joyce. How energising! You don’t judge art and literature by the ‘output’, the body of work. Writing is not a ‘mass product’, as it had been now mistaken in Tamil world. Creative writing, the matters of the mind, has a sanctity, writing is not vulgar products of mere employment! Right?
I find the current generation of Tamil writers and readers lost in the murky world of Dravidian corruption of all morals and all good manners and literary tastes. The so-called upper castes (not classes) have also contributed to the deterioration of morals. A “Vulgar Populism” had made artistic creativity ,more so poetry and creative prose suffer from this vulgarity. Too much superficial spiritual movements, gatemen etc. In the land of rationalist social movement so much of superstitions reign supreme! TN society can be studied as a series of contradictions! In TN you feel suffocated and lost as if you are in a dense forest! Even otherwise, I find so much of the current writing in Tamil is very poor and superficial. Too many poets, too many pretenders! Too many cliches, too much petty jealousies. Tamil mind today is closed. Tamil mind needs to be expanded. There is much education spread, but the educated minds seem to be closed prison cells! Mental poverty hurts me. Much of the political rhetoric revolves around Tamil, making Tamil this or that! The end result is Tamil literature ranks very low in many prize charts. Kannda got 7 Gnanpeeth awards, Tamil just two. This too, after I convened special meet to make the right noises!

But who cares for Tamil literature getting noticed nationally or internationally? So, this was my theme this time too. What was surprising, as Zachariah says of Vijayan, I found there is a new hunger for the younger (and even older) generation to dream, aspire for new worlds to conquer. In Tamil literature and elsewhere! So, this was a positive achievement, I thought.

This is the new India and the new Tamil Nadu where I find there is a subtle shift to shed off the unproductive populist politics and cheap commercial cinema.
I am sure the spread of education would lead to a cultural richness too and so I welcome some the current mass culture, even this vulgarisation so that we can at least all sit down and contemplate for a new society and a new culture.
Where world class aspirations go with world class political beliefs and cultures. Let us dream for such an ideal. Tamil literature has to take a genuine modernist trend, we need bold experiments, in Tamil prose and poetry, innovation and international literary forms and outlook. We need to create an environment for such innovations. Literature of world class would emerge only if our minds become free, of all limitations and we aspire for world recognition.

Salem seems to be located not only at the geo graphical cross roads, it is poised to emerge as the cultural cross roads for a new Tamil renaissance!

“Bangalore: the city is a city of hope and future but it is not the birth place of any venom splitting political ideology or fire-eating social movement”. Tamil readers, more than outsiders, would easily understand the characters in these venom-splitting and fire-eating political dramas!

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