Six years to translate 100 poems — each of four lines — seems like an inordinate time even for an academic. But Archana Venkatesan’s translation of Nammalvar’s Tiruviruttam is time well spent. The 255-page slender volume is a must-have for lovers of Tamil Vaishnavite literature and, in general, lovers of metaphor-laden love poems.
Among the 12 Vaishnavite saints who sang in Tamil during the Bhakti movement, Nammalvar of Alwar Tirunagari is a favourite for many. His chosen metre was the andadi, in which the last word of the stanza is also the first of the next. Nammalvar is said to have lived in the ninth century and, by the time of Tirumangai Alvar, his verses had achieved religious sanction as integral parts of temple ritual.
His verse continues to excite devotees and lovers of literature alike for many reasons. First, it’s the rhyme and rhythm in his words; second, the superbly terse, succinct use of those words. Not one word is out of place, each contributing to creating a vision of Narayana as all-pervading, generous, and willing to enter into the devotee’s heart and take him to his abode.
Though the 100 verses of Tiruviruttam are linked to each other by words and a general meaning, they are independent poems speaking of the heroine’s yearning for her hero, Tirumal or Narayana.
For Vaishnava scholars, the love poems are anyapadesa or an outer coat that protects the svapadesa, the esoteric import that speaks of the soul’s yearning to unite with the supreme. The Tiruviruttam needs to be read carefully to be understood. For this purpose alone, the book is an absolute essential in a world where the pain of separation from a loved one is still real. None of the poems offer a solution but reminds us that those who master the verses “won’t ever be trapped in the quicksand of delusory birth, its wicked fate, the misery of this false world.”
The book also has Periyavachan Pillai’s commentary on the text for six selected verses (one for each of the characters), indexes of characters, motifs, myths, places (though Udayagiri strikes a discordant note as the Tamil text doesn’t mention it as specifically) and names that can help those searching the text to get information quickly. It is a relief to see the tulasi referred to as tulay (thuzhai would have been better), the Tamil word, rather than basil, which is the wrong plant altogether!
Here are a couple of examples of the translation: Little worms that live in a wound/ Do what they do./ What do they know of the world?/ I learned these songs from the cunning Tirumal/ Who uses me to sing of himself./ It’s like people making meaning/ From the chirp of a lizard. (Verse 48)
She said –/ Like a monkey tossing aside a ruby/ Evening falls/ Casting aside the golden sun/ O precious gem who measured worlds/ My beloved emerald/ Golden one who has no equal/ You’re the sole refuge of your servant’s life.
The book brings this complex work to a larger audience. One hopes that dancers and other performers will seek to interpret these metaphors and love imagery using this book. One also hopes that, as the author completes her translation of Nammalvar’s Thiruvaimozhi, she also does the Peria Tiru Antati and thus complete all the works of this poet saint par-excellence.