Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Sisters But Still Strangers

Dr. D. C. Mrunalini


A Case for Comparative Dravidian Literary Historytc "A case for Comparative Dravidian Literary History"

Dr. C. Mrunalini

The four main Dravidian literatures, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam are sister languages, but they have only nodding acquaintance with their sister literatures.  It has been the practice in Comparative literature to compare regional literatures with foreign (read English) literatures rather than nearer home. There is a valid reason for this, because few of us are acquainted with languages or literatures of our neighbours.

While it is understandable that we cannot learn the many languages that prevail in a country like India, the avoidance of the problem rather than solving it, has been the greatest tragedy of the scholars of CL.  Considerable work has been done in the field of Comparative Dravidian Linguistics, but the same cannot be said about Comparative Dravidian Literatures.

Prof. Sujit Mukherjee commented way in his 1977 article “Towards a Literary History of India”, “Granting separate but equal status to all the regional literatures of India throughout their growth and development results in a wholly distorted view of our total literary landscape.  A just view may be obtained if we succeed in posting a concept of literary history for India which will allow us to see Indian literature steadily and see it whole”.  Here, Sujit Mukherjee may be calling out for a comparative Indian literature, but the same is true of Dravidian literatures.  Subsequently Indian literature has found a messiah in Prof. Sisir Kumar Das, and it is time for Dravidian scholars to bring out a Comparative Dravidian Literary History.

The Sahitya Akademi has faithfully published literary histories for all the four major Dravidian languages separately, and one combined literary history (Dakshina Bhasha Sahityamulu) but the latter again deals with the four literatures separately and not in an integrated manner.

Once we come to a consensus about the necessity of a Dravidian Literary History, the question of methodology for the same gains prominence.

Prof. V. N. Gokak has said that “The Modern Indian Literatures seem to have followed a distinct and a common line of development”. He goes onto point out atleast four stages through which the commonness can be traced.  In the 1st stage, there is oral literature, in the 2nd, inscriptional literature, in the 3rd stage, finished works of art and in the 4th stage, peotics or prosody, which come only when a full-blooded literature is already in existence.   This can serve as a starting point for the Comparative Dravidian Literary History.  Among these four, the evidences now available suggest that Tamil emerged first in the 1st century A.D. itself, followed by Kannada in the 9th century, Telugu in 11th century and Malayalam in the 13th century.

The time gap not withstanding, all the four literatures have exhibited similar characteristics in various respects. Simultaneous with the common features, all four have displayed immense originality in both genres and themes. Tamil had both kavyas and poetics (Tolkappium) as early as the beginning of the Chrisitan era.  Kannada has had its Vachana Sahitya, Telugu its Dwipada and Sataka Sahitya while Malayalam its Manipravala.

But, in the final analysis, we can safely find many common features in these literatures, which can be grouped under the following heads:

1. Translations
2. Religious Movements in the medieval age
3. Social, Political and Literary movements in Modern age
4. Language Influences
5. Genres: borrowed from both Sanskrit and the West
6. Indigeneous Performing Arts.

1. Translations:

All the four literatures have relied heavily on translations.  From the advent of their literatures upto the 19th century, it was from Sanskrit and from 19th century onwards from English.  The interesting factor is that they have followed a similar pattern of translation; it was more or less trans-creation from Sanskrit.  Especially, Ramayana, Mahabharatha and Mahabhagavata have been translated into various genres in the Dravidian literatures. The Sanskrit originals have been re-created in the regional languages with additions, deletions and modifications. Pampa’s Vikramarjuna Vijayam in Kannada, the Kavitraya’s Mahabharata in Telugu, Kamba’s Ramayana in Tamil and Cherusseri’s Krishna gatha in Malayalam are some examples.

In modern ages, they have also translated the same texts again and again, thereby indicating that both the Dravidian writers and the readers shared the same literary taste in adapting Western literatures.  For instance, Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian dramist was translated repeatedly in Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada. The same response is evident in the case of Maxim Gorky’s Mother and Shakesphere’s plays.

2. Religious Movements:

The Religious Movements, which affected the four Dravidian Literatures are Jainism, Buddhism, Vaishnavism and Shaivism.  The resultant literature was called Bhakti Poetry, which had wide spread popularity in all the four regions and which produced some of the all time great poets in all the languages. As Prof. C. D. Narasimhaiah said, “It is to the lasting glory of Bhakti poets that where the seers and sages of the Vedas and the Upanishads and the poets of the Classical Age failed the Bhakti poet picked up works from the street and made memorable poetry out of it as if to exemplify the truth of the observation that a poet is not a special kind of man but everyman is a special kind of poet”.  This can be extended to the disadvantaged sex, the woman too, because the only time women poets were mentioned in any literary history was when they wrote Bhakti poetry.  For instance: Andal in Tamil, Akka mahadevi in Kannada and Molla in Telugu.  In Telugu, women poets, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries also wrote erotic poetry, which were not given due recognition in the literary history, or even when given, condemned by the male literary historians.

The early Tamil literature shows the influences of Buddhism, while later the Nayanmars represented Shaivism and Alwars represented Vaishanavism. Religious movements in all the four regions inspired new genres, like Padakavitha in Telugu, Vachana sahitya in Kannada etc.  The Kannada vachana had its reflection in Telugu Shavite literature too.  Madhura Bhakti is a recurrent theme in all the Dravidian literatures, like Andal in Tamil, Akka mahadevi in Kannada and Tarigonda Venkamamba in Telugu.

3. Social, Political and Literary Movements:

The modern age saw a plethora of social, political and literary movements, mostly imported from the West and Bengal in India.  The Social Reform movement, which emerged in Bengal in the first half of the 19th century had its followers in the Dravidian region.  Similarly, Marxism, Romanticism, Nationalism, Cultural Renaissance are some of the political and literary ideologies which had similar responses in the Dravidian literatures. Gurajada Apparao in Telugu, Subrahmnaya Bharathi in Tamil, Vallathol in Malayalam are some of the great Dravidian nationalist poets.  Similarly, Marxism provoked poets like Sri Sri (Telugu), Kesava dev (Malayalam) and many others into churning out works on behalf of the oppressed class.

The cultural renaissance saw in the 3rd and 4th decades of the 20th century, the new genre called the Historical Novel, which is exemplified by the Kannada   writers like Galaganatha and Telugu writers like Viswanatha Satyanarayana. Romanticism, called Kalpanika Vadam in Telugu and Navodaya movement in Kannada produced great poets like Devulapalli Krishna Sastry in Telugu and Bendre and Puttappa in Kannada.  These poets took the Lyric genre to great heights. Romantic movement in Malayalam was no less strong and it thrived with the poetry of Raja Ravi Verma, Asan, Vallatthol and Ulloor.

4. Linguistic Influences:

The influence of Sanskrit in ancient days and English in the modern age, with Persian-Arabic in between is common to all the four Dravidian languages.  Among them, Telugu and Malayalam were and still are more close to Sanskrit because they chose to retain the influence of the language.  Tamil outgrew Sanskrit long ago.  The special genre Manipravalam created by Malayalam speaks volumes of the effect of one linguistic tradition on another.  The influence of English is too obvious to justify repetition. On the other hand, all the four languages have been influenced by each other, which is a matter for discussion elsewhere.  Both Sanskrit and English have influenced the Dravidian languages not only linguistically but also generically and thematically.

5. Genres:

Champu is the first genre that comes to our mind when we talk about similarity of genres in the Dravidian literatures.  This genre, which combines poetry and prose has been found most suitable for both translations of the epics from Sanskrit as well as original kavyas in the regional languages.  Malayalam, the most prolific user of this genre also adapted the Sandesha kavya from Sanskrit.  The songs were perfected by the Tamil Bhakti poets even before they arrived in other Dravidian languages.  The Purana, Mahakavya and Kavya are the few Sanskritic genres adapted by all these literatures. But, they do not use the names in a similar meaning; for instance, in Malayalam Prabandha is used as the suffix for Ramayanam, Mahabharata etc., while in Telugu, Prabandha is itself a genre, which reigned supreme in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In the modern age, with the advent of English and Western genres, all the Dravidian literatures have adapted the Novel, Drama, Short Story, Essay, Autobiography, Blank verse etc., within a very short time. We can see parallels in the themes of these genres very often, especially if we look at them from the angle of movements.  The emphasis may vary in the sense that the Kannada historical novel may be better (I am talking only about volume and the preference of the writers to one genre over the other, not about quality) than the Telugu one, or the Telugu Romantic novel better than the Tamil and Kannada novels; the Marxist short story could definitely be better in Malayalam, while the lyrical poetry may be more abundant in Telugu than in Tamil.  But, the fact remains that these genres were introduced and improved upon by the talent and application of the individual writers, in each language roughly through the same period.

6. Performing Arts:

All the performing arts in these four regions had something to do with literature and are comparable too.  The Kathakali of Kerala has gained a status of not just a performing art but it also has an important place in the History of the Malayalam Literature.  Similarly, the principles of Bharata natyam, prevalent mostly in Tamilnadu and Karnataka, are adapted to all literary genres, like Kavyas and Prabandhas.

The Kuchipudi dance of Andhra Region has an important place in the Bhakti literature of Telugu with emphasis on Madhura Bhakti. The Yakshaganas of the Karnataka have been adapted by the Andhras and this dance form has been the basis for many later dance forms in both the regions.

The folk art forms of all the four regions have many common features.  Their thematic unity and performance criteria are not only comparable but offer a large canvas to build an integrated Dravidian Folk Lore history.


The above thoughts and concepts aim at emphasizing the need for an integrated approach to Dravidian literatures.  A history of this kind would have the following results:
1. It will showcase the contribution of Dravidian literatures to Indian Literature as a whole.
2. It will, by comparisons within and without, give an idea as to where  each literature stands in the panorama of Indian literature.
3. It will fill the gap that the researchers, interested in comparative Dravidian literature are facing at present.
4. Such a history can be translated into all the four Dravidian languages and Hindi to facilitate readers of all Indian and non-Indian languages.

The above mentioned points and suggestions are but a mere beginning.  This is only to activate our minds towards this goal.  There are many other concepts like myths, motifs, ideas and cultural facts that unite these four languages, which are not mentioned in this paper.  Comparative Dravidian Literary History may later lead to comparative histories of other regions of India, so that they will be more comprehensive and detailed than the Histories of Indian Literature.

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