Click to view Profile
K S Subramanian

Mail to a friend

K S Subramanian – ‘Sangam Women Poetry’

K S Subramanian

The Backdrop:

Over the past ten to fifteen years, I have been involved in translating into English hundreds of poems of the Tamil New Poetry genre. In this process, I was struck by the intensity, depth, assertiveness, a new sense of Self, and a concomitant new vibrant language in the works of many women poets. This exercise had also included a sample selection of the works of Sangam women poets.

The works of Sangam women poets must be one of the most ancient works of its kind. The very presence of a significant crop of poems by women poets some 2000 years ago, has its own historical and sociological significance. The sublime poetry, the seamless interweaving of nature in the poetry, the outpouring of emotion and their authenticity held me in thrall. Apart from the sheer lyricism of this corpus, it can also be a valuable resource in the sociological and cultural–anthropological study of ancient societies from a feminist perspective. Against this background, translating into English the entire corpus of Sangam women poets appealed to me a great deal. I readily realized that the project would be very ambitious and daunting. It should also be fulfilling in its own way. The more I thought of it, the more the challenge loomed large. The very challenge spurred me on. I have taken the plunge. This anthology in translation is the result.[1]

The Sangam Corpus:

The Tamil Sangam corpus is an ancient treasure trove of great poetry. While there is a divergence of opinion on the periodization of the Sangam Age, there is a broad consensus that it spanned four centuries from the second century B.C. to the second century A.D. This makes it truly ancient.

It consists of 8 anthologies (Ettutthokai) and 10 long poems or Idylls   (Patthuppaattu). In line with the norms of prosody enshrined in the primary work of Tamil grammar Tolkaappiyam, there are two broad sub-divisions: Akam (Interior, heart, household), and Puram (Exterior, outer parts of the body, outside the home, public space). As a literary shorthand, Akam has traditionally been linked to love and Puram to war and community. An interesting feature of Akam Poetry is the absence of the names of dramatis personae; there are only types: Thalaivi or the girl, Thalaivan or the lover, Thozhi or the girl’s friend-confidante, Sevilitthaai or foster-mother etc.

A unique feature of Sangam poetry is its organic linkage to nature. Landscape is classified into five eco-regions (Thinai): Kurinji or the hills and associated land; Mullai or forest and pastures and associated land; Marudam or agricultural plains; Neidal or sea and associated land; and Paalai or desert region. Each region is associated with its own Mudal Porul (primary feature: Time and Space), Karu Porul (the basis of life-style: flora and fauna, gods, people….), and Uri Porul (Phase of Love: union, a spell of separation, and oodal or feigned anger….). A clinical detailing of these aspects is clearly beyond the scope of this Note.

The main point is that the life of the people of the Sangam Age was closely intertwined with nature. This element also has a strong presence in the poems. The situations, similes, metaphors and leitmotifs are all rooted in nature – the flora and fauna of the particular eco-region.

Another important aspect is the poetic beauty. The sensitive employment of Ullurai (parallel between the natural phenomena and life around, and the characters and their emotions and predicament) and Iraichi (vignettes evoking the overall ambience of the situation with suggestive dexterity) lends profound aesthetic quality to the Sangam poetry.

There is a broad consensus that the eight anthologies consist of 1972 poems written by 473 identified poets; out of this, 41 women poets account for 183 poems (there is a difference of scholarly opinion on these numbers). Among the ten long poems PorunarAarruppadai’s author, Mudatthaamakkanniyaar is identified as a woman poet by some scholars (Ref. Dr. N. Subramanian, ‘Pre-Pallavan Tamil Index’ – University of Madras 1990, Second Edition, p.687). I have decided to include Mudatthaamakkanniyaar as a woman poet. On this basis, this book consists of 42 women poets and 184 poems.

The Social Ethos:

There is a large body of scholarly opinion that the ancient matriarchal values and structures were getting gradually dismantled even before the Sangam Age. This process had already attained its own inexorable momentum. The clan-groups were getting consolidated; fiefdoms and petty principalities had cropped up; State formation had a rising trajectory; a few kingdoms made their appearance with flexi-boundaries and tenuous control over their ‘territories’. Farming had become a major economic activity. Land and livestock had become the principal economic assets. Barter trade, often involving long durations of travel, was becoming the ruling commercial link. These led to the ascendency of man’s role in the social arrangement. A discussion of the emergence of the man-centric ethos is considered necessary to have a nuanced understanding of the psychological underpinnings of Sangam women poetry.

Conquering land and capturing livestock in ‘cross-border’ raids or battles were becoming common (ref: Purnaanooru 269 - Auvaiyaar). With increasing importance of battle, man assumed a central place in the overall scheme of things. The woman’s primary duty was to beget children, particularly male children. (Ponmudiyaar_ Puranaanooru 312).

Tholkappiyam, the primordial grammar of language, literature and life states that ‘esteem’ (perumai) and strength (uran) are male prerogatives’ (Sutra 1044) and that fear (Accham), reserve (Naanam) and  naivety (madam) are the three principal attributes  of a woman  (Sutra 1045).

It is remarkable that in such a man-centric environment, so many women poets had produced poems of exquisite quality, power and finesse. It is also significant that there is no evidence of Tamil women poets over several subsequent centuries till the appearance of Kaaraikkaal Ammaiyaar in the 7th century and Aandaal in the 9th century. What accounts for the luxuriant presence of women’s poetry during the Sangam Age and total aridity over the next five centuries? This aspect can be a meaningful area of research by literary historians and sociologists.

Approach to Poetic appreciation:

A clarification may not be out of context at this point. How does a reader approach ancient poetry? Transporting oneself to the ancient milieu and entering the poem with this mindset is one approach. This would enrich the reading with contextual relevance. While realizing the value of this approach, it is easier said than done. As a reader, I do not operate in a vacuum. I am the product of this society, its cultural values, its attitudinal elements, my own experience and the orientations I have developed as a sum-total of these influences. It is naïve to imagine or expect that I can totally delink myself from these factors and approach ancient poetry in a distant and somewhat hazy ancient socio-historical context. I have found it inescapable to blend these two elements. The mix has been dictated by the vibrations a poem causes in me.

Content Analysis:

Female sexuality is a dominant theme in most of these poems. Intense passion, memory of earlier unions, agony over a phase of separation from her lover / husband, the unbearable agony of suppressed libido, the anguish leaving marks of ‘pasalai’ or pallor on different parts of the body, the supple shoulders wilting, arms and hands getting emaciated and bangles slipping away… There is persistent recurrence of this theme with similar physical manifestations. How do we explain this obsession with female sexuality?

We should bear in mind that the Sangam women lived in an essentially man-centric ethos. In this milieu, love for her man and her passionate relationship with him become major pillars of her life. Spells of separation from him – both brief and prolonged – have a dominant impact on her life. It was but natural that these aspects have a significant presence in her mindscape.

The next question is how she expressed these elemental emotions. The injunction in Tholkaappiyam (Sutra 1054 in Kalaviyal in Poruladhikaaram) is significant in this context. The Sutra runs like this:

‘Kaamatthinaiyil kanninru varooum
Naanummadanum pennmaiyaaadhalin
Kurippinumidatthin umalladhuvaetkai
Nerippadavaaraa avallvayinaana.’

(During the furtive courtship phase, as reserve and naivety emerge from Thalaivi’s eyes, she should express her feelings by indicative gestures and the environment, and not by directly giving expression to her ardour.)

The message is clear. However intense your passion, you should not express it in a brazen manner. Suggestive you can be, but not blatantly expressive. Against this normative backdrop, one may try to second-guess the psychological impulses of a Sangam woman poet. The love for her man and the passionate union with him particularly during the Kalavu or furtive courtship phase becomes a major anchor in her life. Temporary separation from him on account of his absence in battle or journeys in garnering wealth, could have an unsettling impact. But, the normative environment was not conducive to a free expression of her emotion.

Display not your passion overtly - this was the required norm. The women poets’ response is clear. The incandescent night-long outpouring of passion is cast in fine poetry in Alloor Nanmullaiyaar’s poem (Kurunthokai, 157):

Ku Koo’ crowed the rooster;
Dawn arrived as sword cruel
uncoupling my lover,
his ardent entwining arms.
My pure heart now all despair.

Is suppressed libido your problem? We understand. But don’t drag it to the public domain. Let it escape through discreet and muted body language. This norm has been flouted by many women poets. Hear the soulful cry of Auvaiyaar (Kurunthokai 28)

Do I butt them? Do I toss them?
Spurred by some impulse
do I shout hoarse?
I am at a loss.
The prancing breeze
torments me no end.
Townsfolk in slumber buried
blissfully oblivious
of my agony of frustrated ardour.
What to do I know not.

Beauty of the Female Body:

Another implied prohibition was to avoid explicit reference to the allure of the female body. This challenge has been faced frontally. Here is an ecstatic celebration of the beauty of the female body - the head-to-foot description of the singer – dancer Paadini in Porunaraatruppadai (25 – 47). One of the most exquisite pictures of female form in world literature:

Wavy tresses recalling
rippled black river sand sediment,
forehead a crescent moon,
bracing eyes pools of rain,
pinkish mouth of words sweet
an ‘Ilavam’ flower in blossom,
sparkling teeth a string of pearls,
dangling ears gently swaying
with Magara pendants
resembling loops of scissors
used to trim the hair.
Dainty neck bent bashfully,
strong shoulders sturdy as bamboo,
forearms with a spray of hair wispy,
fingers delicate Kaanthal stems,
gently curving finger nails parrot beaks,
sumptuous breasts radiating heartaches,
their cleavage challenging entry
to even the rib of a palm leaf,
navel vortex in a river,
waist too slender to notice,
pelvis decorated by ‘Megalai’
with strung beads resembling seat of bees,
shapely thighs two heifer trunks united,
calves with tender hair.
As she walks
the soles of her feet
pink as the hanging tongue
of a tired salivating dog,
treading the searing red earth
a bed of molten sealing wax
and hurt by the unfriendly gravel
cruel blisters on the soles….
Shunning the scorch of the midday sun,
the gifted singer
stood as a peahen.

One common thread running through many of these poems is the voice of protest - protest against patriarchal fetters to free poetic expression of female sexuality and celebration of the female body. One could see in them the seedbed of the outpourings of some of today’s women poets of the New Poetry genre.

Social Satire:

One poem of strong social satire and protest deserves mention. It contains a stinging indictment of the indignities and miseries heaped on a woman on losing her husband. Boothappaandian Devi Perunkoppendu’s poem (Puranaanooru 246) is truly wrenching:

     The Learned! O the Pedants!
You of cruel design
not saying ‘go’
but declaring ‘no’
to my departing with my dead husband.
Eating rice resembling seeds
of ripe cucumber fruit
marked by lines
as on squirrel’s back
but with no trace of ghee;
rice mixed with greens and water
squeezed by hand and served;
mashed white sesame paste
and tamarind-laced dish to boot.
I’m no run-of-the-mill woman
to subsist on such measly fare.
Nor would I shun the mat
and sleep on rutted floor
as a part of a widow’s penance.
The funeral pyre
stacked with firewood
you may find loathsome.
But my man of broad shoulders
is gone forever;
Now to me
the cool pond of full blown lotuses
and the smouldering pyreare but the same.

Nature Poetry:

One major element of this poetic corpus is the seamless interweaving of nature in the very fabric of poetry. My exposure to ‘nature poetry’ in English language points to one aspect. Nature normally stands alone. The beauty of sunrise, the spray of colour in sunset, the limpid flow of a stream, the torrent of rain, the sweep of meadows and groves, the chirping of birds, the prancing of colts – all these and more are captured as beautiful pen-pictures, framed as attractive picture postcards. Beautiful these are, but stand alone and distant in majestic aloofness. It is Nature per se, not linked to life around. In the Sangam poetry in this volume, nature is no bystander. It is a participant in the poetic milieu and movement.

This aspect has been sensitively brought out by the respected scholar and literary critic, Raa.Sree.Desikan[2]: 

“They live close to nature. They revel in the hues and fragrances of countless flowers. They draw their imageries from the infinite book of nature. The stillness of the starry skies, the darkness that broods over land and water, the unceasing murmur of the innumerable mountain rills, the moan of the distant seas, the rumble of the gathering clouds, the ceaseless patter of the rains, the quick play of the forked lightning and the shifting pageant of colours among evening skies have an appeal to them.” 

This Note would be incomplete without reference to at least one Nature poem of great allure. Here is Velliveediyaar’s striking visual: (Natrinai: 335)

Moon emerges in the clear sky;
sea bellowing with frothy waves
batters the seashore, retreats;
In the seaside grove
bedecked with flowers myriad
in the thorn-laden screwpine bushes
buds like rice-filled cups
unfold petals sprinkle aroma
carried on wind’s wings
to the dark-hued palmyra trees;
doleful melody of nightingale
comes floating towards me.
To add to this,
deep into night
‘Yaazh’ strummed at a distance
seeps into me as lyrical strains.
Conspiracy indeed
to lend edge to my libido.
My man to relieve my malady
at a distant nowhere.


Sangam poetry is replete with felicitous similes. Just one sample: Velliveediyaar’s simple and soulful poem (Kurunthokai 27).

Delicious cow’s milk
not suckled by the calf,
not collected in vessel,
udder to ground it drains.
My exquisite allure
to me of no value,
to my lover of no use;
but a mere palloron my pelvis
as unrequited yearning.

Other Aspects:

It is worth mentioning that there are several poems by Sangam male poets approaching their patrons for largesses, spinning tear-jerking accounts of the abject destitution in their homes. Pisirandayaar’s lament in Puranaanooru 159, Perunthalai Saatthanaar’s pathetic appeal in Puranaanooru 164 and Aayaitthuraiyoor Odaikkizhaar’s wailing in Puranaanooru 136 are instances in point. Perunthalai Saatthanaar bemoans ‘the flattened breasts of his wife as a mere layer of skin shrivelled and barren and the child weeping at each failed tug at the nipple.’ Contrary to this, a solitary poem by a woman poet Maarokkatthu Nappasalaiyaar seeking help from the patron is marked by simple dignity (Puranaanooru – 126, 7).

The Puranaanooru mother rummages amongst the bodies in the battlefield, sees her son’s body savagely smashed to pieces, and is lost in delirious delight paling the joy at his birth (Kaakkaippaadiniyaar  Nacchellaiyaar – Puranaanooru 278). This sentiment is, however, unlikely to strike a resonant chord in a mother’s heart today.

While reading some Sangam poems, I used to be intrigued by the incongruity of a king gifting an indigent bard with a mighty tusker. What would a poor man with no means to sustain his family even in a frugal manner, do with a huge elephant as a gift? It was refreshing to find a woman poet, Auvaiyaar flagging the inappropriateness of such a gift. (Puranaanooru140). This is a manifestation of wisdom and discernment in a Sangam woman poet.

Auvaiyaar had also played the role of a friend, philosopher and guide to kings, even as a respected emissary.

Approach to translation:

I found it difficult to make unaided entry into much of the Sangam poetry, for many reasons. One reason is the organic linkage of this poetry to nature, to the flora and fauna of the particular eco-region. Marooned in the concrete jungle of a metropolis, like many of us, I am substantially cut off from nature. References in these poems to the nuances of nature appeared exotic, and seemingly beyond easy connection. Another major hurdle is the presence of a large number of words and terms not in current usage.

I had to gain entry into many poems only through an ‘urainool’ or a book containing the original text, meaning and explanatory notes. The volumes on eight anthologies (Ettutthokai) and ten Idylls (Patthuppaattu), published by New Century Book House, Chennai were of considerable help. After this entry point, I identified the words beyond my comprehension, noted their meanings from specialist dictionaries and subjected the poems to multiple readings and formed my own readerly text. This readerly text formed the basis of my discerning the poem and its subsequent translation. The primacy of readerly text in poetic appreciation is widely recognized. Attempt has been made to bridge the culture gap between the source and the target languages. No effort has been spared to make the language of the translation lucid, reader-friendly and contemporary.

I had to grapple with one question in this context. Do I add detailed explanatory notes with an ostensible purpose of lending greater clarity to the reader? After careful consideration, I have decided against it. My objective is to present poetry in translation to be read and savoured, and not to produce a forbidding academic text. My ‘readerly text’ forming the basis of translation had already undergone a sieving process to impart lucidity to the text. The reader should take over at this point, find her / his own readerly text and savour it.

Explanatory notes could well train floodlight on the hidden crevices of a poem, and rob it of the mistiness and silences hidden within and between lines. To unravel the mistiness and to hear the voices of silence should be the pleasurable discovery of the reader.

Concluding Remarks:

I hope that this work would provide a pleasurable reading experience to the readers. I believe this also has potential value in sociological and cultural–anthropological studies of ancient Tamil Nadu from a feminist perspective. If these objectives are even partly achieved, I would feel truly fulfilled.

1. This is the introductory note to the forthcoming book of English translation of the entire poetic corpus of Tamil Sangam Women Poets.

2. Introduction to P.N.Appuswami’s ‘Kurinji-paattu and Muttollayiram’, International Institute of Tamil Studies, Chennai, Reprint 1997.


Feature–Tamil Writing

    Rajaram Brammarajan

    K S Subramanian – ‘Sangam Women Poetry’

    Kavin Malar
    Leena Manimekalai
    Paampaati Siddhan
    Riyas Qurana
    Sangam Women Poets
    Thenmozhi Dass

Short Fiction
    Lakshmi Kannan: ‘Savvyasachi Square’

Copyright ©2017 Muse India