Globalization, Identity Politics, and Social Conflict:
Contemporary Texts and Discourses


Identity Politics, Globalisation, and Social Conflict: Social Discourses and Cultural Texts
(Delhi Workshop: March 26-28, 2002)


IX.
In Print and On the Net: Tamil Literary Canon and Identity in the Colonial and Post-Colonial Worlds

A.R.Venkatachalapathy
Madras Institute of Development Studies

Studies on Tamil identity formation in the colonial period have established that the fashioning of a new literary canon in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries played a central role in defining a Tamil identity. A whole corpus of literary texts was 'discovered' and the medium of print was constitutive of this process of literary canonisation. Given the astonishing volume (and quality) of these texts and the manner in which its 'discovery' fed into identity politics, the 'Renaissance' model has often been employed to describe this process.

The trajectory this canonisation took - the secular manner in which the Tamil literary canon and the identity based on it were defined - had its differential impact on Tamils in Tamilnadu (India) and Sri Lanka, the two traditional homelands of the Tamils. The focus of this paper is restricted to these two regions and does not take into account regions of South East Asia (where Tamils have lived for about a millennium with a continuing history of migration) and other parts of the world such as South Africa, Fiji and the Caribbean islands (where Tamils migrated as indentured labourers in the high noon of capitalism) because literary tradition has either been weak or non-existent.

One argument of this paper is that the discovery of the Tamil classical texts and their fixity due to print ruptured the literary canon / tradition shared by Tamilnadu and Tamil Sri Lanka in pre-colonial times. Secularisation was strong in Tamilnadu, whereby religious literature was either relegated to the margins or only accommodated into the canon for their 'literary' merit - this specific appropriation being made by Tamil nationalist / Dravidian movement politics in its attempt to fashion a linguistic identity that would transcend divisions based on caste, class and religion. On the other hand, in Tamil Sri Lanka, religion (Saivism) and caste (Vellalar) played an over-determining role, with continued primacy being gien to Saiva canonical texts and Kanda Puranam. The creation of the Indian and Sri Lankan nation-states accentuated this divide.

The pogrom of July 1983 and the information technology of the 1990s have had a significant impact on the literary canon and, in its turn, on identity. The state-sponsored anti-Tamil riots of July 1983 and the subsequent armed struggle in Sri Lanka created a huge Tamil diaspora which is now spread across Europe, Canada and Australia. The migration of Tamils from India is also not insignificant. The Net has made possible communication within and across this diaspora, Tamil being one of the most widely used languages on the Net, with thousands of active Tamil sites. Many of them host Tamil literary texts. In this process, the possibility of an altered literary canon on the Net is emerging. This paper hypothesizes that the Tamil literary canon and Tamil identity is being refashioned in this process.

return to contents