The great ninth century Vaiṣṇava poet, Nammāḻvār composed a short poem of one hundred verses, the Tiruviruttam, which purportedly utilizes the narrative trajectory of love and longing to speak of the poet’s desire for Viṣṇu. The poet assumes many voices—the heroine, the hero, the mother, the friend—although later medieval commentators only see the heroine’s voice as contiguous with that of Nammāḻvār. Tamil aesthetic theory that governs the reading of akam poetry guides us to determine the poem’s voice based on the poetic situation and the landscape. While such an approach fits some of the female-voice verses in the Tiruviruttam, several verses resist such categories, as they can easily and equally be spoken by the hero, heroine, mother or friend. Using the verses in the Tiruviruttam as an example, I explore what it means for a male poet to assume multiple female voices, and the manner in which he effaces these multiple voices by imbuing these “female-voiced” verses with a deliberate and intentional ambiguity.
Lectures by Dr. Archana Venkatesan
No Night Like This: Female Longing in Nammāḻvār’s Tiruviruttam
The Other Trinity: Saurashtra Histories of Karnatak Music
In this paper I examine the place of Veṅkaṭaramaṇa Bhāgavatar (1781-1874), Kavi Veṅkaṭasūri (1818-1890) and Nāyaki Svāmikaḷ (1843-1914)--three nineteenth century figures—in the Saurashtra reimagining of the history of the South Indian music tradition. Worshipped as the mummūrti, these three poet/saint/musicians are regarded by the Saurashtra community of Madurai as the alternate to the deified figures of Tyāgarāja, Muttusvāmi Dikitar and Śyāma Śāstri, canonical to the South Indian classical tradition as it develops in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Engaging with recent scholarship of the cultural histories of South Indian music, my paper moves us from Chennai to Madurai and to the (continuing) work of the Saurashtra community in rewriting the script for South Indian music.
Legends of the Goddess: Ānṭāḷ Stories in the Śrīvaiṣṇava Traditions
This paper examines Ānṭāḷ’s story as it circulates in both textual and oral sources since the 12 century, with a particular emphasis on the Manipravala Guruparamparaprābhavam 6000 and 3000 and the Sanskrit Divyasūricaritam. I explore issues of genre, style and language choice as I chart the changes in Ānṭāḷ’s story, and the history that such alterations both reveal and conceal.
From Under the Tamarind Tree: Hereditary Performance and Sectarian Identity in South India
The temple of Alvar Tirunagari in the deep south of India is a unique archive of hereditary performance traditions in India. Whereas the seismic shift in patronage that occurred in the post-Independence period ensured the rapid erosion of temple-centered performance cultures, the insularity of Alvar Tirunagari ensured the preservation of multiple hereditary performance traditions—liturgical recitation, gestural interpretation, and ritual singing are just three examples—into the present century. But the performers of Alvar Tirunagari have not been untouched because of the shift in patronage, from local, elite landowners to State supported funding. Many performers have left temple service for more lucrative employment, while others supplement their meager temple income with white-collar jobs in major cities. In this paper I take up the example of Araiyar Cēvai, just one of Alvar Tirunagari’s several performance traditions, to explore the ways in which members from both within and from outside the hereditary families have sought to reshape it for a contemporary, urban audience.Dr. Archana Venkatesan is an Assistant Professor in Comparative Literature and in Religious Studies at the University of California, Davis. She completed her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley in 2004. She has worked mainly on Andal, the female Alvar poet-saint, and published an award-winning translation of her poetry with OUP in 2010 (The Secret Garland: Antal's Tiruppavai and Nacciyar Tirumoli). She is currently working, with Prof. Francis X. Clooney (Harvard), on a translation of the Tiruvaymoli, one of the most important collections of Tamil devotional poetry.