No Night Like This: Female Longing in Nammāḻvār’s Tiruviruttam
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.