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Paens to Childhood

Lakshmi Holmstrom

By Paula Richman
Penguin India, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 297, Rs. 375.00

VOLUME XXXII NUMBER 12 December 2008

During the December 2007 music festival in Chennai, I attended a dance performance by Alarmel Valli. The programme included a short piece, based on a verse from Madurai Meenakshiammai Pillaittamil. Alarmel Valli had choreographed a single verse—out of the hundred and two which make up the entire poem—from its varugai (beckoning/arrival) section. Through her exegesis preceding the dance, the dance itself, and the singing that accompanied it, Alarmel Valli demonstrated how the poem is both a mother’s plea to a beloved, wayward child, and the plea of a devotee to the Mother, the Goddess. In those brief moments, the dancer caught the complexities of Pillaittamil: the density of allusion, the surprising tonal and emotional shifts, the depth of devotion in the exquisite last line, ‘varuga, varugave’.   Paula Richman’s Extraordinary Child: Poems from a South Indian Devotional Genre (first published in 1997, and reissued by Penguin India this year) follows a methodology that can be compared to Alarmel Valli’s. This is not an anthology of translations of entire Pillaittamil poems, nor even of entire sections; it is a book about Pillaittamil, the first in English to study it as a genre, illustrated by a careful selection and translation of individual verses from a wide range of poems.   Part 1 of Richman’s book explicates how a Pillaittamil poem should be read. Pillaittamil is a devotional genre in Tamil poetry which developed from the 12th century onwards, the most important feature of which is that the poet, in the persona of a mother, addresses an extraordinary being (god, goddess, saint, king etc) as an imagined child, or indeed, most often, a baby. It should be noted that the poets of Pillaittamil poems have almost invariably been male. Those who are familiar with Tamil Sangam poetry will remember that in the Sangam tradition, a (male) poet often assumes the role of a mother, nurse, (girl) friend, or heroine. In the Bhakti tradition too, male poets have often assumed a female voice.   Pillaittamil poems always follow a set sequence, made up of ten sections or paruvam, each made up of ten verses. The first seven paruvam are the same for both male and female children: kaappu or protection, calling upon a set of divine guardians to protect the child; senkirai, inviting the child to sway to and fro or dance; tala(ttu), lullaby; sappani, asking the child to clap hands, muttham, ...

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