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Paens to Childhood


Lakshmi Holmstrom

EXTRAORDINARY CHILD: POEMS FROM A SOUTH INDIAN DEVOTIONAL GENRE
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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