THE Sangam poems were composed (latest) in the turn of the Common Era, i.e at least 2000 years ago. Literature flourished during this period with hundreds of poets composing poems and songs. The Pandian kings, the patrons and rulers of the period were themselves poets and respected and rewarded literary talents. Lord Shiva, Karthikeya and Rishi Agasthiya are counted among the Sangam poets.
A recent book Love stands Alone: Selections from Tamil Sangam Poetry has brought the richness and the pleasure of the Sangam poems to the non-Tamil reader. Excellently translated selections capture the reader even at the first page.
Shri U V Swaminatha Iyer one of the doyens of Tamil language said this about the Sangam poetry: “It appeared like another unique language.” “The vistas of the new world depicted in the Sangam books appeared as the mountains covered by mist. Though this heavy mist hung over the mountains, its loftiness and magnitude though not fully visible was yet perceptible as larger than the earth, vaster than the sky and immeasurably deeper than the seas.”
The Sangam poems are divided into two broad categories – Akam and Puram. Poems under Akam deal with personal, individual emotions, like love, romance, valour etc. Puram accommodates all that is not Akam. Here is a reading of the Akam poem:
‘Coo-coo,’ the rooster crows,
and a chill runs through my heart.
Dawn has come
like a cruel sword
to tear me apart
from my lover’s arms
A Puram poem:
Even as gold, coral, pearls
and precious stones from the hills
though found in places far apart
are strung together
when a costly ornament is made,
noble minds mingle with noble minds
while the lowly men
seek their own kind.
In the introduction, the editor quotes Nabokov and says he listed three unbreakable rules for good translator: intimate knowledge of the language from which one translates; experience as a writer of the language into which one translates; and ‘that one knows, in both languages, the words designating concrete objects (natural and cultural, the flower and the clothing.” The translator of the selections in this volume M L Thangappa, no doubt, fulfils all the qualities. The translations do not mar the beauty and depth of the original. He taught Tamil in various colleges in Puducheerry for 25 years, till his retirement in 1994. He has translated several Sangam poems and the works of various other great poets. The editor A R Venkatachalapathy has taught History in various institutes and written on Tamil history of various periods.
There is a breathtaking collection of 2000 poems from the Sangam era. It is supposed to have lasted in three phases, the first two phases washed away by the sea. The present collection is from the last phase of the Sangam era. It is not out of place to point out that women poets enjoyed equal status and acknowledgement.
The poem that gave this collection its title is this:
In the desolate, rain-forsaken land
the twisted Kalli’s pods
open with a crackle
frightening the mating pigeons
with their close-knit downy feathers.
He has left me languishing.
‘In search of wealth,’ he said.
He did not mind the risks on the way.
If it comes to that,
then in this world
wealth has all support
and love must stand alone
Penguin has been bringing out gems from the rich Indian literature and this latest volume from the Sangam poetry, definitely is a jewel.
(Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi, 110 017)