Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies
Faculty of Humanities
Tamil Personhood Revisited: New Models of Mind and Self in Sixteenth-century Tenkasi
It is unlikely that we can produce any singular, synthetic model of Tamil "personhood," but there are critical moments of civilizational change and innovation where we can glimpse the emergence of new concepts relating to what we call "mind" or "self." One such moment clearly happened in sixteenth-century Tenkasi, as we see in major works by poets such as Ativirarama Pantiyan and Varatunkarama Pantiyan as well as in the visual, sculpted masterpieces in the Visvanatha temple there. To chart change requires us to define earlier models: thus I begin with notions of personhood in Nammalvar and the Saiva canonical poets, where we consistently find a self at once fractured, porous, and maddeningly elusive and obtuse. Here specific forms of "self-intensification" provide a practical therapeutic method. In Ativirarama's Naitatam and Kacikantam, by way of contrast, we see a new, possibly "modern" pattern of self-organization that is perceived as systemic, bounded, highly individualized, driven by a personal imagination, and linked to a relatively realistic ontology and to an ironic or skeptical theory of perception. The role of language also changes in relation to this new image of the integrated individual and his or her irreplaceable experience. Concomitant with such a conceptual reconfiguration is the discovery, or invention, of a literary mode that could be called "fiction," of which the Naitatam is perhaps our first example in Tamil.
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Prof. Shulman's main research is on the history of the imagination in South India, particularly in the Andhra and Tamil areas; he is preparing a book on this topic, focusing largely on the cultural transition of the 16th and 17th centuries. A companion volume will deal with the Tenkasi poets (Ativiraramapantiyan and Varatunkaramapantiyan) and with the 16th-century renaissance more generally. His current projects include: i) a two-volume work, with Velcheru Narayana Rao, on the classical Telugu poets from Srinatha through Bhattumurtti; ii) With Sanjay Subrahmanyam and Velcheru Narayana Rao, a cultural biography of Krishnadevaraya. His most significant publications include, Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine (2007), with Velcheru Narayana Rao and Sanjay Subrahmanyam Textures of Time: Writing History in South India (2002), The Hungry God: Hindu Tales of Filicide and Devotion (1993), Symbols of Substance: Court and State in Nayaka-Period Tamil Nadu (1992), Songs of the Harsh Devotee: The Tevaram of Cuntaramurttinayanar (1990), The King and the Clown in South Indian Myth and Poetry (1985), and Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in South Indian Saiva Tradition (1980).