David Shulman

Singing the Wind: Śrī Kāḷahastīśa

Once—it was in the time of the Corona epidemic—the Wind God appeared in my dream. It was just before dawn, and in the dream I was in India with a group of students and friends, but I didn’t know what to show them. I was out alone, searching for a suitable site. Early morning. At the edge of a field of ripening wheat, or maybe paddy. Suddenly a wild gust of wind passed through the sheaves, making them dance, then even lifting them out of the earth and setting them down again some distance away. There was a rhythm to this dance, syncopated, not too fast or too slow. Watching the scene, I knew it was the most beautiful sight I’d ever seen. I wanted to capture it on my camera, but it was over long before I’d finished my fumbling, so I missed it. It was a mistake even to try. Who would want to capture the wind? I waited for it to happen again, and indeed there came another burst, rippling through the growing grain, no less beautiful than before.

Ciṉṉattampip Pulavar’s Kalvaḷaiyantāti, or: Why did an Eighteenth-century Srilankan Tamil Poet Play Such games?

This paper studies a once highly popular composition—in its own way, a minor masterpiece—composed in the eighteenth century in the Jaffna area by a virtuoso poet named Villavarāyar Ciṉṉattampi at the well-known site of Kalvaḷai, today Sandilipay, sadly notorious for a massacre of Tamil civilians by the Srilankan army that took place there on July 24, 1983. Situated close to Jaffna city, Kalvaḷai is home to an old Gaṇapati temple that inspired our poet’s work. Ciṉṉattampi (1716-1780) was the son of Mutaliyār Nākanātar Villavarāyar, who was commissioned by the Dutch to produce a compendium of Tamil customary law, the Teca-vaḷa-mālai. The poet studied with an exacting Tamil poet known as Kuḻankaittampirāṉ and is supposed to have begun composing poetry in Tamil as a seven-year-old boy. There are stories, still current, about his astonishing ability to improvise verses from an early age. He is also supposed to have solved, while still a child, a difficult line in the Kamparāmāyaṇam that no one else could interpret correctly. The family claimed descent from the medieval Tamil kings of Jaffna.

Reading and Re-reading the Vasu-caritramu

All readers of classical Telugu know that Bhaṭṭumūrti’s Vasu-caritramu (VC) is one of the hardest books to read in the entire literary corpus, in some ways harder even than its closest rival in this respect, Kṛṣṇarāya’s Āmukta-mālyada, famous for its complicated, non-native syntax and strange metrical effects. Nearly every verse in the VC presents the reader or listener with a challenge. Many, probably most, are bitextual, śliṣṭa, often in ways atypical of earlier paronomastic practices in Sanskrit and Telugu. Typically, such verses have to be deciphered, preferably with the help of a good commentary such as Tanjanagaram Tevapperumallayya’s, which can be shown to go back to eighteenth-century predecessors and thus to embody one traditional way of reading. It takes time to make sense of such verses; also, understanding them on the level of primary denotation is only the beginning of a much longer process of exploring meaning, for each verse is embedded in a sequence, or rather a set of interlocking sequences that make up the book as a whole, and it is never enough to make do with the singular momentary flash of illumination that a single poem provides. Like all the great prabandha texts of the sixteenth century—not only in Telugu but also in Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam, not to mention the Sanskrit works produced concurrently with these—the VC imparts a powerful sense of integrated composition. We need to ask about the particular form such integration takes in this particular work.

Prabandha: Mode, Tone, Theme

David Shulman. 2019. “Prabandha: Mode, Tone, Theme”. Abstract
            After sampling prabandha texts in several languages, in an inductive  and open-ended  way of reading together over the last nine months, it is time to propose the lineaments of a more robust theory. Whatever formulation emerges will inevitably be amplified and deepened by further reading and inflected in relation to the particular languages and regions that generated these texts. However, there are already several distinct discoveries.