Meet the extraordinary intellectual Tho Pa, who awakened Tamils to the richness of their culture

It is a quarter of a century since Ariyappadaatha Tamizhagam (The Unknown Tamil Country) by Tho Paramasivan (Tho Pa) was published from Palayamkottai. Edited by me with a foreword, typeset and printed on a mini-offset machine at Madurai, and published by ThoPa’s dear friend V Manickam, Ariyappadaatha Tamizhagam propelled a hitherto little-known academic to intellectual stardom.

In 1998, he was appointed professor of Tamil Studies at Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli. This was poetic justice considering that an identical selection committee had turned him down for a lower position barely a year earlier. With this appointment, ThoPa returned to his hometown, Palayamkottai, for good, after more than two decades of teaching in colleges in Ilayankudi and Madurai.

In 2001, Kalachuvadu Pathippagam became his publisher. Crisply edited, elegantly produced and widely distributed, ThoPa’s books found thousands of new readers. A revised edition of Ariyappadaatha Tamizhagam was the flagship, and has since sold more than fifty thousand copies.

With the film star Kamal Haasan becoming his unlikely champion, ThoPa’s stock rose to dizzying heights. Readers from all over Tamil Nadu, not to speak of the diaspora, flocked to his house on Yadhavar Keezha Theru, a narrow street in Palayamkottai. ThoPa basked in this glory – what effect it had on his subsequent scholarship is for posterity to judge.

ThoPa’s immediate caste background, not to speak of his family, had little intellectual pedigree. In the 1960s, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam rose in prominence, and galvanised the youth in the anti-Hindi agitation and went on to win political power in 1967. A photograph of ThoPa with Periyar, dating to a year or so before the latter’s death in 1973, bears testimony to his early investment in the Dravidian movement.

An avid reader, he came under the spell of Ci Su Mani, a self-taught Tamil scholar steeped in Saiva literature and philosophy. After graduating in economics from St Xavier’s College, Palayamkottai, at Ci Su Mani’s egging, he joined Alagappa College (now University) for a postgraduate degree in Tamil (1969-71) under the erudite V Sp Manickam. During his years as a college teacher, he was active in the teachers’ movement – the Madurai Kamaraj University Teachers’ Association was a formidable force in the 1970s and 80s, leading the struggle for teachers’ dignity and pay.

The Emergency years (1975-77) introduced him to left-wing politics and, like most Tamil intellectuals of his time, he struck a delicate balance between Dravidian politics and Marxist ideology. But unlike the average Tamil teacher, he developed a deep interest in archaeology – which in the Tamil context really meant epigraphy.

These were also years of intense reading and debate, and at Madurai, where he taught at the Thiagarajar College for two decades, he was a star with students and admirers flocking to his lodgings to continue their conversation. But for all the intensity of his intellectual engagement, ThoPa had little to show in terms of scholarly output.

When Ariyappadaatha Tamizhagam appeared in late 1997, a forty-seven-year-old ThoPa had only two books to his credit: Azhagar Koil (The Azhagar Temple), based on his PhD thesis, and Deivangalum Samuha Marabugalum (Gods and Social Traditions), a slim collection of his miscellaneous essays on culture.

These apart, a few polemical book reviews had also received attention: one on the literary history of the Tamil short story by PG Sundararajan and S Sivapadasundaram (published by Cre-A), and another on Cre-A’s dictionary of contemporary Tamil (Kriyavin Taarkalat Tamizh Akarati). Two pamphlets – on the Poona Pact, and on the nature of brahminism – were written under the pseudonym Sivakumaran, after the first Tamil militant to commit suicide by consuming cyanide in the civil war in Sri Lanka.

Azhagar Koil, its plain title notwithstanding, is a landmark work. Unlike earlier temple studies that focused on myth, deities and architecture, ThoPa analysed the Kallazhagar temple near Madurai as a sociocultural institution and its relationship with the various castes settled in its vicinity, given its relative isolation. Deivangalum Samuha Marabugalum, hastily put together for the Eighth International Tamil Conference (Thanjavur, January 1995), anticipated many of the themes that animated ThoPa’s later work, such as alternative traditions and Tamil Vaishnavism. Particularly noteworthy were the essays on the Madurai temple entry movement (1939) and the Tamil conception of ‘blackness’.

This clutch of writings did little justice to ThoPa’s erudition and intellectual range. It also explains the mismatch between the enthusiasm of friends in personal conversations with him and the tepid reception by readers who knew him only through his writings. The Chicago anthropologist, the late John Bernard Bate (1960-2016), called ThoPa his gurunathar (respected guru), and spoke of him with awe. I had imprudently dismissed it as the enthusiasm of a neophyte. Meeting ThoPa at a conference on the great poet Subramania Bharati organised by Gandhigram Rural University in mid-1995, I was converted.

ThoPa was a scholar steeped in precolonial intellectual traditions. Coming into his own amidst attentive friends, he dazzled them with snippets from his wide and eclectic reading. A phrase from an old Tamil poem, a long-forgotten proverb, an epigraphical fragment – he used all these to throw a shaft of light on mundane everyday phenomena.

The quotidian – a personal name or a toponym – danced with new meaning after his breathtaking exposition. Brushed of its dross and grime, the temporal depth and richness of Tamil culture shone. His enquiries into salt, oil, coconut, mortar and pestle, the conch and such, revealed the historical processes underlying material artefacts and ideas. ThoPa was equally at ease with the classics and their commentaries, medieval devotional literature, marginalised texts such as Paichalur Pathigam (a set of ten protest poems composed by a paraiyar woman when a brahmin village tried to intimidate her for her amorous relationship with a brahmin boy) and Palsandamalai (the earliest Islamic text in Tamil; of which only eight verses survive), not to speak of modern writings.

But it was in accounting for lived experience that he came truly alive. Admittedly this was limited to the Tirunelveli region and its environs – what he called, using a historical geographical term, the South Pandya country. The back of his palm was a veritable cultural atlas. The connections that he could make between prehistoric artefacts, ancient texts and contemporary life was what marked him out from the merely competent academic.

ThoPa’s table talk was like a folk performance – improvised according to the spectators’ response, it could provide intellectual pleasure over hours. Scintillating though it is, with frequent flashes of brilliance, this mode of exposition is hardly conducive to sustained argument demanded by the long essay or monograph. ThoPa, in fact, hardly ever put pen to paper; he preferred to dictate.

When I edited Ariyappadaatha Tamizhagam, the manuscript he submitted was a bunch of papers of varying sizes, in various hands. When I said there was not enough for a book, he dictated a few more pieces which I committed to paper. The form of a series of short essays that he chose for the book perfectly suited the subject matter of his explorations into the unknown aspects of Tamil culture. In Ariyappadaatha Tamizhagam, ThoPa’s genius found the right form and expression. He was a sprinter rather than a long- distance runner. The dash also gave the reader a runner’s high.

The timing was perfect too. The 1990s were turbulent years. The explosive conflict between the identities of caste and religion, that climaxed in the Mandal-Masjid issues, led to renewed interest in Periyar’s anti-caste and anti-religious rationalism. The Ambedkar centenary opened many eyes to his extensive and incisive writings on the inequities of Indian society.

The collapse of the Soviet Union had forced the left to engage with Indian realities – caste and religion – on its own terms. The gathering forces of globalisation, in the years following the liberalisation of the Indian economy, had a disruptive effect on contemporary life. Nearer home, in the Tirunelveli region itself, the mid-1990s were the years of simmering caste conflict between the intermediate caste of maravars, and the Scheduled Caste devendrakula vellalar. In the intellectual world, the lines between mass culture and the niche tradition of little magazines were crumbling, calling for the refashioning of cultural forms and fora.

‘Map of Tamizhagam’ by Anurag Jadhav. Excerpted from ‘The Sweet Salt of Tamil: Things We Do Not Know about Tamil Country’.

Ariyappadaatha Tamizhagam addressed the discomfiture caused to Tamil identity by all these challenges. Its bite-sized essays found a ready audience among those who needed reassurance that all was well with Tamil society. ThoPa fed the nostalgia for a lost world. The iteration of the foundational role played by Buddhism, Jainism and other heterodox religions, long relegated to the status of “external religions”, as a countervailing force to Vedic brahminical / Hindu religion, was heartening.

In parallel, he drew attention to the vestiges of these heterodox religions in folk beliefs, and counterposed “the little tradition” as a bulwark against the juggernaut of “the great tradition”. His exegesis to the emancipatory aspects of Tamil Vaishnavism provided a much-needed corrective to the strong Saiva bias of mainstream Tamil culture. An incipient ecological concern too was evident in his writings. Intellectuals and activists of the Dravidian movement, communist formations of all hues, fellow-travellers, Tamil nationalists, the entire spectrum of the Tamil cultural world, lapped up his writings. In a manner of speaking Ariyappadaatha Tamizhagam ticked all the right boxes.

For all the awe and wonder that ThoPa evoked, his writings were not without failings. Representing the advent of the Vijayanagara Empire and the coming of Telugu migrants as a watershed moment in Tamil history, the many ills of Tamil society were laid at its doors. Occasionally, he could slip into a mechanistic functionalism discounting the power of ideology.

A striking case is his celebrated piece, “Panpaattu Asaivukal” (Cultural Dynamics). A young woman has lost her husband in an accident. At the funereal house, loud laments fall into silence when an old woman steps out with a jug of water full to the brim and places it in the centre of the courtyard. She floats three jasmine flowers, one after the other, for the gathering to see. The hush is now broken by sympathetic murmurs.

To the bewildered author, an impatient old man explains that the widow is three months pregnant with the dead man’s child. ThoPa goes into raptures at this insight: “How subtly and gently could a culture identify itself without uttering a single word!” The glorification of a retrograde practice steeped in patriarchy, airbrushed by an aesthetic flourish, and the adulation the essay continues to receive, are, to say the least, disturbing.

That it has not been subjected to a feminist critique speaks for ThoPa’s magic. Rather than sharpen the critical outlook of his readers, ThoPa, it would seem, encouraged a certain smugness – and this was possibly what impelled some dalit intellectuals to be more qualified in their praise.

ThoPa was an extraordinary intellectual who awakened the Tamil people to the range, depth and richness of their culture. When he passed away in December 2020, amidst the pestilence, the universal grief that gripped the Tamil world was unprecedented. In a fitting tribute, the Government of Tamil Nadu, nationalised his works in 2022.

As one who midwifed the original Tamil, it is a privilege to commend its English translation, The Sweet Salt of Tamil: Things We Do Not Know about Tamil Country to a new audience.

“ThoPa, the Tamil Griot”, the foreward by AR Venkatachalapathy, excerpted with permission from The Sweet Salt of Tamil: Things We Do Not Know about Tamil Country, Tho Paramasivan, translated from the Tamil by V Ramnarayan, Navayana.

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