Select Page

By Morgan Curtis, PhD Candidate in Philosophy, Harvard University

The Cilappatikāram (“The Tale of an Anklet”) is a 5th century Tamil epic telling the story of Kovalan, a merchant, and his wife Kannaki, who becomes a goddess. Ilango Adigal is credited as the author of this literary work.

Over the summer, I conducted the preliminary research for my intended dissertation project on the Cilappatikāram and its reception and retelling histories. During my research, I was able to address my interests and needs for my dissertation in numerous ways.

I spent time reading the Cilappatikāram itself, building my skills in reading premodern Tamil verse through regular meetings with Professor Anne Monius. Through this work, Professor Monius and I refined my working translation of the initial parts of the text, while discussing ways in which translation differences and difficulties impact the interpretation and meaning of the text. We discussed issues about the relationship between the text’s form and content: For example, this is the oldest extant piece of narrative literature in Tamil, and therefore possibly the first piece of narrative literature recorded in Tamil. It is also the oldest text we have that addresses the idea of karma in any detail — prompting us to discuss some working theories on the possible relationship between these pieces.

I also spent some time meeting with Dr. V. Prakash from the French Institute of Pondicherry via Skype. Through this, I was able to begin reading the two oldest existing commentaries on the text. As with most commentaries, these helped illuminate tricky grammatical aspects of the root text, provided connections to other texts in the Tamil literary tradition, and offered one person’s interpretation of the text. Dr. V. Prakash’s expertise in Tamil literature added critical understanding to the commentaries, as he could further explain the connections the commentators were making to both grammatical and literary texts. He also understands the landscape of modern Tamil research on the Cilappatikāram and its companion text, the Maṇimēkalai, and brought these perspectives into the reading sessions, as well, so we could discuss various existing theories about each text and the possible relationships between the two texts. This helped me discover research about the text that I had not yet seen.

Lastly, I spent a few days in the library of the University of Texas at Austin, which vastly increased my exposure to and identification of modern retellings of the central story of the Cilappatikāram. I found retellings in Sanskrit, Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi, and English in various forms (short stories, novels, comic books, and plays). I have started reading some of these retellings and have procured copies of almost all of them. Prior to this trip, I did not know about the written retellings in Hindi or Malayalam, and knew of only one Sanskrit version. These materials now constitute a rich set of sources for my research purposes. While there, I was also able to identify and scan a few other studies that address the text — some of which I had heard of but had not been able to find, and others that I had not even seen referenced before.

These retellings inspire a variety of research questions for me: Who are the presumed audiences for the materials written in languages other than Tamil and English? What is their reach? How has this text that holds such an important place in Tamil politics and culture been received by Hindi-reading and -speaking audiences? I am especially intrigued by the two modern Sanskrit retellings, one of which is essentially a prose rendering of the Tamil, the other a play.

One of my immediate next steps will be to read the Sanskrit play and attempt to determine its intended audiences and purposes. At the same time, I will continue reading through the Tamil-language materials I was able to find this summer that are written by political figures (retellings and speeches). Through these materials, I am working to build a better understanding of how and why this text became so politically charged, untangling the narrative about its ascendency to political importance by highlighting the ways in which the text inspired contention.

During my second trip to Austin, I met with Dr. Elaine Craddock of Southwestern University, who works on Tamil materials in both the premodern and modern contexts and has an interest in the Cilappatikāram. We discussed possibilities for conference panels and researchers in North America with whom I should contact to support my ongoing work. Overall, the grant from the Mittal Institute allowed me to make significant strides in my research and opened up new pathways for my research as I work toward a dissertation prospectus.

Curtis’s research and trip were supported by a research grant from the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute.