CHENNAI: Archana Venkatesan’s The Secret Garland: Antal’s Tiruppavai and Nacciyar Tirumoli, lushly translates the ninth century Tamil mystic Andal, described admiringly as a “troublesome and vexing female poet”. Archana will appear at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Excerpts follow...
Many bhakti poets wrote in the female voice, the voice of a consort yearning for her beloved. Andal was the only woman among the 12 Alvars. In what ways does this — the fact of empirical feminine experience — set her work apart in this vein?
The first thing to remember is that poet Kotai uses many kinds of female voices in her poems. She uses the collective gopi-voice in the Tiruppavai and Nacciyar Tirumoli, the ‘I’ voice of a woman in the throes of unrequired love, and the silent voices of mothers and friends, interlocutors who are painted often as apathetic or indifferent to the protagonist’s suffering. But long established reading practices tend to collapse these many voices, and they become synonymous with Kotai’s. While there are subtle differences in each of these registers, what one comes away with upon reading her poems, is that Kotai writes of desire for Vishnu is somatic and corporeal. The experience of desire (physical, emotional and mystical) is not displaced or merely suggested, but evoked in stark, direct terms. This is perhaps what distinguishes Kotai as a poet from the other alvar, who use the female voice.
In the spectrum of women poet-saints, you have placed Andal between the extremes of Karaikal Ammaiyar (whose rejection of marriage as a social construct had familial sanction) and Akka Mahadevi (whose rejection of the same was rebellious in nature). Andal fiercely rejected marriage to a mortal, but her wedding to Vishnu found both social and hagiographic support. Can you comment on the ways in which Andal’s subversion is made comfortable for a conservative milieu?
Well, I think marriage makes all that overwhelming desire alright. Indeed, Kotai herself normalises that desire both in her rejection of marriage to a mortal man in several places in the Nacciyar Tirumoli and in the elaborate dream sequence in that same poem — the famous varanam ayiram section. The early hagiographies are actually much more sensitive to the subversive and transgressive character of Kotai’s love for Vishnu, and find ways to remark on its extraordinary quality. Kotai’s apotheosis into the goddess, Andal, sometime beginning in the 14th Century, is a critical intervention in finding a way to contain the explosive and radical quality of the poet’s words.
In your translation of Tiruppavai, you leave the refrain that closes each poem — el or empavay — untranslated. You’ve explained that this is owing to the polyvalence of the word ‘pavay’ (interpreted variously as ‘vow,’ ‘girls,’ ‘thoughts,’ etc). While precision may be the main reason for this choice, it’s also a beautiful aesthetic touch — helping to retain the mystical chant-like quality of the work. Can you tell us about the challenges of creating translations that must appeal on academic, devotional and artistic levels?
Many theorists speak of translation as an act of violence. You have to break apart the text and put it back together, and in doing so, it assumes another form. It becomes something else, it assumes a different life. For me, translation is a chance to nurture a beautiful symbiosis, and convey the effect that emerges in the quietude of intimacy.