Red earth and pouring rain: Powerful imagery S. THEODORE BASKARAN
The Hindu Sunday, July 01, 2001
Since June this year, an English translation of a Tamil poem from the Sangam anthology is on display in the trains in the London Underground. The original poem, in Tamil script, is also featured along with the English version. In 1986, encouraged by the Poetry Society, short poems of five or six lines were displayed in a special show. It proved so popular that poetry display has since become a permanent feature in the trains. Funded by the Arts Council of England, the poems are printed in uniform sized enamel plates and displayed inside the coaches. Copies of these displays are sold as posters and are sought after as souvenirs.
The Tamil poem that is exhibited now, the oldest to be featured, is from Kurunthogai, a collection of 400 poems on love, ascribed to the first three centuries A.D.. This is the most popular and off-quoted of the Sangam anthology. When the team of selectors for Poems on the Underground started looking for the original text, Nalini Prasad, curator of the South Indian Languages section of the British Library stepped in. The library has in its holdings, a Kurunthogai text, published in 1915 by Vithyarathnagara Press at Vellore. Tirumaligai Sowriperumalarangam of Tirukannapuram had written the annotation. (There were later editions with annotation by U. Ve. Swaminatha Ayyer.
The English version, by A. K. Ramanujan, has been taken from his book Poems of Love and War (1985). The credit of introducing the splendours of Sangam literature to the English-speaking world in our times goes largely to Ramanujan. He seems to be able to capture with ease the quiddity and the texture of these poems and contextualise them. One has only to read the Interior Landscape, a translation of Kurunthogai, to get an idea of his abilities as a translator. His "Afterward" at the end of this book is the best introduction to Sangam literature I have read. The poem is titled "Red Earth and Pouring Rain". In the background of authors of many works remaining anonymous, in Tamil literary tradition there is this practice of identifying a poet by a phrase or word from his poem. Thus the author of this poem is Sembulapeyaneerar, literally "The poet of red earth and pouring rain".
The poem is about two lovers uniting and the man reassuring her of his love. The powerful imagery in the words "red earth and pouring rain" is so evocative, standing at once for the union in love and also for a geographical context. Evidently, it is this line that inspired the title of Vikram Chandra's recent English novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain. In Interior Landscape, Ramanujan explains his philosophy of translation. "The effort is to try and make a non-Tamil reader experience in English something of what a native experiences when he reads classical Tamil poems. Anyone translating a poem into foreign language is, at the same time, trying to translate a foreign reader into a native one."