Does the cleansing of language and old text amount to a dangerous process of whitewashing our ugly past?

Words exist in a constant state of flux, twisting and turning as and when society contorts or bestows newer understandings.

Carnatic music’s understanding of caste complexity is nearly non-existent, even more so of Dalit struggles. And the few references in songs, to those who are historically and culturally placed lower down the caste ladder, are disparaging. The exception to this is Gopalakrishna Bharati’s 19th century musical retelling of the story of the Shaivaite saint Tirunalaippovar titled ‘The Nandanar Charitram’. In this musical opera, Gopalakrishna Bharati confronts the oppression and vulnerability of a low-caste devotee of Siva, with sensitivity and directness.

One of the compositions from this musical opera is the beautiful ‘Varugalamo Ayya’ rendered in the raga Manji. In its secondary refrain, Nandanar, the protagonist, uses the word ‘Parayan’ (the origin of the popularly used word ‘pariah’ in English now) referring to his own deprived social position. During and after the Dravidian movements that raised caste awareness in Tamil Nadu, the ‘P’ word was recognised by Carnatic musicians as deeply problematic.

Consequently, the distinguished vocalist K.V. Narayanaswamy replaced Parayan with the word ezhai (poor). A listener once protested to me that we (musicians) had no right to alter the lyrics of the composer, and Parayan must be understood in the context of Nandanar’s times. But the reality was, and is, that ‘Parayan’ has always been used to demean and humiliate a community in physical, religious, social, political and emotional terms. The real life implications make this usage entirely unwelcome.

But another aesthetic problem emerged with the use of the word ezhai as the alternative. The second syllable alliteration between each line of poetry, an important poetic device, was destroyed the moment ezhai replaced Parayan. It was finally resolved when Rajesh Garga, a Tamil enthusiast suggested the word Naranin (human being), which put to rest this ethical and aesthetic conflict.

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It is important to understand this predicament. Do writers and musicians need to clean up their language and remove the ‘P’ word from all older writings while presenting them today? Is the uttering of the word as given in older texts an abuse, or is it an important reminder of caste injustice? Does cleansing amount to a dangerous process of whitewashing our ugly past?

There is no right or wrong answer. But I must acknowledge that I am privileged, and have no experience of the ‘P’ word. When Parayan is used by members of that caste as a term of assertion and identity pride, it is entirely different from when I enunciate it. Now, a campaign has begun to alert writers about the ‘pariah’ word and its dark casteist history.

Let me now move to another Tamil word, which arises from land and land revenue registers, and has come to acquire a pejorative connotation. This word ‘poramboke’ refers to ‘the commons’, that is, to rivers, lakes, marsh lands, grazing lands, mangroves, etc. that were not in private hands, but were held by the community for shared purposes.

Unfortunately this unaffiliated, un-owned nature of poramboke has made it the territorial equivalent of what in Hindi would be called ‘bekar’. And so, poramboke, as a word is often found in popular cinema, and heard on the streets of Tamil Nadu, with regularity. It is commonly used to devalue and demean people and places, implying that they are ’good for nothing’ or valueless. This has naturally led to rampant neglect and abuse.

The change in the meaning of a word is not just a linguistic occurrence, it influences and determines human actions. This is why we created the poramboke pandal (poramboke song) to culturally retrieve this word, and through this musical intervention, hope that we re-mould our perception of people and the environment.

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Recently in Tamil Nadu, another word became a point of contention – Devadasi. In a speech about the 8th century Vaishnavite saint Andal, the well-known Tamil poet Vairamuthu referred to a scholastic paper that put forth the hypothesis that Andal could have been a devadasi. The historical validity of this statement has been challenged, and his source questioned. Vairamuthu apologised for hurting the sentiments of believers.

But the problem does not lie there. What has angered many, is the word devadasi, a term that refers to women dancers and musicians, who were dedicated to temples. Devadasis who are part of the isai vellalar community were the aesthetic ideators, innovators and caretakers of what we call Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music today. But from around the late 17th century, we know that they were sexually exploited by upper caste men. This resulted in the abolishing of the devadasi system in the early 20th century. But as always, the men, the perpetrators, went scot-free.

Many Brahmin men, women and pontiffs, protested against Vairamuthu’s suggestion that Andal was a devadasi. To Vairamuthu’s credit, in a speech that was entirely in Tamil, he used the Sanskrit word devadasi, and not its Tamil equivalent devar-adiyal, which has since degenerated to the abuse tevadiyal (prostitute). But all this did not matter to the upper caste, who just saw red. The fact that devadasis for most of history were extolled and respected members of Tamil society was forgotten, the 18th century victims of exploitation were denigrated, and those members of devadasi families living amongst us are maligned.

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Members of the Carnatic music fraternity, who choose to extol the virtues of male musicians, those who belonged to the isai vellalar/devadasi community, and devadasis, to display their own supposed caste-lessness, participated aggressively in this collective character assassination. Musicians seemed to forget that great singers like M.S. Subbulakshmi, M.L. Vasanthakumari, T. Brinda, T. Mukta, T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai, Pazhani Subramania Pillai and so many others, who belong to the community, gifted us divine experiences.

As much as some may claim that this is not about devadasis, it is very much about them. I wonder if all hell would have broken loose if Vairamuthu had claimed that Andal was a kshatriya princess rather than a devadasi.

Some have suggested that if the word Parayan needs to be banned, and so does devadasi. The two cannot be equalised. While Parayan was always a casteist derogatory reference of people subjugated to the worst horrors of Indian society, Devadasi was a celebratory reference to artistic and religiously significant women, who later became victims of men. The word itself does not need to be discarded, its abusive usage needs to be challenged.

There is no doubt that Parayan or pariah should no longer be used, because Parayan perpetuates caste and untouchability, while devadasi does no such thing. In any case, who are you and I to decide on the appropriateness of the word ‘devadasi’, it is members of the community who need to make that choice.

A word can be beautiful, ugly, sly, slanderous and transforming. We need to be constantly watchful of what we are doing to it. Before we know it, a word can slip out of our grasp and come back to torment us. #KhabarLive