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Love and Language

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Poet-saint Andal’s work proves that she regards the body a site of the sacred as much as the soul

Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess | Translated and edited by Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar | Zubaan | Pages 190 | Rs 595

THERE ARE few people outside southern India who are aware of the kind of fervour that the ninth century poet-saint Andal generates, a fervour that can be aesthetic or religious, sometimes both at the same time. This teenage devotee who dies/disappears at 16 and immediately apotheoses into a goddess is as compelling to those who believe in the possibility of experiencing the divine as she is to those who are more sceptical. Her songs are known and sung, young girls dress up as her during her temple festival, her person(a) is beloved, intimate and inspirational. Who can resist a god-mad woman—whether she is Lal Ded or Mira or Akka Mahadevi—especially when she is also a poet who simultaneously inhabits and extends the poetic imagination of her time? 

As with other poet-saints, Andal’s life comes to us as a mix of legend and myth—she is simultaneously of this world and not of it, she is human but in ways that we are not, she is united with her beloved Lord as we can only hope to be. The story goes that a priest found a baby girl under a tulsi plant in the temple compound. He took her as his own and named her Kotai. One day, he realised that she had been wearing the garland that was meant for the deity and upset that she had defiled the flowers meant for God, he scolded her soundly. But that night, Vishnu appeared in his dream and said that he treasured the garland that Kotai had worn before it was consecrated to him. Kotai now became Andal and as she grew older, she abandoned herself completely in her love for Vishnu. At the age of 13, she composed the Tirupavai, a collection of songs where she describes the vows young girls undertake to ensure good husbands. The husband that she seeks, of course, is Vishnu. Her second collection, the Nacciyar Tirumoli, has a more ecstatic tone, demanding physical and spiritual union with her beloved Lord. By the time Andal was 16, she had merged with her lord but the works she left behind have become central to the expression and understanding of Tamil Vaishnava bhakti

The only woman among the Tamil Alwar bhaktas, Andal’s hagiography is significant because she is a young girl who, in her first work, displays a pre-pubescent yearning for union with God and in her second and last work, transforms that into an adult and full-blown sexuality directed towards the divine. Typically, women poet-saints struggle with the demands of earthly marriage and other social constraints. Andal is too young for marriage, too young to be confined by the mores of her time, too young even to express the kind of sexual desire that she does. It’s easy (and comforting) to think of her as ‘transgressive,’ the category in which we place all god-mad women, setting them outside the mainstream and marking their sexual desire for their beloved lord as out of the ordinary. The new translations of Andal’s stunning poems by Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar explicitly deny that category for Andal’s work as well as for her being. 

But there is far more to these translations than a dismissal of Andal’s transgressive nature. Here, we have two practising poets—both of whom write in strong voices of their own—reading, interpreting and presenting Andal as an accomplished poet herself and as a bhakta who regards the body as much a site of the sacred as the soul. Andal’s are complex poems, aggressively straddling both sacred and profane love, supported by the highly refined and intricately codified poetics of the Sangam era. 

Our translator-poets unpack as much of this complexity as they can through their own words, suggesting layers, allusions, alternative readings and even producing different images from Andal’s verses. These differences are complementary rather than contrary because Andal’s work is so very rich and because the old Tamil (cen) in which she expresses herself allows this kind of multivalent parsing. 

Seductively titled The Autobiography of a Goddess, this volume, with its extensive introduction, attempts to present a layered, nuanced and polyphonic Andal, her voice(s) elicited by a male and by a female translator. Sarukkai Chabria and Shankar translate the same verses and the differences we are presented with are startling, not just for the choice of words in translation, but for the sensibility and texture of the poems they produce. Sarukkai Chabria reaches for the body as the location of union with God, releasing the trembling desire with which the poems vibrate. Ravi Shankar’s Andal is revealed through the images in the poems and though she is quieter, she is no less intense in her focus on her beloved. Take a look at verse eight from ‘Dark Flowers’ in Tirumoli translated by Shankar: 

O oceans! Just as he set you howling to steal vigour
from your depths, he entered me to smash
the substance of what I had been to shoals.
Can you convey to this cunning force spread
upon a serpent my extreme suffering in this matter? 
What defence do I have against such bold glory? 

Sarukkai Chabria translates the same verse as: 

Great ocean 
He entered you, churned you 
Plunging in stole nectar from your depths. 
My beloved entered me, churned me, plunging stole my essence. 
My life ebbs. 
Ocean ask the vast serpent that rests on you
to speak to him of my pain. 

Reading these translations together gives the reader an expanded sense of Andal—we are able to glimpse the allusions in her images and metaphors, gain an understanding of the poetics within which she operates, share some of the depth of her all-consuming love for Krishna/Vishnu. 

Typically, Sarukkai Chabria’s verses are heavy with verbs turned into nouns, thick with compounded adjectives. Shankar’s are more open, lighter, more transparent. Translations of beloved classical texts should and will differ depending on who translates them and when. For example, we might read many English translations of Valmiki’s Ramayana in an attempt to come closer to the spirit of original Sanskrit. To have two such excellent renderings of Andal in the same volume is not simply convenient, it is a precious gift. 

This is a courageous volume of translations. Not only do the translator-poets give us different readings of Andal’s verses, they go further, leading us step by step into Andal’s interiority by offering three versions each of the same verse: a close reading, a poetic reading and lastly, a poetic response that stays with the impulse of the original, but expands it to include the translator’s voice. It is here that the poets reveal themselves in the translations and in the different Andals that they conjure up. In the extensive materials that preface the actual translations, the poets introduce themselves with a personal biography as well as with their relationship to Andal herself. These sketches become meaningful only when we read the works they have created. They remind us, once again, that with someone like Andal, so beloved of so many, each of us finds her for ourselves. And she responds to us as much as we do to her. 

Whether we seek the poet or the goddess in Andal, what more could we ask for?