Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

When a Language Becomes a Mother/Goddess

An Image Essay on Tamil

Sumathi Ramaswamy

This essay has an unusual protagonist: a language that comes to be transformed into an object of love and devotion, producing in the process an unusual visual presence for a spoken tongue.

I write of Tamil, a language that currently counts more than 70 million speakers in India and Sri Lanka, and in Singapore, Malaysia, and other parts of the global South Asian diaspora. With a deep and complex history on the subcontinent rivaled only by Sanskrit, Tamil inspired the praise and adoration of many of its speakers from its early recorded literary history traceable back to the opening years of the first millennium of the common era. In the later half of the nineteenth century in colonial India, this admiration intensified to the point that the language was imagined as a mother/goddess variously referred to as Tamiḻttāy, Tamil Aṉṉai, and Tamiḻ Tēvi (Figure 1). Over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, the veneration of and devotion to the mother/goddess Tamil variously fueled powerful movements for religious revitalization, the deepening of linguistic pride and love for Tamil literature, a vigorous assertion of Tamil identity, even a separatist movement for independent statehood free of India.  In the course of such developments, Mother Tamil or Tamiḻttāy herself no longer remains just a goddess of language, learning and literature, but also emerges as a mistress of territory and polity.

A complex set of factors propels these developments that I have examined in my monograph, Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India (1997). In this image essay, I want to focus on another unusual outcome of this passionate devotion to Tamil: the language literally becomes visible and manifest as a tangible seeable presence, assuming the form and shape of a (Hindu) goddess and mother figure through the mediation of the popular visual arts. In its appearance as Tamiḻttāy in prints, posters, and paintings, in textbook illustrations, advertisements and cartoons, Tamil is no longer just a medium of communication, a linguistic vehicle for the expression of thought, or the graphic system of its recognizable alphabetic sequence (Figure 2). Instead it is a very special personage, one who remarkably resembles the numerous divinities who populate the Hindu sacred landscape, or the nurturing mother figure of the everyday Tamil home. In a sense, this image essay asks what it means when a language comes to be pictured and visualized with a human or divine body, as an anthropomorphic presence? What happens, in other words, when the language in its graphic manifestation such as this:

Is also imagined and visualized as this:

What is being attempted—and what is being risked?

It is questions such as these that this image essay sets out to explore.

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