Thursday, 8 September 2016

Insightful and passionate...

A legend in ‘Indian Writing in English’ reviews the book of yet another legend
K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar reviews K. Chellappan's renowned book

In an era of globalised exchange, transcending the boundaries of place, period and language becomes all the more important; and as Gayatri Spivak rightly avers, ‘this is indeed the era of comparative literature!’ Indeed, Dr. K. Chellappan, is an authority on Comparative Literature. Now in his early eighties, he still roars like a lion when it comes to giving a talk in any literary forum. The last time we met up with him was at the International Seminar in Pondicherry University, in honour of his sishya Dr. Natarajan, Head, Dept of English, Pondicherry University, who happened to be Dr. KC’s first PhD candidate too. [Interestingly, Dr. S. Armstrong, Head, Dept of English, University of Madras, happens to be his last PhD candidate!] 

While reading K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar’s review of K. Chellappan’s famous book Shakespeare and Ilango as Tragedians: A Comparative Study, I couldn’t stop marveling at his mightily panoramic and comparative sweep that beautifully and skillfully slices every idea and domains them coherently in perspectival order!

Given below are excerpts from K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar’s review of K.C’s wonderful book.

So… here we go…!

Searching for the Common Grounds

Comparative Criticism has its lure as also its limitations. When, in a burst of enthusiasm, Valmiki was called our Homer, Kalidasa our Shakespeare, and Michael Madhusudan Dutt the Bengali Milton, and when Bharati described himself Shelley’s heir (Shelley-itösan), there was some implied comparative evaluation. And so Hari Narayan Apte became the Marathi Sir Walter Scott, and it was inevitable Beowulf should be teamed with the Ramayana (and the Mahabharata), Milton with Kamban, and Bacon with Tiruvalluvar. With American and Commonwealth Literatures being lately studied along with English Literature, comparative studies have come to embrace Bharati and Whitman, Savitri and The Divine Comedy, Raja Rao and Patrick White, Arun Joshi and Armah.

It is gratifying there are flourishing schools of comparative criticism in some of our universities: notably, Jadhavpur, Madurai and Bombay. The monograph under review had its origins in a research project completed at Madurai under the  late Prof. T.P. Minakshisundaran’s sage direction, and has since received careful revision and updating: it is now almost a new  work, mature in its comprehension and presentation. Although small in bulk, there is nevertheless a density of subject-matter and a closeness in the developing argument that ask for more than one reading.

Shakespeare was a dramatist, a master of Tragedy, Comedy and History alike; and Ilango was the supreme epic poet of classical Tamil literature. The reader’s initial reaction can very well be: ‘What’s the common ground between the two?’ Chellappan has, however, been able to sustain convincingly his thesis that there is a recognizable consanguinity between the ‘tragic’ in Shakespeare and in Ilango. Also, although divided by perhaps a thousand years, great poetry like Shakespeare’s tragic dramas and Ilango’s epic is at once contemporaneous and universal.

Chellappan’s thesis is set forth in seven well-planned chapters that carry the burden of his argument towards a statement of the synthesis of the Shakespearean and Ilangoist tragic insights and illuminations Recognizing the obvious differences between Shakespearean Tragedy and the ‘tragic’ in Ilango’s poetic testament, Chellappan’s aim is to “see how far the two apparently different genres in the two divergent cultures fulfil similar artistic purposes”.

The human predicament is doubtless a web of human error and mysterious fate, whose relative emphasis varies from age to age. But “we have,” says Chellappan, “more of the sense of guilt in Shakespeare and more of the sense of fate in Ilango” (as also in Greek tragedy). However, in whatever manner the tragic situation may arise, Love is the only answer; and being a spiritual power, Love alone can defy cruelty, fate, nay death itself. And it is peculiarly woman’s role—be it Cordelia’s or Desdemona’s, Kannagi’s or Kopperundevi’s—to incarnate Love, both love defiant and redeeming, and love that transcends  defeat and death. But even in the multi-splendoured gallery of great heroines in Shakespeare, there is none with the sheer all sufficing feminity and sublimity of Kannagi.

As for the filiations between the worlds of Man and Nature, both Shakespeare and llango are aware of the close nexus, but “there is more harmony in llango. . . Nature is more benign and regenerative in llango than in Shakespeare.”

 In his Poetics, Aristotle referred to Tragedy as a power-house that can effect the ‘catharsis’ of the emotions of Pity and Terror.

What is ‘catharsis’? Purgation? Purification? Not jugupsa, withdrawal, but titiksha or confrontation and beyonding? Or the ‘rasadhwani’ of the pity and the terror? Chellappan prefers, however, to refer to the ultimate tragic rasa as the shanti, the serenity, that transcends tension and turmoil, the silence that is more eloquent than speech, as in “The rest is silence”. And Chellappan feels that shanti in Ilango’s epic is more definitive than in Shakespearean Tragedy.

What, then, is the balance-sheet of this earnest and thoughtful comparative exercise? Chellappan boldly takes a look at wider backgrounds —from Sumeria and ancient Greece to the challenges of our own time—and notes how the great poets of the ancient, medieval and modern world have all been groping towards “a loving and just world order”, thereby emphasizing the contemporaneity and universality of all great literature.

I commend Chellappan’s comparative study to students of literature in India as well as the English-speaking world.


Indian Literature, Vol. 30, No. 2 (118) (March-April, 1987), pp. 155-157.
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