Understanding and appreciating talent

அனைவருக்கும் எமது இனிய தமிழ் புத்தாண்டு நல்வாழ்த்துக்கள்!
(We wish you all a happy Thamizh New Year!)


Is talent natural or acquired? 

Oxford dictionary describes talent as “Natural aptitude or skill”. This implies that talent is something that is innate in a person to perform certain activities, presumably better than others.

Scientific research suggests that this may be true. A person’s ability to perform a specific activity such as art, math, etc. seems to be determined in part by a combination of the genes they are born with (some gene sequences result in the brain being able to absorb certain chemicals like seratonin more than normal, which in turn can lead to higher levels of creativity) and the natural structure of the brain (size of corpus callosum, etc.).

However, a portion of talent is also likely acquired or developed, which is influenced by upbringing. The neural connections our brains make to ‘think’ are influenced by circumstances – how we are brought up and what situations we are exposed to as we grow. So, a child who is born in a musical family for example, may have more aptitude to learn and discern music than one that is not.

Similar to the words “talent”, “aptitude”, and “skill” in the definition above, there are three related terms in Thamizh:

ஆர்வம் (aarvam – desire, interest, enthusiasm, aptitude, eagerness, curiosity)
ஆற்றல் (aatRal – talent, ability, potential)
திறமை (thiramai – talent, aptitude, ability, potential, skill)

The Siddhars provide an interesting case study in analyzing talent in this lens – as we review the life and times of the Siddhars (as well as in aazhwaars), we see that the “talent” of some Siddhars are acquired, while for some, it is natural.

This leads us to our conclusion that while some may be fortunate enough (maybe accumulated punniyam?!) to be born with innate talent, it can also be acquired if we build enough curiosity, which in turn, can lead to developing an aptitude to filter appropriate information sets and make connections, and finally leverage those connections to nurture talent through incessant and focused practice.

In our quest to understand and appreciate Thamizh literature, we have just stepped into this journey having built some level of curiosity. We were delighted to note recently that we were not alone in this journey and there are many more and some, like R Prabhu, seem to be well ahead of us in the path. We stumbled upon his blog when doing research on auvaiyAr and were delighted to see his 10-part series going into elaborate details and even more surprisingly, hitting very similar topics (Siddhars, Azhwars, etc.).

Talent and Ego

Much like how talent can be both natural and developed, it looks like a person’s response to talent also can be in two ways. There are various stories of those who have considered the talent they are born with as a gift from God and hence are humble about it, while others seem to consider it as a ‘birthright’ and hence are haughty. Interestingly, this mindset seems to also get influenced by how such talented people react to praise from others.

This leads us to the core topic of our post. When perusing through R Prabhu’s blog mentioned earlier, he mentions an interesting incident of the friendly (maybe) fight between auvaiyAr and Kamban, two talented poets we discussed in earlier posts.

By various historic accounts, both poets are contemporaries. As we saw from our previous posts, they both are highly talented. However, it looks like they traversed different paths in terms of humility. The story goes that Kamban was fairly proud of his work and was constantly praised by the patron king (Kulothunga Chozhan III). auvaiyAr, a contemporary in the King’s court, feels that this is unjust to other equally talented poets in the court, even if they don’t share the same level of populist support.

Chiding this boastful attitude of Kamban (and correspondingly, even the King), the ever daring auvaiyAr gives us this beauty:

வான்குருவியின் கூடு வல்லரக்கு தொல்கறையான்
தேன்சிலம்பி யாவருக்கும் செய் அரிதால் யாம் பெரிதும்
வல்லாமே என்று வலிமை சொல் வேண்டாம் காண்
எல்லார்க்கும் ஒவ்வொன்று எளிது

vaankuruviyin koodu, vallarakku, thol karayaan
thEn silambi yaavarukkum sei aridhaal yaam peridhum
vallaame endru valimai sol vEndaam kaaN
ellaarkkum ovvondRu eLidhu

Weaver birds can build elaborate nests.
The lac insect is capable of producing tough resin (used for seals).
The termite can build huge and complex sand mounds.
The honeybee builds beautiful and symmetric hives.
The spider weaves delicate and intricate webs.
Each of them have their own talent and are special in their own way. One does not think they are more special than others. Each is special in its own way.

Not only does auvaiyAr makes her point clearly, she also brings about the notion of the ‘brilliance’ of the talent being relative.

In the corporate world, we take turns in learning as well as leading. It would be wise to keep the wise words of auvaiyAr in mind when a junior comes up with a great idea and to appreciate the pride they take in having created a nice presentation even if you can do it more quickly. A true leader is one who appreciates the talents of others in their own context than comparing with oneself (or others close to them).

The wise words of AuvaiyAr also takes a whole new meaning in this day and age where we seem to be getting increasingly polarized along the lines of language, race, political affiliation, religious belief, and geography, aided by a potentially unhealthy positive feedback loop of Facebook ‘likes’ and WhatsApp ‘shares’ of like-minded thoughts. It may be wise to heed her wise words and build tolerence, understanding, and a healthy debate on viewpoints that differ from our own.

Bharathi’s turn

We are reminded of a another example that happened in the life of BhArathiyAr who we also saw earlier. Apparently, this happened in another similar confrontational situation when he was a young lad of 12 or 13 years old, just around the time he was conferred the honorary name of bhArathi (pundit).

Conferring this title to such a young lad apparently upset the court poet of Ettayapuram – Kanthimadhi naathan – where BhArathi lived. To humiliate bhArathi and to show the court that BhArathi is not as talented as everyone thinks him to be (and consequently that he is more talented than BhArathi), the poet puts a challenge asking him to sing a வெண்பா (veNba – a four line stanza) building on a verse that he will give him. Fearless BhArathi accepts the challenge.

The verse – பாரதி சின்னப்பயல் (BhArathi is an immature kid)!

Everyone is shocked by this act. How can one build a stanza based on this, and even if one did, how can it not humiliate BhArathi? Our naturally talented bhArathi retorts with a gem:

ஆண்டில் இளையவன் என்று அந்தோ அகந்தையினால்
ஈண்டிங்கு இகழ்ந்து என்னை ஏளனம் செய் – மானம் அற்ற
கார் அது போல் உள்ளதான் காந்திமதி நாதனை
பாரதி சின்னப்பயல்!

aaNdil iLayavan endRu andho agandhaiyinaal
eeNdingu igazhnthu ennai ELanam sei – maanam atRa
kaar adhu pOl uLLathaan kanthimadhi naadhanai
paaradhi chinnappayal!

Thinking that I am younger and thereby feeling superior, he is attempting to humiliate me.
This shows the dark-hearted and egoistic / ignoble nature of Kanthimadhi naadhan – isn’t he the one who is highly immature here?!

BhArathi plays with the verse provided to him:
பாரதி சின்னப்பயல் (bhArathi chinnappayal) would mean BhArathi is immature.

The phrase can also be split as பார் அதி சின்னப்பயல் (paar, adhi chinnappayal – look, the highly immature one!). Since Thamizh text does not distinguish between “pa” and “bha”.

The nurturally talented has been schooled by the naturally talented!

Naturally talented vs. Talented by nurture

Does this mean that naturally talented people are superior to those who nurture their talent – we may not know the answer. It may be possible that in some cases that may be true, but maybe not always. AuvaiyAr says that regardless of how the talent is formed within a person, what matters more is the humility with which a person handles it.

சித்திரமும் கைப்பழக்கம் செந்தமிழும் நாப்பழக்கம்
வைத்ததொரு கல்வி மனப்பழக்கம் நித்தம்
நடையும் நடைப்பழக்கம் நட்பும் தயையும்
கொடையும் பிறவிக் குணம்

Chitthiramum kai pazhakkam,
senthamizhum naa pazhakkam
vaithathoru kalvi mana pazhakkam,
nitham nadayum nadai pazhakkam,
natpum dhayayum kodaiyum piravi guNam.

Artistry can be mastered by practicing one’s hand
Poetry can be mastered by practicing one’s tongue
Knowledge can be gained by focusing one’s mind
Nobility can be achieved by constantly doing noble deeds
Friendliness, kindness, and generosity the ones that are innate.

Regardless of how the talent comes within oneself, it at least is irrefutable that talent should not be taken for granted and humility must prevail, however talented one maybe!

It is an irony and travesty that coming from such a rich tradition, our modern day artists – be they poets, musicians, or actors – relish in and even demand, to have a fancy title extolling their greatness whether they deserve it or not! We need a modern day auvaiyAr to put them in their place.

In this day of intense competition and the race to nurture all sorts of talent in kids right from Kindergarten, we are better served to remember AuvaiyAr’s wise words and take a step back to recognize innate talent, appreciate the talents of others, and more importantly, cultivate the right character, which may be more important than talent alone 🙂


3 thoughts on “Understanding and appreciating talent

  1. Hi Sathya,

    இனிய தமிழ் புத்தாண்டு நல்வாழ்த்துக்கள்!!!

    Wonderful post, you have a great command of both the languages and their vocabulary. The post and you are very good at writing to the context. Keep up the good work!

    Hope your blog attracts more readers over time



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