Visualizing expressions beyond words

Telling stories is one of the most ancient art forms. Storytelling is embedded in every ancient culture where generations of successes, failures, and knowledge learned about their surroundings is encapsulated in stories, with a designated storyteller in each tribe owning that responsibility. This makes sense, as storytelling is more memorable than any other medium of communication, preserves context, and does not require any additional paraphernalia to get started.

Modern presentation techniques have put renewed emphasis on the art of storytelling, with the likes of TED Talks being coveted for its communication style. We have heard that the ancient Indian texts such as vedas were communicated verbally than through writing because of the ability to preserve the tone, context, and purpose that would be very hard to convey through writing.

Expressing through words

So, how can poets and authors, who rely primarily in a written form, push the limits of providing context beyond what is possible through mere words?

For this, we recollect the works of great authors like R K Narayanan of Malgudi Days fame, who excelled in not just conveying the context but in creating an entire microcosm with his artful writing. One can visualize the early 19th century India in his words – playing out in front of our eyes, feel the emotions that Swami and other lead characters go through during various situations, and can even feel the patriotism that was nearing its peak. Same goes for other accomplished authors like Sujatha Ranganthan in his classic Srirangathu Devadaigal (ஸ்ரீரங்கத்து தேவதைகள்) and Western authors – a more recent one being the Harry Potter Series by J K Rowling.

Perhaps the one that we enjoyed the most was the epic novel Ponniyin Selvan (பொன்னியின் செல்வன்) by Kalki R Krishnamurthy. It is an epic (6 volumes with over 4,000 pages together) that riveted multiple generations in its ability to bring the 11th century Chozha Kingdom in front of our eyes. A quasi-historic novel (primary mix of facts embellished with some fiction), we have immersed ourselves in the books during our school vacation, engrossed in the story. It would sometimes take a few days or even a week to get our heads out of the 11th century – such was the power of his pen.

Now, we can say that writers have more space to play with to portray their universe – they can go to a number of pages and no one will complain. What about poets? They don’t have that luxury and often have to be concise in their use of words. So how would they be able to express emotions, context, and maybe even movement, without a picture or long prose to help them?

We have seen many instances where the notion of time or even emotion is brought about in poetry (we say that we are ‘moved’ by the words). However, movement is a slightly tricky component that we haven’t seen being brought about in poems. This is where our good friend Kamban comes to our rescue.

Graceful motion

In the last post, we shined a somewhat unfavorable light on Kamban as a proud, egocentric poet, who was put in his place by Auvaiyar. But that should not say any less about his genius. In his masterpiece the rAmAyana, Kamban uses words masterfully to express movement.

Normally beauty and grace are reserved to heroines – we always project heroines in good light – they are mostly graceful, beautiful, radiant, and so on. The villains (or villis – female version of villain) don’t get any such favorable treatment. They are most often portrayed as evil personified and ugly.

When describing Soorpanakai (சூர்ப்பனகை) – the sister of  rAvana – the villain of the story, Kamban departs from this stereotype. Story goes that when rAma, lakshmana, and sIta are resting in the forest, Soorpanakai happens to see rAma and instantly falls in love. Wishing to make him hers, she transforms herself into a beautiful woman (through a boon received earlier) and comes in front of rAma with the intent to entice him.

Kamban describes her walking towards rAma as follows:

பஞ்சிஒளிர் விஞ்சுகுளிர் பல்லவம் அனுங்கச்

செஞ்செவிய கஞ்சம் நிகர் சீறடியள் ஆகி

அஞ்சொலிள மஞ்ஞை என அன்னம் என மின்னும்

வஞ்சி என நஞ்சம் என வஞ்சமகள் வந்தாள்

panji oLir vinju kuLir pallavam anunga
sencheviya kanjam nigar seeRadiyal aagi
anjoliLa mangnai ena annam ena minnum
vanji ena nanjam ena vanja magaL vandhaaL

With the softness that would even put wisps of cotton and delicate petals to shame,
With her feet that can be compared to blossomed lotuses,
With grace of a young peacock or a swan,
With the thin, curvy structure like a jasmine creeper,
With poison in her heart,
The devious Soorpanakai came before rAma.

We saw this verse when browsing through the Tamil Virtual University website – an excellent effort to bring olden Thamizh literature to modern audience. The words are carefully chosen and arranged so that when sung, it produces a natural rhythm of swaying (in this case, her swaying hips!).

Kamban not only gets us to visualize the image of Soorpanakai but even her movement! Such is the mastery of Kamban.

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We may wonder if this is Kamban’s genius or if it is just a fluke that he got some nice words. Of course not! Here’s a completely different, and in some sense a contrary example.

உறங்குகின்ற கும்பகன்ன உங்கள் மாய வாழ்வெல்லாம்
இறங்குகின்றது இன்று காண் எழுந்திராய் எழுந்திராய்
கறங்குபோல வில் பிடித்த காலதூதர் கையிலே
உறங்குவாய் உறங்குவாய் இனி கிடந்து உறங்குவாய்

uRangugindRa kumbakanna ungal maaya vaazhvellaam
iRangugindRadhu indRu kaaN ezhundhiraai ezhundhiraai
kaRangupOla vil piditha kaala thoodhar kaiyile
uRanguvaai uRanguvaai ini kidandhu uRanguvaai

Sleeping Kumbakarna, your illusory life of comfort is in the decline.
Get up, face this reality.
Like a kite fluttering in the wind, the bow-wielding warriors seem to be everywhere
In their hands, you will be sleeping forever!

Kumbakarna is a giant brother of rAvanA who is known for his penchant for sleeping. In the scene rAvanA’s warriors are trying to wake up Kumbakarna by nudging him strongly (given his size, likely with crowbars!). The ominous poem spells doom for Kumbakarna and says he is going to go to sleep even if he gets up.

The words are composed in such a way that it sounds as if someone is hitting something with a hammer – an apt rhythm for someone trying to wake a person in deep slumber! This is in a rhythmic sense, the opposite of the earlier verse – grace gives way to sledgehammer.

Soft vs Strong

Kamban’s genius does not end just there. The choice of words are also worth noting here. Thamizh consonants are categorized into three sets of sounds:

Hard Sounds (வல்லினம்):
க (ka), ச (sa or cha), ட (ta or da), த (tha or dha), ப (pa or bha), ற (Ra)

Soft Sounds (மெல்லினம்): 
ங (nga), ஞ (gna), ந (na), ம (ma), ன (na)

Intermediary Sounds (இடையினம்):
ய (ya), ர (ra), ல (la), வ (va), ழ (zha), ள (La)

As the categories indicate, hard sounds require more pressure to pronounce (and more guttural – from the gut), while the soft sounds are more delicate and more from the tongue.

With this in mind, if we look back at the two verses, you can see that Kamban primarily uses words with soft sounds for the verse that portrays grace of swaying hips and hard sounds for the verse that portrays warriors nudging Kumbakarna to get out of his slumber – if this is not attention to detail, what is?!


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