Artistic rivalry and artful exaggeration

Art emanates from the genius of an artist – be it innate, imbibed, inspired, or inculcated. Such art seems to get taken to newer heights when it is infused with rivalry between two artists – be it friendly or not.

Art history has been the ultimate beneficiary of such rivalries, where the competing artists have pushed themselves beyond their limits, to one-up the other, at times at the cost of even a ear! In the Western world, there have been rivalries between contemporaries such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Vincent Van Gogh and Gauguin (which apparently led to the loss of the aforementioned ear – that of Van Gogh’s), and Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

Thamizh literature, with its long and colorful history, is no different in this case and has references to similar rivalries that have resulted in interesting anecdotes and great poetry. In a previous post, we touched upon a couple of such rivalries – one between Kamban and Auvaiyaar, and the other between Bharathiaar and Kanthimadhinaathan.

When doing research for a topic suggested by Vasu Ramanujam, another interesting artistic rivalry came to fore – that of the poets புகழேந்தி (Pugazhendhi) and ஒட்டக்கூத்தர் (Ottakkoothar).

Pugazhendhi and Ottakoothar

The period around 1100CE seems to have been a great one for Thamizh literature. By various accounts, this time seems to have been adorned by great poets, including Kamban, Auvaiyaar, Pugazhendhi, and Ottakoothar.

The story goes that Pugazhendhi was the chief poet in the Pandyan kingdom, whereas Ottakoothar was the chief poet in the neighboring Chozha kingdom. The Chozha kingdom was transitioning from Vikarama Chozhan to his son Kulothunga Chozhan (father of Rajaraja Chozhan). Potentially to consolidate the kingdom, it was suggested that Kulothunga Chozhan be married the Pandian princess. Seeing this to be a mutually beneficial idea, Ottakoothar was sent to to the Pandyan kingdom to seek alliance.

As may be a concerned father would, the king asked Ottakoothar to elaborate why the Chozha prince deserves his daughter’s hand. Ottakoothar responded as follows, extolling the greatness of the Chozha kingdom (above the Pandya kingdom):

ஆருக்கு வேம்பு நிகராகுமோ அம்மானே
ஆதித்தனுக்கு நிகர் அம்புலியோ அம்மானே
வீரர்க்குள் வீரனொரரு மீனவனோ அம்மானே
வெற்றிப் புலிக்கொடிக்கு மீனமோ அம்மானே
ஊருக்குறந்தை நிகர் கொற்கையோ அம்மானே
ஒக்குமோ சோணாட்டைப் பாண்டி நாடம்மானே

Is the neem plant better than the banyan plant?
Does the moon shine brighter than the sun?
Can a fisherman be a warrior? Can the fish stand up to the tiger?
Does the koRkai city compare to kuRandhai?
Will the Pandyan kingdom compare to the Chozha kingdom?

The references are to the symbols and characters of the two kingdoms: Chozha kingdom used the tiger as its sign, banyan leaves for adornment, and is considered to be the “Sun” dynasty. On the other hand, Pandyan kingdom used the fish as its sign, used neem leaves for adornment, and considered themselves to be the “Lunar” dynasty. Ottakoothar smartly used these references to indicate the superiority of his kingdom.

And this is where the rivalry started off. Not ready to be belittled by the visiting poet, Pugazhendhi gave his response, twisting the same words:

ஒருமுனிவன் நேரியிலோ உரைதெளித்த தம்மானே
ஒப்பரிய திருவிளையாட் டுறந்ததையிலோ அம்மானே
திருநெடுமா லவதாரஞ் சிறுபுலியோ அம்மானே
சிவன்முடியி லேறுவதுஞ் செங்கதிரோ அம்மானே
கரையெதிரல் காவிரியோ வையையோ அம்மானே
கடிப்பகைக்குத் தாதகியங் கண்ணியோ அம்மானே
பரவைபபரந் ததுஞ்சோழன் பதந்தனையோ அம்மானே
பாண்டியனார் பராக்கிரமம் பகர்வரிதே அம்மானே

Did Agastya muni (considered the father of Thamizh literature) initiate Thamizh in mount nEri (no, it was in Podhigai – part of Pandyan kingdom)?
Did the Thiruvilaiyaadal of Shiva happen in kuRandhai (no, it was in Pandyan region)?
Did Vishnu take the form of a tiger in his avatars (no, he took the form of a fish)?
Does the Sun adorn the locks of Shiva (no, it’s the moon)?
Did the Thamizh sangam literature flourish on the banks of Cauvery (no, it was vaigai)?
If someone is possessed, do they use banyan leaves as a remedy (no, it is neem)?

So, using the same references, Pugazhendhi beats Ottakoothar and  puts him in place. Though this might have been unsettling for Ottakoothar, he goes ahead and advises the king to proceed with the marriage considering the broader alliance.

As part of the marriage, the Pandyan king requests Pugazhendhi to go with his daughter to the Chozha kingdom to serve as her counselor and as a gesture of goodwill. This obviously ticks off Ottakoothar, who promptly puts him in prison when he gets an opportunity (accounts vary here on how this happened), who is eventually freed upon the queen’s intervention. Pugazhendhi then voluntarily recuses himself and moves to a smaller princely state within the Chozha kingdom, where he goes to create one of his greatest works – நளவெண்பா (naLaveNbaa – the story of naLa)

சொல் குற்றம் (Sol kutRam) and பொருள் குற்றம் (poruL kutRam)

Poets in those days took their artistry quite seriously. Somewhat similar to current day scientific research and peer review, poets who created their magnum opus had to prove their skill in the king’s audience by defending their work. Their contemporaries, who would often be competing for the king’s goodwill and his purse, will critique the work and try to find gaps, and if the poet comes out unscathed, the work then gets immortalized.

The works were critiqued for the use of words (சொல் – sol – words), which included the structure of the poem, the grammar, and also the right choice of words for a given context (no unnecessary cussing, etc.), as well for meaning (பொருள் – poruL – meaning), which included checking if the right metaphors were used, if rationale was relevant, etc.

Of such critiques, Ottakoothar was apparently notorious and was a stickler to such things. Thus, he was looking for an opportunity when Pugazhendhi was invited by the king to recite his work at the court, which seemingly happened with this verse.

மல்லிகையே வெண் சங்கா வண்டு ஊத, வான் கருப்பு
வில்லி கணை தெரிந்து மெய் காப்ப, முல்லை மலர்
மென் மாலைத் தோள் அசைய மெல்ல நடந்ததே
புன் மாலை அந்திப் பொழுது

malligaiyE veN sangaa(i) vaNdu oodha, vaan karuppu
villi kaNai therindhu mei kaappa, mullai malar
men maalai thOL asaiya mella nadandhadhe
pun maalai andhi pozhudhu

The bees are blowing the Jasmine flower as a conch (drinking nectar);
The cupid (manmadhan) is sharpening his arrows of love to be shot at young boys and girls with his sugarcane bow;
The cool evening is coming upon people with a movement as gentle as the shoulders of a girl adorned with a Jasmine garland.

Ottakoothar interrupts the recital and argues that Pugazhendhi has a poruL kutRam (error in meaning), because bees drink nectar from the front of the flower (between the petals) and not from the back. Given that, how can the poet say that the bees are blowing the Jasmine flowers like a conch when drinking nectar from them?

Unfazed, Pugazhendhi responds with the one-liner:

“கட்குடியனுக்கு வாயென்றும் சூத்தென்றும் தெரியுமா? நீர்தான் சொல்லும்”

kaL kudiyanukku vaai endRum soothendRum theriyumaa? neerthaan sollum

“Does a drunkard know the front from the behind? You tell me!” – implying that the flowers were so rich in nectar that the bees, having drunk that nectar, are so buzzed that they don’t know the front of the flower from the back and are trying to get more nectar by blowing on the stem!

The rest is history, as naLaveNbaa is considered one of the greatest accomplishments of Pugazhendhi and also the epitome of the veNbaa song metre in Thamizh.

You can read more about other similar incidents of the rivalry in the links section below, that are equally fascinating.

Artful exaggeration

The famed neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran, in his book A brief tour of human consciousness, speculates that the beauty in art has some universal principles that might raise the appeal of the art. He posits that art involves deliberate hyperbole, exaggeration, and even distortion, in order to create pleasing effects in the brain. One such principle is that of “Peak Shift”, where certain elements that are distinctive of a person or a group, is exaggerated from others to make it more memorable.

We see such examples in political caricatures, where certain notable features of the person are exaggerated beyond normal, which makes the caricature an essence of the person than even their picture – some simple modern day examples would be the hair of Donald Trump, the ears of Barack Obama, and so on. Those who are a bit older may remember the memorable caricatures that come up in the title of the Yes, Minister series, such as that of Paul Eddington:

paul20eddington2020yes20minister201980201-1 scarfejh

Beyond comedy, such exaggerations are also used to depict extreme beauty, as can be seen in Chozha sculptures:


Such sculptures apparently appalled the Victorian Britishers who first saw them (and similarly the Kajuraho sculptures), who were used to the Renaissance and Greek style of ‘realism’, where the renderings were proportionate to real life. In contrast, the Indian sculptures where highly disproportionate, with ample bosoms, narrow waist, and broader pelvic region, and some contorted poses. However, they also demonstrate a heightened sense of femininity – which likely was the intent of the artists – exaggerating the ‘feminineness’ by highlighting characteristics that are unique to the female human species.

Now this may be fine in visual arts like caricature and sculpture, but how can the same be done in words?

Apart from the rivalry with Ottakkoothar, Pugazhendhi is also hailed for the use of metaphors, similes, and the like, in his poems. naLaveNbaa is a classic example in this regard, so much so that he is praised for his description of Damayanthi’s beauty as much as Kamban is praised for his description of rAma in his epic.

We came across this beautiful, albeit potentially a sensuous poem, where the poet describes the beauty of Damayanthi, akin to the Chozha sculptures:

மோட்டிளம் கொங்கை முடிய சுமந்தேற
மாட்டாது இடை என்று வாய்விட்டு – நாட்டேன்
அலம்புவார் கோதை அடியிணையில் வீழ்ந்து
புலம்புமாம் நூபுரங்கள் பூண்டு

mOttiLam kongai mudiya sumandhu ERa
maattadhu idai endRu vaai vittu – naattEn
alambuvaar kOdhai adi iNaiyil veezhndhu
pulambumaam noopurangal pooNdu

The sound of the anklets of Damayanthi – the one whose thick locks are adorned with fragrant flowers – sound as if they are crying out loud at her feet about the injustice meted to her thin waist which cannot bear the weight of her bosoms!

What a beautiful imagination! The poet brings the picture of the sculptures in one verse. No wonder that naLan was besotted by Damayanthi on hearing such a description, even if he hadn’t seen her yet!




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