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Brief History
 

WHY STUDY SASTRIAR?

The message of the Gospel has been sustained in many lands less by forceful preaching or forcible conversion than by effective communication through acceptable cultural media and by personal testaments of the practice of the Gospel.  Where the two latter are absent the flush of initial enthusiasm fades away and the message fails to take root.  Such is the fate of the Christian message in many lands. In our own country Christianity has failed to make an impact on the nation chiefly because of the unfamiliar forms of communication which failed to evoke confidence in the people. This may be one of the substantial reasons for failure of the Christian faith to penetrate the soul of India.

Into such a situation the present booklet comes as a refreshing reminder not only to awaken the complacent Christian from his or her lukewarm attachment to forms of religion which are not couched in our own tradition and culture but also to tell our non-Christian compatriot that Christianity does not make an adherent any less Indian than he or she is. The life, work and faith of Vedanayaga Sastriar is an example of the great impact that one can make upon the literate audience of a given cultural milieu by seeking for the Gospel a mode of communication which is at once as sincere as it is familiar, especially in a society where the cultural and literary predilections are woven in to the very life of the people.

The works of Vedanayaga Sastriar are marked by two distinctive features: (a) their reliance on Tamil literacy and folk traditions for their winsome expressiveness: and (b) their proclamation of the man of faith behind them whose life and humanity reinforces such expressive success.

The first of these features interestingly rests upon the choice a range of literary forms used not so much for academy blandishments as for effective communication among common audiences and congregations. They are taken from folk arts and literature such as the Gipsy Song, the Lullaby, Versa Drama of the Street Theatre, the Kummi (a roundel dance performed to the Lament. The choice of these art forms, to the exclusion of the great literary tradition of Sangam literature, does not argue any inability on the part of the artist but it show his assiduous pursuit of his great purpose, namely, the effective communication of the Gospel to the common man in the context of his social and cultural milieu. His works may not perhaps compare, in their theological or philosophical erudition with those of Rabindranath Tagore especially his Gitanjali or Donne’s sacred writings but they may well be compared with the abiding compositions in the medieval ballad tradition in which the culture of the itinerant minstrelsy flourished. In this sense Vedanayaga Sastriar may be placed among the great poets of the minor Literary Tradition of Tamil Nadu. It is so by reason of the deliberate choice made by the artist. However, the ingenuity with which he raised this Minor Tamil Literary Tradition to the loftiest heights to which few others have raised it shall not go unacknowledged. This he achieved by imparting to the Minor Tradition the enriching workmanship that is characteristic of the Great Literacy Tradition. The successful imbedding of serious religious and spiritual allegory in these popular art forms, the remarkable powers of imagination and description which he brought to bear upon them and his critical appropriation of the forms for his astute spiritual purpose are characteristic of great artists which do not often grace the works of lesser poets and artists. The breath-taking Miltonic imaginative creation of Noah’s Ark and its inhabitants in Gnanath Thatcha Nadagam (The Drama of the Divine Carpenter) with its description of the myriad species Noah gathered into his ark; the quaint appropriation of the separation of lovers in the tradition of love poetry (as instanced in Hebraic Song of Songs in the O.T.) in Gnana Andadi for an allegorical interpretation of the mystical union between Christ and the Church the compendium of religious teaching enshrined in both the Old and the New Testaments in Aranathintham; the most appropriate allegory of the cripple with wooden limbs who represents the sinful soul precariously propped on law and tradition in Gnana Nondi Nadagam  (The sacred Drama of the cripple); the remarkably effective use of the lyric tradition to suit the jubilance of Christ’s nativity (Gnanath Thalattu) the elegiac grief of the passion and death of  Christ (Pralaba Oppari) – and the stark rationalism of Sastrak Kummi (The Roundel of Ritual Observances) in the relentless iconoclasm of popular superstition are some examples of the unique artistry of this great Tamil poet of South India.  The greatest of all his works is Bethalem Kuravanji (The Gipsy Dance Drama of the Lord of Bethlehem) which is widely acknowledged as the most successful extended allegory which may be compared with Spenser’s allegorical epic, Faerie Queene in many respects.  The parallels between details of the gipsy literary tradition and the relationship between Christ and the Church as well as the propagation of the gospel are remarkably appropriate and convincing. One has to watch performance of this dance drama on the stage to appreciate the immaculate cultural naturalization of the gospel tradition.

That which gives weight to the literary output of Sastriar is the genuineness of his piety. Like Hopkins whose technical virtuosity is subordinate to his religious conviction, Sastriar serves his Lord with the literary gifts.  He has endowed him with. His rational assessment of situations and his forthright tenacity made him face agonizing experiences including that of facing excommunications.  These drove him to the court of the King of Tanjore who patronized him as his court poet. He has to later face the displeasure of at least the King’s son and successor for his uncompromising faith in Jesus Christ. The parallel between Sastriar and some of the heroes of faith in the Bible is striking indeed.  Like David the Harper-shepherd Sastriar tended herds of cattle while he exploited his lyric imaginations. Like the minstrels of Israel in exile who lamented and refused to sing about other gods, Sastriar refused to sing about Brihadeeswarar or Vinayagar at the behest of the King. The simple life of the great man who believed in the sufficiency of itinerant minstrelsy and who refused to own land for fear of losing his sole dependence on his Lord is a living epistle to those who wish to emulate him. He bore honors (there were several) with dignity, suffered trials with stoic equanimity and poured out his agony and ecstasy in his monumental works which will serve the needs of devotional expression of the religious minded for a long time to come.

I have enjoyed reading the present book which brings out the greatness of Sastriar as both man and poet.  I am sure this book written about the great South Indian Minstrel of God will be well received.

Rev. Dr. Francis  Soundararaj, M.A., B.D., Ph.D.,
Principal
Kodaikanal Christian College
Kodaikanal 624 101 Tamil Nadu

 
 
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