Bilingual Discourse and Cross-Cultural Fertilisation: Sanskrit and Tamil in Medieval India.

Author:Wentworth, Blake
Position::Book review
 
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Bilingual Discourse and Cross-Cultural Fertilisation: Sanskrit and Tamil in Medieval India. Edited by WHITNEY COX and VINCENZO VERGIANI with an introduction by DOMINIC GOODALL. Collection Indologie, vol. 121. Pondicherry: INSTITUT FRANCAIS DE PONDICHERY / ECOLE FRANCAISE D'EXTREME-ORIENT, 2013. Pp. x + 466. Rs. 900, [euro]38.

Whitney Cox and Vincenzo Vergiani are to be congratulated for convening the group of scholars who produced this extraordinarily rewarding collection of essays. The careful, rigorous philology characteristic of IFP/EFEO publications is on full display here, paired with ambitious, even bold assertions about South Indian history and culture. (1) Many of the conclusions ventured are speculative, and the volume embraces this fact. It succeeds, as the editors put it, in demonstrating "how much work remains to be done," but rather than causing frustration, the articles' investigative productivity sparks an agreeable anticipation of the more comprehensive studies of the material that many of the contributors are in the process of preparing.

Bilingual Discourse and Cross-Cultural Fertilisation brings together eleven essays that the editors have organized into three sections: "Literary audience and religious community"; "Regulating language: Grammars and literary theories"; and "Written in stone? Shifting registers of inscriptional discourse." The divisions do not imply interpretive limits. Essays range over the literary arts, poesis and technical form, and epigraphy in their pursuit of "very broadly conceived interactions between the two languages." The emphasis is on their mutuality, the complexities of imbrication as literati moved across linguistic boundaries that Indological scholarship has tended to keep separate. The editors argue that this compartmentalization creates a conceptual impasse that veils the fluidity of medieval Tamil authors' intellectual milieu. If interactions between Sanskrit and Tamil are disarticulated at discrete moments and in precise terms, the broad contours of the relationship between these two languages emerge (not so for the converse).

Relationship is a capacious term, extending across exchanges, responses, affinities, struggles, and fissures between Sanskrit and Tamil literary cultures. The mechanics are invariably complex, and the contributors seek to identify them clearly. A real advantage here, as the editors note, is the rich data available from the medieval period. Given this temporal focus, the volume engages with Sheldon Pollock's description of cosmopolitan and vernacular literary interaction developed most prominently in The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India (2006). As Pollock has himself noted, Tamil presents challenges to the historical model he asserts, and the editors make a strong case here, arguing that it "fails rather dramatically to adequately account for the long shared history of Sanskrit and Tamil" (p. ix).

Readers may debate the extent to which the collected essays transform the tectonics Pollock maps out. The essays are not all in agreement on this point, and distinguishing "Tamil" in words and discourse is by no means obvious. As these contributions engage points of tension that bespeak linguistic interaction, I was struck by the pervasive silence...

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