The Four Hundred Songs of Love: An Anthology of Poems from Classical Tamil. The Akananuru. Translated and annotated by GEORGE L. HART. Regards sur I'Asie du Sud/South Asian Perspectives, no. 7. Pondichery: INSTITUT FRANCAIS DE PONDICHERY, 2015. Pp. xx + 485. Rs. 1000, [euro]43.
Like most of the other poems from the Old Tamil (or cankam) corpus, those of the Akananuru ("400 Poems in the Akam or 'Love' Genre") were most likely composed in the first three centuries of the common era, and subsequently organized into anthologies in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by Paratam Patiya Peruntevanar. Also known as the Netuntokai, the "long anthology" or "the collection of long poems," its poems range in length from thirteen to thirty-one lines and represent the work of 142 poets. George L. Hart, who has done more than any other scholar to ensure that these texts become available to English readers, has done us yet another great service with this translation.
This anthology is known for its unique organization according to tinai or "landscape," the literary device that best characterizes cankam poetry. In the Akananuru, all of the odd-numbered poems are palai, those of the wasteland, which treat themes of estrangement, discomfort, separation, and elopement. The poems ending in "2" and "8" are kurinci, those of clandestine love before marriage and usually set at night in the hills or under the cover of millet fields. The poems ending in "4" are mullai, set in fragrant forests in the rainy season and treat themes related to patient waiting after marriage, most usually as the wife, accompanied by her girlfriend, awaits the return of her husband from the pacarai or "war camp," where he is in service to his king. The poems ending in "6" are marutam, set in cultivated riverine tracts and largely concerned with infidelity and sometimes spoken by the parattai, the wife's rival. Finally, the poems ending in "0" are neytal and are composed on themes related to anxious separation and lamentation both before and after marriage and set at the seashore.
Hart begins the book with a gentle--and very general--introduction to the poems of the Akananuru, discussing their portrayals of "village" and "psychic" realities, noting that the poems contain "nothing otherworldly or rarefied" (p. vi). The translated poems that Hart uses as examples are difficult to read, giving us a sense of what lies before us in the body of the book, and I must admit that I am missing Hank...