Speaking in Tongues

Exploring contemporary approaches to the Tulu language

A tantric palm leaf manuscript with Kannada, Nagar and Tigalari scripts. Tigalari, a southern Brahmi script that evolved from the Grantha script, was once used to write Tulu. COURTESY vaishnavi murthy
01 April, 2020

SU PANIYADI’S PROTAGONIST in Sati Kamale—the first novel in the Tulu language, written in 1921 and first published in 1936—is demure, obedient, loyal and chaste. The rumour is that her husband Umesha Rao, a fierce nationalist, died while working as a revolutionary in Bengal. Kamale, though, has reason to believe that he is alive. While she behaves like a widow all day long, in the privacy of her room every night, she wears the jewellery commonly worn by married women in several parts of India—a mangalsutra and toe rings—and continues to wait for her husband. Kamale, who has about her an aggravating holier-than-thou attitude, is not easy to root for. In the novel, she resolutely abides by a mantra her husband wrote in his last letter to her: “Do not get spoiled, nor spoil others!” These directives are so internalised that when her in-laws suggest she remarry, Kamale proceeds to lecture them on chastity. 

Paniyadi, an important name in a language movement in the 1930s that sought to demand wider usage of, and national recognition for, the Tulu language, was 24 years old when he wrote Sati Kamale, and it is probably safe to assume that he projected his patriarchal ideas of women onto his characters. While the nationalist movement is the underlying theme of the novel, and there is a reluctant promotion of the idea of widow remarriage by introducing half-hearted arguments in favour of it by Kamale’s in-laws, Paniyadi frames Kamale as the epitome of family honour and virtue. The novel was the first of its kind in Tulu and is important for a consideration of the language’s literary history, though it makes for an uncomfortable read. 

The Tulu movement that Paniyadi would later spearhead was “a derivative of the new flush of literary cultivation in Kannada, although it would project its own social and cultural contexts,” the translators B Surendra Rao and K Chinnappa Gowda wrote in their introductory essay to the novel, in 2018. It is one of six texts that the scholars have translated from Tulu over the last two years, as part of an ambitious project to open up the Tulu literary world to a wider audience and to lend support to a revived movement to obtain national recognition for the language. 

Another translation in this project reads as a near antithesis of this novel. When Moonlight is Very Hot: Selection and English translation of Tulu Work Songs and Dance Songs, published in 2018, collects 53 songs from Tulu’s rich oral tradition. The kabitas—work songs sung by women labourers for generations—are short, rhythmic and celebrate the everyday. They also document the injustices meted out to the working classes in a feudal system.