As an still evolving amateur student of recorded history and multitude of cultures, I have learnt to appreciate the differences between cultural stereotypes and historical figures. There has been a growing trend in India and in TN in particular of what’s called as “Cultural Cringe” in recent times. Cultural cringe in social anthropological terms, refers to an internalised complex where people of a culture dismiss their own as inferior in comparison to another culture. This is often preceded or succeeded by expression of views shaped by incorrect referencing of cultural icons as historical figures and vice versa.
The recent controversy surrounding poet-lyricist Vairamuthu’s comments on Aandal, the woman-saint is a case in point. Aandal was the only female Alvar amongst the 12 Srivaishnava saints in south India. She has been one of the best loved poet-saints and often referred to as the “Queen of Bhakti” and an incarnation of Bhumi Devi, the earth goddess. These are cultural/mythological depictions that has gained currency over a course of a few centuries.
That Aandal existed and was a famed proponent of Bhakti-Mukti ideology of the 8th century was never in doubt. The recent controversy arises from the conflicting portrayal of her life story by Vairamuthu who seems to have based his research solely on another publication by a Marxist writer Daniel Selvaraj who wrote a rather dubious piece short of references and long on insinuations.
It’s important here to note two things: One, the historical connotation of “Devadasi” simply meant a devotee of god stripped of the social stigma and societal exploitation of the so-named over the last century. Two, the inability of public figures unable to separate fact from myth and a misguided attempt to decipher ancient citations on record without an adequate understanding of the language and the culture of the times long gone. This practice is not endemic to India or to Vairamuthu but a common fallacy across cultures. Dan Brown makes a reference to this phenomenon in his critically acclaimed “Da Vinci code” where he talks about the role of Mary Magdalene and the description of her as a “companion” of Jesus Christ.
The outrage of Shri Vaishnavas on Vairamuthu’s poorly informed views was predictable. Yet, the masses also need to evolve and adapt to the multitude of views inevitable in the digital era. Above all, the rise of India as a technological and economic super power should free us of the shackles of cultural cringe that is a remnant of the British colonialism and its imperialist ideology. Only then would such fringe views as Vairamuthu’s in the case of Aandal be relegated to where it’s due: the dustbin of history.