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¹Fò ðÂõ™ ªî£°F 02 Þî› 04 Ü‚. 2010

K annagi’s Pluck e d Bre ast: A Ge nde r Pe rspe ctive

Kan@n@aki- the heroine of the Cilappatikâram is hailed as the symbol of chastity in Tamil culture

SEETH A VIJAYA K UM A R

“The greatness of Cilappatikâram lies in the fact that every time one reads it, one finds new areas for analysis and understanding”. 1

“You can’t talk of a female sexuality, uniform, homogenous, classifiable into codes.” 2

Kan@n@ aki- the heroine of the Cilappatikâram is hailed as the symbol of chastity in Tamil culture. The Cilappatikâram is the story of Kan@n@ aki, the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Pukār, who was married to Kôvalan\ , the son of another trader in the same city. Written probably in the fifth 3 century BC by Il@ an^ kô A t@ ikal@ (Ascetic Prince), a Jain monk, it is regarded as the first literary work of epic stature in Tamil. This epic is divided into three books (Kān@t @ams) and each book in turn is divided into Cantos (kātai s) with a total of 5730 4 lines. The first book describes the life of the hero Kôvalan\ and the heroine Kan@n@aki in the city of Pukār, the capital of the Chola country. Hence it is called Pukārkāndam, or The Book of Pukar. The second book, Maturaikānt@ am, or The Book of Maturai, deals with the catastrophic events in their life in the city of Maturai, the capital of the Pandya Kingdom. The third book Va n ~ cikāndam, or The Book of Va n ~ ci , portrays the consecration of the shrine of Ka n @n @ aki/Patti n \ i by the Chera king Se n^ ku t@t @ uvan in Van~ci, the capital of the Chera country. In the Pukārkān t@ am or the book of Pukār, Ka n @n @ aki appears in the role of a wife; good, benevolent, dutiful and controlled. But in Maturaikānt@ am, or The Book of Maturai, she plucks her breast and burns the city of Maturai into ashes.

What is the real motive behind Kan@n@aki’s action of plucking her breast?

If it is a symbolic gesture, then how will we understand/theorize it from a gender/feminist point of view? This gesture of Kan@n@aki’s is of immense interpretative potential mainly because of two reasons: Firstly, in the epic Cilappatikâram, Kan@n@aki is attributed with all the qualities of a perfect and faithful wife who never even dares to question Kōvala n\ ’s adulterous behaviour. The epic portrays her as “Lakshmi of praise worthy form, seated on the lotus, and her excellence is that of the faultless northern star (Arundhati)”. 5 Secondly, then how can we understand an ideal wife openly expressing her sexual energy after her husband’s death, at the most critical moment of her life? Kan@n@aki reacts violently:

I curse this capital who did wrong to my beloved husband. I am not to blame…Then she twisted off her left breast with her hand, and

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going round the city of Madurai thrice making this vow, in deep anguish, she threw that beautiful breast whirling into the fragrant street. Before this illustrious lady who had made this vow, appeared the god of fire, with flames 6

Here we have a woman who is praised for extreme devotion to her husband and for ideal forms of behaviour, but at the same time uses female energy to question the mistakes of an unjust king

I consider this one of the most startling and unique scenes from an ancient text or in Indian mythology. Here we have a woman who is praised for extreme devotion to her husband and for ideal forms of behaviour, but at the same time uses female energy to question the mistakes of an unjust king. Our Ancient Sanskrit texts, vernacular writings, and oral traditions describe the ideal woman as the one who does not endeavor to break the bonds of control; who never conveys her sexuality in whatever context. We are also familiar with the popular notion of the ideal wife as someone who does household chores like a servant, gives counsel like a minister, is as beautiful and charming as the goddess Lakshmi, is as patient as the earth-goddess, bestows love and tenderness like a mother, and gives pleasure like a courtesan. She could attain moksha or salvation only through her unflinching service and support to her husband, irrespective of his unacceptable behaviour. Chastity for women is clearly defined and explained by patriarchy while the institution of extramarital relationships for men is open and permitted. As Foucault observes in The History of Sexuality, sexuality must not be seen as a drive but “as an especially dense transfer point for relations of power”. 7 Here too, Kôvalan\ abandons Kan@n@aki and begins to live with Mātavi, a beautiful and talented dancer. In those heartbreaking moments of hers, she follows the footsteps of our pativratas, does nothing but resorts to ‘waiting’! The ‘waiting woman’ has been one of the dominant stereotypical images of ancient stories, songs and anecdotes and serves as a watchdog in differentiating pure/impure woman.

When Kôvala n\ leaves, Kan@n@ aki waits for him patiently as expected from a chaste and obedient wife:

But Kan@n@ aki was sad at heart. Her anklet was no more on her charming feet; the girdle no longer graced her soft waist-cloth; her breasts were no more painted with vermilion paste; no jewel other than her sacred tâli did she wear; no ear-rings were visible on her ears; no perspiration adorned her shining moon-like eyes; no more was there the tilaka on her beaming forehead; her milk-white teeth were not revealed to Kôvalan\ in a loving smile; nor was her dark hair softened by oil. 8

Our ancient texts like Râmâyanâ and Mahâbhâratâ are full of passive, submissive female characters, who hardly find chances to express themselves. We have many examples to illustrate how female identity or dignity is

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suppressed and censored by means of patriarchal ideology, male standards. We have Si $ , U $ rmilâ, Draupati , S$ urpanakhâ, Ambâ and many more examples to illustrate this point. In the Râmâyanâ, Si$ ta epitomizes the conduct of the proper Hindu wife, devotedly following Râmâ into exile for twelve years. But as a token of gratitude, she is asked to prove her purity through the test by fire! When she remains unharmed by the flames and the gods shower her with flowers, Râmâ happily accepts her back into the royal family. Si $ , the embodiment of devoted wife, represents the ‘ideal’ towards which all women are expected to strive in their lifetime. On the other hand, S$ urpanakhâ being a ‘râkshasi’ meets with Râmâ’s injustice that ends up in the mutilation of her breasts/nose/ears by Lakshmana. What is S$ urpanakhâ’s crime? That she expresses her desire to marry the savarna Râmâ! Or why does Ambâ have to endure such embarrassment all of her life? In her case, it needed a rebirth for her as Shikhandi to aevenge her humiliation and kill Bhishma during the Kurukshetra war.

a grim force and splendour unparalleled elsewhere in Indian literature - it is imbued with both the ferocity of the early Tamils and their stern respect for justice

The Cilappatikâram is one of the literary, mythical and performative 9 masterpieces of the world. Professor A.L. Basham in The Wonder that was India comments that the Cilappatikâram has ‘‘a grim force and splendour unparalleled elsewhere in Indian literature - it is imbued with both the ferocity of the early Tamils and their stern respect for justice, and incidentally, it throws light on early Tamil political ideas.’’ 10 Kan@n@aki is extolled as the epitome of chastity and is still worshipped as a goddess in different parts of the world. Kan@n@aki is mainly worshiped as goddess Pattini in Sri Lanka by the Sinhalese Buddhists, as Kan@n@aki Amman by the Sri Lankan Tamil Hindus, as Ma n^kala De$ vi Kan@n@aki in Tamil adu and as Kodungallur Bhagavathy

in Kerala. As a chaste and faithful wife, Kan@n@aki is cast in a traditional mould

- up until Kôvalan\ ’s death, she stays behind in the background, suffering

without complaint the indignity of her husband’s neglect. With Kôvalan\’s death, Kan@n@aki finds her voice and rises to full stature in her encounter with the Pandya king. She exposes the hollowness of the king’s justice and extracts the ultimate price from him. Her motivation is the removal of an unjust king. In the Book of Pukâr she is the young and nubile wife of Kôvalan\; in the Book of Maturai she metamorphoses into the custodian of Justice; the Book of Van~ci recognises the power of chastity and starts worshiping her as the goddess Patti n\i. Kan@n@aki’s life is both a physical and symbolic journey. Through her actions, Kan@n@aki transgresses those traditional qualities of behaviour attributed to women and transforms into a revengeful female; full of power and glory. Kan@n@aki’s transformation within the Cilappatikâram explains the possible reason for the multilayered nature of the epic.

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Cilappatikâram means the story of an anklet. Whose anklet the title is speaking about? This is Kan@n@ aki’s anklet, a symbol of her firm chastity that later on transforms into an instrument of vengeance. cilambu means anklet and the epic is called Cilappatikâram because the story centers around the anklet worn by the heroine Kan@n@ aki. The Cilappatikâram is Kan@n@aki’s story, the story of her conjugal life; the story of its ups and downs and how far she travells to reclaim justice and purity. Kan@n@ aki is the quintessence of two opposing qualities. It is true that she is supportive of Kôvalan\ ’s infidel conduct that fits her well into the traditional mould of pativrata or ideal wife. Her actions, in one way or the other, are focused on the wellbeing of Kôvalan\ . And she never tries to infringe upon the boundaries drawn according to conservative family rules. She behaves out of the box only at a crucial situation after Kôvalan\ ’s beheading in the Panidyan court.

Kan@n@aki is the quintessence of two opposing qualities. It is true that she is supportive of Kôvalan\’s infidel conduct that fits her well into the traditional mould of pativrata or ideal wife

Kan@n@ aki is described thus:

She is not the deity Kor@r@avai, the goddess of victory, holding in her hand the victorious spear, and standing upon the nape of the buffalo with an unceasing gush of blood from its fresh wound. or is she A n@anku (Bhadrakâ l@ i), youngest sister of the seven virgins, who made Sivâ dance; nor even is she the l@ i of the forest, which is the residence of ghosts and goblins; nor again is she the goddess that tore up the mighty chest of Dârukâ. She appears to be filled with resentment. She seems to swell with rage. She has lost her husband; she has in her hand an anklet of gold, and she waits at the gate. 11

Ka n @n @ aki signifies the archetypal ‘female’ in Hindu ideology who represents an essential duality. On the one hand, she is fertile, benevolentN the bestower; on the other, she is aggressive, malevolentNthe destroyer. Kan@n@aki is a woman of Kar@ pu 12 in the beginning and transforms into a woman of sakti 13 . In ‘The Paradoxical Powers of Tamil Women’ Susan S. Wadley writes “Tamil women are believed to have extraordinary powers, powers that can lead to life and prosperity or to destruction and even death. –espite the drudgery and subordination of women’s everyday lives, Tamils believe that Tamil women can save their husbands from death; they can destroy whole towns; they can bring wealth and health to their kinfolk…” 14

When placed in a feminist framework what is Kan@n@aki’s importance?

Kan@n@aki moves away from the biologically romanticized notion of womanly body functions to an active feminine identity and her breast/body functions as the locale for social role playing. She is someone who has asked for her individual rights; she is somebody conscious of her social role. Kan@n@akis social consciousness is to be appreciated more than anything. The idea of Kan@n@aki as an eloquent and stubborn woman who argues for

Ka n @n @ aki is an independent female force capable of multiplying into a plethora of female forms like the placid house wife, ferocious custodian of justice and the all powerful, omniscient goddess

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justice is the evidence of her social responsibility. She makes the king

understand his fault of killing an innocent person. Kan@n@ aki plays the role of stimulating the king’s conscience, thereby forcing him to acknowledge his guilt. The King laments: “Am I a ruler NI who have listened to the words of

a goldsmith? It is I who am the thief? The protection of the subjects of the southern kingdom has hailed in my hands for the first time. Let me depart from this life”. 15

Kan@n@aki is an independent female force capable of multiplying into a plethora of female forms like the placid house wife, ferocious custodian of justice and the all powerful, omniscient goddess. We can identify two prominent symbols, both functioning as an extension of Ka n @n @ aki’s

personality in the epic tale: Breast and anklet. Dsually, the jingling anklet of

a beautiful woman is associated with amorous experiences or fancies. It is

one of the celebrated stereotypical symbols in our literature and culture. Here too, the anklet adds to her physical beauty while breasts are symbolic of her “femaleness”, both biologically and psychologically. She recreates them into terrible instruments of vengeance against the king for his unjust execution of Kôvalan\ . Since the breast is seen as the symbol of female power, the act of destroying it symbolizes both a woman’s greater control over her body and her socio-political participation. Both breaking the anklet and plucking her breast signify confident execution of the female role/power. This is the depiction of a female figure in symbolic and conceptual context, representing feminine fertility and inner strength. The fire also helps her in performing the ritual cleansing necessary for the restoration of justice. Kan@n@akis silence in the beginning turns into vengeance and again modifies into subjectivity in the later part of the epic. Perhaps, Kan@n@aki is the only

epic heroine/female character with such an intriguing multilayered identity. She should be perceived as a submissive/faithful wife who encompasses and transgresses those gender-marked boundaries through physical, emotional and spiritual action. These layers such as an ideal wife to a revengeful, responsible social being to a ubiquitous deity of the land could definitively be understood from a possible gender conscious perspective. Her’s definitely is a radical journey from being passive to exploring one’s ‘female’ subjectivity, finally towards an absolute symbolic/mythical abstraction.

Note s

1 Uvelebil, Kamil, The Smile of Muruagan, p. 92.

2 Helene Cixous, Laugh of the Medusa.

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4 Z. Parthasarathy, The Tale of an Anklet, p. 5.

5 R.Z. Zamachandra – ikshitar, The Silappadikâram P. 88.

6R.Z. Zamachandra – ikshitar, The Silappatikâram, p. 253.

7 Foucault, History of Sexuality, p. 103.

8 R.Z. Zamachandra – ikshitar, The Silappadikâram, P. 108.

9 Cilappatikâram provides with enormous and detailed information on music, dance (both classical and folk), stage setting etc.

10 A. L. Basham, The Wonder that was India, p. 67.

11 R.Z. Zamachandra – ikshitar, The Cilappatikâram, P. 247.

12 In Tamil culture Ka r@ pu is described as marital fidelity.

13 Sakti is Hindu conceptualization of cosmic female energy. Vvery woman has inherits Sakti from the de $ vis or goddesses.

14 Susan Wadley, The Paradoxical Powers of Tamil Women, p. 154.

15 R.Z. Zamachandra – ikshitar, The Cilappatikâram, p. 247.

R e fe re nce s

Adigal, Ilango (1939), The Cilappatikâram, trans. R.Z Zamachandra – ikshithar, Madras: ODP.

Basham, A.L. (1968), The Wonder that was India: A Survey of the History and Culture of the Indian Sub-Continent Before the Coming of the Muslims. ew York: Taplinger.

Cixous, Helene (1983), “The Laugh of the Medusa”. In The Signs Reader:

Women, Gender and Scholarship, eds. Vlizabeth Abel and Vmily K. Abel, p. 279. Chicago: Dniversity of Chicago Press.

Foucault, Michel. (1981), Introduction. The History of Sexuality. Rol.1. Harmondsworth: Pelican.

Wadley, Susan and Sheryl B. – aniel (1980), The Powers of Tamil women. ew York: Syracuse Dniversity.

Uvelebil, Kamil. R. (1989), Classical Tamil Prosody: An Introduction. Madras:

ew Vra.

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