Hava Nagila!

Everything does pass, and we can endure and we can survive!! – Rahul Dravid



  1. Kamil Zvelebil “The Smile of Murugan. On Tamil Literature of South India”, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1973

The ancient Tamils were a very artistic people. The more I read about the ancient texts, the more I realize this. It is very evident from the poetry of the ancient Tamils that they weren’t afraid to sing about anything – they wrote about love, sex, valour, everyday life, war, kings, everything. The poems are so beautiful that nothing else that I have read in any other language comes even a close second.

What has caught my mind currently is the way Tamils have classified Love. Broadly, love falls under two categories – Kalavu and Karpu. Kalavu means secret, clandestine love (pre-marital) and Karpu is when the love is openly declared (essentially post marital, sometimes it is extra marital as well). As Dr.Kamil Zvelebil points out, Kalavu was a means to Karpu (love consummating in marriage). Kalavu is a beautiful word without an English equivalent; it can be explained as a natural attraction and a union thereof between a man and a woman (two lovers).

Secrecy and clandestine meetings are characteristics of this love. The literal meaning of the word Kalavu is theft, robbery. Kalavu in love is metaphoric – referring to stealing of hearts. Even today, the term kalvan and kalli are used to refer to lovers. (Kalvanai kollai Konda kalli nee dhaane from Ottakatha Kattiko of the movie ‘Gentleman’ is one of the many examples.)

Kalavu poetry maintains the anonymity of its subjects (not very often of the author) and hence a general name was required for the man and woman. The man in love is referred to as Thalaivan; the woman is referred to as Thalaivi. The English equivalent of these words would be Hero and Heroine; although I feel Thalaivan and Thalaivi have more of a poetic touch to them! Kalavu poetry is also characterized by the presence of the thozhi/ thozhan (a friend/ confidante) to whom the thalaivi/ thalaivan open their hearts. Some of the poetry is sung by the thozhi/ thozhan as well. Beauty, physique, charm, grace, style are all turn ons, so is intelligence. The Tamils explored the intelligence part of it in great depth and detail in the Kalavu poetries. Very often, the thalaivan/ thalaivi is impressed by the intelligence of the other. (Note: there has been no gender bias as far as intelligence is concerned.) Yet another unique character of the Kalavu poetries is that women too could express erotic feelings!

Kalavu is further classified as perutinai/ kaikkinai (ill-matched) and aintinai (well-matched)! The ancient Tamils explored Kalavu in the context of space and time.

Space is defined by the landscape that the lovers reside/ meet in. This space has been classified into 5 – Kurinci denotes the hill and hilly regions, Mullai denotes the afforested areas, Marutam denotes the cultivated fields/ plains/ city/ home, Neytal denotes the sea and coastal areas and Palai which denotes sand/ wasteland/ desert type of regions. Time (Kaalam) is brought in as seasons of the year or part of the day/ night. By specifying the land and time, the poet sets the mood of the lovers!

Each landscape creates its own love mood. The classification given by the ancient Tamils is as follows:

Mood Landscape
Union of lovers Kurinci – Hills/ Mountains
At Home, patient waiting Mullai – Forests and sorroundings
Lover’s infidelity, sulking scenes Marutam – Cultivated fields/ Plains
Separation, anxious waiting Neytal – Seaside/ Coastal Areas
Elopement, hardships, separation from lover or parents Palai – Desert/ Sand

Each region has its own flora, fauna, Gods, music, occupation, food, passtimes, etc. These provide for wonderful similes and metaphors. The Kalavu poetry is set against this lovely backdrop!! The poets go on to describe (through the charcters in the poem) the Katchi (what they see) and their Karuthu (what they think and feel; opinion basically).

Kalavaadudhal (the act of Kalavu) – the secret meetings between the thalaivan and thalaivi, the pining and pains described by the thozhan, the sulking described by thalaivi to her thozhi, the running away and covert unions, furtive glances, how they stealthily avoid their parents and the society at large in order to meet, their exchanges, the hardships, oodal (the wonderful small clashes between lovers) – that beautiful drama called Love gets enacted on this wonderful stage and milieu.

It is to be noted that the private life of people, the union and pre-marital feelings between a man and a woman have been sung on and reconnoitered very deeply and passionately with the highest level of anonymity and decency possible! This, in itself, is an achievement. They have stood the test of time and are relevant even to this day because of many reasons. The nature, scientific approach and passion behind this classification is unbelievable and is one of the primary reasons for the longevity, beauty and success of the Akam genre of poetry.

To understand the innermost psyche of humans and that of the highest of human spectacles – love, is difficult. To put it into proper poetry is tougher still. To scientifically organize such poetry and to give it such beauty is just out of the world! Akam poetry is as far as I know, the only such in world literature.

Kalavu has been explored and sung on profusely by the Tamils. There is nothing new that can be added to it even in 2012! Leave alone the content, this classification alone is enough to put these poems above all other love poetries of the world – most of which don’t have even a broad, primary categorization! The Tamil bards are indeed the unchallenged emperors of poetry!


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This entry was posted on January 23, 2013 by in Poems, Thoughts and tagged , , , , , .

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