Tamil Identity, Nationalism and Imagination

The song Red Dot, about the old DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) flag, which belonged to a failed political movement of pan-Dravidian and/or Tamil nationalism is one that wonders what a Tamil nation state would have meant to Tamil peoples in the modern age.  Aside from a failed civil war for Tamil Eelam in Lanka, there have been no other Tamil nationalist movements that have lasted in the modern day.  Most Tamils living in the Diaspora ascribe their national identity to South Asian nations or to their adoptive homes.  Tamils who live in the Indian subcontinent, the islands of the Indian Ocean or South East Asia similarly identify themselves with pre-markers like Malaysian Tamil or Indian Tamil—the will for a pan-Tamil identity has all been lost.

As an artist of Tamil origin, living in the Diaspora, this identity became more real to me as I navigated my own consciousness and awareness around my identity in America.  The discovery of my late father’s loyalty to the DMK flag and what it represented only furthered the fuel of this fire.  This along with my own sensibilities around the injustices carried out toward my people in Lanka, created within me the imagination of a Tamil state.  It recalled the legend of Kumari Kandam, from which, it is believed Plato may have been inspired for Atlantis.  The lost Tamil continent that sank into the Indian Ocean.  The pseudo historical theories of the Tamil connection to the Mayans, the actual Tamil connections to East Africa and Yemen, and the journey of the Tamil, known as Damo, who established the Shao Lin Temple in China.  I wondered if I was such a global person because my Tamil identity was woven into the fabric of the world.

Then came the National Geographic documentary about the first genes out of Africa and lo and behold, the Tamil DNA marker shared the same markers as the Andamanese, the Papuans, and the Aboriginal peoples of Australia as the first out of Africa.  As I imagined the migration of my people over the water, I thought of my own spiritual connection to the sea and wondered if something deep in the fabric of my genetic make-up inspired my fascination.

Finally, there was the theory of the renowned linguist Susumu Ohno, who put forth the idea in the 1980’s that Japanese (held to be an Altaic language) was overwhelmingly influenced by Tamil, believing the connection to have happened over 2000 years ago in the Yayoi period of Japan.  Ohno was not the first to propose this connection, but as a linguistic scholar of Japanese he was by far the most qualified to make the claim.  Although Ohno is not without his detractors, his theory is backed by an sound argument that picks apart Japanese words and shows the Dravidian linguistic connection, grammatical overlap, relative pronouns, a likeness in word order, striking resemblance in the rhythm of each language and the presence of Tamil influence upon the Yamato kotoba, or words that existed in Japanese prior to the Chinese writing system.

In his book “Seeking the Origins of Japanese Language”, Ohno takes it further by looking at cultural development and influence on ancient Japanese customs such as those connecting with the harvest, religious ritual, and nuptial rites.  While Ohno’s ideas are compelling, they are not backed by sound archeological evidence, and rely on Ohno’s linguistic arguments alone.  As a Tamil, who has had great affinity for Japanese culture, I found his arguments compelling and again they tickled by imagination and I began to wonder, what if there were proof of this connection and influence.

I wrote Red Dot as a fictionalized narrative that begins with the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu sending ships to follow the nautical path of Damo; it flashes forward to Japanese imperial soldiers being slaughtered by a combination of saltwater crocodiles and the British Indian forces in Rangoon during World War II.  In this imagined narrative these Japanese soldiers were coming to rescue their Tamil brethren from British colonial rule.  The narrative also examines the Moorish connection to Tamil, the dead language of Arwi, a combination of Arabic and Tamil, the Moorish bloodlines that mixed with Tamils during the viable and long standing Indian ocean trade.  The East African connection to Tamils both by trade and genetics and finally the little known fact of Tamil coolies who were converted into the Atlantic Middle Passage Slave trade via South Africa, though they only account for a small percentage of that trade having numbered two thousand, that genetic story is also a part of the American Slave Trade epic.  All in all, the song explores all these strands and ends on a black banner, with a red dot, or disc fixed in the middle.  Ironically its similar to the Japanese flag in construction, save for the black taking place of the white, and it imagines a place that has never been allowed to exist by Indian, French, Dutch, British and Sinhala hegemony and that is a pan-Tamil state:

TamilNation

In the world we live in Tamil nationalism is a footnote at best, but Tamil identity is very much alive and vibrant.  Linked to a language and culture that continues to thrive wherever it goes—from Trinidad to Toronto, for Johannesburg to Jaffna and from Malaysia to the Maldives, Tamils continue to have a profound impact.

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