Pillai, Samuel Vedanayakam

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PILLAI, SAMUEL VEDANAYAKAM (1826–1889), Tamil author and proponent of women's rights. Samuel Vedanayakam Pillai was a Tamil humanist who used his literary talents to promote women's rights and Tamil cultural unity. He revitalized his mother tongue by his use of elegant, simple prose devoid of archaic Tamil embellishments. He is best known for writing Pratapa Mudaliyar Charitram (Pratapa Mudaliyar's story), his first novel in Tamil, in 1879. Set in an idyllic, pristine era when Tamil society was relatively untouched by colonial encroachment, the novel relates the adventures of a heroine wiser and braver than her hero, a sage matriarch, and other romantic characters. It was highly popular, and it was soon adopted as a school text in Madras presidency.

A Christian of upper caste vellala ancestry from Kallatur near Tiruchirapalli town, Vedanayakam was raised by his educated mother Mariammal, and he was educated in Tamil and English at a missionary school. In 1868 Vedanayakam first discussed the importance of girls' education in a Tamil tract, Penmathimalai (Women's knowledge). In 1870 he elaborated on this subject in another tract titled Pen Kalvi (Women' education), which he dedicated to his mother and daughters. To anchor his ideas on equality and nonsectarianism within the Indian context, Vedanayakam Pillai drew upon earlier Tamil texts such as the Tirukkural, a classic of aphorisms by the Tamil Jain sage Tiruvalluvar, and the hymns of medieval bhakti saints whose spiritual visions transcended caste. Pillai also drew inspiration from the works of Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, his Western models of reason and equality. His second novel, Suguna Sundari (1887), challenged upper caste Hindu customs of early marriage and widow celibacy.

His other works included original essays, marriage songs based on folk models, and a translation of the legal codes into Tamil. He wrote popular nonsectarian hymns, such as Sarva Samaya Samarasa Kirtannai (Perennial pleasing hymns for all); Satyavedaka Kirtannai (Songs of the true Veda); Tiruvarulmalai (Garland of God's grace); Tevastottiramalai (Verses in praise of God); and two poems in the antati genre, Tiruvarul Antati (God's grace) and Tevamata Antati (Mother Goddess). He frequently signed his name simply as Vedanayakam Pillai, although in 1870 he may have edited the Christian journal Narbodhakam (Virtuous knowledge) under his full name. Vedanayakam Pillai argued that Tamil unity was based on a common language and on an ethical system transcending sectarian boundaries, so that all Tamils refer to an Unmanifest God as katavul. His nonsectarian hymns inspired later Tamil reformers A. Madhaviah and C. Subramania Bharati. At one time, when Vedanayakam Pillai served as a district official near Tiruvatuturai Saiva monastery, he came to admire the work of Meenakshisundaram Pillai and U. V. Swaminatha Iyer, who were then editing and translating archaic Tamil palm-leaf manuscripts. Swaminatha Iyer wrote the preface to Pen Kalvi, in which he warmly praised Vedanayakam for spreading the message on how to cherish the girl child.

Sita Anantha Raman

See alsoLiterature: Tamil


Pakiamuthu, D., ed. Nutrandu Tamil Novel Tharum Chaiydi. Chennai: Christian Literature Society, 1979.

Pillai, Vedanayakam. Pen Kalvi. 1870. Reprint, Tirunelveli: Saiva Siddhanta Publishing Society, 1950.

——. Pratapa Mudaliyar Charitram. 1879. Reprint, Chennai: Vanavil Press, 1984.

——. Suguna Sundari. 1887. Reprint, Nagapattinam: Himaya, 1992.

Pullavar, E. Ramaswamy Pullavar, ed. Ithazha Vilakka Virisai. Tirunelveli: Saiva Siddhanta Society, 1961.

Raman, Sita Anantha. Getting Girls to School. Kolkata: Stree, 1996.

——. "Old Norms in New Bottles: Constructions of Gender and Ethnicity in the Early Tamil Novel." Journal of Women's History 12, no. 3 (Autumn 2000): 93–119.

Swaminatha Iyer, U. V. The Story of My Life, translated by S. K. Guruswamy. Tirunmiyur: U. V. Swaminatha Iyer Library, 1980.

Varadarajan, M. A History of Tamil Literature. Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1988.