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Nirmal Selvamony

Oikopoetics or ecopoetics is poetics of the ‘oikos’ which, to the Greeks, meant habitat comprising the spirits, humans, nature and culture peculiar to it. A typical oikos is a nexus in which the sacred, the humans, natural and cultural phenomena stand in an integrated relationship1. The Tamil equivalent of oikos is tinai that integrates specific space and time (mutal), naturo-cultural elements (karu) and human action (uri).

Being the habitat of the people concerned, oikos (tinai) forms the matrix of all social institutions – economy, polity, family and communication. Art, especially, poetry, is a variety of communication/communion shaped by the oikos of the society in question. Being the ground, matrix, and context of a work of art, oikos is the first principle of oikopoetics.

Historically speaking, three basic types of oikos have discernibly shaped all poetry – integrative, hierarchic and anarchic. In other words, one can speak of the poetry of the integrative, hierarchic and anarchic oikoses.


The first type of oikos integrates the sacred, nature, culture and the humans in a complex kinship, even as a family of kith and kin. The kin-like oikos of primal societies allows freedom with responsibility. Duties, obligations and rights bind people, spirits, and nature together quite intricately. The power relations among the members of this familial oikos are both horizontal and vertical; both love and authority are normative. Black Elk, the chieftain of an American Indian tribe summed up this intricate bonding thus: "The two-legged and four-legged lived like kith and kin" .

The integrative oikos affirmed its kin relationship in ritual. In fact, there was hardly any distinction between ritual and art. If so, it goes without saying that poetry was also ritual or part of ritual. Being ritual, poetry shared such features of ritual as societalness, performativeness, repetition, identification and transformation. Poetry as ritual is a societal phenomenon performed at a definite place (usually in charmed circles known as kal@am, temporarily fashioned for the occasion) and time, generously employing devices of repetition like the formula. The performer of such poetry, usually a shaman, disguises his/her individual identity through a mask/persona and undergoes an ontological transformation. Consider the following poem:

O shamaness O shamaness   akavan makale yakavan makale
O shamaness with pretty long tresses   manavukkop panna nannetun kuntal
like a string of conches   akavan makale patuka pat te
Sing the song   innum patuka pat te avar
Sing again the song   nannetun kunram patiya patte
your song praising his beautiful great hills.

(kuruntokai 23)

This poem not only tells us that gray-haired female shamans sang special songs, but also conveys this in akaval (literally, call) meter best suited for invocatory purposes. Mark the long-vowelled words, makal, patuka patte, which allow long-drawn out calling. It may also be noted how the poem exploits the device of repetition to effect the invocation. Note that the basic rhythmic unit of the poem is the four-beat formula takatimi, which is playfully varied to weave a complex pattern of word and time.

Akaval meter continued to be the norm for invocatory verse in later times also. The genre kavacam, (literally, ‘armour’) meant for seeking God’s protection, employs this measure effectively. Here, the central formulaic term is the long-vowelled ka$kka, which facilitates vocal lengthening.

The basic device of the poetry of the integrative oikos is what folklorists have called the formula: "a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea". Albert B. Lord says the formula is a product of performance. Its basic features are repetitiveness, fixity of rhythm and mnemonic potential. Here is an example: patimil panikkatal. The rhythmic structure of this formula is takatimi takatimi. This helps the poet not only in his description of the sea, but also repeat the four-beat flow of the poem and anchor it in the cultural memory of the prticipants of the performance. The poets have had such formulae for various measures:

takita tatakkai
tan kita tatimi (8) navalan tanpolil
tan kita tatimi (7) navalan tanpolil
takita takita (6) cirukan yanai
cirupun malai
cirupun citalai ; itumut puricai
(could also be stretched to fit a four-four measure)
takatimi takita (4+3) malartalai ulakam
nan\antalai ulakam

(like the previous one, this is also easily converted into a four-four)

Scholars have already shown how the formula occurs in epic poetry of various cultures. A significant feature in folk poetry, formula influences folk forms also. Consider the formulaic vocables, which form the nuclei of several folk pieces:

1. araro (six-beat formula of lullabies)
2. elelo (six-beat formula of boat songs)
The six-beat formula slows down the pace in a manner that befits such performances as chanting or laborious and strenuous operations like rowing a boat. The patterns are as follows:
tatimta tatimta (6+6 beats for chanting)
tanatimtana tanatimtana (6+6 beats for rowing)

The verse form known as venpa employed the chanting mode as in

yakava rayinum
or as in
yatanum natamal

whereas, the variant tanatimtana, tanatimtana suited the verse form vanci, which, perhaps, originally referred to the boat (as it does even today in Kerala). Interestingly, vancippattu (boat song) adopts the six-beat unit as in the case of the following:

kuntarru elelo (tannana tanene)
pallattile ailaca (tannannane_ tanata_ _)

In fact, vancippattu or boat songs do not strictly follow the vanci meter, but alternate between six-beat vencir apt for chanting and vanci meter.


If a kinship relationship ramifies both horizontally and vertically, political relationship is configured only vertically in a hierarchical manner. In the hierarchic or political oikos the members stand in a hierarchic relationship, with the sacred at the top, the humans in the middle and nature at the bottom. Now, the oikos or tin@ai is no more a family, but a political unit where power is channeled only in a vertical direction. The original familial tinai undergoes a double transformation in Tamil society. While tinai as the larger social order has given way to the Aryan varna, with a typical hierarchical structure, tin@ai as a specific habitat has shrunk to a political domain such as one involving a tax collector and tax payer.

By attributing supremacy to the sacred, distance between the humans and the sacred was effected, confining the latter to a special space deemed holy.

Similarly, the human world was also imagined as a hierarchically ordered one, with the superior ruler, and the inferior ruled. The distance between the two was clearly determined when the ruler was confined to a special space, namely, the court/ palace, and the ruled to the space outside of it.

Like the sacred and the human, nature was also hierarchized. If in the integrative oikos different types of land (such as the mountains, scrub land, arid tracts, riverine plains and sea coast) were all regarded as equally important and unique, in the hierarchic oikos they were all reduced to two basic types – wetland and dry land – which stood in a hierarchic relationship. Wetland was considered more auspicious, productive and useful than dry land. Even animals were ranged in a hierarchic order – the domestic and the wild.

Among the Tamils, monarchies of cerar, colar and pantiyar affirmed the hierarchic oikos even as the poetry patronised by their courts and produced by their subjects did. The Saivite and the Vaishnavite saints produced significant crop of such poetry during the time of pallavar. Their poetry identified special spaces known as talam, worthy of worship and poetic celebration, which were located usually in wetland lying along the rivers ka$veri and vaikai. If these sacred spaces were right at the top of the hierarchic ladder, the dwelling space of people known as natu was in the middle, leaving the bottom for uninhabitable, wasteland known as katu.


The hierarchic oikos began to rupture when the supremacy of the sacred became dubitable with an increased emphasis on rational systems (like logic and science) and materialist ideologies in lieu of (non-materialist) religious doctrines. Rational scrutiny was necessary to determine the utilitarian value of the members of the oikos. In theistic societies, the sacred was considered useful for certain purposes and for that reason acknowledged and invoked in ceremonies and customary practices. Nature, on the other hand, was more tangibly useful. With investment, it paid off considerable returns. Humans were also looked upon as resources and assets. In short, the new oikos was anarchic in spirit but economic in practice. It was rather a market with a shift from the political hierarchy to an economic negotiation. It was reason that controlled the negotiations of the market oikos. It helped accumulate knowledge about the sacred, nature and man and also in working out strategies to exploit these to human advantage.

In India the rationalisation and the subsequent marketisation of the oikos began with the colonial development project of the British when they initiated the Industrial Revolution in this country by introducing megatechnology in the areas of iron and steel, automobile transport, cotton processing, power plants and huge dams.

The shift from the hierarchical oikos to the anarchic oikos could be seen as the beginnings of modernity in Tamil. But anti-hierarchical tendencies are not visible in all social institutions (family, polity, economy, and communication) simultaneously. The first signs of these tendencies appear in the latter half of the nineteenth century in the institution of family as evident in the writings of mayuram vetanayakam pillai. He challenged the earlier feudalistic and hierarchical gender relations and revolutionised the institution of family. Besides challenging gender hierarchy, pillai also challenged a much subtler hierarchy in the domain of metaphysics, a hierarchy of the spiritual world and the secular world. Though pillai adhered to the Catholic Christian faith, he subscribed to a theology, which regarded the spiritual and secular world as interdependent, and equally important. This led him to sing of man in the middle of these everyday harsh realities, rather than in an ideal, poetic world. A parallel could be drawn with the poetic project of Wordsworth as set forth in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. One would also see that in pillai’s search for the rational foundations for religion, he was engaged in a constant rationalisation of Christianity more for his own enlightenment.

However, it was not for pillai to challenge hierarchy in the domain of polity. That was incumbent on his followers like cuppiramaniya parati and his contemporaries in their organised efforts to challenge the British rule.

The poetry of the anarchic oikos has undergone three distinguishable phases of change. It entered its initial phase when the writers looked upon nationalism, industrialism, and rationalism as forces that could liberate them from the hierarchic oikos. The patriotic poets like cuppiramaniya partai, paratitacan, tecika vinayakam pillai upheld the cause of freeing India from the clutches of the British rule. If political liberation was envisaged as freedom from a hierarchical order, economic liberation meant breaking away from the hierarchically structured feudal economy and adopting industrialism promoted by Britain.

Again, liberation in worldview consisted in problematising the belief in God and the notion of a divinely energized world. This resulted in advancing the cause of reason by discrediting mythology and superstition in favour of either atheism or rational theology or materialist ideologies like Marxism or socialism.

Tamil verse saw the next phase when the poets who challenged the colonial project in one way or another probed the anarchic oikos. Poets were neither blind to the contradictions and weaknesses in the new political order, namely, democracy, nor in the new industrial economic order nor in the rationalism courted zealously by poets. The disenchantment with democracy is quite transparent in N. piccamurtti’s ‘tecap paravai’ (1969):

National Bird (1969)

When those with determination
signed the papers
in their own blood,
to infuse life,
to antidote
and to eliminate beasts,
set out for the jungle
to accomplish these,
with the hyena approaching, laughing
and rolling his eyes,
with the woolly bear defying them
like a storm
and the viper, the whipsnake,
and a python
unmovingly stirring up the guts,
with the noise of the lion
that puts its mouth to the
ground and roars
shattering the eight directions,
they saw the peacocks
and became happy
as they're totteringly returning
with fumbling hands and faltering feet.
Saying ‘Cajoling won't do, only force will,
asking won't, only grabbing will’,
some plucked
the thousand-ey\ed tail feathers,
turned around happily
and chased it away
with the feather
driving away
poverty, disease, and witchcraft.
Some others took away the peacock's tongue
as it was good specific;
others sped away with its neck
they'd chopped up
saying it was theirs.
The silent motherland loudly groaned
as the others cut up the body
into many pieces,
burnt them up
and satisfied their inner hunger
and returned to their villages.

(trans.: Nirmal Selvamony)

The romance with industrialism also did not last longer. Poets began to see its darker aspects. Some examples for debunking the seamy side of industrialism are ci. cu. cellappa's anuvukku mun (before the

atom), piccamurtti's urpatti (production), kuppatu (the loud call); C. mani's narakam (hell), varum pokum (will come and go); M.L. tankappa's iyarkai arruppatai (guiding nature); paratiputtiran's nampikkaikalukku nampikkai illai (hopes turning hopeless), and civakaccic cicukkal (children of Sivakasi). The faith that the earlier poets had placed in the machine was now eroded. ravintiran expressed this disbelief in his yantira yukattin maiyirul (the deep darkness of the machine age). Similarly, economic development involving deforestation and urbanisation lauded by earlier poets was now suspected. pal\amalay expresses this point of view quite poignantly:

It is natural for the calf to hit at the cow's udder as
it suckles, but if you tried to milk her hard, she is sure to kick you (Comrade S.N. nakaracan\)
With the dry lands becoming wet
there is no shade anymore.
Is it just that there is no shade?
No millet, no maize;
no gourd that climbs and blooms in the evening;
no partridges that stir out suddenly
from under the groundnut plants
at the slightest sound;
no pigeons in the shade of the neem
among the cactus hedge;
no coucals, no koels;
no cassia, the croton of the dry lands
to inspire the koel to sing.
The bare dam built on the small stream
laid waste our village.
The dams on kaviri had destroyed
forests far and wide.

We lost our forests for rice,
and then, no rain;
now, no forest, and no rice.

(trans.: Nirmal Selvamony)

Poets have also called in question the claims of rationalism. Consider N. piccamurtti's potti (competition):

In the rational market

each with their full stops in hand
were driving their pegs
furiously in the field they fancied;
some with the Vedas,
some with cankam literature,
some with kampan,
some with science,
some with Marx and Engels,
and some others with whatsoever...
The ones that stood aloof
were laughing with those
that followed the path of metaphysical reality.
They didn't have full stops.
Suddenly I saw my own hand; it held only a comma.

(trans.: Nirmal Selvamony)

The aesthetic critique of democracy, industrialism/market economy, and rationalism ushered in the third phase of contemporary Tamil poetry that consists of three distinguishable features: expression of despair, call to revolution and a move towards a new ecological order. The expression of despair often led several writers to retreat into shades of narcissism/solipsism. The revolutionary voice has not only continued to uphold leftist ideologies, but also several varieties of protest narratives, and the need for breaking down tradition and promoting anarchy, especially in language and aesthetic form. Though the third response has neither evolved a clear-cut worldview nor a poetics, it has made its presence felt here and there signalling a definitive trend that this essay purports to highlight. Besides identifying some examples of this poetic response, this paper also seeks to articulate an indigenous model of criticism, namely oikopoetics (ecopoetics), an appropriate specular tool for critical viewing.

One has to remember that the poetic response of today which has an ecological thrust issues not from a holistic oikos as it does in a tribal society, but from a modern, usually, urban society with a fractured market-like oikos. Therefore, it is necessary to make a distinction between ecopoetry of primitive communities and the ecologically oriented verse of contemporary Tamil writers.

The following poems affirm this orientation by articulating a relationship with nature not compatible with the hierarchic or market-like oikos; a relationship that is not kinship as such but closely resembling it, and therefore, could be termed ‘para-kinship’.

cinnakkapali's ippatiyum cila vicayankal (A Few Things Like These) projects the house crow, the commonest bird in Tamil Nadu as a friend:

Among birds, I like crows very much.
It's true; it is a thieving creature
tactfully snatching away the eats from the hands of children.
In deed, it is a foolish creature
visiting and perching on the compound wall of the house
and caws at the oddest hours.
Even then
isn't it my friend
who looks at me and calls out to me
in my village where I crawled as a baby and grew up
and also in this city planted from elsewhere?

(trans.: Nirmal Selvamony)

The persona in S. arankanatan's en paciyum cila paravaikalum (My Hunger and some Birds) talks to the birds as if he were to a person:

If anybody asks you
tell them you don't know.
Oh birds,
it's between you and your visitor.
I just came to see
the bengalgram plant.
But you on your part
in flocks
are pecking at something.

If I go, I get nothing.
In fact I came only to see
the bengalgram plant.
I don't know anything;
it's between you and your visitor.
You who eat by yourselves
(without giving me also)
pecking at the grains
without listening to what I repeatedly tell you,
you can very well answer yourselves.

(trans.: Nirmal Selvamony)

Unlike the speaker-persona in the previous piece, the one in S. aran^kana$tan\'s ‘taccur ponen’ (I went to taccur) tells the listener how (s)he found a peer Thou in four Portia trees:

Swinging their tails, swaying their heads
and raising the dust did the herd move
with the half-naked children following them;
the dust that hit me as I walked
made me look at this again.
It was the age when you tied up the
Palmyrah stalk to the tail and chased them.
beside Seshaiyar's door
stood four Portia trees fanning the earth.
To swing from,
to whistle (beep beep) rolling those leaves,
to hide away the marbles
if you had won many
those trees helped you.
The roots would snake even through their yard.

For Seshaiyar's daughter's marriage
all the trees had been to furniture turned.
The craft of the carpenter
was wonderful.

Now, what does it matter
if there were everything
except those trees
that stood as if beckoning
when you entered the street?
I don't spend much time at taccur.

(trans.: Nirmal Selvamony)

Writers affirm the ecological affinity with nature by showing a rare sensitivity to the rights of non-human life. curecan's ‘enatanpu’ (My Love) communicates a feeling for the life of ants and flowers:

The crying of flowers
I can hear
when the neck is twisted
with fingers on the stalk.

The ecological relationship is not always right-affirming; it could also be a fulfilling experience verging on epiphany. Consider tevatevan's ‘velikkatavin mel or anil’:

On the brightly shining compound wall of the hedge door
was a baby squirrel nibbling and
scrutinising something
making its foreleg hands just like a human.

My wife too saw that sight
when my face pointed to it
interrupting the debate abruptly.
"This squirrel
I've already seen," she said.
How do you say that quite certainly?"
The dust of debate rose again.
"Shall we ask the squirrel this?" I said.

The squirrel turned back and looked at us
like a star poet performing before
a movie camera and said,
"My stare, briskness, probing mind,
and the secret of my vibrant health
I owe to the maxim:
Never bear the burden of everyday
realities inessential for life."

(trans.: Nirmal Selvamony)

or pavannan's ‘ovvoru tetalukkup pinnum’ (Behind Every Search) in which a creeper announces its presence in a compelling manner:

The flowering creeper trained on the door arch
will laugh;
it will wave in the breeze now and then
and twinkle with flowers.
The charm of the flower will melt my heart.
The creepers will grow;
as they grow they'll cover the door and
block even the grill door.
It will darken (the place).
There won’t be enough space for going in and out.
I can’t bring myself to cut off the creeper either.
As a wall on another side is broken,
a new gate comes up.
The flowering creeper will train on the new door too;
adding to the attraction
it will abound with flowers;
long-grown creepers will obstruct the door.

(trans.: Nirmal Selvamony)

In such an epiphanic moment the speaker-persona of atmanam’s ‘cetiyutan oru uraiyatal’ (A conversation with a plant) reports a conversation with a plant:

A plant looked at me and smiled.
I too was delighted with the new acquaintance.
It asked me, ‘Who are you?’

‘Me, Me.’
I didn’t know what to answer
and sighed deeply.
‘Why’re you agitated like this?
Be quiet like me’.

(trans.: Nirmal Selvamony)

A similar piece is ilakkumi kumaran nana tiraviyam’s ‘vantikkalai’ (Draft Bullock):

That I’m unable to take the next step
because of the bleeding
from the bruise from horseshoe on the forefeet
I should tell him.
I should show him
crows picking worms
from the swelling on my neck
the size of an unhusked coconut.

I should tell him
about the flies sucking up my life
from the bruises from the whip.

To remove the nylon rope
that increases the pain on the snout bruised like rice
I should beg him.

It would be better
if I showed him the tail
that can’t chase away flies anymore
being broken from twisting when rarely
I couldn’t draw his cart.

So thinking
it lay down ruminating
like a prisoner ready to go to the gallows.
Quietly will it keep looking at him
coming with a smile
shaking up his towel and draping it on his shoulder.

(trans.: Nirmal Selvamony)

To sum up, this paper has defined oikopoetics as poetics of oikos affirming that poetic theory and criticism should address not only individual constituents like language, technique, social context, nature, the supernatural and so on, but the entire system here referred to as the oikos. Three types of oikos – the integrative, hierarchic and anarchic have been identified and each has been explained with illustrations from Tamil poetry.

Being an introductory and general exposition of the critical approach known as oikopoetics, this paper could not tackle specific critical tasks and issues like reading a certain poem from an oikopoetic perspective and contrasting that reading with a non-oikopoetic reading. But such critical explorations are necessary to draw utmost critical mileage out of oikopoetics.

tinai 1