Ouvaiyaar, the Grandmotherly Tamil Poet 

By K S Venkataraman, Monroeville, PA

Ouvvaiyaar is a legendary— even mythical — poet in Tamil literature. With the name meaning in Tamil “The respectable Old Lady,” one can imagine the exalted place her name occupies among Tamils, whether scholars or commoners. Literary historians believe that more than one person went by the name, one in the Sangam literary time (a few centuries before the Current Era), and the other, around 10th century CE. They assert this based on the styles and the vocabulary in the poems attributed to her.

She was a Saivite, grandmotherly, austere mendicant, full of wisdom on the way of the world. Many of her poems are in four-lines Vennbaa meter. They convey profound — sometimes even cynical — messages on human frailty and emphasize the importance of education, forbearance, charity, and good conduct. Tamil cinema even made a film on her decades ago, with a man (T K Shanmugam) playing her role. See the picture above. Here are two of her famous Vennbaa verses:

First one:

All that people need are a morsel of food and six-yards of cloth.
And their life is as fragile as a clay pot.
[Yet], living blinded in ignorance of the true purpose of life,
People live till death in millions of vacillations and worries.

Here is the second one:

The large shady tree on the river bank and the good life
            with royal patronage will one day tumble down;
[But] making a living with one’s own sweat is unmatched.
           All other ways of earning one’s livelihood are flawed.     ♠

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