South Asian Literature in Translation: Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess

Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess by Andal; translated from Tamil into English by Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar

Publication date: 1 January 2016
Publisher: Zubaan Books (2015); University of Chicago Press (2016)
ISBN-13: 978-9384757670

1) Tell us about this book and its original author.

PSC: Andal The Autobiography of a Goddess comprises the entire corpus of the eponymous eighth-century Tamil teen mystic. This collection includes Tiruppavai/ Path to Krishna, a bhakti/ devotional song of congregational worship still sung today, and the lesser-known, erotically charged Nacchiyar Tirumoli/ Sacred Songs of the Lady.

RS: This Muse India Translation Prize award-winning collection aims to restore the divine poet and only female among the 12 Alvar saints of South India, back to her rightful place among the greatest bardic prophets of all time. Andal, who is known by 108 names in parts of South India (including most frequently Kotai, but also Om Prapannarthi Harayai Nama, the Goddess who lives in all seven notes and Om Varayai Namaha, She of the Glorious Neck) was born in the eighth century in Srivilliputhur, found under a Tulsi plant inside a temple’s garden by Periyalvar, another of the Alvar saints. As a young girl, she is purported to have worn a garland meant to sanctify Perumal, a Hindu deity rhapsodized as far back as the Sangam era (c. 300 BCE to 300 CE), thus defiling it according to local beliefs. Her father grew furious at his daughter but, that night, Lord Vishnu appeared to him in a dream to say that he preferred the garland Andal had worn. From that point, she became an ardent devotee, composing two of the great works of Tamil literature, the Tiruppavai and the Nacciyar Tirumoli, both collected in this book. In South India, she is considered an icon of bhakti, the diving deep of the soul to merge with divinity, analogous to Mirabai in North India or Rumi in Persia. 

[From the publisher: Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar’s elegant new translations of eighth-century Tamil poet and founding saint, Andal, cements her status as the South Indian corollary to Mirabai. In this one volume is her entire corpus, composed before she apocryphally merged with the idol of her chosen god as a young teenager, leaving behind the still popular song of congregational worship, the Thiruppavai, a collection of thirty pasuram (stanzas) sung for Lord Tirumal (Vishnu) and the much less frequently translated and rapturously erotic Nacchiyar Thirumoli. Chabria and Shankar employ a radical new method of revitalizing classical verse by shifting it into a contemporary poetic idiom in another language. Some of the hymns are translated collaboratively, others by one or another of the translators, and others separately by each. This kaleidoscopic approach allows the reader multiple perspectives on the rich sonic and philosophical complexity of Andal’s classical Tamil.]

2) Why were you drawn to choose the book for translation?

PSC: Being a Tamilian, Andal was a part of my life; her presence felt during temple visits and yearly cultural festivals. However, the decision to translate her songs was sudden. One day, as if in a dream, I glimpsed her lithe form running through the moonlight.  Wild, vulnerable, supremely intelligent, immensely loving, she turned back to look at me. I surrendered to her storm of grace.

RS: I was born in Washington D.C. to Tamilian Brahmin parents who had immigrated from Coimbatore in the late 1960s. So my mother tongue is Tamil and, as a young boy, I would attend poojas and weddings where, sometimes, I would hear Andal’s Tiruppavai accompanied by the veena and see the bride with kohl-rimmed eyes, heavy bangles, anklets, and kal jhimki (earrings that hung like chandeliers from her ears.) I never explicitly made the connection again until graduate school when I took a class with Barnard University’s Jack Hawley, who reconnected me anew to my own traditions. When I met Priya Sarukkai Chabria, whose work as a writer I had admired and we realized that we both had this connection to Andal, the book took on a life of its own. After that point, I don’t think I could speak of choice because the time I spent immersed in the work was as close to a poetic visitation as I can fathom. I lost myself in her words, listening to her ancient poems chanted, realizing that Andal, in the paradoxical quality of purest transcendence with dripping sensuality, was a truly modern and radical figure and that any attempt to capture her work in English would have to take on the challenge that she presented. The few other attempts to bring her work into English were done by scholars who weren’t able to ignite the jeweled flames blazing at the center of her work.

3) What were the key challenges and surprises for you during the translation process/journey?

PSC: Andal’s verses are allusive, mythology-laden, and dazzlingly complex as she ascends from outer to inner landscapes of intense spirituality. She largely followed Tamil Sangam poetics (2-4BCE) in which she presented three levels of meaning: literal, ullurai or hidden parallel meaning, and eraichi or implied meaning akin to an extensive system of metonyms. Riddling through and marshaling these levels of meaning demanded leaps of faith and language to approach the playful formal inclusiveness of Andal’s words.

RS: Well, the first obvious challenge is that neither translator really reads or writes fluently in Tamil, let alone the Sen Tamil, the ancient form of the language of Andal’s work. Therefore, I was consumed with the orality of her utterances which helped guide my translations. Thankfully, we had a vathiyar, a priest from Andal’s temple, who helped us migrate her work into the basic English foxtrot and then we worked from there. The second obvious surprise came when Priya and I went away to work on these translations and then we reconvened to realize how vastly different our versions of Andal were, which led to the radical and necessary decision of including both versions of some of Andal’s verses alongside each other. In other instances, as in the final Song of Question and Answers, we worked collaboratively. Taking such a kaleidoscopic and multiple approach allow the readers to get closer to the intensity of her expression. As a final surprise, doing a book like this got me on stage with one of my heroes, David Shulman, whose recent book Tamil: A Biography is an astonishing contribution to knowledge.

4) What’s one thing you wish readers knew or appreciated more about this book?

PSC: In the Indic tradition of translation, a multiplicity of versions thrives concurrently. This does not reflect on the translator’s management of fidelity to the source; rather, it reveals readers’ expectations of contemporary translations. Further, the bhakti or devotional genre admits intuition as methodology because mystical truths embedded in the source are beyond rational understanding.  Visceral, occasionally gory and erotic sentiments are sited in the body which remains a sacred pathra/ container without shame or sully.

RS: I’d encourage everyone who supports South Asian literature to get a copy of Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess and if not our book, another from Zubaan Books, founded by the intrepid Urvashi Butalia, as one of the earliest and most important feminist presses in India. I should also mention here that these translations are part of an exemplary anthology of bhakti poetry called Eating God, edited by the equally exemplary Arundhathi Subramaniam. When you read the book, you’ll see that we’ve included a stunning reproduction of a Kalamakari painting of Andal on cotton and other woodcut images, as well as a thorough scholarly appendage in the Introduction and Translator’s Note. There is a fine preface by Mani Rao. While I have collaborated on many projects and books over the years, I can’t imagine quite combining the scholarly and archival with the lyrical and spiritual in quite as special a way as has happened with this book. I just hope that it makes the divine Andal more accessible and recognized by a larger readership, especially in the West.

5) What’s your next translation project that we can look forward to?

PSC: Evolve another poetics of spirituality for 9th-century Tamil mystic Manikkavacakar’s songs, which are regarded as the supreme literary expression of the entire corpus of Tamil Saiva hymns.  His failings, ecstasies of enfoldment in divine enchantment, and anguish at separation are among the most moving spiritual articulations in world poetry.  His voice unites us in an increasingly divisive and violent world.

RS: Much of my recent work has been in finishing Correctional, my memoir forthcoming in 2021 with University of Wisconsin Press, as well as completing an international research fellowship at the University of Sydney which is culminating in a PhD about shame, race, media, and the Calvinist and Puritanical roots of mass incarceration. However, I have had some time to engage on both sides of the translation process recently. I have translated the amazing young Japanese poet Yuki Nagae in Asymptote, The Brooklyn Rail, and Interim. I’ve translated the Sardinian poet, Sebastiano Satta, with the Man Booker Prize longlisted James Scudamore. And I’ve had my own work translated into Greek by Lena Kallergi, into Slovenian by Kristina Hocevar, Mandarin by suxian and Jiaoyang Jiaoyang, and into Spanish by the Mexican poet, Fernando Carrera, who plans to bring out a bilingual selection of my poems and has published a selection in La Otra. I have been offered the opportunity to do more translations from Tamil and more collaborations, but knowing how intensive and time-consuming, fulfilling, and fraught the journey of this book has been, I plan to pick and choose my next projects much more judiciously.

Author Bio: The only woman among the twelve Alwar bhakti saints of medieval India, Andal was a teenager when she ‘fell in love’ with Sri Krishna and demanded to be taken as his bride, not as a spirit but as a living maiden.  Her voice stands out as a passionate expression of devotion and untrammeled female sexuality in India’s spiritual tradition. Her hagiography informs that she was a foundling, raised by saint Periyalwar who, after witnessing a miracle, recognized his daughter’s divinity and escorted her to the temple of Srirangam where she merged into the idol of her beloved.  Andal is regarded as an emanation of Bhudevi, the Earth goddess, and as Sri Vishnu’s second consort. [Image Source: Priya Sarukkai Chabria]

Translator Bio: Priya Sarukkai Chabria is a poet, translator, and writer of ten books of poetry, speculative fiction, literary non-fiction, and editor of two poetry anthologies. Honors include Muse Translation Award 2017 for Andal The Autobiography of a Goddess; Experimental Fiction Award, The Best Asian Speculative Fiction Kitaab Anthology; Clone 2018 Best Reads by Feminist Press, Outstanding Contribution to Literature by the Government of India. She has studied the Sanskrit rasa theory of aesthetics and Tamil Sangam (2 -4 BCE) poetics. Anthologies entries include A Book of Bhakti Poetry: Eating God, Asymptote, Post Road, Reliquiae, The British Journal of Literary Translation, Voyages of Body and Soul: Selected Female Icons of India and Beyond, etc.  Priya edits Poetry at Sangam. [Image Source: Priya Sarukkai Chabria]

Translator Bio: Ravi Shankar is the author and editor of over fifteen books and chapbooks of poetry, including The Many Uses of Mint: New and Selected Poems: 1998-2018 (Recent Works Press); W.W. Norton & Co.’s Language for a New Century called a “beautiful achievement for world literature” by Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer; the Muse India Award-winning translations of 8th century Tamil poet/saint Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess (Zubaan/University of Chicago Press), and more. Translated into over twelve languages and a recipient of the Glenna Luschei Award from Prairie Schooner as well as the winner of the Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, Shankar has taught at Columbia University, Fairfield University, the City University of Hong Kong, and the University of Sydney. He has been featured in The New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, BBC, NPR, and PBS Newshour. His essays have appeared in The Georgia Review, The Hartford Courant, The Poetry Society of America, and more. He founded one of the oldest electronic journals of the arts, Drunken Boat, a winner of a South-by-Southwest Web Award. He currently teaches at the New York Writers Workshop. [Image Source:]

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and book critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast. Her story collection, Each of Us Killers, and her literary translation, Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, were out in 2020. Her writing has appeared in various venues in the US, UK, and India, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, NPR, BBC Culture, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers, and others. Having worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.

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