Thanjavur district in Tamilnadu is known for many reasons – agricultural prosperity thanks to its position in the Cauvery delta, knowledge and patronage of dance and music , fondness for good food and people with a sharp wit. Their sharp wit manifested through their quick repartees and scintillating conversational skills which they raised to the level of art. There would never be a dull moment in our family functions as the aunts and uncles matched their wits and sparred one another with their sharp words. To an outsider, their conversations might seem cryptic with inside references and allusions through proverbs and figures of speech. If you asked my grandmother about something she had no clue about she would not simply say : “How would I know?” Instead she would say: “Pichaikku vanda brahmana Perungaya choppai kandiyo nnu idu enna kelvi?” ( this is like asking the man who came to beg at your house whether he had seen your asafetida container) To the uninitiated it might seem like a totally irrelevant answer while an insider would understand how effectively this drives home the point by comparing your question to the absurdity of asking a passerby about a small item from the corner of your kitchen. After attending a wedding an uncle would comment: “appappa, paiyan enna Neramgarey – neruppai kulupaatina madiri !” (Wow, the colour of the groom’s skin- superb! Like a burning ember that has been bathed!) While the rapturous tone would suggest admiration for the groom’s colour, insiders would smirk as they know that the potshot is at the boy’s jet black complexion. Another aunt would praise the lunch at some place as “saapaadu pramadhama irundadu Uppiliyappan Kovil prasadam madiri” It would appear that she is equating the quality to the food offered to the deity at this temple but insiders would get the point that the dishes did not have enough salt! I could go on and on but the essence would be lost in translation.

Growing up around this kind of conversation, I did not realize this manner of speech was peculiar to one region in Tamilnadu until a friend’s mother said that she did not understand half the things that Thanjavur people said. This lady was from North Arcot district. “I get intimidated by the way Thanjavur people speak” she said. From the way she said ‘Thanjavurkaara’ it I could discern that she did not like “Thanjavur people”. In later years, I have sensed approval, admiration,suspicion, contempt and even mild fear in the way people react to Thanjavurkaara. They don’t express it openly but you can feel it from the way they say the word ‘Thanjavurkaara’ – a slight roll of the eye, or extra stress on the syllables or a mild variation in the tone.

When I say things like this, my son does not understand and he asks me how I can perceive all this in a simple statement. He is a Bangalore boy all the way and he can only understand the literal meaning of every sentence in Tamil and nothing beyond. He and others of his generation in the family would miss half the nuances in a typical conversation among those of my grandmother’s generation. For example my grandmother could say something is divine but imply the exact opposite by the way she said it. (Divyam!)

This is not peculiar only to our region and people all over the world have evolved ways through inflexion, intonation, gestures and facial expressions to express sarcasm, suppressed anger and irony. Diplomatic usage of language has been consciously evolved to convey meanings at various levels – strong sentiments couched in polite language, shaking hands or hugging at a photo-op while seriously considering the good date fora military offensive. Politicians and businessmen look for the real conversation not in the statements but in the body language of the people they deal and wheel with. Non verbal communication has become as important as what is spoken; oftentimes more important.

It was easy for earlier generations to grasp the grammar of non verbal communication through constant personal interactions. Till a few years ago , majority of personal and business interactions were conducted face to face or on telephone where it was easy to pick up the non verbal cues through change in tone , expression or posture. But today’s generation communicates mostly through email, tweets, blogs or text messages. I have met many youngsters who are shy and respond in monosyllables while their fingers are constantly busy typing text messages. It seems that they have a lot to say when they are not face to face. How is it possible to have layered and nuanced conversations via text messages or even emails? Emoticons are pathetic substitutes for the real expressions accompanying conversations – a dignified dismissal, a contemptuous waving off, a look that can kill or even a wink or a smile.

Here is an article

that explains how all this 'emphasis on social networking puts younger people at a face-to-face disadvantage':

We live in a culture where young people—outfitted with iPhone and laptop and devoting hours every evening from age 10 onward to messaging of one kind and another—are ever less likely to develop the "silent fluency" that comes from face-to-face interaction. It is a skill that we all must learn, in actual social settings, from people (often older) who are adept in the idiom. As text-centered messaging increases, such occasions diminish. The digital natives improve their adroitness at the keyboard, but when it comes to their capacity to "read" the behavior of others, they are all thumbs.

I wonder if a day might come when a generation would only be able to express its feelings through emoticons and not through facial expressions or intonation. I already know that the fine art of conversation that I experienced as a youngster in my family functions is almost extinct. There are few people who can speak like that and fewer who can understand it. At a cousin’s wedding recently, I noticed that we were mostly communicating in English. Most of the youngsters of my son’s generation will not really understand a typical Thanjavur conversation except the meaning on the surface. At this rate in a time not in the distant future there would be nothing to distinguish Thanjavurkaara or Maduraikaara as everyone would be digitalkaara.

Watte pt dat wud b!:(

33 Responses
  1. Vijay Says:

    LOL..nothing to beat old country wit and sarcasm..
    I know it would be lost in traslation but a post on "old country" sayings would be very welcome..

  2. ramya Says:

    Good post! So true... but yeah..sad!!

  3. Wonderful post, Usha. When I was younger, one ran into people in Pune , and certain parts inland , who communicated like this, the Thanajvur way. In fact , folks of a certain regional classification are well known for this in Maharashtra.

    I recall, that Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj's father , ShahajiRaje, was supposed to have departed for points south of Pune, and set up a regular court in Thanjavur. He never really returned to be part of Shivaji's set up, and an entire Marathi-Thanjavur clan came up in the south. It would be interesting to study the similarities in linguistic usage in both Thanjavur and the Pune areas.

    In the meanwhile, I guess its digitalkaara....

  4. Anonymous Says:

    The Internet is killing sarcasm and irony. I saw one cartoon recently where one person asks the other (on Internet chat), "what is the meaning of irony?" and the other person replies, "if you have to ask, you will never know".


  5. WhatsInAName Says:

    Ha ha ! though born and brought up in delhi, I do know of the famous Thanjavurkaaras. My inlaws being from the said area!
    You need to be really sharp and attentive to get the point in the first instance ;) A test for IQ I say!

    But then there is a price to pay for each advancement. Who knows? Someday the tongue itself will be rendered obsolete ! but come to think of it, silence would be welcome isn't it ?

  6. Altoid Says:

    :D My maternal grandparents are from your ooru wonly and most times I have found their conversations cryptic and somewhat sarcastic as well. There are nuances in language in every region Usha and wit and repartee in conversation is not everyone's cup of tea I would think. There are those that are good at it and enjoy such company and those that dont. No?

  7. Soin Says:

    its really sad when you take the effort to be sarcastic and people dont get it and are offended...and yes the mokkai,staire type of humor seems to die..but its stil there in some blogs and one time we have s v shekar,crazy mohan,kathadi ramamurthy and comedy or dramas..ppl are too

  8. Hip Grandma Says:

    You just ask me and I can write a book on the topic. Basically a Coimbatorian without the 'Vidaranai' and 'pandhadhi' of Tanjoreans it took me sometime to understand that when the husband says that he'd rather wait to have his meal it actually meant that he was terribly hungry and why was I wasting time asking him whether food could be served - "thattu vaikkalama" to be precise would invariably result in "Konjam Naazhi pohattum." My MIL would roll her eyes at me and try telling me thro' appropriate gestures that i need to set the plates immediately. Hilarious Usha, You took me back to 1973!

  9. Anonymous Says:

    So true....My paternal grandparents and my in laws are from Thanjavur. Being a large joint family had its share of advantages when it came to understanding various linguistic gymnastics. My paternal grandma from tirunelveli would sit after any big family function patiently explaining what each person meant. we were taught the art of conversing. Best times indeed

  10. Anonymous Says:

    The art of conversation and the art of understanding a conversation was something my tirunelveli grandmother took great pleasure in teaching her grandkids. Given that my grandpa and my motherinlaw come from Thanjavur, there was a lot to be learned. I come from a large joint family where a family function meant all of my grandpa's eleven siblings descending. Post functions translation and analysis were eagerly looked forward to.

  11. Usha Says:

    Vijay: So true. They knew how to nail a point with a pithy statement - an art that is dying. A post on old country sayings? that would have to be a collective effort. May be a tag?


    Suranga: I am told that we absorbed a lot of culinary habits from the Maharastrians settled in Tanjore - a variety of kadhi with balls made of lentils and the usilis which we call Sundal and many sweets too.
    I am sure there was some linguistic trading too.


    WIAN:Imagine if people communicated only in writing! I might go mad...but then the good news is that I may not live to see that day!

    Altoid: I enjoy talking to your mom - you know that wry sense of humor? That is so Thanjavur!
    Oh there is a downside to that kind of conversation too - sometimes people could come across as really sharp and hurtful.

    Soin:The kind of humor I am referrring to can be seen in the writings of Kalki, Thi Janakiraman, Sujatha, Vaali and even Subbudu.

    Hipgran: Aiyo.... innum rendu naazhi pogattum is so typically Thanjavur! I miss all that....Please write a book. That would be wonderful. Apparently Chetan Bhagat's recent book is about a north south union. But that would have been simpler than acoimbatore - Thanjavur union!!

    Binary:Taught the art of conversing - wow! I remember something similar. Once there were some visitors to the house and we served them juice. There was a small kid who had come with them which must have seen a cat go by and said "pooney". So the mother said' pooney aunty aathle paalellam kudicuttu poiduthu". Later my mom was fuming. Apparently it was a hit at the fact that we did not serve them coffee!
    So many layers in a simple sentence!!

  12. 'Rathna Shurukkaama Sollitel Pongo';-)

  13. Laksh Says:

    Abinaya beat me to it but I was about to say the same thing. Growing up surrounded by Thanjavur kaaras I can see it in many things I say too. :)

  14. Imagination Says:

    ROFL at "Digitalkaara" :)

  15. Zoozoo Says:

    Hey... Thanjavurkara...

    U must come and meet the folks at kanyamari(kanyakumari)and naroil(nagercoil) to get a flavour of their sense of humour.

    The land where it is thengaarachakozhumbu and vengayasambar and not viceversa..

  16. Praveen Says:

    I have a tough time understanding the Palakkad Tamil. The Tanjavur- no way I would understand. Same Blore boy here.

    I have observed in a few places that the Madras-Palakkad and Tanjavur people don't get along with the rituals and such. One Tanjavur family friend had a tough time adjusting in a Palakkad household after marriage.

    The digitalkaaras are unified that way.
    A colleague's sister hardly smiles, but if you text her, an emoticon is sure to follow.

  17. :-)
    Reality. What to do?
    Liked Divyam!


  18. Vishnu Says:

    Very true!!

    My mother tongue is telugu and I at times feel ashamed when my girl friend who is also a girl from A.P uses English as the primary medium of communication. I tried to tell her not to do that but she insists on the point that she is more comfortable in speaking English.

    I doubt if my children would ever communicate with me in Telugu when they grow up in this competitive world.

  19. hijabiamma Says:

    Obviously I cannot comment on your witty comments, except that I understood all of them, and where I am from we do the same thing... and to state something outright, such as asking for something to drink in a guests house is a huge no no because it implies in a very harsh way that the host was inadequate. There have been many times when I go to someone's house and feel uncomfortable now that I'm not in the South, because when people say things they no longer that double meaning I grew up with. Great post, I enjoyed reading it, and agree with you completely about the text messaging and IMs.

  20. dipali Says:

    Very interesting!

  21. B o o Says:

    Loved this post, Usha. The husband once wondered how I can say "pramaadham" in so many variations!! LOL! Romba pramaadhamaana post! :D *says it with the kumbakonam kusumbu*

  22. This was too good Usha !! On the way to attend a wedding at Kumbakonam this weekend ...will look out for these "quotable quotes" as there are lot of old members still around :-)

  23. Anonymous Says:

    Is there a simple test to identify the THANJAVURKARAR? As an old Thanjavurkaran who left Thanjavur (towards North India) for good almost sixty years ago I give a litmus test for it.ASk him the numerals in Tamil after seventy five o or so, when he comes to say EMPLATHU know him to be fromthat special species. If he said empathu he is from outside that area or a camaflage artist, too.
    R. Rangachari

  24. S.V. Says:

    Well said Usha...

    the generation change is so scary....sometimes you wonder how it seems that things were always better before...

  25. Usha, that R.Rangachari, is my periappa :-). I loved this post so much that I forwarded it to my father and his brothers who are all ...guess what ?! Yes ..Thanjavurkara :-). So that is a comment from a true blue Tanjorean !!!

  26. Usha Says:

    Abhinaya: Mozha neelathukku sollirukkennu nenaichen Rathna shurukamnuttiyedimma!

    Laksh:Saapatilayum sari pechulayum sari - Thanjavur naakai enge vena kandu pidichudalame. seemele poyum idellam vidame irukiya? enga paati solluva Vamsathu mannache - vittu pogumaanu.

    Imagn: Hehehe. In the article I have quoted, the author calls them Digital Natives.

    Zoozoo: Adiye maatuponne veetukku vaa oru kai paathudalaam.

    Praveen: While uniformity is good for mundane dealings, I love the distinct flavor dialects and it would be a pity if they were to be lost forever.

    Nikhil:I know whatodo! :(

    Vishnu:Many children growing up in cities are more comfortable with English. We should be happy if they understand the literal meaning of what is said in their mother tongue leave alone the nuances.

    Havah:That example about asking for water is really interesting. Please tell me more.

    Dipali: I am sure every region has such interesting variations.

    BOO: eppadi pramadham - uppiliyappan kovil prasadam madiriya? ille vatha kozhambu with suttaplaam combo madiriya?

    Ranjini:Yes and please compile them and send them to me or do a post. :)

    Anon: amam. emblathukkaparam poranda pasangalukku idellam teriyave ille pongo.

    Stephenson: There are a lot of good things which are new but it would be nice if we did not have to completely get rid of the past. But then in a few years when my generation is gone, nobody will even nourn what is lost because they didnt know it existed!

    Ranjini: aaaaaaaah. Thank you. namma pakthukarannu comment ai pathadume purinjinden.

  27. maami Says:

    Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat? You are from Thanjavur-a?

    'Ohhh, yedu di idu' as we'd say in Nellai!

  28. diya Says:

    Beautiful, Usha, want more Thanjavur posts now!! I come from a small group of people called the bangals, or people from East Bengal.I have heard my maternal grandparents use our bangal dialect which has a earthy and it has its own brand of humour from which even my generation has been deprived!! I can feel your pain...

  29. Amma Says:

    Thanjavurkara have muzha neela nakku
    (long tongue) they are good in eating and teasing others.If the food offered to the them is so so then the host's heads will start rolling!

  30. Amma Says:

    Thanjavurkara have muzha neela nakku
    (long tongue) they are good in eating and teasing others.If the food offered to the them is so so then the host's heads will start rolling!

  31. ambulisamma Says:

    Wonderful post!!Loved it.
    My MIL used to say "thanjavurkaralukku poi ponna kuduppalo"?? i really dont understand why she said like that.But now can guess the kusumbu from your article.(Note: My mil is from thirunelveli)

  32. Unknown Says:

    A thanjavaur-kaari(appa-thanjavaur,amma-kumbakonam)at heart-but born and raised in chennai,I have seen how my parents would speak on few instances and espcially the tongue/eye rolling during weddings and major events...
    and I got married to a tirunelveli aalu --and that family's lingo was so no new to adukula,varutharacha -kuzhambu etc etc...I was also rebuked when I said 'yenam' for pathiram.
    The best part was when my hubby ,took me to his relatives' home pre-mariage(oh,we are the post 2000 kalyana couples) and one of his uncles remarked-"avan romba mosam...thanjavaurkaran theriyuma" at somebody.....Yethu daaaaa

  33. Anonymous Says:

    I also remember the 'ellum pacharisi yum kalandha madhiri' when referring to dark groom and fair brides....too