Some Extinct Tamil Proverbs in connection with Dance

Disclaimer: Before you jump to any conclusion, read till the end of this post. My intentions are to give a glimpse of the past.

Recently, I came across a book titled “A classified collection of Tamizh proverbs” by Reverend Herman Jensen [1, 2]. This book was published in 1897. Yes, that’s long time back! In total there are 3644 proverbs cataloged, classified on various subjects numbering to about 300.

Reverend Herman Jensen was part of the Danish Missionary in Madras presidency. He arrived in 1887 and worked in Arcot, Ranipet, and Sallasapet (?) [3].  He left back to Denmark by 1899 [4]. In the preface, he identifies what Indians do in a regular conversation.

I had already perceived that the Indians could hardly tell a story without introducing some proverbs into it.

Hmmm….I am going to observe that in others from now on. 🙂

Proverbs give an insight into the society’s perception of others. In other words, the pulse of the society. Rev. Jensen says they are

like getting a microscope by which one can look deeply into the recesses of the native heart. Nothing else can throw so much light on the daily practice of the Indians as do the proverbs. And if one could publish the obscene ones also, which often contain most striking truths, we should see still deeper into the misery of the country.

I can feel a condescending tone of his and I definitely do not condone it. However, reading these “non-obscene” proverbs after ~110 years of its publication, I realized that almost all proverbs are hurtful. A friend of mine asks if these should be called as “proverbs”. Something to think about.

Proverbs are merciless in their criticism of sinful life…

What I found quite interesting was that the book gave a proverb from the English language that is equivalent to the one in Tamizh. This is apart from translating the Tamizh proverb to English. Some observations of Rev. Jensen is that

the Tamil proverbs referring to vanity and ostentation outnumber the English and are at the same time very pointed…There is almost no end to the Tamil proverbs on the wicked tendency in the human race to see their enemies destroyed…It seems strange to say that we meet with more English than Tamil proverbs on superstition…Even on caste there are comparatively few…Folly and laziness is regarded so differently by the Indians that it is impossible to find English equivalents for the Tamil.

Many proverbs are not taunting. They praise good behavior, dignity, friendship, love, God, etc. However, a quick search on “dance” and “dancing” opened a dark and highly judgmental society. To be fair, my peers suggested I find how many proverbs exist for other professions from the book. So, there are 14 for barber, 5 for goldsmith, 2 for blacksmith, 8 for washerman, 3 for potter, 1 for cobbler, 12 for shepherd, 4 for farmer, 9 for teacher, 1 for shopkeeper, 3 for headman, 16 for doctor! To begin with, there are four proverbs that begin with “Devaradiyal” the Tamizh word.

On Sorrow and Lamentation
on sorrow and lamentation

On experience that is learned
on experience

On Selfishness of a person
on selfishness_1

On procrastination

The other proverbs that point towards dance or dancing or dancing-girls are as follows. Specifically, there are 10 proverbs (in total) that have the word Devaradiyal in them, explicitly. The rest of them are indirect references to dance or dancers. Below each proverb’s translation there is the English equivalent proverb, within quotes, which has the same connotation.

On Goodness
on goodness On that which is important in a transaction
on that which is the most important in a transactionOn help and charity
on help and charityOn natural instincts
on natural instinctsOn ostentation
on ostentationOn social importance
on social importanceOn stupidity and ignorance
on stupidity and ignoranceOn reduced circumstances
on reduced circumstancesOn stinginess
on stinginessOn disgrace
on disgraceOn much exertion on an activity that gives little gain
much exertion and little gainOn coercion
on coercionOn having being controlled by many masters
on having many mastersOn laziness
on lazinessOn desire
on desireOn fate
on fateOn excuses
on excusesOn excuses and pretexts
On Excuses and pretexts On flattery
on flattery On a noble thing that cannot be attained
Worthless cannot attain to what is noble
On love of gain or profit
on love of gain

To be honest, my head did spin reading these and others! The main reason is that I am looking at this book wearing the glasses of TODAY! Two things come out of this:

  1. Dance and Dancing girls, in general, were definitely not looked with great respect by the society.
  2. Attitude towards women are not in good light, at all. (Sad! :()

To be fair, I have not heard any of these proverbs within my earshot in my life, so far. It is also interesting to note that  Rev. Jensen had to rely upon sources that were published and in circulation. He does acknowledge that major chunk of time was devoted in removing redundancies between multiple sources. So, it is highly likely that he was making sure that what he was cataloguing was not just hearsay. Before I published this post, I had asked opinions from my peers. A friend said

I wonder though, were these proverbs mostly taken from the upper castes that worked closely with the British and missionaries and such, as I understand, and thus would take on their attitudes? I think Jensen inferred too much about what the proverbs  mean about the “Indian mind” (as if it’s some strange foreign alien mind!) and applied it to all Indians.

Dancers were obviously shocked

being a dancer, I was so hurt about how dancers of those years were treated, and completely disgusted about it!

I had no idea that these proverbs were used at some point in our society. How sad and cruel.

While everyone was aghast that such proverbs existed, one presented a societal view, which I had assumed had died off in the 80s/90s.

There are still people, who don’t exactly take pride in their daughter-in-laws being dancers, even though the current society do see dancers as high society members and as very highly respectable people. Only the creme de la creme of the dancers are raised to that society status, because most of them hail from the aristocratic families. But, the rest belong to middle-class families who are still subjected to a lot of prejudice. I personally know a lot of young dancers who could’ve blossomed into excellent dancers only if they had the support and encouragement from their in-laws after they got married.
Another dancer thinks that

the society [in 1890s] seemed to have been kind of obsessed with them [dancers]. I am wondering if some of these proverbs were born out of jealousy towards these women. They might have probably been good looking, well dressed, with a good standard of living.

Probably. Whether the proverbs were used or not after 1897, dancing was prohibited by many in the previous generations. A dancer says that

it clearly tells you the state of mind of people in the 19th century. I remember my great grand mom telling my mom that she should not learn bharatanatayam because its ” thevidiya aatam” and only prostitutes’ dance. But I have never heard any of these proverbs. Thank god!

Have you come across anyone saying these proverbs in a civil discourse or private conversations? I truly hope not, if you do then I think you have the moral right to tell that person that they are in a time-warp and world has moved away from these outrageous proverbs! 🙂 In fact, the equivalent proverbs in English are also out of vogue!


  1. A classified collection of Tamil proverbs by the Rev. Herman Jensen. 499 pages. Madras : Methodist Episcopal Publ. House ; 1897. and

9 responses to “Some Extinct Tamil Proverbs in connection with Dance

  1. It is an interesting post. Surprisingly I have heard 3-4 proverbs in Jaffna. Sri Lanka – some words have been changed with time but the meanings were intact.
    Thanks for sharing

  2. My husband has noted down a collection of proverbs from his mother and aunts -many very similar to the above – this was a very interesting article- where could we get the book? Did you read it in a library?

  3. Hi Saba-Thambi,
    Can you list the 3-4 proverbs you have heard in Jaffna?
    Thanks for dropping by and reblogging the post. 🙂

  4. Here are the few known ones
    ஆரியக் கூத்தாடினாலும் காரியத்தில் கண்ணாயிரு
    நட்டுவன் பிள்ளைக்கு கொட்டி காட்ட வேண்டுமா?
    ஒரு நாள் கூத்துக்கு மீசையை சிரைச்சானாம்
    ஆடத் தெரியாதவள் முற்றம் கோணல் என்றாளாம்

  5. Hello, I was very interested in your blog on this book of proverbs, because it was written by my great grandfather, the Rev. Herman Jensen. I have often wondered about the accuracy of some of his translations, as he was a European with a Eurocentric viewpoint, etc. It seems that in general he didn’t do a bad job though, especially considering his first language was Danish, and he was translating Tamil into English! For the record, he first went to India in 1872, (not 1887), and was a missionary in various places in Tamil Nadu until 1902, at which point he became a scholar at the Theological College in Bangalore, where I believe he translated religious texts into Tamil. He became ill in 1908, and tried to return to Denmark to be near his daughter, although he was torn, because he loved India and had spent most of his life there. He died in 1909, on the ship taking him to Denmark, and he received a sea burial in the Mediterranean.

  6. Hi Christine,
    Thanks for stopping by our blog. It is awesome to know that your great grandfather wrote this book and had done a great job in translating!!! You describing his final days are moving. I am glad to know about him, and I am sure his legacy will remain alive for a long time.
    Thanks once again for sharing this with us.

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