There were different kinds of poets , bards and performers in Sangam era. I have listed six major type of poets below,
The Paanars were minstrels(entertainer who sings and recite poetry) who sang their songs to accompaniment of the yaal or lute.
Lets see look into etymology of this word,
pAN(Paan) - 1. song, vocal music, melody; 2. paanar caste; 3. praise, flattery; 4. submissiveness, humility
pANi(Paani) - 1. song, melody; 2. music; 3. sound; 4. measure of time; 5. beauty; 6. love; 7. a secondary melody-type of the mullai class; 8. drum; 9. dramatic entertainment with dancing
pANu(paanu) - song
paN - 1. melody type; 2. primary melody type, heptatonic; 3. music; 4. a stringed musical instrument; 5. a masquerade dance; 6. sound;
The word Paanar has been related with music and song etymologically. But unfortunately during medieval period they got degraded as a lower caste and even compared to pey (devil,ghost) and nai (dog) in one of medieval literature Nantikkalampakam(around 850 BC). Incidental Paana in Pakrit means one of lower caste.
They were dancing minstrels and performers of dramas. They sang and danced in festivals. A synonymous term to these class of performers is aatunar. This class of entertainers were degraded as time went on, Kutti (danseuse) in later times meant prostitute.
(Tamil Lexicon - kUttar - actors, dancers)
They are war bards. They were close to chiefs and princes. The instrument they used was Tataari or kinai(small drum)
(Dravidian Etymology Dictionary (DED) - porunar - actors, performers, singers)
Akavunar,akavalar or akavar:
All the words are derived form the word akavu. Hence these people were summoners or callers.Probably heralds. There were also akavan makalir (women heralds).
( DED - Ta. akavu (akavi-) to utter a sound as a peacock, sing, dance as a peacock, call, summon; akavar bards who arouse the king in the morning; akaval-calling, addressing, screech of a peacock, high tone, n. of a metre; akavalaṉ bard of the Pāṇar caste; akavunar dancers, singers. Ma. akaval screech of a peacock, name of a metre in Tamil)
They were female dancers and singers. Originally they were very highly respected as in case of Auvaiyar. However in later times due to Jains and Buddhist who hated worldly pleasures these group of people were regarded as symbol of immorality and the word viraliyar got associated with concubines and then in later times also got associated with harlots and prostitutes.
(Tamil Lexicon - viRali 1. female dancer who exhibits the various emotions and sentiments in her dance; 2. woman of the paan caste; 3. girl who is 16 years old)
And Finally the only term which means poet that has survived through our times,
Pulavar originally meant wise men or the learned. The idea of wisdom,knowledge and learning was connected to poetry. It shows these kind of poets were held in high esteem and were respected even by the kings. Some poets even acted as counsel for the kings giving them advise time to time.
(Tamil Lexicon -pulavar 1. wise men, sages; 2. gods; 4. petty chieftains; 5. dancers, actors; 6. artisans, mechanics; 7. artists)
Soon , I would try to post more detailed post on the life of different kind of poets.
Smile of Murugan by Kamil Zvelebil
University of Madras Tamil Lexicon
Dravidian Etymology Dicitionary by T.Burrow and M.B.Emeneau
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