March 28, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 12

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    Norman Cutler, 1949-2002

    Norman Cutler, a major scholar of Tamil poetry and religion who was as much respected for his dedication to teaching as for his mastery of South Indian literature, died Tuesday, Feb. 26, after a long illness. He was 52 and, pending a medical investigation, is believed to have died of natural causes.

    Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Professor in the Divinity School and the College, said Cutler’s work opened up whole cultural worlds beyond old stereotypes about India. Following his teacher, the late Chicago scholar and poet A.K. Ramanujan, Cutler “broke out of the old Orientalist view of old India being good and new India being bad and uninteresting. Along with Ramanujan and Edward Dimock (the late Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in South Asian Languages & Civilizations), Norman had the idea that there was great literature in vernacular languages. They also showed that Tamil was not only a contemporary language but a classical language as well, and that there was great old poetry in it, just like Sanskrit. They expanded people’s narrow ideas of what classical India was.”

    At the time of his death, Cutler had recently taken over the chairmanship of the South Asian Languages & Civilizations Department. His colleague Clinton Seely, Associate Professor in South Asian Languages & Civilizations, described Cutler’s leadership as both self-effacing and inspiring. “His taking over transformed the face of the department, giving us all reason to recommit to this collective enterprise.”

    Ronald Inden, Professor in History and South Asian Languages, remarked on Cutler’s unyielding commitment to teaching students through first-hand work with original sources: “I don’t think anyone in the department has been more regularly and systematically dedicated to teaching students out of a text.” And Doniger emphasized that “he cared for students more than anyone I’ve ever known.”

    Born May 10, 1949, in Silver Spring, Md., Cutler attended the University of Michigan as an undergraduate. Early studies whetted his appetite for the culture of India and he soon acquired an intense academic focus, receiving awards from the American Institute of Indian Studies and the National Defense Foreign Language Fellowships to study Tamil at the University of Washington. After receiving his M.A., he began Ph.D. work at Chicago, where he spent the rest of his career. In addition to his scholarly work, he took time for singing, piano lessons and dogs.

    Cutler’s major work in Tamilóopening up an India that does not speak Hindi and looks back to nearly 2,000 years of tradition outside of Sanskritóresulted in Songs of Experience: The Poetics of Tamil Devotion, a study of Tamil religious poetry based on his Chicago Ph.D. dissertation. Inden said that “very little of that literature had been made available to a non-Tamil audience until [Cutler] came along. Ö He was really almost alone in bringing this very rich body of devotional literature to the academic world’s attention.”

    Cutler also helped western scholars understand that often misunderstood Indian pathway to god, the “idol,” editing Gods of Flesh, Gods of Stone: the Embodiment of Divinity in India with his colleagues Joanne Waghorne and Vasudha Narayanan. His deep interest in the modern culture and people of Tamilnadu comes through in his essay “The Fish-eyed Goddess Meets the Movie Star: An Eyewitness Account of the Fifth International Tamil Conference.”

    Translation and language teaching, the most concrete ways of making a foreign culture available to people, were central to Cutler’s work. With Paula Richman, Chair of the Religion Department at Oberlin College, he edited A Gift of Tamil, a collection of centuries of literature that conveys the beauty and sense of humor, as well as piety, of Tamil civilization.

    His translations were praised by his colleagues as poetic and clear and as models of accuracy. As Sheldon Pollock, the George V. Bobrinskoy Professor in South Asian Languages & Civilizations, explained, “Cutler’s work on literature was complemented in the later years by his work on the great commentarial traditions of Tamil” and what Pollock refers to as “the history of literary history in Tamil.” An essay on these commentarial traditions, titled “Three moments in the genealogy of Tamil Literary Culture,” examines how Tamil scholars understood their own culture. It will appear in a collection Pollock is editing, titled Literary Cultures in History: Reconstruc-

    tions from South Asia. Pollock said that this “will probably be the last work of Norman’s to appear, something of a capstone to his career. It embodies highly original research on a subject of central importance to a tradition consumed by the problem of historical memory. ‘What happened to our literature?’ is a problem people in Tamil countries had been confronting for 1,000 years.”