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Karunanidhi and ‘Tamilness’: Kalaignar’s literary, cultural legacy cannot be separated from his politics

Two phrases figured in almost all the tributes paid to M Karunanidhi in the days following his death: ‘social justice’, and ‘Tamil literary enthusiast’. This is not surprising. Karunanidhi took himself seriously as a writer and remained one till nearly the very end of his life. Fittingly, his grandson Aditya added a pen to his coffin.

Karunanidhi wrote almost daily for the DMK’s newspaper, Murasoli. His letters to his brothers-in-arms are legion. They were exercises in political communication: sometimes dense with information and argument, at other times, rhetorical in their affirmation of political and cultural truisms. Further they helped to constitute a veritable Dravidian brotherhood, ostensibly irrespective of caste and creed; addressed every morning by their “elder brother” and leader, the party faithful were assured of their place in the party and in the larger world of politics.

He is of course best known as a writer for the stage and film. But his writings straddled several genres — poetry, short fiction, historical and social novels, literary essays, pithy journalistic writings… In his youth he had acted as well. His musical knowledge was profound. Not for nothing did the irrepressible MR Radha, one of Tamil Nadu’s greatest actors and dramatists bestow on him the title, Kalaignar which could be variously translated as artist, man of letters, a lover of the arts.

Karunanidhi’s writing was not incidental to his politics. Image via Facebook/@Kalaignar89

Karunanidhi’s writing was not incidental to his politics. Image via Facebook/@Kalaignar89

Karunanidhi’s writing was not incidental to his politics. His writerly personality defined his political selfhood in important ways: for one, his literary and cultural texts, which were chiefly on the Sangam corpus of poems, were celebrations of Tamil civilisational worth. His ability to draw on these poems, and to quote verbatim from them in the middle of a political or social speech, established him as a worthy inheritor of a past that was not sullied by caste and brahminical Hinduism. His obvious relish in reading both ancient and contemporary Tamil texts, and the alacrity with which he expressed this relish, marked him out as a mentor, an inspiring example for fellow Tamils.

And he took his role as mentor seriously: consider for instance the very useable cultural template that he put in place to enable Tamils to recognise and recall their past. The template included the second century ethical Jaina text, the Thirukural; poems of love and valour from the Sangam corpus, which had no place for ‘varna’ and ‘jati’ divisions; and the Jain epic, Silappadikaram (The Story of an Anklet) which valourised the chaste wife and the gifted courtesan in equal measure. Karunanidhi not only quoted from these texts time and again, but during his first term as Chief Minister, ensured that they lived on in the present in a visceral sense. Thiruvalluvar, author of the Thirukural was iconised, in stone and print. He has been memorialised in Kanyakumari, at land’s end. His purported likeness appears on all Tamil textbooks. A monument named after him and built in an archaic style sits in the middle of Chennai city. Quotations from the Kural were – and are – featured in all buses run by the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation. Kannagi, the chaste wife of the Silappadikaram has likewise been immortalised – she stands, a tall black statue, along with Tamil writers, leaders and epic characters, whose statutes dot the Chennai coastline. An art gallery in the ancient seaport of Poompuhar depicts scenes from the Silappadikaram.

One other significant development in this context was the setting up of the Tamil Nadu Textbook Society — to render the Tamil language an effective means of modern pedagogy and communication. Writing and translation projects were commissioned on a sizeable scale and an enviable number of books in the Tamil language, on diverse topics, ranging from atomic physics to psychology were published. This was entirely on Karunanidhi’s initiative, something that we were reminded of, when over 200 books published in the 1970s and 1980s were on display in the city recently.

The idea behind these projects, one might surmise, was to communicate a sense of ‘Tamilness’ – as a symbol of social unity, and bring into horizontal comradeship people who, otherwise, were divided along lines of caste, class, and faith. Tamil was thus ‘secularised’ in that to consciously identify oneself as a Tamil person was to lay claims to a selfhood that was free of caste and all things to do with the Aryan north.

Also see: As DMK chief Karunanidhi’s life slipped away, his supporters held on to hope and a prayer

Thus it was that generations of Tamil families chose to identify themselves in and through linguistic markers. For instance, a substantial number of children born into diverse non-Brahmin and Dalit communities in the heyday of the Dravidian movement, from the 1950s and well into the 1970s were given ‘secular’ names – that is, they were not named, as is the usual custom after tutelary or family deities, nor were they given the names of their (caste) forbears. They were named after the elements, birds and plants, characters in Sangam literature, or were named after the Sangam poets. Many a child got a Tamil prefix to its name – Tamilselvi, Tamilarasan and so on. Interestingly, the question of names was avidly discussed by Periyar and his self-respecters as well – the decision to drop caste suffixes, and to adopt names like Russia or Mayday or Bernard Shaw, which signified progress and the modern spirit were crucial aspects of that self-transformation that was underway in Tamil society from as early as the late 1920s.

The Tamilness, avidly expounded by Karunanidhi and communicated far and wide by his party did not and could not address caste or gender inequality and discrimination in a substantive sense. While Dalits enthusiastically embraced the idea of a universal Tamil identity (and the DMK, at least in the 1950s and 1960s), they yet had to reckon with the violent play of caste in their everyday lives; just as how a vast sections of caste Hindus, who claimed Tamilness, remained bound to their caste selves. Women were offered limited points of access to this universal Tamilness: they could feature as wives, courtesans or as self-sacrificing sisters and mothers. More often than not, and this is evident in Karunanidhi’s writings as well, they were objectified, willfully sexualised, and made to bear the burden of Tamil honour and identity.

But that a political leader and party attempted to make a language bear the burden of doing away with social inequity is a fact worth pondering — perhaps an oblique tribute to the imagination. This is, perhaps, why Karunanidhi’s literary and cultural legacy cannot be separated from his politics. Literature, rather his reading of select Tamil texts from the long centuries before the modern era, provided the rationale for his social justice and federal concerns. Literature also infused the demotic and energetic political mobilisation that his party achieved well into the 1970s with a measure of play and pleasure.

The legacy of this Tamilness lives on and marks selfhood in fundamental ways — as is evident in all struggles that challenge the overweening authority of the Union government. But it does not always and consistently bear the weight of social justice.

Updated Date: Aug 13, 2018 14:22 PM

Updated: August 13, 2018 — 10:23 am
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