Decoding Tamil Nadu

Khan Market in New Delhi is a tiny market favoured by journalists, lawyers, even politicians who find it convenient for quick meetings during the day or a relaxed dinner. The market, named after freedom fighter Badshah Khan, is one of the most expensive retail streets in the world. The market happens to be located on Subramania Bharati Marg in Lutyens’ Delhi. If one were to perform a social experiment and ask the intelligentsia visiting this market who Bharati was, they might struggle for an answer.


In his book, Tamil Characters: Personalities, Politics, Culture,  author A R Venkatachalapathy calls Bharati the  icon of modern Tamil culture. The Tamil bard died at age 39 and his writings continue to influence Tamil Nadu a century later. The writer wonders why Bharati is not celebrated outside Tamil Nadu the same way Tagore is feted outside West Bengal. Is it only because Tagore won the Nobel prize, he asks.


Tamil Nadu poses a challenge to common sense, says the writer in the preface and it couldn’t have been more apt. With this book, Dr Venkatachalapathy has sought to make the state more accessible to outsiders who may be intrigued by the state, its politics, its culture and art.


The book has three parts. The first has seven chapters, each about a major political personality, who have left a deep mark on its political complexion. As we read about Periyar, we learn about the anti-Brahmin movement that deeply influenced Tamil politics. We also learn about C N Annadurai and his estrangement from Periyar and how it gave Tamil politics another direction.

The English-speaking, non-Brahmin castes felt they were denied opportunities and were sidelined by a Brahmin-dominated Congress, they started a new organisation, the Justice Party. A non-Brahmin manifesto was issued in Chennai in 1916 by this organisation. This movement took a strong turn when it was taken over by non-English speaking Periyar.


The author doesn’t restrict himself to leaders of political parties. He also sheds some light on cultural and literary figures. Take Iyotheethoss Pandithar (1845-1914). An intellectual who tried to do what Ambedkar did two generations later, Iyotheethoss worked on the revival of the Buddhist faith in its “primitive purity” to give self-respect to those oppressed by Hinduism’s unsparing caste system.


Through 26 chapters, the author, a historian and professor, manages to inform the reader about the broad details of Tamil Nadu’s politics, its art and cultural scene, and its anxieties. The picture he presents is fascinating, such as  the welfarist streak of the state’s different chief ministers.


Another trait that comes through is the amalgam of ideology, party, art and culture. Nowhere is this depicted better than in the world of Tamil cinema. Tamil cinema has managed to mix social reform with entertainment since inception. Take the example of a “DMK film” that mixed social reform content, provocative dialogues and helped take Periyar’s ideology to the masses. And Karunanidhi mastered this art as a writer. A star writer whose dialogues alone could ensure a film’s success, Karunanidhi decorated his screenplays and dialogues with politics. Karunanidhi showed his political mettle when he managed to wrest the support of a majority of the DMK legislature party when chief minister Annadurai died in 1969.


Tamil Nadu politics’ principal characteristic comes out to be its acknowledgement of caste and its near-militant targeting of this disease over the last one hundred years. This democratisation of power in the state has ensured that all castes have a stake in power and the state has excellent human development indicators. The writer also manages to depict its singularity well. Nowhere does it come across more strongly than when he writes about the questions surrounding Jallikattu.


One cannot but underline the difference between caste assertion in Tamil Nadu’s polity and in Hindi-speaking India. The emergence of backward caste politics in Tamil Nadu precedes that in Hindi-speaking areas by nearly six decades. But what explains its more progressive character? Perhaps it is thanks to its social and cultural characteristics rather than just pursuit of power.


One conspicuous miss, however, is former “Kingmaker” and “Syndicate” leader, K Kamaraj. Kamaraj, who belonged to the Nadar community (an Other Backward Caste), rose to be the president of the Indian National Congress and was a chief minister of the state as well. He was perhaps the most influential Tamil leader on the national scene in history, One who oversaw two prime ministerial transitions. As CM, he was even credited with the introduction of the revolutionary mid-day meal scheme in schools in the state and it is not entirely clear why he doesn’t feature in this book. Kamaraj is also significant because he rose to prominence in the same Congress that had rightly been accused of being a Brahminical organisation a few decades earlier by the Justice Party. Perhaps that can be remedied in the next edition.


There is always a chance of eulogising parochialism but the author doesn’t betray that sentiment in this book. He comes across as objective in presenting a fair picture of Dravidian politics in the state, warts and all. Read it to understand one of the most important, flourishing regions of the country and what might have led to its riches.

Tamil Characters: Personalities, Politics, Culture

A.R. Venkatachalapathy

Pan Macmillan, 340 pages, Rs 399

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