Dr. Karthick Ram Manoharan spoke about Radical Freedom: Periyar and Gender at the CTTR public lecture hosted by Prof. Meena Dhanda on 18 February 2021. This event was hosted online by the University of Wolverhampton research group Language Power and Society. This talk looked at South Indian social reformer and anti-caste radical Periyar E.V. Ramasamy’s approach to the women’s question. Periyar was not just an advocate of social and economic equality between the sexes but espoused a radical concept of sexual freedom for women, which is central to his concept of liberty as such. While the anti-colonialists of his period defended native traditions and customs, Periyar welcomed modernity and saw it laden with possibilities for the emancipation of women. Likewise, where other social reformers addressed the women’s question within the ambit of the nation and/or the family, Periyar saw both nation and family as institutions that limited the liberties of women. The talk explored Periyar’s booklet Women Enslaved in detail and engaged with lesser known, new primary material of Periyar on the women’s question, concluding with a discussion of his perspective of the West.
The talk was attended by 63 viewers from 12 countries.
Translated by Karthick Ram Manoharan and Vilasini Ramani
Man did not always have this specific mode of marriage (thirumana murai). If he had, there should have been a name to it at least. But alas, we are not familiar with any such name. Engagement (vivaagam), donation of a virgin bride (kannigadhaanam), choosing an auspicious time based on the stars (thaaramuhoortham), formal marriage (kalyanam), these are not the words to denote this mode of marriage. Each one of these words has its own meaning.
As he evolved, man modified the mode of marriage based on his intelligence and convenience. We have no proof that women were enslaved by men in this so-called husband-wife arrangement in the (pre-civilizational) past. But we do have enough proof that men and women loved each other equally and lived an equal life. The sexual attraction between man and woman is natural for the purpose of reproduction. When a man and a woman have sex out of love for each other, it is natural. But it is not natural that humans consider themselves only as husband and wife and struggle to maintain this concept all their life. This husband-wife concept emerged at a time when man’s cleverness grew and woman’s thought was suppressed. Man became more arrogant. He captured women and made them his servants. He made them his slaves. Only after this, this concept of husband-wife, one man for one woman etc came into practice.
My next plan is to prohibit marriage. What I say might surprise many of you.
In the past, even a young child who was still breastfeeding from her mother used to get married off. A thick shackle-like gold chain used to be put on her neck. If this happens today, it is illegal. It happened as per the rituals (shastras). But it cannot happen today per law. Today, many such practices that happened in the name of ritual became illegal by law. Until yesterday, even god was party to such practices. A man can marry as many wives as he wants, as many as 60000 wives. But today, a man can marry only one wife. He cannot marry another woman when his wife is still alive. A man marrying another woman when his wife is still alive has been made illegal, and thus, no one dares to do that. And just like those practices permitted by religion and rituals became illegal today, marriage also will become illegal in the future.
Likewise, if we also make a law that only two children should be allowed in a marriage, no one will give birth beyond two. The government runs from pillar to post to promote family planning. If only it could pass laws that no jobs or promotions will be given to those who have more than two children, then no one will have more than two. The government should consider creating such laws.
We would like to do many things too. We were prohibited from thinking in the name of god, rituals and religion. Since man believed that thinking is a sin, for a long time he forgot that he can think. Since he forgot thinking, he also forgot his own power and the power of his knowledge. There is so much that can be achieved with the power of his knowledge. He is unaware of the wonders that he can see with this power. To make him realize this, all we have is our organization alone in our country.
Many lazy men have made us believe that family virtue is good virtue. A man who is born with a rational mind, is merely expected to to enslave a woman, give birth to a child with her, provide for the child, and in the process of providing, lose all his strength, and once he has lost everything, he is expected to be taken care of by his children and becomes a burden to them, not anymore a man with freedom and who is free of all troubles. Family is nothing but a burden.
Man travels to the moon today. Tomorrow he might even travel to the sun which is millions of miles away. “How can a man travel to such a hot place like the sun?”, one might wonder. If man develops the proper equipment to bear the heat, he can. We after all believe that the sun came down here without any such preparation and gave a child to Kunti. Why shouldn’t we then believe that we can travel to the same sun with proper preparations? We cannot predict the power of our knowledge in the future. We also cannot say that this will be its limit.
If we apply our rationalism, we realize that Tamils in the past did not live with such (marriage) arrangements among them. Manu Smriti says that the Tamils do not have the right to marry and live as husband-wife. All those born as shudras are only supposed to be slaves to the brahmins. All non-brahmin women are only supposed to be concubines to the brahmin men. They do not have the right to marry. Nor do they have the right to live as husband-wife.
If women want to come out of enslavement, they must study well. Without being economically dependent, they have to learn to earn on their own and lead their life themselves. Because they did not have the opportunities for this, they became slaves to men. They should be allowed to study until they are 20-22 years old. They take up such an occupation so as to lead their life independently.
People who marry should stop being superstitious and start doing things rationally. They shouldn’t follow superstitions or celebrate religious rituals. It is best if they do not have children. If they cannot avoid it, they should stop with one or two. It is only difficult to give birth to a child, avoiding it is easy. Now, the government also supports this (family planning). The couple should make use of it. Human life is not about living for oneself, we must strive to work for humanity. That should be our ultimate goal. Marriage – husband – wife – family virtues, are human lives made for only these? Each one of us must think beyond these. A couple should live together as comrades, with equal rights.
Periyar’s speech at a marriage ceremony in Ambur on 21.08.1969. First published in Viduthalai on 01.09.1969.
Source: Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. 2007. Periyar Kalanjiyam 24: Pennurimai, Paagam (5). First Edition. Chennai: Periyar Suyamariyathai Prachaara Niruvanam. 64-67.
Freedom from Caste: The anti-caste thought of Ambedkar, Periyar and Others
Guest Edited by Meena Dhanda and Karthick Ram Manoharan
We invite academic papers for a special issue of CASTE: A Global Journal on Social Exclusion (J-Caste)focusing on the anti-caste thought of important theorists, thinkers and movements from South Asia. In recent scholarship, new critical works have engaged extensively with the writings of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar but Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, the iconoclastic anti-caste leader from the state of Tamil Nadu and a central figure in Dravidian politics, has only of late attracted increased academic engagement. Likewise, the anti-caste thought of Phule, from the state of Maharashtra, amongst several other contributions to anti-caste thought from political leaders, social reformers, writers, novelists and poets, has made considerable impact on the discourse around caste in South Asia. We aim in this special issue to bring their thought into conversation to develop a deeper understanding of radical humanism incipient in anti-caste thinking. We seek to understand the meaning of freedom from caste in its fullest sense.
The following themes are indicative suggestions for lines of enquiry that may be extended along other related themes by potential contributors.
A new and critical approach to the thought of well-known anti-caste thinkers like Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar.
An exploration of lesser-known anti-caste thinkers especially from the ‘regions’ and marginalized communities in South Asia, e.g., Giani Ditt Singh and Sahodaran Ayyappan.
A discussion of anti-caste themes in cinema, literature, and poetry.
A study of how anti-caste thought informs social and political movements and vice-versa.
A discussion of how left, feminist and ecological movements have dealt with caste.
A critique of the impact of religion on the anti-caste discourse, its possibilities and limitations, including, but not limited to, discussions on conversions, Hindu reform movements, the neo-Buddhist movement, modern Sikhi, Islam and the Pasmanda question, and the work of Christian missionaries.
A critical perspective on the emergence of new debates on anti-caste theory and practice.
The special issue aims to consider these questions from a variety of perspectives. Contributors are encouraged to offer analyses of anti-caste thinkers and their thought from the perspective of cultural theory, sociology, linguistics, history, political theory, area studies, or philosophy.
We specifically welcome interdisciplinary papers. We are interested in discussion of anti-caste thinking in the full range of South Asian countries, including, Bangladesh, Burma, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka and the regions where South Asian diaspora has travelled.
Please send a paper title and a 450-500 word abstract of your proposed paper by 16 April 2021 to firstname.lastname@example.org. Contributors will be informed by 30 April 2021 if their proposals are accepted for consideration and they will be invited to submit full papers (5000-8000 words) for blind review by 1 Nov 2021. All dates are final. Following reviews, the accepted papers will be published in the April 2022 special issue of J-Caste.
This special issue of J-Caste will be jointly edited by Prof. Meena Dhanda (University of Wolverhampton) and Dr. Karthick Ram Manoharan (University of Wolverhampton), linked to the project Freedom from Caste: The Political Thought of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy in a Global Context which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 895514.
Translated by Karthick Ram Manoharan and Vilasini Ramani
Leaders! Ladies! Comrades!
I’m glad for the opportunity to talk on the topic ‘North India – South India’ in the general meeting organised by the debating committee headed by Poet Sami Chidambaranar. I would like to say a few words about the debating committee before I proceed on the topic.
Debating literally means war through exchange of words. But this committee is not about that. Everyone will have space to express their opinions freely in the committee. That is the reason the secretary of the committee who welcomed us informed us that this committee is not affiliated to any particular political party, and anyone can express their opinions on anything, and thereby it aims to nurture the speech talent among common people.
Hence, I would proclaim that this committee nurtures and values rationalism. In general, let alone the common man, even intellectuals say that rationalism, and that too a thorough rationalism, means only atheism.
Everyone manipulates people’s reason. Even then, they restrict the use of rationalism in some issues. They even restrict themselves from being rational. Certain people who are allergic to rationalism, who engage in things against rationalism, people who blindly follow certain beliefs, who are benefited by such beliefs, say, ‘We shouldn’t use our rationalism on things like this. We should accept them as they are.’ If we question them for their superstitions, they respond, ‘You do not have the qualifications to be rational about this. While our ancestors have created certain beliefs about divinity after great contemplation, it is not fair for normal mortals like us to question such beliefs. If you question them, it only means lack of trust or atheism.’
But a true rationalist will look for reasons in anything and everything. There are only a very few people who are pure rationalists. The majority are believers.
It is because life in this world is constructed in such a way that it is entirely contradictory to nature. If we analyze them, most of the beliefs will be unfit for today’s life. Trying to rectify this might need the world’s structure to be changed in entirety. Hence, rationalism is a tougher choice for those who believe in such structures blindly or for those who are being benefited by these structures beyond their due. So, such beneficiaries must force superstitious beliefs on those below to keep them in a satisfied, contented state. Such superstitions are there in almost every walk of life, in professions, in experiences, in thoughts, binding a larger population.
Since the common people oppose or discriminate against rationalists who are against superstitions, there is not much possibility of increase in numbers or influence of the rationalists, and hence they are very few. If only each one of us can think rationally and apply reason in every walk of life, the discrimination between humans, the inequalities, feelings of want, anxieties, undue rivalries would have no space here.
In countries where people suffer inequalities, feel incomplete, are competing with others for selfish reasons, it is evident that such people do not live a rational life, while in places where it is evident that such lacks do not exist and people live a life of content, they are ruled by rationalism.
For example, in countries like Russia where people do not have private competition, are not anxious, and are having an equal life with equal opportunities, it is only because rationalism rules there. And that is precisely the reason why others criticize that country for being a ‘rationalist country’ or an ‘atheist country’.
From this itself it is evident that theism and theistic countries nurture social inequalities, unequal opportunities, and jealousies and private competitions among people.
Hence it is also evident that to get rid of such inequalities, inadequacies, and anxieties and to let people live an equal and peaceful life, god should be destroyed and atheism should be advocated.
People do not have to destroy god, do not have to propagate atheism. If, with full consciousness, we are able to approach our experiences and our actions with rational thinking, god and theism will vanish for sure. To encourage such practices, that is, rational and critical thinking, such debating committees are very significant. That is why I wholeheartedly appreciate Amaindakarai’s debating committee. I request, therefore, that our youngsters, the Dravidians, the oppressed people, the backward sections, should support the committee and be immensely benefited by it.
Periyar’s speech at the Aminjikarai Debating Committee meeting on 31.01.1951. First published on Viduthalai 5-2-1951.
Source: Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. 2013. Periyar Kalanjiyam 33: Pagutharivu, Paagam (1). First Edition. Chennai: Periyar Suyamariyathai Prachaara Niruvanam. 173-175.
Dr. Vijay Asokan, researcher in electron-microscopy, Chalmers University, Sweden is interviewed by Karthick Ram Manoharan for The Periyar Project. Excerpted and translated interview below. Full video interview in Tamil at the end.
The Periyar Project (TPP): What is the purpose of starting the European Periyar Ambedkar Comrades’ Association?
Vijay Asokan (VA): The Tamil Nadu diaspora is growing in Europe only of late. Their settled population used to be much less when compared to other immigrant population of skilled labor. But this is the time when there are people from the age of 25 to 40 and there is a scope to create a space for politics. In social media, there is a lot of attention on Tamil Nadu and India… now there is an open space and arena. In parallel, in India the right-wing Hindutva forces are working vigorously at the level of politics, NGO, social engineering and so. That impact is there on Europe as well. They are also targeting the people in the similar age group. It is our opinion that Periyar is the right person to go to in order to counter the Hindu Right. Periyar and Ambedkar together would be the right weapons to take to the youth, to shape them politically, to build a positive politics for the India of the future.
TPP: The name of your association itself implies a form of solidarity among progressive groups. But you might be aware of other opinions. For instance, there are some who see Dr. Ambedkar as a leader of Dalits exclusively. There are others who see Periyar as a leader of the intermediate castes. How do you see this and how do you bring these two leaders together?
VA: Projecting Ambedkar as a leader of the Dalits alone is a calculated politics. It has been happening in India for a while, and in Tamil Nadu since the 1990s, especially through some writers and intellectuals, to show Ambedkar and Periyar as opposing forces. This is a need for Hindutva politics. In Tamil Nadu, there has been an opposition to this design from the Periyarists. The Periyarists refuted such writings since the 90s in newspapers and in political forums. Many Dalit activists are also of the opinion that they can let go of neither Periyar nor Ambedkar. There are some who are still rigid in placing them as opposites. But in the larger political framework, there is an understanding that Periyar and Ambedkar are inseparable. As an impact of this process in Tamil Nadu, we also feel that in Europe this solidarity must be maintained to counter divisive politics. Dr. Ambedkar is not for Dalits alone. He is an intellectual, a social architect, someone who created a model for social engineering. Periyar, who was his contemporary, has also said that Ambedkar is my leader. So those who travel the path of Periyar also accept Ambedkar as their leader. That is our outlook.
TPP: Are the youth of contemporary Tamil Nadu interested in Periyar? How do you think Periyar is relevant to contemporary Tamil Nadu?
VA: There is still an impact of Periyar. One key reason is that since there are forces strongly opposing Periyar there is also a reaction, a search for Periyar. When Periyar is seen as a fixed institution, then maybe the interest may decline, as is the case with other institutions. But only when there are opposing forces, there will be a competition, for the best to win. As the forces opposing Periyar have grown in the last ten years, so have the people reading and defending Periyar. As people read Periyar, they find out how false the accusations placed on him are. There is a new wave of interest in Periyar among the youth. For example, Vidiyal publishers released copies of Periyar: Indrum Endrum (which are selections from Periyar’s works). It is a top selling book despite it being a volume as big as an encyclopedia. Many of those who purchased it, if you look at Vidiyal’s records, were women. Another example, Periyar’s Why Were Women Enslaved book has been published as several editions and recently, it was also marketed targeting school children… His works are reaching a wider audience in this generation. This generation has a modern thinking. In a globalized world, India’s structure has changed, India’s social model has also changed. Tamil Nadu is far ahead than other states. There is a bigger population of educated, well-read people in the state. If you take the right literature to them, they will use it. Else, they will just neglect it. If we are able to take Periyar’s thoughts to this group, it is because of the growing aggression of Periyar’s opponents, and the increased need to take Periyar forward. People have started to think ‘Why do they want to attack Periyar? Why do they want to reject Periyar? Why do they take offense when Periyar is mentioned?’ That is why books on Periyar, discussions about Periyar on YouTube channels are becoming popular… The contemporary generation thinks that by reading Periyar they can compete in the contemporary political world. Many believe that Periyar is necessary to tackle politics today.
TPP: You have written a lot about ecological issues, like the protests against neutrino, methane projects in Tamil Nadu. Does a Periyarist perspective help to address this?
VA: Definitely. Periyarism influenced not only my involvement in environmental activism, but also my involvement in the Eelam issue. The fundamental concept of Periyarism is resistance to oppression. Whether it be his opposition to god, caste or religion, his core idea is resistance to oppression… When you compile his views and read systematically, he is totally a rebel against oppression. He opposed exploitation, he was a believer in equality, that power should be distributed equally. This is his totality. From here, I am inspired to support Eelam politics. One must support a struggle against oppression. Irrespective of whether the oppression is on the basis of caste, religion or nation, Periyarism holds that we must take the side of the oppressed. Likewise, in environmental issues. The methane project in Tamil Nadu is exploiting the land, disturbing the livelihoods of the people. It worsens their economic condition. In this, we can can take insights from the Periyarist opposition to North Indian economic exploitation of the South. This is also expressed in Anna who felt that when the North as a single economic-political entity will exploit the South. Kudankulam protest is not about economy. But the people there do not want the reactor on their land, they think it will be a danger to them, yet the powers want to impose it on them. When the powers are adamant, we need to stand on the side of the people.
Disclaimer: The interview been excerpted, edited, and translated from the original Tamil interview with the interviewee’s consent. The views expressed by the interviewee are his own. The Periyar Project cannot be held responsible for the content of his views.
The imprint of Periyar is visible in the evolution and the trajectory of the Dravidian Cinema, particularly during its most significant period of the decade after India’s Independence when films like Nalla Thambi (dir. Krishnan-Panju, 1949), Velaikkari (Maidservant, dir. A.S.A. Samy, 1949), Manthiri Kumari (Minister’s Daughter, dir. Ellis R. Dungan-T.R. Sundaram, 1950), Parasakthi (Goddess, dir. Krishnan-Panju, 1952), Thirumbippaar (Look Back, dir. T.R. Sundaram, 1953), Rangoon Radha (dir. A. Kasilingam, 1956), and Annayin Aanai (Mother’s Command, dir. Chitrapu Narayana Rao, 1958) redefined Tamil cinema through the work of Dravidian ideologues like C.N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi, Murasoli Maaran, Asai Thambi, and Udumalai Narayanakavi, among others. Nalla Thambi, written by Annadurai, focuses on undermining superstition and the significance of science, particularly through the song “Vignanatha Valarakkaporendi/I will nurture science,” written by Udumalai Narayanakavi and composed by C.V. Subburaman, advocating for health and happiness rather than destruction through (atomic) science in the aftermath of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings.
Velaikkari, written by Annadurai, revolves around the predicament of the titular character of the maidservant at the intersection of class/caste and undermines the superstition surrounding faith in the backdrop of the temple as a space of exploitation. Three years later, in 1952, Parasakthi, with dialogues by Karunanidhi, further expands on the dismantling of blind faith by positing temple and the sanctum sanctorum as the space devoid of sanctity as the priest tries to rape a desolate and helpless Kalyani, the unfortunate sister around whom the narrative revolves. Concomitantly, Kalyani’s character also epitomizes the women on the fringes who, though forsaken by the apathetic state and a virulent patriarchal society, refuse to give up their dignity and fend for themselves: Kalyani, who runs an “idlikkadai” or the sparse idli shop/café, is representative of the indomitable spirit of hundreds of such women who dare to survive, despite the constant impediments and threats from men regarding perceived licentiousness of women in public sphere, apart from the harassment of the state and its (corrupt) cops of the small businesswomen/entrepreneurs.
However, coexisting with the trope of the abalaippen or the desolate woman that sheds light on the abandoned and excluded women is the persona of the princess who learns to fence and follows her heart and falls in love with a swashbuckler (Maruthanattu Ilavarasi, The Princess of Maruthanadu, dir. A. Kasilingam, 1950; written by Karunanidhi). The film ends with the newly crowned king who proclaims himself as the servant of the people and announces the end of monarchy and the beginning of democracy. The year after, in 1951, the princess of Maruthanadu transforms into the suffering wife who tends to her sick husband in Devaki (dir. R.S. Mani; written by Karunanathi). The titular Devaki prefigures Kalyani of Parasakthi by opening a diner, which later grows into a restaurant. But after recovering his health, when Devaki’s husband suspects her chastity and tortures her, it is Devaki’s sister Leela who brings him to his senses. Leela, played by the iconic Madhuri Devi is a “London-returned” educated woman who boldly refuses her father’s choice of a “suitable boy.” Leela is portrayed as an independent woman with a mind of her own, and her persona/costume reminds us of Periyar’s claims regarding the space of women and their freedom to choose. Leela’s characterization is unique in the Tamil cinema of the 1950s for not mocking but providing agency to a young, bold, and educated/westernized woman.
The year after in 1951, in Manthiri Kumari, Madhuri Devi will play the titular role of the tenacious minister’s daughter in her career-defining role of an indefatigable woman who tries to mend the ways of her wayward and crooked husband. However, during the climactic moment when she senses her husband’s plot to kill her by pushing her down a hill, on the pretext of circumambulating around him, as a traditional mark of respect/the last wish of a wife, she pushes him down the cliff. More important, Manthiri Kumari, which draws from the Tamil classic Kunadalakesi for its climax, ends with a song where the surviving characters sing the praise of her ability to withstand and challenge the machinations and onslaught of patriarchy.
This image of the marginalized woman, despite the class she comes from, is reinvented in Poompuhar (dir. P. Neelakantan; dialogues by Karunanidhi, 1964) to address the predicament of the iconic Tamil woman Kannagi who challenges the king for having charged her husband with the theft of the queen’s anklet unjustly. Eventually, Kannagi burns Madurai, the capital of the Pandya king. The film extols the virtue of Kannagi’s karpu/chastity, as in the original epic Silappathikaram, and the closure conforms to the diktats of Tamil mainstream cinema in coopting/appropriating Kannagi’s rebellious spirit as that of the fidelity of the wife of a markedly unchaste husband. Here the divergences of the narrative from Periyar’s ideology should be noted, in particular his mockery of the patriarchal concepts like chastity, primarily designed to keep the desire of women, especially those of widows and spinsters, in check. Later in Poomalai (dir. P. Neelakantan; written by Karunanidhi, 1965) the issue of rape is addressed. However, the resilient victim follows and gets married to the perpetrator-hero, thus prefiguring the more nuanced narrative ploy of rape to affirm patriarchy in the adaptation of the iconic Tamil writer Jayakanathan’s famous novel Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal (Sometimes, Some People, 1977).
Nyaya Tharasu (The Scales of Justice, dir. K. Rajeshwar; dialogues by Karunanidhi, 1989), adapted from an M.T. Vasudevan Nair script of a Malayalam film (Panchagni/Five Fires, dir. Hariharan, 1986), however, pushes the envelope further by having the protagonist, the activist and Naxalite Bharathi, killing the landlord Paramanandham–the rapist/murderer of a tribal woman. Later, when she is on parole from jail, she is ostracized by society. Towards the end, Bharathi is forced to encounter the rape of her dear friend at the hands of the latter’s own husband and his friends. Bharathi has no choice but to kill again, this time her dear friend’s husband, to save her friend from debauched degenerate men—the scale of her dread and violence increasing with the proximity of the perpetrator who, unlike the earlier landlord, is quite familiar. Nyaya Tharasu, although inspired by the original script of Panchagni, which was loosely based on the events from the life of the Naxalite K. Ajitha, the iconic rebel of the 1960s noticeably differs in its climax: the victim of the gang rape in the original is the amiable and benevolent adolescent maidservant of the friend who also helps the protagonist’s bedridden mother. The gun in the climax of Panchagni also transforms into a revolver in Nyaya Tharasu: the relative realism of the Malayalam film paves the way for its dramatic climax through the aesthetics of the mise-en-scene and politics of underscoring the class divide.
Nyaya Tharasu could be argued to be topical, yet continuing the legacy, reflexive of the compromises needed for consensual electoral politics by affirming the status quo through the safeguarding of the chastity of the wife-figure. Nonetheless, as I have argued elsewhere, the singularity of Dravidian cinema lies in its intervention in mainstream cinema: “Parasakthi was released on Deepavali Day — October 17, 1952. It ran for a minimum of 50 days in all the 62 centers it was released, and in Ceylon, it ran at the Mailan Theatre for almost 40 weeks. The huge success of Parasakthi attains significance in the context of the stiff competition Tamil films faced from Hollywood, Hindi, and Telugu films in the 1950s” (Madras Studios, p.123). The critically acclaimed and commercially successful Parasakthi’s trenchant subnational subtext, which recalls the preoccupations of the Third Cinema practitioners and politically-driven art cinema auteurs, remains unequaled in the mainstream studio-era cinema.
Nonetheless, the legacy of Periyar in Tamil cinema is not restricted to the decade after India’s Independence and could be traced from a much earlier to the later period. As the Tamil cinema historian Theodore S. Baskaran has pointed out, there was the progressive but hegemonic outlook of upper caste (Gandhian) filmmakers regarding the “upliftment” and accommodation of “Harijans” and widows, as emblematized by films like Balayogini (1937), Sevasadanam (1938), and Thyaga Bhoomi (1939) of director K. Subramanyam. Parallel to those social-reformist films from the top were the films foregrounding the predicament of the non-Brahmin others from below. Consider, for instance, the authorship of Kalaivanar N.S. Krishnan. His balancing act of combining comedy with a social message remains unparalleled in its success in the history of Indian cinema, as exemplified by his role of the lewd Brahmin priest in Uthamaputhiran (The Noble Son, 1940). Through the portrayal of the prurient priest who keeps chasing a Dalit (washer)woman, N.S. Krishnan, known for writing/improvising the comedy scenes with his fellow-actors, questions the stupidity and hypocrisy surrounding purity/untouchability.
Additionally, through the sequence of appeasing the dead parents/ancestors by offerings (thevesam), N.S. Krishnan and his team point to the exploitation at the hands of a priest, who exploits death/grievance in the name of religion and ritual. Thus, Krishnan’s parallel text of comedy directly invokes Periyar and contemporary ground reality even in a period melodrama like Uthama Puthiran, which was inspired by James Whale’s Hollywood version of Alexandre Dumas’s The Man in the Iron Mask (1939). It would be worth our while to reread the melodrama-inclined Tamil cinema through the lens of caste, just as Linda Williams has astutely and provocatively read The Birth of a Nation (dir. D.W. Griffith, 1915) and Gone with the Wind (dir. Victor Fleming, 1939) as a/effectively playing the “race card.” The specter of caste as it haunts the Tamil psyche cannot be understated. So also, the continuing relevance of melodrama to address issues related to caste and its inhumane oppression, not just in the above-mentioned films of the Dravidian ideologues but also in the contemporary Dalit cinema, spearheaded by Pa. Ranjith.
However, the melodramatic aesthetics of the rhetorically driven Dravidian cinema of the 1950s is unique. It uses the sentimentality and excess of melodrama not only to intensify its plot progression but also in its utilization of an ornate/florid style of language that is littered with alliteration, while marking its disjunction with the archaic usage of Tamil in its distinctly Sanskritized and literary form of an earlier cinema. It also uses the pathos surrounding the abalaippen and the melos/music to engage the audiences both with the narrative and its ideologically imbued lyrics, enabling the dissemination and entrenchment of ideas through repetition/reiteration. More importantly, it marked its protagonist, the voice of rebellion and sub-nationalism, as the antihero. If the hero of Parasakthi (1952) is shocked and dismayed to be engulfed by beggars on his arrival from the war-torn Rangoon to an Independent India, the protagonist of Thirumbippaar (1953) is a plagiarizer and philanderer who in a drunk and disoriented moment would solicit his own elder sister, prefiguring such a climactic moment in Ritwik Ghatak’s immortal Subarnarekha (Streak of Gold, 1965). As the retort of the Dravidian ideologues, Thriumbippaar mocks at Nehru’s response of ‘nonsense” to the secession and autonomy of the Dravidanadu/Dravidian Nation: the hero Parandhaman not only wears the Nehru coat sporting a rose but also keeps responding with a curt “nonsense” repeatedly during significant moments in the film.
The philanderer becomes a cunning scoundrel who abuses and tortures his ingenuous and graceful wife, in Rangoon Radha (1956), which loosely borrows its plot from Gaslight (dir. George Cukor, 1944). The manipulative protagonist in the Tamil version not only holds his wife as a captive to his evil designs of projecting her as delusional to the society at large but also, on the pretext of her insanity, tries to usurp the wealth of her family by forcing her sister-in-law to marry him. The scenes surrounding the warding off of the ghost/spirit from the possessed wife offered the space for the (Dravidian) critique of superstition and blind faith and the disavowal of reason/science. Thus, one could see a (cinephilia-driven) link between the story writer Arignar Anna’s self-confessed predilection for classical Hollywood, particularly his investment in recycling/appropriating the narratives for their melodramatic potential, and the screenplay/dialogue writer Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s penchant for the specificity surrounding the local, in terms of the discourse surrounding bigamy, possession, etc.
The unprecedented approval and acclaim of the Tamil audiences for films like Velaikkari and Parasakthi had an impact that spilled over beyond the circle of the closely-knit Dravidian ideologues of the DMK (Federation for the Progress of Dravidians), as could be seen in films like Andha Naal (That Day, dir. S. Balachander, 1954), produced by the Congress Party enthusiast/supporter A.V. Meiyappan of AVM Studios. Andha Naal, which had the hero of Parasakthi and Thirumbippaar, Sivaji Ganesan playing the dark antihero Rajan further pushed the envelope by marking its protagonist as the antinational Japanese spy, with his locked room and espionage (radio) gadgets for secretive long-distance communication. It is a milestone in Indian cinema in having the hero vehemently challenging the idea of a coherent nation, in the aftermath of the Independence, which, according to him, has led to a dystopia by denying him (equal) opportunity to grow and flourish. His destructive impulse aids the Japanese bombing of Madras, despite his Gandhian wife, who is a Congress party sympathizer, trying in vain to stop his falling into the dark abyss. Unlike in Parasakthi, the intransigent antihero, who is eventually shot dead by his wife, disallows his cooptation into society till the very end. On the other end of the spectrum, the Tamil cultural unconscious’s misogynist strand reaches its fruition with Annayin Aanai (Mother’s Command, dir. Chitrapu Narayanamurthy; dialogues, Murasoli Maaran, 1958). Sivaji Ganesan’s dark persona as an antihero is further pushed to the limit in an oedipal drama wherein to honor his (dying) mother’s command regarding avenging his father’s murder by a cruel business partner, he marries the daughter of the murderer and holds him captive right in his basement, thus torturing his wife and her avaricious father and seeking revenge.
Any discussion of melodrama in Tamil cinema would be incomplete without the mention of director K.S. Gopalakrishnan and his canonical films like Karpagam (1963) and Kaikodutha Deivam (The Benevolent Savior, 1964). K.R. Vijaya, one of the rare actresses to have consistently acted in significant roles over five decades in the male-centric Tamil cinema, not only made her debut in Karpagam under Gopalakrishnan’s stewardship but also had him as the director for her 100th film, Nathayil Muthu (Pearl in the Snail, 1973). They had collaborated on Kurathi Magan (Kurathi’s Son) the year before. Both these films are significant for naming the (oppressed) caste of the main characters: if the nomadic Narikurava community occupies the center stage in Kurathi Magan, the heroine Chellamani is from the Dalit community and is married to a Brahmin in Nathayil Muthu. Tamil cinema has been notorious for erasing the caste of its characters, particularly if they are Dalits or belonging to other communities on the fringes. Although occasionally condescending in tone, Kurathi Magan and Nathayil Muthu openly acknowledge the Gandhian ideals of its maker, for instance, overtly through the song Ragupathi Raghava Raja Ram during the climax of Nathayil Muthu. Nevertheless, the one sung by the “Harijans,” Nillappa Konjam Nillappa, points to the affirmative action policies of the state from 1967 onwards, and the need to avail and grow.
Earlier, the lyricist Vaali also wrote a song, Nanga Pudhusa Kattikitta, where the protagonists, as the newly wedded couple, imagine themselves to be the free-spirited Narikuravas and dance with abandon. The song references their Seerthirutha Kalyanam/reformist marriage, which eschews the traditional (Vedic) rituals and pomp, as advocated by Periyar. Oli Vilakku (The Shining Lamp, dir. Tapi Chanakya) just a year after the DMK came to power in 1967. Vaali’s lyrics allude to Dravidian ideologues’ glorious legacy as poet/lyricists, including the preeminent Bharathidasan, who penned the inaugural song Vazhga Vazhgave in Parasakthi that was a paean to Periyar’s envisioning of the Dravidanadu. Even Tamil cinema’s most famous lyricist Kannadasan, who had a tempestuous relationship with the DMK, celebrated the unconquerable Dravidanadu in his critically acclaimed anti-colonial period drama, Sivagangai Seemai (The Sivagangai Province, 1959): … Veerargal Vaazhum Dravdanattai Vendravargal Kidaiyathu/Dravidanadu, the land of the brave, is unconquerable.
To conclude, I would like to acknowledge my own cinephilia and investment in the 1950s and 1960s Tamil cinema, which has helped sketch one of the many possible trajectories of Periyar’s legacy in Tamil cinema and summarize my presentations on the studio era Tamil cinema in many conferences over the last decade. The other major trajectory I am invested in is the ideologically permeated imbrication between the politically driven theater and cinema, particularly in the works of the preeminent Periyarist M.R. Radha. Many of his roles on stage and cinema continues to haunt the Tamil psyche, even after four decades of his passing away, as could be seen in every young actor/villain trying to mimic him to varying degrees at key moments. His provocative and controversial star text also adds to his enigma as an iconoclastic rebel. Raththakkanneer (Bloody Tears, 1954, dir. Krishnan-Panju) could be argued, despite its misunderstanding and misinterpretation of a debilitating disease, as a profound meditation on oppression and abjection. Based on Radha’s most successful play, written by the Dravidian ideologue Thiruvarur Thangarasu, the film continues to be successful in questioning the status quo and its scathing critique, in the Periyarist mode, of the passivity of the Tamil populace and its indiscriminate acceptance of tradition.
(I am grateful to my friends Prof. Ram Mahalingam for his response, and filmmaker Amshan Kumar, and writer/critic Yamuna Rajendran, Prof. Ma. Senthilkumar, and editor Nizhal Arasu for sharing some of their insights.)
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Swarnavel Eswaran is a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, the premier film school in Asia, and the prestigious film studies program at the University of Iowa. His documentaries include Nagapattinam: Waves from the Deep (2018), Hmong Memories at the Crossroad (2016), Migrations of Islam (2014), and Unfinished Journey: A City in Transition (2012). He is currently an associate professor in the Department of English and the School of Journalism at Michigan State University, and his research focuses on the history, theory, and production of documentaries, and the specificity of Tamil cinema, and its complex relationship with Hollywood as well as popular Hindi films. His books include Manudamaum Mandiyiduthalum (Parisal, 2019), an anthology of essays on cinema and Madras Studios: Narrative, Genre, and Ideology in Tamil Cinema (Sage Publications, 2015). His fiction feature Kattumaram (Catamaran, 2019), a collaboration with Tamil’s cinema’s leading director Mysskin, is currently on the film festival circuit.
“Freedom from Caste: The Political Thought of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy in a Global Context”, a project funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 initiative, held its launch event on 11 November 2020 through a webinar hosted by the University of Wolverhampton (UoW). Dr. Karthick Ram Manoharan, who joined the UoW in October 2020 as Marie Skolodwoska-Curie Actions Individual Fellow will be working under the supervision of Prof. Meena Dhanda to provide a comprehensive and comparative account of the thoughts of Periyar, an iconic anti-caste leader from South India.
Prof. Miceal Barden, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Business and Social Sciences, UoW, Prof. Ram Mahalingam, Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan, and Dr. Suraj Yengde, Senior Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School, spoke at the event along with Dhanda and Manoharan.
The webinar was moderated by Dhanda who welcomed and introduced the speakers, and provided a brief overview of the research aims and goals. Barden congratulated and extended a warm welcome to the incoming Fellow, and highlighted the important research on caste that had been undertaken at UoW by Dhanda in the recent past.
Mahalingam, who has researched extensively on the practices of caste-based discrimination, talked about the significance of academic work on Periyar. Noting that the concept of dignity was crucial for “rethinking social relationships”, he highlighted how dignity was a crucial concern for Periyar, whom he called a “radical humanist”. Mahalingam also drew attention to Periyar’s unique sense of humor with which he addressed complex social problems.
Yengde, author of the bestseller Caste Matters, spoke about how important it was to investigate caste from a philosophical standpoint, referring to caste’s “ontological debasing of our own existence.” Yengde noted how Periyar was inspired from radical traditions of the European Enlightenment as well as Buddhism. He drew similarities between the works of Periyar and Dr. Ambedkar, and said “we have much to excavate from the great legacy of Periyar”. He added that in the study of caste in a global context, Periyar was one of the “important theoreticians” to look at.
Manoharan, thanking the speakers, referred to the past and current scholarship on Periyar and Dravidian Studies and the need to expand it significantly. Projecting Periyar as a thinker of global significance, he spoke about how his research will be using new material from the 37 volumes of the Periyar Kalanjiyam to provide new perspectives in conversations on caste, identity and gender. Over 100 people from six countries participated in the webinar. Participants included senior academics working on Dravidian, Dalit and caste politics, activists, journalists, scholars and students. A lively Q&A session involved discussions on the scope of the studies, the contemporary relevance of Periyar, and critiques and prospects of Periyarism.