Safai Karamcharis as Covid Warriors in a Casteised Society

-Lotika Singha [i]

Covid warrior is the term chosen by the Indian government for a raft of essential service-providers when the most draconian lockdown – just four hours’ notice for a country of over a billion – came into force on 25 March 2020. These Covid warriors include not only baton-wielding police personnel but also health workers, the media and safai karamcharis as illustrated in posters created by members of the public to showcase the country’s positive, community-orientated  (‘I’ to ‘We’) response on the MyGov Self4Society website specially dedicated to the pandemic.

Safai karamchari is the Hindi term for manual scavengers, but is also used for sanitation workers more widely as often the same people also do other sanitation work. Most safai karamcharis are Dalits (Safai Karamchari Andolan, n.d.), which is a political collective term for certain caste groups historically considered  ‘untouchable’, but let us be mindful that we are living history at all time.

Caste as Babasaheb Ambedkar (1916/1979/2004) said ‘is enclosed class’. How different is that from class per se? When you are born into a class, you can possibly leave it. You can possibly consider an occupation different from your parents. But when you are born into a caste, you cannot leave it. Contrary to the placement of Covid warriors in a horizontal row in a cheerfully bright poster on the Self4Society website, castes exist in a vertical order. If you think of this order as a building, the most caste-oppressed groups, including safai karamcharis are in the basement, below ground zero, outside the caste society. The three hegemonic caste groups, the savarnas, who form about a fifth of the population (Desai et al, 2010; Piketty, 2020) but include most mainstream media personnel, many doctors and senior police officers, will be found in the top floors and penthouses. In Perumal Murugan’s (2021) words, ‘The space that each caste can inhabit and traverse is clearly demarcated’.

For cleaning the shared spaces in the top floors, or reception areas, or streets, shopping malls, parks and our public sewer systems, and so on, the barriers are lifted – for not everyone may clean. But when we lift the barriers to let the sanitation workforce in to clean, we do it with a sense of anxiety, which we deal with by un-seeing it. Image 8/18 of the Vadapalani Bus Stand Depot, Chennai in the photostory ‘Out of Breath’ (Palani Kumar and Utkarsh, 2020) foregrounds a safai karamchari emerging from a (man)hole covered in sewage, He is very visible to the viewer of the image. But the public crossing this point are largely oblivious of him or purposefully turning away from the sight and smells.

The question then arises, can using the Covid warrior label for a range of service providers make for only positive stories as desired (or instructed?) by Self4Society in a deeply hierarchal society? Did it in the lockdown? Does it now as the pandemic continues? Will it in the post-pandemic ‘normal? Because pre the pandemic, the ‘warriors’ were a select caste group: the Kshatriyas, who form about 5 per cent of the Indian population (Piketty, 2020). And alongside the positive stories posted on the government’s Self4Society website shown above, the wider internet is swamped with reports that tell other stories, starting from the titles:

From these stories, we gather that Covid warriors have lives beyond the workplace. But as we announced the lockdown, we did not ensure that essential items would be available for those warriors who cannot afford larders and or do not have store cupboards. We did not ensure that protective gear was available for everyone from day 1. Supplies rolled in slowly, some items even after the lockdown was over, some of poor quality. We refused many safai karamcharis leave as we needed more sanitation. In some areas we needed less cleaning because we were all safe in our homes. There we let them go without compunction, to walk back to a home that might have even been a few hundred miles away (Mander, 2020), as they are mostly contract workers. We did cheer those who continued to work by clapping, banging plates and showering them with flowers and garlands. Our casteised anxieties of sharing space were not affected because while the pandemic appears to be about physical distancing, mostly it just reaffirms our preference for social distancing. And of course those we are keeping our distance from know that very well too. As Sheela from Mumbai, whose safai karamchari husband Ashok was consistently denied leave and who died after contracting the virus said “Nothing happens just by chanting ‘safai karamcharis are Covid warriors’” (quoted in  Shinoli [2020]). Another worker in Chennai mused: “People of course say they are grateful now, that we are keeping the streets clean and saving them from infections. We have had television channels interview us.  But that is what we have always done.” (quoted in Palani Kumar [2020]).

The Indian government also put out an appeal to us to become citizen volunteer Covid warriors. It put out some information about what we can do to help: professional work if you have the relevant qualifications to social service of various kinds, including distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) to sanitation workers. And what about sanitation work itself? The training matrix on the website does not include this work. The jobs are listed alphabetically and Rural ASHAs at number 44 are followed by State AYUSH Staff at number 45.

The role of caste in these contradictions has mostly been analysed by focusing on the caste of the worker. But the contradictions persist . Our anxiety in public spaces persists. Hence as I have argued previously taking the example of domestic cleaning (Singha, 2020), we need to shift the focus of analysis from them as caste-oppressed beings to the caste-of-the-mind (Guru 2012a; see also Khatarker, 2019) of hegemonic-caste people. The people whom I have been referring to as ‘we’. We dominate public policy-making spaces (Barik, 2004; Dhingra, 2019; Mitra, 2020; Varma, 2012; Yadav, 2016) as well as all the good jobs going around (Harad, 2020; Ilaiah Shepherd 2018; Sagar, interview with Ilaiah Shepherd, 2017). How did we become hegemonic and why the anxiety around manual labour and sharing spaces?

Historically, in terms of class, middle-class status is linked to physically distance from manual labour, which continues to be seen in India (Ray and Qayum, 2009/2010). But casteism – caste-of-the-mind – takes this to another level, social distancing, which means distancing ourselves from the material reality in which we actually live. In his seminal essay, ‘Archaeology of Untouchability’, Gopal Guru writes about the need for greater social recognition as part of the human struggle to exist in meaningful ways. To reduce the competition for this recognition, the aim of the Indian ideology of purity and pollution and the attendant caste system, underpinned by the varna theory, is to produce ‘a kind of total rejection’ of some other humans, that is, to push them ‘beyond the civilizational framework, rendering the latter completely un-seeable, unapproachable, and untouchable’, and without any feeling of compunction (2012b:211–212).  That is, the caste-of-the-mind teaches us to perceive reality as an illusion, so that nurturing that reality is no longer seen as our work but of those who are still living within the reality (Sarukkai, 2012).  In this I have even heard the rules of purity and pollution that determine casteist practices around domestic work referred to as ‘refined’ norms.

In such a society, as already noted by Periyar decades earlier, when societal organisation is rooted in ‘varnadharma’, hegemony is maintained by using the simple idea of a mental-manual dichotomy in work/labour as a discursive tool, a kind of everyday violence. There is no empirical grounding of the distinction (Singha, 2019), but repeated again and again and attached to another notion, that of karma, that is said to be ‘cosmically’ ordained, generations of us have believed and continue to believe that doing so-called manual work lowers our status, it is an affront to our dignity. So the ideology lets us easily distance ourselves from manual work even while we continue to enjoy the benefits that are produced by that work, but which are denied to the manual workers themselves (Periyar, quoted in Rajadurai and Geetha (2013).

The Safai Karamchari Andolan, an NGO started by children of manual scavengers and led by Bezwada Wilson, campaigned for years before we passed legislation prohibiting employment of manual scavengers in 1993.[ii] But many of us, including the government itself ignored it. So we amended it in 2013 (Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act) and again in 2020 (Akhilesh, 2020). What will be the outcome this time, given that we still have caste-in-the-mind, and start the policy-making process from a position of denial. For example, we claim Delhi is free of this scourge when it is not. We quibble over the numbers. We do little to ensure that the families of those who die while cleaning our septic tanks and sewage systems get the monetary relief we promised them (Penkar, interview with Bezwada Wilson, 2018; also Akhilesh, 2020; Shankar and Swaroop, 2020; Thekaekera 2020; also Coffey and Spears 2018). As I wrote this, I realised how eerily this account is similar to Periyar’s observation in 1944, almost 8 decades ago, that

‘[o]ur agriculture continues to be the same as it was 200 years ago. To some extent irrigation facilities and over-head tanks were introduced to provide water for cultivating new lands. There is no other substantial improvement. The agricultural department has merely recruited a few new hands. Even that was helpful only to the Brahmins, who know not the ABCD of agriculture. There was no improvement in the production of food grains. There was no improvement in the mode of cultivation. The tillers are not able to get substantial gains form their work. Agriculturists have not been enlightened about their profession. … They are kept as mere irrational human beings.’ (Periyar 2020)

Just like Periyar observed how the exploitative conditions of work of agricultural labourers had remained unchanged over centuries because those benefiting from it did not have to suffer those conditions themselves, we can see the same issue in sewage work today – those who have the power to implement the bills do not do so because they think they will never have to do it. So, will our very public show of appreciation of the safai karamchari Covid warriors give new meanings to cleaning work? Flatten the hierarchical triangle by August 2021, the new ‘deadline’ for elimination of manual scavenging by the introduction of mechanised means of work (Thekaekera, 2020)? Reduce our casteised anxieties, our segregated lives and occupations, our close attention to some, but perfunctory attention to other occupational conditions of work?

The mainstream Indian press which is largely run and contributed to by ‘us’ writes about these things, highlights our failures, but it has largely ignored Isabel Wilkerson’s 2019 international best-seller Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents, which has put caste on the global map. That is something we actively try not to do, for example by countering Dalit efforts to include caste as a particular form of oppression in international instruments of discrimination (e.g. at the World Conference Against Racism in 2001 and the United Nations Durban Review Conference in 2009 (ISDN n.d.),[iii] ESCAP conference in 2014 on gender equality in the Asia-Pacific region (Menon, 2016) and the World Conference on Youth in 2014 (Kamble, 2015). Similar pressures are seen at country level outside of India, for example against the proposal to include caste as a factor of discrimination in the UK’s Equality Act (2010) by hegemonic caste groups in the diaspora (Dhanda 2020).

Wilkerson (2019) reiterates what the Black Lives Matter movement highlights: that the responsibility to change things lies with those who create and reproduce oppression. In India too, this point has been raised time and again by scholars and activists from caste-oppressed backgrounds (e.g. Yengde, 2019) while also pointing out how casteism absolves the hegemonic castes from feeling any guilt:

‘The casteised mind doesn’t feel guilty of oppressing others. The ideology of the caste system actually encourages people to continue to exploit … you don’t have to feel guilty about it because people are where they are based on some cosmic justifications … Therefore the policies which continue to operate today are very difficult to break through …’ (Suraj Yengde, 2019) .

But why not snatch this opportunity, this revealing of our anxieties even as we tried to become invisible to the virus by hiding inside our homes to adopt more anti-casteist approaches, for example by moving the spotlight of social injustice analysis from caste of the worker to the caste-of-the-mind within us?


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E.V.R, Periyar (2020). Towards the complete destruction of the old order. Prabuddha: Journal of Social Equality, [S.l.], v. 4, n. 1, p. 1-8. ISSN 2576-2079. Originally published on 13 October 1944.

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Sagar (2017). The private-sector economy is a modern form of “Guptadhana”: Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd on “social smuggling” and the Baniya-Brahmin nexus. The Caravan, 30 September.

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Thekaekera, M.M. (2020). Why the proposed manual scavenging prohibition bill looks good only on paper, The Wire, 9 October.

Varma, S. (2012). SC/STs fail to break caste ceiling: No SC in 149 top government officers, 40 pc do menial jobs. The Economic Times, 6 September.

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Author Bio

Lotika Singha is Honorary Research Fellow, Faculty of Business, Arts and Social Sciences, University of Wolverhampton, UK.

[i] An earlier version of this paper was presented in the New (Normal) Materialist Decay: a series of conversations on the University College London Institute of Advanced Studies theme of Growth/Waste, session Key Work and the Anxiety of the Public Space, 3 February 2021 (

[ii] India’s Supreme Court has ruled that the practice of manual scavenging violates international human rights law, including protections found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). India is also a party to other international conventions that reinforce obligations to end manual scavenging.

[iii] The Durban Review Conference was organized to evaluate progress towards the goals set by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author are their own. The Periyar Project cannot be held responsible for the content of their views.

Periyar, Dravidian Ideologues, and Tamil Cinema

Sivaji Ganesan’s iconic role in Parasakthi (1952). Image provided by author. Courtesy: Stills Gnanam.

Swarnavel Eswaran

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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Author Bio

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.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author are their own. The Periyar Project cannot be held responsible for the content of their views.

Social Marginality, Precarity and Dignity: Rethinking Periyar

-Ramaswami Mahalingam

We are living through a pandemic in a globalized world. We are more likely to recognize the preciousness of our lives than the interdependent nature of our lives. To acknowledge that our lives are interconnected, we need to recognize our fellow human beings’ dignity. Dignity is an embodied praxis, a constellation of processes by which we embody, recognize, intervene, preserve, and cherish the very core of what makes us human. When such processes are trampled and systemically violated, they dehumanize marginalized community members (e.g., oppressed caste groups in India, African Americans, sexual minorities, or native Americans). Such dignity violations undermine the well-being and sense of belonging of members of marginalized groups. Recent protests in the U.S. against police brutality against African Americans illustrate the police’s systemic problems that fail to recognize their dignity. Misrecognitions result in deadly consequences normalizing the invisibility of the sufferings of those who embody multiple marginalized identities. Invisibility and precarious working conditions are ideal for the proliferation of dignity injuries. Based on my research, I identified three kinds (Mahalingam, 2019) of dignity: (a) personal; (b) intersubjective; and (c) processual. Personal dignity refers to our inherent human quality, including our performative aspects. Intersubjective dignity refers to our ability and commitment to recognizing the dignity of others in our everyday interactions. Processual dignity refers to our commitment to foster a culture of dignity in our communities (e.g., family, workplace). I study dignity among janitors, women engineers, and hospital patients waiting for surgery. For all participants, dignity injuries undermind their agency, purpose in life, and well-being. 

My earliest memory of dignity was associated with E.V.Ramasamy, known as Periyar. I heard the word suyamariyathai (self-respect) in marriage ceremonies officiated by elders, not by Brahmins. My earliest exposure to the notion of dignity was in Periyar’s idea of self-respect that negated all cultural, religious, or traditional practices that undermine a person’s self-worth and dignity. Periyar fought for the dignity of the individual and the need to recognize the humanity of fellow human beings irrespective of their caste, gender and social class. Periyar questioned religious practices, customs, and traditions that violate personal and intersubjective dignities. Periyar called for a rational engagement to rethink and reexamine taken-for-granted assumptions about every aspect of life that undermine personal and intersubjective dignities. He also practiced what he preached. He recognized the humanity and dignity of others, especially those who disagreed with him. Irrespective of age, status, and gender, he addressed everyone with respect, a rare quality appreciated even by his staunch critics. His sense of humor and sharp wit, and a commitment to respect the dignity of others illustrate his commitment to processual dignity. For me, Periyar is an exemplar of my conception of dignity as an embodied praxis.

Questioning any taken-for-granted assumptions which naturalize inequitable and unequal social relations was one of the unique characteristics of Periyar. He was uncompromising in his desire to challenge any human being’s dignity violations and mistreatments because of their caste, class, or gender. Periyar was an organic praxologist with an acumen for finding effective, efficient, and economical solutions to social problems to alleviate the sufferings of socially marginalized community members.

Globalization normalized the gig economy and precarious working conditions. Dignity violations and sufferings of those who survive in the gig economy are invisible. To make ends meet, young people have to do multiple jobs where they are their own “boss.” Unite Here, a labor union for workers in the service industry, came up with the slogan, “one job should be enough,” to counter the hegemonic narratives of the gig economy. I wonder what Periyar would do now. Periyar, in his lifetime, unmasked many practices that undermined human dignity. He will point out that the gig economy has disproportionately affected marginalized communities (e.g., immigrants, refugees, and ethnic minorities). He will foreground dignity to challenge institutional practices that render the sufferings of the marginalized invisible. He will call for a radical humanist program foregrounding dignity to meet the challenges of our time.

We need to reengage and reinterpret Periyar to retool our theory and praxis to meet the challenges of our time. In that spirit, the EU H2020 funded project Freedom From Caste: The Political Thought of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy in a Global Context, where Dr. Karthick Manoharan will undertake a novel research on Periyar under the supervision of Prof. Meena Dhanda at the University of Wolverhampton, is a timely intervention to bring the organic praxology of Periyar to a larger audience. It is high time scholars around the world critically engage with Periyar’s work. Karthick Manoharan’s work is historically significant and a much needed critical intervention to bring the legacy of a maverick like Periyar to a western audience. Periyar’s unwavering commitment and a quest for social justice and equality will inspire a new generation of scholars worldwide to creatively engage with issues of inequalities, social marginality, precarity, and identity politics, and develop a praxis for coalition building and solidarity for social change.


Mahalingam, R. (2019). Mindful mindset, interconnectedness, and dignity. Global Youth, 230-253.

Author Bio

Ramaswami Mahalingam, Director, Barger Leadership Institute, Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author are their own. The Periyar Project cannot be held responsible for the content of their views.