An artist as a leader

On his long journey from Thirukkuvalai village in Tiruvarur district to the hearts of crores of Tamils, Muthuvel Karunanidhi made many conquests in the fields of politics, literature and cinema. On the evolution of the Dravidian icon who in a way dictated the course of even national politics for several decades.

Published : Aug 17, 2018 11:00 IST

SEPTEMBER 19, 1967:  Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai inaugurating the Cooum Improvement Scheme at the Marina beach in Madras. Karunanidhi was the Public Works Minister.

SEPTEMBER 19, 1967: Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai inaugurating the Cooum Improvement Scheme at the Marina beach in Madras. Karunanidhi was the Public Works Minister.

ON APRIL 12, 2011, the day after electioneering had come to an end, Muthuvel Karunanidhi was in a reflective mood. Murasoli Selvam, his nephew and the editor of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) the party organ Murasoli , poet Ilayabharathi and I were with him, in Tiruvarur, discussing the latest poll surveys that predicted a close fight. He rejected the surveys and said that a close fight was not possible in Tamil Nadu and the State would vote decisively. “It looks like a decisive loss, rather than a close fight,” he observed. To lighten the mood, he changed the topic from poll outcomes to my proposed biography, which was not an authorised biography but an independent one for which he had assured maximum access. He was comfortable with the idea that I would complete the biography only after the court verdict on the 2G cases.

The ever-erudite Karunanidhi suddenly spoke about my tribute to the Jaffna scholar A.J. Canagaratna in which I had quoted James Joyce. Joyce, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man , makes his lead character declare: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow to use—silence, exile and cunning.” Karunanidhi said there is a difference between one who seeks artistic freedom alone and the one who seeks a comprehensive political freedom that includes social justice along with creative freedom. “Exile was an option for Joyce, but it was not an option for Periyar, Anna or me. We had to stay put here and the arms we used are the pen and the tongue,” he said, giving an excellent opening for my biography.

In a State where language, empowerment, self-respect, art, literary forms and films coalesce to lend political vibrancy, Karunanidhi’s life becomes a sort of natural metaphor of modern Tamil Nadu. His multifaceted personality helps to understand the organic evolution of the Dravidian Movement. To understand how he came to the position to wield the pen and his tongue for his politics, rather than bombs and rifles for revolution, one has to look at his early life.

Like Mahatma Gandhi, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy chose not to be a part of the electoral system or state power. But C.N. Annadurai and Karunanidhi, like Jawaharlal Nehru, chose to be a part of the state system. Annadurai did not live long to battle with the inherent contradictions of running a government and leading a movement that was committed to social change. But, Karunanidhi paid a huge price for straddling these two worlds. For some Dravidian Movement purists, Karunanidhi symbolised the erosion of the Dravidian ideals. But a close reading will reveal that it was Karunanidhi who redefined Indian politics in more ways than one by carefully choosing the path of conciliation, where ideas were achieved not in a single revolutionary phase but in constant small doses in a manner that it is fully irreversible.

The way he managed to handle contradictions makes him either the most respected leader or the most hated leader, depending on one’s own political leanings. He used the imagery of a solider carrying a sword and a shield to explain his politics: “There are moments when you need to wield the sword and there are moments when you need to defend yourself with the shield. I have done both and don’t see any contradiction here. You need to be alive to wage the social justice war.” His long life bears testimony to his deft deployment of both the sword and the shield.

June 3, 1924. In a small but enchanting village called Thirukkuvalai, about 25 kilometres from Tiruvarur in Thanjavur district, the local healer and the legendary balladeer Muthuvelar and his wife Anjugam could not stop thanking their local deities for blessing them with a son. The couple had two daughters and was desperate to have a son, and did not spare a single temple in the vicinity, seeking divine intervention to beget a male heir. When they named their son Karunanidhi after the local deity, they hardly realised that their offspring would one day emerge as a major atheist propagandist.

Muthuvelar was not a radical in the political sense. He was a devout scholar; learnt Sanskrit by rote; read the entire oeuvre of traditional literature, including the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But he was not willing to support any form of hegemony. He wrote innumerable songs about local exploitation. These songs, set to lilting tunes, were easy and powerful and had a huge impact in the immediate neighbourhood. Muthuvelar started formal education for Karunanidhi in a local school. He was also keen that his son developed an expertise in music. But his music training turned out to be the first exposure to humiliation and the realisation of various social hierarchies. The classes were held in temples; he was prevented from wearing any cloth to cover his upper torso as it was a place where “big people” (read upper caste) came; he had to tie his cotton shawl across his hips as he was not allowed to have it on his shoulders; and he was forbidden from wearing slippers as it was seen as a mark of disrespect as well as a conscious challenge to the reigning social order.

“My music classes were in reality my first political class. I learned about the subjugation of human beings based on their caste; I could witness the glee with which some people could humiliate others as well as the self-righteousness of others in practising their customs without even realising that they were ill-treating a vast majority of the people,” says Karunanidhi. He could not be a part of a learning process where he was not treated with dignity.

The lyrics of the songs he learnt were always about salvation and ultimate truth. But the classes were structured in a manner where one’s social standing both in terms of class and in terms of caste, alone determined the place where one could sit; the types of song one could sing and also the place where one could sing from. “It was not that there were no good human beings among the elites of my place. But their ideas of correcting the mistakes were akin to applying perfume to cover up the deeply rotten wound. They could never understand the humiliation and social ostracism. Only a person who was subjected to humiliation can think of performing a surgery to get rid of the gangrene and not indulge in cosmetic cover-up. This idea dawned on me during those three years of music classes in Thirukkuvalai,” says he.

Realising his son’s sense of hurt, Muthuvelar agreed to stop his formal training in music and compensated it with innumerable bedtime stories and ballads. This was also Karunanidhi’s first initiation into the wealth of the great oral tradition. The stories ranged from religious texts, legends and myths to mocking tales of the local elite. The playful days at Thirukkuvalai came to an end when Karunanidhi turned 12. The local school was an elementary school and if anyone had to study beyond the first form (class VI), they had to go to a town. But the high school refused to admit Karunanidhi even in the fifth standard based on his entrance test. It was Karunanidhi’s emotional pleading with the headmaster, Kasturi Iyengar, that secured him a place at the Tiruvarur school.

Initiation into non-Brahmin politics

In 1921, the Justice Party, the parent organisation of the Dravidian parties, had come to power in the first ever general election held in the Madras Presidency following the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms. Pitty Theagaraya Chetty, one of the founders of the party, declined the chief ministership, but recommended Governor Wellington to appoint A. Subbarayalu Naidu Chief Minister and Ramarayaningar, the king of Panagal, Second Minister. A short non-detailed book on the life and times of Panagal Raja, as he was popularly known, was prescribed as a textbook for the fifth standard. These 50 pages turned out to be Karunanidhi’s formal initiation into the world of non-Brahmin politics. The book, in a sense, had succinctly summarised the socio-political milieu in which the non-Brahmin movement emerged and how it looked at ways to redress the historical social imbalances through a mechanism of power sharing.

In 1937, C. Rajagopalachari became the Chief Minister and decided to impose Hindi as a compulsory language in schools. The leaders of the Self-Respect Movement realised that Hindi was a vehicle meant for creating a monochromatic, highly centralised hegemonic power structure that would erase the plurality and diversity of the subcontinent. But Rajagopalachari refused to see reason. In the legislature, he defended his action and said: “Just two people are opposing Hindi—Ramasami Naicker [Periyar] and Pasumalai Bharathiyar [Navalar Somasundara Bharathi].” Pat came a sharp reply from A.T. Panneerselvam: “Yes, two are opposing Hindi. But you are the only one who is trying to bring Hindi. Hence, we can boldly say that the majority is opposed to your idea.” This reply became popular folklore and a new rallying point.

February 27, 1938. The first State-level anti-Hindi conference was organised in Kancheepuram. Though Periyar, Navalar Bharathiyar and other major leaders took part in this conference, it has entered the portals of Tamil Nadu’s political history for a different reason. It was at this conference that Annadurai delivered his first major political oration. It was like instant stardom, as Annadurai became a household name overnight. His speech also gave a new political tool to the Dravidian Movement—creating a battery of political orators with a clear-cut mandate of mobilising people for their social, linguistic and political rights.

The State-wide churning did have its rumblings in Tiruvarur. Karunanidhi started organising school children for the anti-Hindi agitation. His foray into slogan writing and polemic poetry was in this period. Their English rendering will never capture the intrinsic rhythm and meter of his evocative wordplay. While he was leading one of the street processions, his Hindi teacher was passing on that road and saw his students carrying posters and banners against Hindi. Karunanidhi gave him a leaflet, too.

Describing this episode in his autobiography, Nenjukku Neethi, Karunanidhi declares that there were no pangs of fear in coming face-to-face with his Hindi teacher. “My slogan ‘down with Hindi; long live Tamil’ is a spirit that is running in my veins. Some may term this as an obsession. If they want to term one’s love as obsession, then I have no problem in accepting such a definition.”

Absence of adolescence

Like many underprivileged children, Karunanidhi’s life moved straight to adulthood from childhood, bypassing the dream-like phase of indulgent adolescence. His politicisation, which started with the anti-Hindi agitation and exposure to the literature of the Self-Respect Movement, propelled Karunanidhi to become an activist right from his second form days. The police excesses and custodial deaths of two anti-Hindi agitators—Thalamuthu and Natarajan—had a profound impact on young Karunanidhi. The shift in Dravidian politics was complete, with Periyar emerging as its undisputed leader and Annadurai as his chief general.

Tiruvarur became a microcosm of these multiple play of forces. Smitten by Periyar’s radicalism and Annadurai’s eloquence, Karunanidhi started devouring the entire oeuvre of Dravidian literature. Periyar had already published the Tamil version of Communist Manifesto ; there were a series of serious political publications that were coming out from various parts of the State. Periyar’s Kudiarasu (The Republic) was the key vehicle for disseminating and articulating new ideas and planning political mobilisation towards an egalitarian society.

While Muthuvelar and Anjugam were rejoicing in their son’s tireless learning, little did they realise what he was reading. Textbooks were the last on Karunanidhi’s reading list. The extensive erudition in politics was revelatory for young Karunanidhi. He also created his own publication— Maanavanesan (Friend of Students), a handwritten fortnightly of eight pages in demy size dealing with a range of issues, from questioning orthodoxy to exploring the poetics of early Tamil. He and his friends would make about 50 copies and circulate it for a modest fee that covered just the cost of the paper. Years later, when I met him at the Murasoli office along with Paavai Chandran, executive editor of Kungumam, for a short interview, Karunanidhi said the handwritten journal was a great learning experience. “We could not afford to make any spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. A single mistake means rewriting fifty copies. The sheer labour of correcting made me write a very clean first draft, without any corrections or overwriting,” he recalled.

But not all of Karunanidhi’s icons were happy with the handwritten magazine. The well-known poet and life-long supporter of the Dravidian Movement and Karunanidhi, Bharathidasan, called it a waste of time and effort. He told Karunanidhi: “The madness of expecting changes from handwritten publications can only be compared to the madness that development will happen due to spinning charkhas.”

But it did have its limited impact within Thanjavur district. A khadi-clad political activist came to Tiruvarur and wanted to meet the editor of Maanavanesan . He was shocked to see a 15-year-old school pupil as the editor of a progressive, handwritten publication. Nonetheless, he decided to recruit the youth for organising the nascent Left movement in the region.

From his speech and fervour, it was clear that the political activist was not a Congressman despite his khadi dress. But what Karunanidhi did not realise was that the man who approached him was from the Left. He asked Karunanidhi to become the convener of the student’s forum to fight for peace, liberty, equality and justice. Lured by the power of the words like peace, liberty and equality, Karunanidhi agreed to run the forum. Many students, attracted towards the Congress, too joined the forum as members hoping that it would eventually become a Congress vehicle. The membership in Tiruvarur alone swelled to 200. However, a blatant attempt to convert the forum as the front of the Congress came within three months.

He dissolved the forum and launched the Tamil Nadu Tamil Students Association. In 1942, the association had an eventful annual day function. Bharathidasan wrote a long, inspiring poem and his greetings ended with this line: “Look at the roaring Tamil Lions; it is searching for the enemies to be torn apart.” Till date, this line is used in the political platforms and has become one of the most quoted lines of Bharathidasan. K. Anbazhagan and K.A. Mathiazhagan, student leaders from Annamalai University, came to Tiruvarur to deliver special lectures.

As his writings were gaining appreciation within Tiruvarur, Karunanidhi decided to widen his publishing platform. He started Murasoli in 1942 as a monthly leaflet. His friend Thennan was the secretary of the publishing house and Karunanidhi was the editor as well as the main writer. The print order was a couple of thousands. It was mailed to various Tamil political associations and was upfront in its attack on caste and social exclusion and on obscurantism and hegemony. In 1944, when conservatives organised in Chidambaram a varnashrama conference to defend the varna system, Karunanidhi wrote an obituary for the varna system and a special dirge to celebrate its death. Anger and humour became an effective combination and Karunanidhi tended to use this technique when Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in 1975.

Inspired by these successes, he wrote an article titled “The Sacrifice of Youth” and sent it to Annadurai’s Dravida Nadu magazine published from Kancheepuram. It was published in the issue that came out subsequently, sending young Karunanidhi into a state of delirium. He says in his autobiography: “Annadurai’s approval is one episode in my life that gives me immense joy even today.” He started working on his next piece right away. But, that was not published. Within a week, Annadurai came to Tiruvarur to address a public meeting and asked for Karunanidhi. He was stunned to see a schoolboy. He asked Karunanidhi about his studies and told him to stop writing until he completed his studies. He admonished him by saying “the intensity of your writing is that of a full-time political worker. This will ruin your studies. You do not belong to a rich family and you need to earn some money. Do not send me any more articles.”

But Karunanidhi’s mind refused to go back to being a mere schoolboy. He failed in the final exam not once but thrice. He was very happy with his third failure because in those days, if students failed to clear their exams the third time, they were barred from appearing for the board exams. “I felt really relieved that at least one pretentious ritual was over. But I was also aware that my failure would hurt my family. They had invested beyond their means in my education and I squandered it. I was also overwhelmed by a sense of guilt,” he says in his autobiography.

With formal education coming to an end and with no training in any vocation, Karunanidhi decided to pursue his passion as a career. He wrote his first major play titled Palaniappan and took a loan of Rs.200 to stage it. But a raging monsoon played spoilsport and the total collection from the play was just Rs.80. The theatre venue was mobbed by those who had lent money. Karunanidhi and Thennan did not even have money to pay the lead actress the return fare. They gave her a silver trophy worth about Rs.20, which was given to Karunanidhi by a friend, as remuneration.

After exploring various options, the duo sought the help of a local leader, R.V. Gopal. Gopal bought Palaniappan for his newly started Nagappattinam Dravidar Theatre Group and paid Rs.100 for the play. The sale of the first play gave Karunanidhi the impetus to pen more ideological plays. But his family resented his writing career and was determined that he join a regular firm and earn income, however low it may be. Karunanidhi was firm in his resolve not to go for regular work.

Like in many households, his family, too, came to the conclusion that only marriage would bring Karunanidhi into the regular fold. They negotiated and arranged for singer C.S. Jayaraman’s sister Padma as Karunanidhi’s bride and the wedding took place on September 13, 1944 at Tiruvarur. It was one of the early self-respect weddings where the couple entered married life through an oath of mutual affirmation. Karunanidhi had attained a certain level of popularity within the Dravidian Movement to be considered an important future leader. Senior leaders such as V.R. Nedunchezhiyan and his brother Era. Sezhiyan walked from their native village, Vadakandam, to attend the wedding. The film comedian N.S. Krishnan’s performance was the highlight of the wedding reception.

Leaving Tiruvarur

The transformation of the non-Brahmin movement into the Dravidian Movement happened during the War years between 1940 and 1945. Though the political party that represented the non-Brahmin movement was known as the Justice Party, its official name was South Indian Liberal Federation. The 15th State conference of the Justice Party was held at Tiruvarur on August 24 and 25, 1940, in which Periyar formally assumed the mantle of the party’s leadership. Periyar and Annadurai realised the need for a radical shift not just in the party’s policies but also in popular perception of what it stood for. In 1944, at its Salem Conference, the Justice Party accepted the five-point proposals of Annadurai and became the Dravidar Kazhagam. Apart from the change of name, these proposals expounded a nuanced anti-colonial position: the simultaneous opposition to the external oppressors (British) and to the internal oppressors (casteist leadership and centralising leadership of the Congress).

These changes kept the newly married Karunanidhi very busy. Within a week of his wedding, he started travelling extensively, addressing public meetings. The number of students being attracted towards the Dravidian Movement was swelling by the day. Annamalai University had become the virtual breeding ground for the new generation of non-Brahmin leaders, like Nedunchezhiyan, Anbazhagan and Mathiazhagan. Karunanidhi’s lack of formal education did not deter him from championing the cause. He had a huge appetite for erudition and did not want to lag behind these university-trained activists. In scholarship, by the time of his marriage he was as good as, or even better than, the others. He realised the potential of communication.

He knew that one area where he could better the other leaders was his ability to work on fiction, performing arts and journalism. But Murasoli had become a drag on his meagre resources. With a young wife to support and a political publication that gave high visibility and much higher level of debts, Karunanidhi started exploring other means to make both ends meet. He rejected the idea of a 9 to 5 job; he did not want to do something that would not directly contribute to his political pursuit; and the lone option left to him was to become a theatre person. He did a short stint with Gopal’s theatre group as an actor-playwright, but could not generate enough resources.

Gopal renamed Palaniappan as Shanta , and the troupe decided to try its luck in Pondicherry, which had become a hub for social, cultural and political change. The gamble paid off and the troupe became an instant success. Karunanidhi’s Shanta was staged for 25 consecutive days and the measure of its popularity could be gauged by the fact that people started calling Karunanidhi Sivaguru, after the role he had donned in the play. The Pondicherry stay also gave a new lease of life to his journalism and political oratory. He was often invited to deliver the keynote address at D.K. meetings. Kanchi Kalyanasundaram, a close associate of Annadurai, had moved to Pondicherry to run a weekly— Thozhilalar Mithran (The Proletariat’s friend) and he invited Karunanidhi to write a weekly column for the magazine. An improvised garage was the office of Thozhilalar Mithran , and the pay for the weekly column was a daily cup of tea. This time around, the target of Karunanidhi’s iconoclastic writing was Gandhi. Congressmen were not amused by these and did take their revenge on him soon.

The D.K. decided to hold a major conference in Pondicherry and Karunanidhi was appointed one of the organisers. The day-long conference was presided over by Periyar, and Annadurai delivered the opening address. But the Congress cadres were determined to disturb the conference and were plotting a major riot. They assembled before the venue and started raising slogans, demanding the immediate return of all D.K. leaders to their respective towns. “Tamil culture is to welcome everyone, why are you asking us to go?” was the peg around which Annadurai wove a rich tapestry of politics, culture and social critique to the chagrin of the assembled Congressmen. After delivering his address, Annadurai hoisted the party flag. And within minutes all hell broke loose and Karunanidhi was badly beaten up and left bleeding near a sewage area.

Periyar, moved by the sight of a battered Karunanidhi, asked him to shift to Erode and work with him. Karunanidhi went to Tiruvarur, informed the family about his new job and left for Erode. Periyar gave dual responsibilities to Karunanidhi—to be a subeditor and also organise lead page articles for Kudiarasu .

Despite the pleasure of being Periyar’s understudy, Karunanidhi realised that he needed to move on to explore his other talents. After 11 months in Erode, he accepted the invitation from film director A.S.A. Sami to write the dialogue for his film Rajakumari . In those days, writers, technicians and actors were full-time employees of film studios. But Karunanidhi was not prepared to become one of these full-timers. He wanted the freedom to carry on with his primary calling in life, politics, but was willing to work in mass media like cinema to reach out to a larger audience. Periyar and Sami saw this arrangement as mutually beneficial. Thus began Karunanidhi’s six-decade-long creative career in the Tamil film industry.

Shifting to Coimbatore

In retrospect, Karunanidhi’s decision to leave Periyar and take up the film assignment in Coimbatore clearly indicates his greater inclination towards the political universe of Annadurai and his latent questions about Periyar’s political trajectory. The duality of the Self-Respect Movement emerged very clearly during this phase. While Periyar and Annadurai were in total agreement in the diagnosis of the social milieu, their prognoses were quite opposite: For Periyar, language was an instrument for communication; for Annadurai, language was an organic socio-cultural oeuvre that lends a distinct identity and a sense of pride and belonging to the people.

A Tamil film studio in the late 1940s was an amalgam of Hollywood, the Taylorian factory and semi-feudal India. The studios were near-complete entities; all those concerned with film-making were full-time employees—be it the director, technicians, actors or writers; there was hardly any space for part-timers. And, it was beyond anyone’s expectation that someone may look at cinema as a part of his political engagement. Jupiter Pictures in Coimbatore was no exception. But, Karunanidhi knew what he wanted. For him cinema was a means to his political goal and not an end in itself. He decided not to live within the studio premises and rented a small house at Singanallur, a Coimbatore suburb.

Three interesting elements marked this phase of his life. For the first time, he was living alone with his wife Padma and not with his extended family. Two people, who would become his rivals later, were his closest friends—Nedunchezhiyan and M.G. Ramachandran (MGR). While Nedunchezhiyan was his senior in the party, MGR was in the opposite camp—an ardent Congressman. And, three, Karunanidhi was exploring the dramatic limits of Tamil narratives. It was around this time that he decided to work in all forms of literature and performing arts, and was trying to create a style of his own. He decided to use some elements of Shakespearean theatre and enrich them with the spontaneity of the folk theatre as well as create an immediacy of street theatre popularised by various progressive writers and playwrights across the subcontinent. He also instinctively knew that his first film may not provide much scope for any radical interpretations and that he had to work within the conventional mode of mythological fantasies.

Rajakumari (1947) was MGR’s first film as hero. It was also a debut film for director Sami. The second film, Abhimanyu (1948), for which Karunanidhi wrote the script, was released within six months after Rajakumari . Karunanidhi took his wife and friends to the nearest theatre to watch the film. On the way to the cinema house, he explained the narrative techniques he had used, the wordplay and his attempt at interpreting the Mahabharata within the limitations of a mythological genre. But, all his enthusiasm died once the title of the film was screened. Karunanidhi’s name was missing. The title read: Story and Dialogue—A.S.A. Sami B.A. (Honours). “What about my honour?” thought an enraged Karunanidhi. He asked the producers about this blackout. Both the producer and the director said that his name would appear once he gained some more popularity. That moment, without thinking about the consequences of quitting a major production house, Karunanidhi decided to leave Coimbatore and go back to Tiruvarur. The party cadres tried in vain to persuade Karunanidhi to stay back.

It is imperative to contextualise the period in which Karunanidhi chose to return to Tiruvarur. The run-up to Independence and its immediate aftermath clearly marked a state of flux. Political parties needed to shift gears to adjust to the new reality.

Periyar was marshalling arguments against Independence. He felt that the British had abdicated their responsibilities by granting independence before addressing a host of issues. Many factors such as the post-Partition carnage, the desire of Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel to create a highly centralised unitary polity, and the Constituent Assembly being overtly peopled by centralising forces justified Periyar’s position. He called August 15 a day of mourning. But, Annadurai had a different reading of this monumental development. He said: “We were oppressed by two forces; and if one chooses to quit, it means halving of our burden. This is a day of rejoicing as it finally erases a two-century-old humiliation heaped on us.” The differences were so pronounced that Periyar and Anna were forced to build their respective cases through their publications. Kudiarasu and Dravida Nadu carried out one of the most important debates on the notions of freedom, sovereignty and nation and explored the subtle difference between freedom and independence. Periyar said we were independent of British rule but had not gained freedom from hegemonic powers—north Indian business interests and caste and religious bigotries. Annadurai was quick to point out that the D.K. had always resolved not only to fight the north Indian domination and religious bigotry but also to oppose British colonialism. He recollected the resolution passed on the day the party was formed in which all members were asked to relinquish the honorific titles—Sir, Rao Bahadur and Dewan Bahadur—bestowed by the British. As these differences were aired in public, both the Congress and the Left were waiting for the imminent fall of the Self-Respect Movement.

The cadres were vertically divided. In this context, Karunanidhi thought of a magazine that would bring these two stalwarts together and be a platform of the larger Self-Respect Movement. He decided to restart Murasoli , this time as a weekly. He secured the unstinting support in the form of extended credit from Karunai Jamal, his printer. The essential elements we see in Murasoli today started in 1947 in Tiruvarur. Karunandhi wrote nearly the entire commentaries and the editorials, provided an outlet for party activities, and tried to bring together the non-confrontationist elements in Kudiarasu and Dravida Nadu . The entire oeuvre of political writing of that period clearly points to the fact that Annadurai was moved by this initiative and Periyar was livid.

Karunanidhi wrote a lengthy commentary in Murasoli titled “The Last Days” explaining how a self-serving coterie was trying to drive a wedge between Periyar and Annadurai and why it was important for Periyar to identify this coterie and isolate them. But, the essay further fuelled the crisis. The D.K. activists burnt copies of Murasoli in various places. There were whisper campaigns against Murasoli .

Karunanidhi, despite getting a credit tenure of three issues from the printer, could never pay his dues from the sale of the magazine. The local agents and the State-wide distributors were habitual defaulters. To keep Murasoli alive, he embarked on his next creative venture and wrote a play based on Kundalakesi called Manthiri Kumari . It became an instant success.

Meanwhile another play, which he started writing in Coimbatore but finished in Tiruvarur for M.R. Radha called Thookumedai —The Gallows—was creating waves in the political theatre. Unlike Manthiri Kumari , where Karunanidhi opted for an adaptation from early Tamil literature, for Thookumedai he drew heavily from the progressive sections of nationalist traditions and tied them in a seamless fashion with the political agenda of the Dravidian Movement. The final oratory of the play, delivered by the protagonist from the gallows, drew heavily not just from the reformist agenda of the D.K. but also from the life and death of Bhagat Singh. When this play was staged at Krishna Theatre in Karunthatangudi in Thanjavur, Karunanidhi’s earliest political idol, Pattukottai Alagiri, conferred the title “Kalaignar” on him, which became virtually his first name within a decade.

The unravelling of the relationship between Periyar and Annadurai was not the only crisis staring at Karunanidhi. His wife Padma’s health declined rapidly and she died within six months. In his autobiography, Karunanidhi poignantly and vividly describes the last days of Padma. Those were perhaps the weakest moments in his life where he felt absolutely powerless and vulnerable. He is, till date, remorseful about his inability to provide for his parents and his first wife, any of the comforts of life. S. Guhan, who was the Finance Secretary of Tamil Nadu during Karunanidhi’s tenure as Chief Minister in the 1970s and later became Economic Adviser during 1989-91, on more than one occasion had said that the social spending as a key marker of Karunanidhi’s administrative model came directly from his life experience between 1947 and 1949.

It was a period of great uncertainty for Karunanidhi—politically and personally. The rift between Periyar and Annadurai was widening by the day. But the differences between the two great icons were creating major existential dilemmas for the second-rung leaders who were torn between their respect for Periyar and the realisation of multiple possibilities opened up by Annadurai’s nuanced political understanding. Padma’s death, the changing nature of the Congress leadership following Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, the widening gap between Periyar and Annadurai, the attempts by the Left to appropriate the radical space created by the Dravidian Movement using the differences within the movement, the failure of Murasoli to become a viable media proposition, the need to provide for the larger family and to take care of a mother-less infant were overwhelming, to say the least.

Karunanidhi decided to address each one in quick succession. First he agreed to the suggestion of his family that he remarry so that there was someone to take care of the infant and lend a helping hand in running the household. He went on to marry Dayalu, the younger sister of a party member, Dakshinamurthy.

The determination of the Congress regime to impose Hindi had an unexpected positive fallout. It helped Periyar and Annadurai overlook their differences and jointly lead the struggle against linguistic hegemony. Periyar organised a State conference in Erode in October 1948 and asked Annadurai to preside over the proceedings. Karunanidhi’s play Thookumedai was given prime time. The two-day conference started as a reconciliation attempt but actually, in a fuzzy way, delineated the fault line.

In the D.K.’s official organ, Viduthalai , Periyar wrote that Annadurai was playing a dubious role, that he was inciting Karunanidhi and Anbazhagan to speak against him, and that the party cadres must not invite either Karunanidhi or Anbazhagan to any public engagement.

With public meetings coming to a near standstill, Karunanidhi decided to accept an offer to do the script for Marutha Nattu Ilavarasi , a film featuring MGR and V.N. Janaki. He moved to a small “mansion” in north Madras called Nadar Mansion, and wrote the entire screenplay and dialogues for the film within three weeks and returned to Tiruvarur. Periyar married Maniammai on July 9, 1949.

At Annadurai’s initiative, a gathering of political activists in Chennai, on the morning of September 17, 1949, agreed that they would henceforth function as Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Various committees—general body, executive, administrative, legal and planning, finance and propaganda—were formed to make it a full-fledged political party. Karunanidhi was inducted as a member of the propaganda committee. That evening, the DMK was formally launched at a public meeting held at Robinson Park in Chennai.

In the interim, Karunanidhi, for the second time, left Tiruvarur to take up a film assignment. This time it was at Modern Theatres, Salem.

In 1950, he shifted his base to Chennai on the suggestion of N.S. Krishnan both to handle the demands of the DMK and to continue his scriptwriting. The year Karunanidhi shifted to Chennai, the Constitution came into force.

If the extraordinary success of Marutha Nattu Ilavarasi and Manthiri Kumari brought film producers in droves to his doorstep, his organisational skills and tireless travel to every nook and corner of the State made Karunanidhi not just the darling among the cadres but a conduit to reach Annadurai to express their views and expectations, anger and frustrations. The shift to Chennai proved N.S. Krishnan’s vision: Karunanidhi learned to do the balancing act between film assignments and politics swiftly and adroitly. One of the key features of his daily routine, which he developed on reaching Chennai, was time management. An early riser, he would finish most of his writings before breakfast and before the arrival of party cadres. Karunanidhi’s prolific output is the result of a combination of prodigious talent, strict discipline and good work ethic.

Murasoli Maran, Karunanidhi’s nephew, recalled the family’s early days in Chennai as the turning point. He said: “It was after a long gap we moved out of the lower middle class’ struggle to make ends meet. Thalaivar’s way of working was always inspiring. He did not permit any one aspect of his life to undermine other facets of his personality. He was simultaneously a writer; a political leader; a film personality, who wrote lyrics, stories, screenplays and dialogues; a journalist; a literary commentator; an orator par excellence; an editor; a doting father; and a caring brother who took care of both his elder sisters and their family. He always manufactured time so that everyone around him felt that they were getting his special attention. These qualities made him the quintessential organisational man of the party. He always worked much beyond his brief. If Anna was the pioneer, it was Thalaivar who helped Anna realise his goals by building internal organisational structures for the DMK.”

Maran said Karunanidhi had limitless energy because he did not see any activity as a work or chore; to him every activity was a pleasurable exercise. “He was, and is and will continue to be, curious about everything. He liked to play around with forms, genres and modes of articulation. One of the key elements that contributed to his public persona was the fact that he did not take his responsibilities lightly. He always prepared his speeches; he proofread all his writings; watched the shooting of his scripts and made on-the-spot improvisations wherever required; and was an eternal student in a relentless search of knowledge. He is not just my uncle but also my teacher. One of the best lessons he taught me was not to be an information accumulator but a scholar who can contextualise any information within the larger socio-political canvas.”

When the DMK decided to enter electoral politics in 1957, these qualities provided a firm ground for the ideology of the movement, a replicable mobilisation for the party and an organisational following for Karunanidhi that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

Abridged from a forthcoming biography ofM. Karunanidhi.

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