M. Karunanidhi: A civilisational imagination to secure plurality

The DMK stalwart’s birth centenary is the apt moment to consider the Dravidian model helmed by him as the touchstone to restore federal balance.

Published : Jun 06, 2023 19:07 IST - 13 MINS READ

M. Karunanidhi on November 30, 1984.

M. Karunanidhi on November 30, 1984. | Photo Credit: V. RAMAMURTHY

In less than a decade, this is my third article for Frontline on M. Karunanidhi, former DMK president and elder statesman of the country.

The first article titled “Relentless legislator” documented his contribution to the body politic of the country during the six decades of his legislative participation. The second one titled “An artist as a leader” was a biographical sketch of his early life until he became ‘Kalaignar’ for the larger Tamil community, which was the lead story of Frontline’s commemorative volume celebrating his life and politics.

The first one mainly focussed on his political trajectory and the other was about his creative journey, and it was evident that one was the product of the other, and that both his creative and political worlds not only supplemented each other but also enriched each other.

India is at a cusp of either tilting towards a system of entrenched religious bigotry or liberating itself towards an egalitarian future. At this juncture, the political thoughts, agitational politics, and resistance to centralisation wrought by Karunanidhi and his ideological forerunners, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy and C.N. Annadurai, remain a touchstone to restore federal balance and ensure the rights of the States, and to confront humiliation with courage, valour, and wisdom.

Fighting centralising forces

There are innumerable scholarly works on how the deep state undermines the status of individuals in modern nation states.At a deeper level, all centralising and homogenising forces represent the deep state, and they denote the ‘holding together’ model of building a nation. On the other hand, the Dravidian model, of which Karunanidhi remains the central metaphor, denote a citizen-centric trajectory called ‘coming together’. There have been many rhetorical arguments against this model but hardly any backed by evidence.

In this short essay, I would like to point out how the Dravidian model is committed to a heterogeneous interlocking public and is vastly different from the homogeneous, monochromatic pan-Indian nationalism. The pan-Indian erasures are created by laying emphasis on different forms of narratives as silos: the Sahitya Akademi to address literature, the Lalit Kala Akademi to foster visual arts, and the Sangeet Natak Akademi to nurture performing arts. On the other hand, in Tamil Nadu’s institutional arrangements, all forms of articulations are brought under one roof—the Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Mandram.

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Some cultural scholars see this as a mere difference in approach to culture between the Central government since Independence and the DMK government after 1973, the year when Karunanidhi created the Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Mandram.

But the fact is far more nuanced. It is pertinent to remember that Dr V. Raghavan (1908-79), a polymath Sanskritist, played a role in creating the cultural control silos.  He was a key member of both the Sahitya and Sangeet Natak Akademies. He was also the longest serving secretary of the Chennai Music Academy (1942-79).

It was not only about the way the governmental institutions functioned but also about how entrenched cultural icons perceived art and articulations in the run-up to Independence and the first three decades after. In a broader sense, this represents the difference between the ‘coming together’ model of the self-respect movement where the focus is on empowerment unlike the ‘holding together’ model, where the emphasis is on governance and control.    

The Self-Respect Movement leaders did not wait for the nationalists to give them media space, political legitimacy, and cultural autonomy. They embarked on a journey of creating their own ideological vehicles. They launched multiple publications, they wrote and staged plays across the State, they created a new form of literary and cultural intervention and, finally, they created their own cinema. Karunanidhi is a fine example of these multi-nodal Dravidian narratives and left an indelible mark in every field.

Multi-nodal arrangement

The defining aspect of the Self-Respect Movement’s intervention was its multi-nodal arrangement. The different nodes were multiple cities and towns; multiple genres that varied from short stories and parables to plays and novels; parallel music and performances that resulted in the formation of the much-celebrated Tamil Isai Movement, creating a niche in the emerging influential medium of cinema.

Each leader edited at least one magazine. For instance, Annadurai was the editor of Dravida Nadu (1942), Maalai Mani (1949), Kanchi (1964), Nam Naadu (1953), Home Land (1957), and Home Rule (1966). Karunanidhi edited Murasoli (the only surviving publication) and Mutharam (1964); Nedunchezhian edited Manram (1955), Mathiazhagan founded Thennagam (1959), S.S. Thennarasu established Thennarasu in 1964, N.V. Natarajan edited Dravidan (1947), and K. Anbazhagan started Ina Muzhakkam in 1959.

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According to K. Thirunavukkarasu, a chronicler of the Dravidian movement, there were nearly 200 ideological publications from the movement, and their longevity varied from six issues to a decade. Despite the multitude, only Murasoli has survived the ravages of time.

In my biography of Karunanidhi, I have written about the differences in approach between Periyar and Annadurai towards language and culture: “The duality of the Self-Respect movement emerges clearly during this phase. While Periyar and Annadurai were fully agreed on the diagnosis, their prognoses were differing. For Periyar, language was an instrument for communication, nothing more; for Annadurai, language was an organic, sociocultural oeuvre that lends a distinct identity and a sense of pride and belonging to the people.”

Karunanidhi had the knack of drawing the best of these two worlds and weaving them into a political tapestry that ensured the plurality of India.

When the actor N.S. Krishnan, known as NSK, died on August 30, 1957, after a brief illness, Karunanidhi wrote a moving obituary in Murasoli. He recollected his interactions with NSK fondly: “NSK taught us to use humour to confront enemies. He helped us to realise the difference between rivals and enemies. He told us that humour can neither generate hate nor divide people. Hence, use laughter as a tool to help people think and arrive at a considered conclusion.”

Karunanidhi, who drew heavily from early Greek thought and literature to focus on the idea of a republic and power to the people, made an insightful comparison between comedy and tragedy. In his obituary to NSK in Murasoli, he wrote: “If Periyar was Socrates to the Self-Respect Movement, Anna was its Plato. NSK was the movement’s Aristophanes, who was the greatest representative of ancient Greek comedy and the one whose works have been preserved the most, enabling us to understand that his comedy delivered more than the fabled Greek tragedies.”

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The role of the centralising forces to contain the democratic potential of the Self-Respect Movement gained currency in the post-colonial era. One of the methods adopted by the governments, both at the Centre and the State, to cripple the growth of the DMK was to invoke colonial laws to ban the works of the DMK leaders.

Among the long list of banned writings, the popular ones were: Anna’s Ariya Maayai and Elatchia Varalaaru (The Righteous History); Karunanidhi’s Thookumedai (The Gallows); Bharathidasan’s Eranian Alathu Enaiattra Veeran (Eranian or the Matchless Warrior); A.V.P. Asaithambi’s Gandhiyar Santhi Adaya (To Let Gandhi Rest in Peace); Pulavar Selvaraj’s Karunchattai Ozhiyavenduma? (Do you Want the Obliteration of Black Shirts?), and Pulavar Kuzhandhai’s Ravana Kaaviyam (The Epic of Ravana).

Ravana Kaaviyam, banned in 1948, was one of the earliest books to be banned in independent India. In 1971, the DMK government led by Karunanidhi lifted the ban on the book, saying it was an epic that begins in the south and travels to the north, unlike the story of Rama that begins in the north and travels to the south.

There are two important evaluations of this epic: one by Annadurai published in 1946 and another by Karunanidhi published in 1971, when he lifted the ban. These writings give an idea of the cultural aspects of federalism, an issue that often gets ignored in the discussions on federalism, where political devolution and fiscal matters occupy pole position.

The main arguments of Anna and Karunanidhi are truly revealing at the present juncture where history, myth, and legend are blurred to create a maze of ignorance. The Dravidian leaders argued that both Rama and Ravana were literary characters and not historical beings. While Rama was used by the hegemonising forces to create the Ariya Maayai (The Aryan Illusion) in the epics celebrating Rama, Ravana Kaaviyam is aimed at Dravidian awakening. It does not aim to replace Rama dasans with Ravana dasans, they reasoned.

What makes the Dravidian trajectory an interesting creative world is its conscious attempt to see that universal human values and the particular civilisational inheritance of Tamil do not subsume one another. Politically aware artists created space for dialogue and to mutually learn from each other’s lived experience. They invested in the process of give and take, and inculcated the willingness to adopt and transform.

The cultural and civilisational efforts of the movement are the protective shields preserving the diversity of the sub-continent from the debilitating uniformity that the centralising forces are trying to impose on this vast and populous region. To understand this complex process, let me analyse Karunanidhi’s creative interventions that resulted in profound social and political transformations.

A still from the 1952 film Parasakthi.

A still from the 1952 film Parasakthi. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Articulation through cinema

The first pronounced articulation was the 1952 film Parasakthi. As I have mentioned elsewhere, it is important to understand the narrative structure deployed by Karunanidhi in the film to understand its full political and cultural import. It is basically the reverse of an epic narrative. In epics, the main element is the exile of the protagonists and the resolution that comes about with the end of exile and their happy return.

Parasakthi starts with the end of exile, in a sense, an anti-climactic opening, when the protagonist Gunasekaran (played brilliantly by the debutant Sivaji Ganesan) returns to Tamil Nadu from Burma. The return is not a happy one; the situation at home that forced people to seek better prospects in exile has become worse; it further fragments the family; creates a much larger cleavage between the rich and the poor; and the state machinery has no real plans to integrate the repatriates.

The film, in a sense, documents the shift from Periayarist maximalist positions to Annadurai’s realistic fallback positions. The film brings in a sense of ambivalence towards religion that widens the support base for the party and the movement.

Here, the key issue we need to remember is the distinction between the DK and the DMK in their respective positions towards faith: while the DK rejected religion in toto, the DMK rejected religious obscurantism. In 1953, a year after the release of Parasakthi, Periyar led a protest by breaking idols of Pillayar (Lord Ganesh). Anna’s response was akin to the dialogues in Parasakthi. He said: “I would neither break a Pillayar idol nor a coconut” to the god (referring to the religious offering).

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This fine distinction is the one that propelled Karunanidhi, when he was Chief Minister, to nominate the reformist pontiff Kundrakudi Adigalar to the legislative council, to introduce pujas in Tamil (archanai)), and to make a law that permitted priesthood for all, regardless of caste. The challenges the government had to face was an example of the political wrestling between a reformist political imagination and a status quoist judiciary.

Parasakthi also teaches us some valuable lessons in creative excursions to subvert dominant narratives and restrictive censors. Much before the Emergency in 1975, the film provided us with the tools for creatively confronting the forces of status quo.

The historian M.S.S. Pandian documents the arguments of the film’s critics. By locating the story of the film in pre-Independence 1942, Karunanidhi was able to bypass the scissors of the censor. Here, the central political import was that by making either a temporal or a spatial journey, one can address the contemporary political reality in an analogous manner. People understand the full import of every political and cultural reference because they are not passive recipients of moving images but active listeners to the tone and tenor of the film.

In his essay for Frontline magazine, headlined “Cinema for a cause”, Karunanidhi explained his politics and film making succinctly. He wrote: “I used films to spread rationalist ideas among people. My objective in writing for films was to avoid obscenity and highlight the principles of the Self-Respect Movement and thereby appeal to the intellect of the viewers.” The respect of the general public’s intellect is what made this significant political film both an artistic and a commercial success.

Journalistic career and public art contributions

Much has been written about Karunanidhi’s journalistic interventions—which started in 1942 and lasted until 2016 through his editorials and letters to his cadres in Murasoli. His prolific literary outputs covered almost every region of the State. For instance, Then Pandi Singam (Lion of Southern Pandian Region) was based on happenings in Ramanathapuram district, while ‘Uliyin Osai’ (Sound of Chisel) was about both the magnificence the architectural achievements in Thanjavur and the sacrifices of artists and craftsmen to achieve the splendour, and Ponnar Shankar dealt with the western region of Tamil Nadu.

Karunanidhi’s cultural intervention was not restricted to cinema, theatre, and literature. It extended to the realm of public art. As PWD Minister, he commissioned the statues of 10 stalwarts for their definitive contribution to Tamil consciousness over two millennia, to be located along the Marina promenade in Chennai. The statues were of Thiruvalluvar, Avvaiyar, Kambar, G.U. Pope, Robert Caldwell, Subramania Bharathi, Bharathidasan, V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, Veeramamunivar (the Tamil name of the Italian priest C.J. Beschi who played a key role in the compilation of the first Tamil lexicon and who translated ancient Tamil texts such as Thirukkural, Thevaram, Thiruppugazh, Nannool and Aaththichoodi), and Kannagi.

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He said: “There are works by the great sculptor Rodin outside the British Parliament. The striking works of D.P. Roy Choudhury were the last set of public art in Chennai. Our commission of these 10 statues gave a new fillip to the idea of public art in Tamil Nadu.”

It is impossible to capture the full import of a creative political artist like Karunanidhi, who himself wrote more than 200,000 pages.

I conclude by talking about Karunanidhi’s last major creative effort. It was writing the script for a television series on Ramanuja, the 11th century proponent of the Visishtadvaita philosophy, in 2015, a year after Narendra Modi became Prime Minister. He chose Ramanuja because he transcended religion and caste and wanted all communities to be treated equally. The idea of using a religious philosopher with a large following to counter Hindutva was a sharp move.

Karunanidhi wanted to explain how his approach to Ramanuja was different from that of Indira Parthasarathy’s famous 1996 play Ramanujar. He said that Indira Parthasarathy’s was a cognitive understanding of caste discrimination while his work was based on the lived experience of humiliation. His failing health did not permit us to have this discussion, which would have shed light on two different creative inputs—cognitive and experiential.

But reading his profound yet prolific writings in the year of his birth centenary gives us a clear idea that we need a larger civilisational imagination to confront the forces of bigotry.

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