The 47th edition of the Chennai Book Fair, which concluded on January 21, reaffirmed the values of reading and literature, but also signalled the growing revival of Periyar. E.V. Ramasamy (popularly known as “Periyar”) today has a legacy that is both celebrated and debated, but seeing at least 60 of the 900-odd bookstalls stock at least one Periyar book felt like a reaffirmation of his importance. Like him or hate him, you cannot ignore Periyar.
Founder of the Self-Respect Movement, Periyar is the kind of literary subject that keeps giving contemporary writers new material to work with. In just the one year from the last Chennai Book Fair to this, approximately 70 Periyar-centric titles have been released. The Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution (PSRPI) has single-handedly published 41 of these titles, including ISRO scientist Mylswamy Annadurai’s Periyarum Ariviyalum (“Periyar and Science”).
Vengaya Pathippagam has released 12 titles, with other publishers such as Karuppu Pirathigal, Aram, Karunchattai Pathippagam, Vidiyal, and so on also joining the fray. Some of this enthusiasm is new. “Until the early 2000s, only one or two publishers would sell Periyar books at the Chennai Book Fair,” said V. Arasu, former head, Tamil Department, University of Madras.
Antidote to communalism
According to Arasu, Periyar is finding newer patrons in the State because of the country’s political climate: “Tamil Nadu’s youth see him as an antidote to communal politics.” Browsing a Periyar book, 39-year-old poet Mohana Priya told Frontline, “Periyar is even more needed today because we continue to see cultural and political dominance of some sections. Those who reach our doorsteps want to impose their ideas and practices, but those who talk about crucial issues like the annihilation of caste don’t reach us.”
Over the years, PSRPI has published 790 books on Periyar, but the fact that 460 of these have been released in the last 10 years seems to be a sure sign of the leader’s resurrection. Journalist and author Suguna Diwakar recently released Angirundhu Thaan Vandhirukkirom (“That is where we have come from”), his second book on Periyar. He said, “We have several movements where Periyar is read and discussed—Dravidar Kazhagam, Dravidar Viduthalai Kazhagam, Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam—but the number of people talking about the leader from outside these movements has also significantly increased.”
Diwakar believes people often only attribute themes like “atheism, anti-Brahminism, and reservation” to Periyar but, in fact, the Dravidian leader’s legacy is more layered and varied: “Even Periyarist movements are in a way responsible for boxing him into these often-discussed themes, but in today’s age of the internet and social media, people have discovered that Periyar has a lot more dimensions.”
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Politics and culture were not separate and independent realms for Periyar. For him, one informed the other. Diwakar feels it is this inter-mingling that makes him attractive to young people. He illustrates this with an example: “Recently, the Supreme Court refused to decide on same-sex marriages, but Periyar was already talking of sexual freedom and of the non-interference of external parties in a couple’s consensual relationship; that was way back in the 1930s. His views on various issues were much ahead of his time.”
Periyar between the lines
Hierarchies often shape languages, and Periyar highlighted how power structures were implicit in Tamil language and literature, often resulting in male chauvinism and casteism. According to Diwakar, “Back in the day, Tamil scholars and poets did not accept these criticisms, creating the image that Periyar was anti-literature.” History, however, squarely challenges this notion. “Periyar led anti-Hindi agitations. He introduced language reform, and organised Thirukkural conventions, and was the first to release Tamil translations of B.R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, Bhagat Singh’s Why I am an Atheist, The Communist Manifesto, and many other works. A lot more ground needs to be covered for us to place Periyar in the context of modern Tamil literature,” Diwakar said.
“No one matches Periyar’s magnitude in writing and travel,” said Arasu. “Periyar spent almost three-fourths of a century in public life, and in the last 10 years, many compilations of his speeches and writings have been published. Released in five volumes, Naan Sonnaal Unakku Yen Kovam Varadhu (“Why Won’t You Be Angry If I Say It”) compiled the speeches and writings of Periyar on language, arts, culture, literature, and philosophy.”
Prince Ennares is the deputy general secretary of Dravidar Kazhagam, a social movement Periyar founded in 1944. He told Frontline, “In 2015, when the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) was banned in IIT Madras, students protested in educational institutions across the country. In solidarity, they started their own version of APSC. The names of leaders like Birsa Munda and Bhagat Singh were added to the group’s title, but Periyar stayed. This put him in the nationwide political discourse again. Some people deliberately misquote Periyar on the Internet, but almost all writers consult us to get the facts right.”
Some of the Periyar-related books published this year bring to light aspects of his work that have not been fully explored before. Periyar Irangal Uraigal, for instance, is a collection of his obituary speeches. The novel Oru Erudhum Sila Onaigalum (“An Ox and a Pack of Wolves”) features the leader, while Angirunthuthaan Vandhirukkirom collects modern verse that he has inspired.
Flying off the shelves
At the Chennai Book Fair, Hindu Tamil Thisai’s Endrum Tamilar Thalaivar (“Always the leader for Tamils”), displayed at several stalls, was selling in large numbers. The compiling editor of the book, Adhi Valliappan, told Frontline, “On December 31, we printed 2,000 copies for the first edition. They sold out in just 12 days. The second edition was released on January 13.” Having researched many of Periyar’s speeches, Valliappan said, “He was a person of modernist thought, but also one who spoke in the language of common people.”
Periyar’s most significant legacy, said Aadhavan Dheetchanya, general secretary of Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association, was the tradition of critical thought he introduced in Tamil Nadu. “People cannot say problematic things about women or caste and get away with it. People question arguments that reek of dominance.”
Engineering student Bharath Kumar, 19, a visitor at the book fair, said, “Reading Periyar has helped me be rational in my thought, especially with regard to caste, women’s rights, and religion. He was my gateway into progressive literature. I started with Periyar and I have now reached Ambedkar, Engels, and Marx.” Clutching a new Periyar book, he said, “Now I have bought this comparative analysis of Marxism and Periyarism.”
In a bookfair full of spiritual and religious bookstalls, the scale of distribution and sale of Periyar books is unmatched. Apart from the publishing houses, the Tamil Nadu government has also been making a concerted effort to export Periyar’s thoughts to different parts of India and the world. In the State budget for FY 2022-2023, the government sanctioned Rs.5 crore to publish the works of Periyar in 21 Indian and foreign languages.
Periyar once famously said, “No matter who has said it, no matter where you have read it, even if it is me who is telling you, do not believe in things that do not convince your intelligence and knowledge.” Not only are views like this crucial in an election year, but the Chennai Book Fair also made clear that this courage of thought still has many takers.