“WE shall overcome; we shall overcome; we shall overcome someday; O deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday!” This anthem of the civil rights movement rent the air as several friends and admirers of N.V. Sankaran, popularly known by his pen name Gnani, recited it, bid a tearful adieu to the multifaceted personality at his Chennai residence on January 15.
Although renal failure snatched him away prematurely at the age of 64, Gnani’s contributions to society as a fearless journalist, theatre personality, political commentator, social activist, writer and literary critic will be remembered for a long time to come.
Both his admirers and adversaries would vouch for his determination to be frank, fearless, forthright, uncompromising and unbiased in expressing his views on various issues, including sensitive ones relating to politics and culture.
His prime concern was to bring about social change. He sincerely believed that this would require simultaneous struggles on political and cultural fronts.
Born in Chengalpattu town in Tamil Nadu on January 4, 1954, he graduated from Madras Christian College and completed a certificate course in journalism from the University of Madras.
Gnani began his career as a reporter with Indian Express in the mid 1970s. He had to quit the job after a few years. His contemporaries pointed out that the young journalist took it in his stride and successfully fought a four-year-long legal battle against the dismissal with perseverance. In fact, the exit offered him a plethora of opportunities to bloom as a multitalented personality.
He soon took the plunge into Tamil journalism, writing columns in popular Tamil publications. Gnani launched Dheemtharikida , a Tamil periodical which carried the revolutionary poet Subramanya Bharathi’s picture drawn by him as its logo. He could not sustain the publication owing to paucity of funds.
Among his columns, “O Pakkangal”, which travelled from one magazine to another, was received widely. Various political, economic, social and cultural issues were discussed in the column.
O Pakkangal’s metamorphosis into a YouTube channel on January 2 offered Gnani another opportunity to discuss current topics such as actor Rajinikanth’s plan to enter politics, the transport workers’ strike in Tamil Nadu and controversies revolving around the lyricist Vairamuthu’s comments on the Vaishnavite minstrel Andal.Theatre group
Gnani’s creativity knew no bounds. His love for the theatre made him join the prominent Tamil theatre group Koothupattarai. Trained among others by the doyen of the Indian theatre movement, Badal Sircar, he formed his own experimental theatre group called “Pareeksha” in 1978.
Pareeksha has staged 30 plays, which include ones based on the works of J.B. Priestley, Harold Pinter, Bertolt Brecht, Vijay Tendulkar, Mahasweta Devi, Ashokamitran and Indira Parthasarathy. Gnani directed and also acted in these plays. Many of these were also staged as street plays. Gnani authored over 40 books. Some of them, Pazhaya Paper , Kandathai Sollugiren and Marupadiyum, are compilations of his articles. Balloon, a play, and Thavippu, a novel, are among his best known works.
The writer S. Ramakrishnan said that Gnani chose contemporary social and political issues as themes for his works and that in tune with the trend prevailing in the West also donned the role of a writer. His interest in literature and his proximity to literary personalities inspired him to hold a monthly programme near a well in the backyard of his residence. The innovative programme, called “Keni” (well), encouraged useful interactions between writers and readers, said Ramakrishnan, who participated in the first meeting. The meetings were held continuously for more than five years, and Gnani even invited to the sessions writers who did not concur with him on various issues, Baskar Sakthi, writer and Gnani’s friend, said. Gnani, who was keenly interested and aware of the power of the visual media, used the television as a vehicle to take his creative work to the masses.Documentaries
Gnani produced around 40 documentaries on social issues, such as Vergal on the role of women in the freedom struggle, and a few telefilms. Significant among his teleserials is Ayya , which portrayed the life and work of ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy, founder of the Dravidar Kazhagam.
Although the serial was planned for four weeks and funds were allotted accordingly by Doordarshan, he mobilised additional funds to extend it by another week in order to ensure that the story did not end abruptly, the scriptwriter Rajkannan said. His commendable familiarity with both visual and print media and his expertise in gauging the viewers’ pulse contributed in a big way to making the telefilms absorbing, he pointed out.
A. Baskar, who was associated with Pareeksha for nearly three decades, said Gnani had the middle class as his “target audience”, taking his cue probably from Sircar. His plays called for a thorough soul-searching and self-criticism on the part of this section, which played a crucial role in shaping civil society.
Pareeksha’s Vattam , a Tamil version of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle , has been acclaimed as an “evergreen play”. Aappukku aappu (Tit for tat), a timely drama staged during a general election, was also a big hit. The political satire exposed the two major Dravidian parties—the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam—for “attempting to hoodwink” the electorate by reeling out freebies. Pareeksha was appreciated by the practitioners of alternative theatre and theatre lovers for successfully staging a modern play every week for a whole year in the early 1990s.
Although Gnani did not join any Left party, his thinking was “Left-oriented”. He always sympathised with the cause of the oppressed and downtrodden masses, women and other weaker sections, R. Vidyasagar, former Child Protection Specialist at United Nations Children’s Fund, said.
He had a brief stint in the Aam Aadmi Party on whose ticket he contested a byelection to the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 2014. He quit the party soon after. Even his opposition to the Emergency and support to leaders such as V.P. Singh and George Fernandes stemmed from his quest to defend democratic rights, Vidyasagar added.
On a couple of occasions, he even moved the court to get certain undemocratic practices reversed. He successfully spearheaded a legal fight against a popular Tamil weekly which denied copyright to writers for their works published in the magazine. Another case he won after a protracted legal battle was against a six-decade-old rule making it mandatory for theatre groups to submit scripts of plays to the police before staging them.
Gnani condemned the attempts to polarise society as majority and minority communities in the name of cow protection, love jehad and maintaining cultural purity. “He steadfastly stood against the forces of communalism and fundamentalism. He wielded his pen against all forms of inequality and injustice,” said Ramakrishnan.
Dr J. Amalorpavanathan, former convener of the Transplant Authority of Tamil Nadu, said although Gnani developed diabetes quite early and suffered from multiple health problems, he never took a cynical view of his health. He was brave until the end. He applauded Gnani for his decision to donate his body to the Rajiv Gandhi Government and General Hospital Medical College for research purposes.
Towards the end of his life, he spent most of his time with schoolchildren, imparting life skills to them. He firmly believed that enabling children to differentiate between good and bad would automatically help them to take a stand against all forms of discrimination and exploitation.
Gnani would often say that he drew inspiration from three persons—his father, N. Vembusamy; Bharathi; and Periyar—to call a spade a spade. He will remain a shining example for the younger generation to lead principled and ethical lives.