Language of the Nation: Dravidianizing Tamil
And so, finally, I turn to the Dravidianist regime that crystallized in the 1930s, gained momentum through the 1940s and 1950s, and peaked in the mid-1960s. Its primary terrain of activity was a series of anti-Hindi protests which dramatically drew together diverse elements of the devotional community in opposition to the regional and central governments that sponsored Hindi, itself-caricatured as an evil and demonic force out to destroy pure and sweet Tamil (and its speakers). Contemporaries and participants alike marvelled that the common cause against Hindi threw together religious revivalists like Maraimalai Adigal with such avowed atheists as Ramasami; Gandhians like Kalyanasundaram with men like Annadurai who preached secession from India; university professors and elite antiquarians, such as Somasundara Bharati and Purnalingam Pillai, with populist street poets, pamphleteers, college students, and young men like Chinnasami who immolated themselves. Indeed, the poet Bharatidasan, the paradigmatic Dravidianist, had himself been a self-declared devotee of “India” up until the 1920s, and had published some passionate poems on Bhārata Mātā before his conversion to Dravidianism and anti-Hindi politics by the 1930s (Ilango 1982; Ilavarasu 1990). Other events of these decades—the creation of linguistic states out of the erstwhile Madras Presidency, the securing of appropriate borders with neighboring states, the struggle to rename Madras state Tamilnadu—also compelled devotees otherwise inclined, such as Sivagnanam, to turn to Dravidianism. Dravidianism is thus the crisis idiom of tamiḻppaṟṟu, the regime par excellence for mobilizing—albeit temporarily and sometimes reluctantly—diverse, even opposing, devotees under one umbrella, around events that were deemed to be threatening to the future of Tamil and Tamiḻttāy.
The most passionate and radical of all the regimes, Dravidianism routinely elicited from its adherents declarations of willingness to give up their wealth, their lives, and their souls for Tamil. It also produced some antagonistic, even violent, attitudes towards other languages and their speakers, as for instance in the following verse published by Bharatidasan, which is fairly typical: “Our first task is to finish off those who destroy [our] glorious Tamil! / Let flow a river of crimson blood!” Its emphasis on fierce, public displays of devotion meant that images of battlefields, of blood, and of death proliferate in Dravidianist discourse. True Tamilians are those—like Chinnasami—who show their commitment to their mother/tongue by putting their very bodies on the line, and dying for it, if need be.
More so than the other devotional regimes, Dravidianism’s driving imperative was a vision of the Tamil community as an autonomous racial and political entity (iṉam), even nation (nāṭu), whose sacral center is occupied solely by Tamil, from which all its members claim shared descent. So, where neo-Shaivism constituted Tamilian solidarity around the shared worship of Shiva and divine Tamil, and classicism emphasized a common ancient, literary past, Dravidianism focused on descent and kinship. Tropes of motherhood, siblingship, shared blood, the home, and the like mark its discursive style, as they do Indianism’s. The significant difference between the two, of course, is that Dravidianism made a commitment to only one entity—namely, Tamil. As Tamiḻttāy herself insisted, sometime in the early 1960s: “Do not forget that you are all children who emerged from my womb. I am your mother. The learned call me Tamiḻttāy. You are called Tamilians (tamiḻar). You and I have been inextricably bound together for ever and ever through language. That language is what the good scholars call Tamil.…If we look closely, we have a home. That its name is Tamilnadu gives [me] great happiness” (Pancanathan n.d.: 9).
In this statement as elsewhere in Dravidianism, descent is reckoned solely from Tamil, which is not merely one among a “family” of languages in a putative Indian nation, as it is in Indianism, but is the language of the nation, imagined variously as “Tamilian” or “Dravidian.” No doubt, by the 1970s Dravidianism became more accommodating on the question of India. But the fundamental imperative of this regime continued to be the establishment of the absolute rule of Tamil through the complete Tamilization of the political apparatus and its accompanying ideology, in a territorial space designated as Tamil or Dravidian, which at least into the early 1960s was seen as independent of, and indeed in opposition to, “India.”
The political philosophy of Dravidianism was provided by a broad swathe of ideas associated with “the Dravidian movement” (tirāviṭa iyakkam). This movement made its impact on the Dravidianist regime when the elitist “non-Brahman” associational politics of the Vellala dominated Justice Party (1916/17-44) was supplemented by the populist call for radical social reform by E. V. Ramasami and his Self-Respect League (founded in 1926) and the Tirāviṭar Kaḻakam, “Association of Dravidians” (the DK, established in 1944). Although many Self-Respecters were concerned with Tamil (e.g., Velu and Selvaraji 1989), Ramasami himself was extremely critical of tamiḻppaṟṟu, especially of its valorization of the divinity, antiquity, and motherhood of Tamil. This did not stop Dravidianism from lionizing him and selectively appropriating his ideas of rationalist materialism, iconoclastic atheism, radical anti-Brahmanism, and Dravidian nationalism, for he provided the most polemical and sustained attacks on Indian nationalism, which this regime found useful. Ramasami’s obvious dilemma was that Tamil devotion threatened his vision of a Dravidian nation that would incorporate all “Dravidians” of southern India, and not just Tamil speakers. Such a vision had to contend with the resistance of those putative “Dravidians” who were speakers of Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam. In addition, it was compromised by Tamil speakers who did not necessarily want to participate in a multilingual polity, even if it was “Dravidian.” And indeed, as the Dravidian movement itself split, when Annadurai parted company with Ramasami and his DK in 1949 to found his own party, the Tirāviṭa Muṉṉēṟṟak Kaḻakam or “Dravidian Progress Association” (DMK), the inherent tensions between the alternate conceptions of the “Dravidian” and “Tamil” nation came to the fore. By the late 1950s, as the DMK entered the domain of electoral politics, its agenda was primarily formulated in terms of a Tamil nation (albeit one often referred to as “Dravidian”), confined to the territorial space of a Tamilspeaking area, rather than coeval with the more ambitious nation that Ramasami envisaged comprising the speakers of all Dravidian languages.
Like the Dravidian movement, Dravidianism, too, had to contend with the tensions between an exclusive Tamil-speaking nation and a more inclusive Dravidian nation. It adopted various strategies to deal with this, such as suggestions that “Tamil” and “Dravidian” are the same; that since Tamil is the “mother” of all Dravidian languages, the latter are merely extensions of the former; and so on. So, like the other regimes, Dravidianism had its share of contradictions. Notwithstanding these, as a consequence of its discourse, Tamil comes to be firmly “Dravidianized,” even as the “Dravidian” category, which had been gaining political and cultural visibility in the region since the 1880s, was unequivocally associated with Tamil.
In contrast to neo-Shaivism and classicism, Dravidianism advocated political radicalism and activism as the means to achieve the reign of Tamil: “We have talked enough.…[W]hen are you going to show your sacrifice to [Tamiḻttāy]? We are waiting every moment for the honor of being arrested.” Under the influence of Dravidianism, tamiḻppaṟṟu took to the streets, sometimes quite violently. Petition politics gave way to protest politics, increasingly radical and populist. Antiquarian and elite notions about Tamil and Tamiḻttāy, hitherto confined to learned academies and scholastic journals, came to be invoked in street songs, polemical plays, and political speeches at populist anti-Hindi rallies; they were circulated in daily newspapers and street pamphlets, and plastered across billboards and wall posters. Dravidianism typically catered, like the Dravidian movement itself, to the Everyman, generically designated in its texts as tamiḻaṉ, “Tamilian” (Barnett 1976: 114-15). It attracted its following from devotees who were predominantly from middle and lower castes, and from middle or low-income families with limited or no formal education, like Chinnasami and his fellow self-immolators. At the same time, the DMK’s support of literature and language also attracted numerous well-educated Tamil scholars and academics to Dravidianism. In turn, many DMK leaders have been devotees of Tamil. They have assumed titles—aṟiņar (scholar) Annadurai, kalaiņar (the artist) Karunanidhi, nāvalar (the eloquent) Nedunceliyan—which display both their scholarly aspirations and the close links between populist ideology and high literature in the political culture of the region (Barnett 1976: 56-86). Dravidianism’s paradigmatic exponents were undoubtedly well-known poets and politicians like Bharatidasan, Annadurai, “Pulavar” Kulanthai (1906-72), Perunchitran (1920-95), Mudiyarasan (b. 1920), Karunanidhi, and the early Kannadasan (1927-81). But encouraged by the Dravidian movement’s populism and by Dravidianism’s assertion that Tamil belonged to “the people,” the Everyman, who remained anonymous or relatively unknown, took to writing and publishing poems, short stories, and essays on the language and on Tamiḻttāy. Of all the regimes of tamiḻppaṟṟu, Dravidianism was thus the one that was truly populist, in spirit as well as constituency.
Dravidianism’s fundamental agenda, of course, was to establish the absolute preeminence of Tamil in all spheres of life and being, and to ensure that devotion to the language (and its community) was not diluted by any other passions—for the Indian nation, for the gods of the Hindu pantheon, or even for the families and mothers of individual devotees. For Tamil is everything; it is the life (uyir), breath (āvi), and consciousness (uṇarvu) of every true Tamilian. In its purest form, there were no divided commitments in Dravidianism, no subordination of Tamil to Shiva, to literature and learning, or to India. Tamil was not a means through which to construct something else, be it an alternate religious or civilizational formation, or allegiance to India. In and of itself, it ought to be the very center of everything in the devoted Tamil speaker’s life. Without it, there is nothing. So Bharatidasan wrote in a poem suggestively entitled “Living for Tamil Is the Only Life”:
O Tamil! Homage to you! ...... Your well-being is ours as well. Your victories are ours as well. We may as well be dead if we live for ourselves. Living for Tamil is the only life!
For the Dravidianist devotee, Tamil was so much a part of the Tamilian’s very essence that it would be impossible to separate the language from its speaker. So Bharatidasan insisted:
We can turn mountains into pits; We can dry up the ocean bed; We can fly speedily through the skies. ...... We can even bring the dying back to life. The Tamilian cannot be separated from Tamil Even for a moment, by anyone.
This conviction, that Tamil and its speaker devotee had so blended into each other that it would be impossible to separate them, is echoed in other poems as well. Consider this verse by Kannadasan addressed to Tamiḻttāy:
Elsewhere, in 1954, in lines that eerily anticipate Chinnasami’s immolation a decade later, the poet wrote, “even in death, Tamil should be on our lips. Our ashes should burn with the fragrance of Tamil. This is our undying desire” (Kannappan 1995: 22).
Would I ever forget you? Would I cease to sing about you? Even if they set me on fire, In the burning flames of the fire, The world will see only you, O dear mother of mine! (Kannadasan 1968: 89)
Given such sentiments, Dravidianism was particularly concerned with all alternate objects of passion that might draw its speakers away from Tamil, such as “India,” their gods, and their families. It therefore focused as much energy to convince Tamil speakers of the illegitimacy of these other entities as to emphasize that it is Tamil that sustains their life and consciousness.
Dravidianism and India
While Indianism emphatically asserted that the liberation of Bhārata Mātā and Tamiḻttāy would have to proceed in tandem, Dravidianism, particularly in its early years, and most especially as expressed by its more radical exponents, saw in the very establishment of the Indian nation the downfall of Tamil. A poem that was published in the Tirāviṭaṉ on 31 August 1947, a fortnight after India was officially liberated from colonial rule, declared: “The foreign Bhārata Mātā (aṉṉiyap pāratattāy) has attained glory. / Our own dear Tamiḻttāy has been greatly disgraced.”
Dravidianism, at its peak, portrayed the newly emergent Indian nation as an imperialist formation, as a tool in the hands of Brahmans and Banias (North Indian merchants), and as an instrument with which the material interests of Dravidians would continue to be subordinated to Aryan Indians (Annadurai 1974: 39-48, 1985: 22-23; Pancanathan n.d.; M. S. Ramasami 1947: 5-6, 19-20). Consider the following verse from a 1947 pamphlet revealingly entitled Songs of Separation for the Dravidian Nation:
The Brahmans and Banias have united; We are all children of Bhārata Mātā, they lie to us[.] ...... Our own Tirāviṭattāy [Mother Dravida] is our mother; Bhārata Mātā who belongs to the duplicitous, is a deceitful mother; If the Dravidians realize this, they will have no trouble. If we let down our guard, the Northerners will loot and plunder . (M. S. Ramasami 1947: 14)
Indianism, we have seen, offered Bhārata Mātā to Tamil speakers as a mother who would reproduce them as “Indians.” In the logic of Dravidianism, however, she was clearly a false mother who sought to lure gullible Tamilians away from their true mother with promises of milk, nourishment, and even jobs. So, in 1958, Bharatidasan, who in his early years had waxed passionately on Bhārata Mātā and even declared her his true mother, published a poem in which he ridiculed the Tamilian who is confused about his “real” mother. The poem is addressed to Tamiḻttāy:
“O glorious Tamilian! What is the name of your nation?” When I ask thus, he sheepishly says “India,” O mother! How will this child ever improve if he confuses the evergreen Tamil nation with India, O mother! Will he ever change, the one who does not recognize his mother as mother, and declares the evil that destroys his motherland as mother, O mother! Sitting in [his] mother’s lap and nursing on the breast milk of Tamil, how can this child not know [his] mother’s name, O mother! Tamil is [his] mother tongue, and Tamilnadu is his motherland. Does not the Tamilian realize this?
So, while Indianism sought to naturalize “India” by presenting it in the familiar terms of the home and the mother, the Dravidianist logic lay in demonizing it as a “deceitful” or “evil” mother, and substituting Tamiḻttāy in its stead as the authentic, sole mother of all true Tamil speakers.
Dravidianism’s antagonism towards India came to the fore in the numerous protests against Hindi, presented in its discourses as a blood-sucking demoness, lowly maid, seductive temptress, and false mother out to destroy the noble, righteous, but endangered Tamiḻttāy. Such Manichean images were deployed to create fear and hatred of Hindi, and to generate sentiments of love, loyalty, and filial piety for Tamil, which its loyal speakers were obliged to protect with life and limb. Just as crucially, the regional state government (in the control of the Congress) and the Indian nation were also rendered into objects that deserved the Tamilians’ deepest opprobrium and the withdrawal of their support, emotional and electoral. Dravidianism thus seized upon the linguistic fact that Hindi was related to Sanskrit, and translated the assertions of radical neo-Shaivism and contestatory classicism against Aryan Brahmanism into political action against the Indian nation. For Dravidianism, the battle against Hindi was not only inevitable and natural, but necessary and morally legitimate; it was a “holy war” (aṟappōr) fought against evil and on behalf of the good and righteous (Ramaswamy, forthcoming). Although Hindi was in effect legislated out of Tamilnadu government schools in 1968 by the DMK, and although all kinds of accommodations with the North have been made since the 1960s, to this day the threat of Hindi has continued to be effectively used to reiterate the autonomy and uniqueness of a Tamil space within a larger Indian whole, to summon up the specter of non-Tamil elements entering the pure Tamil body politic, and to remind Tamil speakers of the dangers that await them if they cease supporting the Dravidian movement and its Tamil cause.
Dravidianism and Hinduism
In the years between the late 1920s and 1950s, when the influence of the iconoclastic and atheistic Ramasami was at its peak and before the DMK actively entered the fray of electoral politics, Dravidianism also sought energetically to dissociate Tamil from all religious affiliations. Like radical neo-Shaivism, it castigated Hinduism as a Brahmanical, Sanskritic, and Aryan conspiracy hatched to destroy Tamil and Dravidian society. So, for Dravidianism, a true Tamilian/Dravidian is one who is emphatically not a Hindu. “A Hindu in the present concept may be a Dravidian, but the Dravidian in the real sense of the term cannot and shall not be a Hindu” (quoted in Harrison 1960: 127). Tamil speakers were therefore repeatedly called upon to destroy all (Hindu) irrationalisms and foolish beliefs, and to rescue themselves from ārya māyai, “Aryan illusion” (Annadurai 1969). Thus Bharatidasan, who in the 1920s had written passionate poems on Hindu deities and continued occasionally to publish religious verse into the 1930s, insisted in the 1950s that “there is no god” and told the Tamilian that his duty lay in weaning away his hapless fellow speakers from their false belief in divinities.
And here is where Dravidianism parted company with neo-Shaivism: for in its attacks on religion, it did not spare either Shiva or the reformed “rational” version of Shaivism that Maraimalai Adigal and others were attempting to popularize (Sivathamby 1978: 30-31; Venkatachalapathy 1990). Neo-Shaivism may have insisted that Shaivism is the authentic Tamilian religion, radically different from Aryan Brahmanical Hinduism, but Dravidianism was not convinced about this. Nor was it ready to brook neo-Shaivite resistance to reforming and rationalizing the Tamil script, believed by many devout Shaivites to be Shiva’s own handiwork (Sivathamby 1979: 71). Dravidianism was also not willing to define the Tamil/Dravidian community as Shaiva, for what would then happen to Tamilians/Dravidians who were nominally Vaishnavas, Christians, and Muslims? So Tamil is the life, the consciousness, and the soul of the Tamilian. It is indeed everything, but it certainly is not “divine Tamil,” for to imagine it as such would entangle it with the irrationalisms, inequalities, and idiocies of Hinduism. Tamil speakers, too, consequently would be subordinated and demeaned in an inherently Brahmanical order of things, and they would lose all their “self-respect.” In a revealing speech of 1944, Ramasami offered the following advice to his fellow Dravidians: “You may well ask, ‘If we give up Hinduism, what religion can we profess to have?’ Have courage and claim that religion which will not demean you as untouchable and lowly in society. If there is objection to this, you may always say you are Dravidian and that your religion is Dravidianism. If you have problems even with that, say that your religion is humanity” (Anaimuthu 1974: 446).
Contrary to Marguerite Barnett (1976: 274), who has suggested that “within the Dravidian ideology there was no coherent alternative to religion or Hinduism,” I would argue that especially within the Dravidianist regime of tamiḻppaṟṟu, various efforts were made to create alternatives to both religion and Hinduism. Given the complex entanglements between Tamil devotion and Hinduism, however, such efforts were not entirely successful, nor were they as autonomous as Dravidianism would have desired. Minimally, those devotees of Tamil who turned to active electoral politics as members of the DMK distanced themselves from Ramasami’s iconoclastic irreverence for Hindu scriptures, gods, and images. By the 1950s, both the DMK and Dravidianism generated a curious combination of agnosticism (“we do not ask whether there is god or not”), monism (“there is only one god and one community”), populism (“god lives in the smile of the poor”), and humanism (“we must develop that kind of outlook which treats all humanity as one”). This medley of diverse beliefs that Anita Diehl (1977: 29) has shrewdly characterized as “pragmatic, agnostic humanism” opened up a space for the steady incorporation of all kinds of elements from popular as well as the devotional religious practices of the region into the ideology of Dravidianism, such as the celebration of the harvest festival, Pongal; the worship of Murugan; and the apotheosis of Valluvar and his Tirukkuṟaḷ (Ramanujam 1971: 168, 175; Ryerson 1988: 108-93).
One other important strategy is followed by Dravidianism in filling up the space vacated by Hindu gods. Consider this 1959 poem by Bharatidasan, addressed to a tampirāṉ, “Shaiva monk preceptor,” in response to the opposition of the orthodox to the growing demand for use of Tamil as ritual language in temples:
Is it religion (camayam) that is important, O tampirāṉ[?] It is fine Tamil that is indeed eminent, O foolish tampirāṉ[.] Why do you hate Tamil, O tampirāṉ[.] Why do you hate your mother, O tampirāṉ[?] Even if religion is destroyed, Tamilians will flourish[.] If good Tamil is destroyed, can there be a Tamil community[?] Do service to Tamil! O tampirāṉ[.] Tamil is the life of the Tamilian! O foolish tampirāṉ[.] Is it God who is great[?] O tampirāṉ[!] It is glorious Tamil that is indeed great[!] O foolish tampirāṉ[.] Even if God disappears, the Tamil community will flourish[.] If Tamil dies, its community, too, will die, O tampirāṉ[.] Do you intend to destroy the Tamil creed (tamiḻneṟi) by invoking Shaivism (caivaneṟi), O foolish tampirāṉ? Service to Shaivism is not great, O tampirāṉ[.] It is auspicious service to Tamil that is eminent, O tampirāṉ[.] ...... Only one thing is greater than [our] mother(s)! O tampirāṉ! Is that not Tamil, O foolish tampirāṉ?
There are few clearer statements than this of Dravidianism’s attempt to displace conventional gods and the religious beliefs associated with them, and to substitute Tamil in their stead. Indeed, Dravidianism sacralized Tamil, even while refusing to participate, at least overtly and consciously, in its divinization. Dravidianism’s ambivalence towards religiosity and Hinduism notwithstanding, Tamil was offered to its speakers as an iconic object that deserves all the adulation, adherence, and service they had hitherto reserved for their gods. In this process, even within Dravidianism, Tamil was imagined as desired by the gods, and was every now and then deified. So, in his controversial 1945 poem, Tamiḻiyakkam (The resurgence of Tamil),Bharatidasan asked whether Tamil, “which is life itself,” is not dear to the gods (Bharatidasan 1969: 27). On a more personal note, in his autobiography the poet Mudiyarasan, who identifies himself as an ardent follower of Ramasami and Annadurai, asks, “I consider Tamil as god (kaṭavuḷ). How can I be an atheist (nāttikaṉ)?” (Mudiyarasan n.d.: 86-87). A similar sentiment undergirds the DMK government’s institution of the homage to Tamiḻttāy as the state song in 1970. The government may have announced that it was doing this because the song had no “religious or sectarian associations,” an assertion it was able to make because it carefully edited out Sundaram Pillai’s original title, Tamiḻt teyva vaṇakkam, “Homage to Goddess Tamil.” Nonetheless, in its official statement (in English), Tamiḻttāy herself is referred to as “goddess of Tamil,” and the hymn is characterized as “prayer song.”
Dravidianism and the Tamil Family
Dravidianism did not just have to delegitimize the “other mother,” Bhārata Mātā it also had to ensure that flesh-and-blood Tamil-speaking mothers themselves did not pose a threat to the absolute devotion and loyalty owed to the sacralized language. This was a very complicated task, for motherhood was the ground on which both Indianism and Dravidianism constituted tamiḻppaṟṟu. Indeed, Dravidianism was not content with merely establishing similitude between language and one’s mother; more strikingly, it insisted that language is that mother:
When I was a child, you snuggled me and placed me on your lap; You placed flowers in my hair, and adorned me, and admired my beauty; You are the sweet mother who protected me, in the shade and in the heat; O my ancient Tamil! May you live long! (Ulakanathan 1969: 4)
Similarly, the well-known DMK rhetorician R. Nedunceliyan, who later became a key member of the government, insisted in 1960 that there was no difference between one’s mother and Tamil:
There is no distinction at all between our mother who bore us for ten months, gave birth to us, watched over us, sang lullabies to us, and fed us milk and guarded us, and our Tamil language which taught us about good conduct and tradition, and granted us good values and knowledge, and which is the very reason that we live well and in prosperity. We have the same attachment to our language as we have for our mother; we have the same devotion to our language as we have for our mother; we have the same love for our language as we have for our mother. He who disregards his language…is like he who disregards his mother and forsakes her.
Dravidianism may have invited speakers of Tamil to imagine it as their mother. At its most dramatic, however, it elevated Tamil to a position of absolute preeminence, even transcending the status and authority of one’s birth mother. For instance, the poet Pulavar Kulanthai declared passionately:
By extension, this kind of loyalty extended to fellow Tamil speakers as well, as is apparent from Bharatidasan’s much-cited declaration: “I will not leave alone the man who scorns the greatness of Tamilians / Even if [my] mother prevents me” (Bharatidasan 1958: 5, emphasis mine).
I will never refuse to obey my [own] mother's words; But if harm befalls my precious Tamiḻttāy, I will not fear to set aside my own mother’s words. I will chop off the head of [Tamiḻttāy’s] enemy, Even if [my] mother prevents me. (Pulavar Kulanthai 1972: 21)
Indeed, Dravidianism even insisted that service to Tamil and to Tamiḻttāy should take priority over the Tamilian’s family—over spouses, children, and parents. So Perunchitran demanded as late as 1975: “Are the troubles of your own mother more important than the terrible suffering of our glorious Tamiḻttāy? /…/ Are the words of your own mother sweeter than our Tamil language, which is like ambrosia?” (Perunchitranar 1979: 109).
Yet in thus subordinating the family to Tamil, Dravidianism only overtly and consciously articulated a sentiment that was widespread in the devotional community as a whole. As we will see later, in the life stories of individual devotees as these are narrated in memoirs and biographies, their families are typically superseded in favor of devotion to the Tamil cause. The family, which is a primary site for cultivating devotion to the language, is ultimately transcended within the regimes of tamiḻppaṟṟu. Such a transcendence is deemed necessary, for not even the family can—or can be allowed to—intervene between the devotee and his language.
The DMK and Dravidianized Tamil
Deriving considerable political capital from its self-appointed role as the guardian of Tamil and from demonizing the Congress as an agent of “evil” North Indian interests during the prolonged anti-Hindi protests of the 1950s and 1960s which it spearheaded, the DMK swept the state polls in 1967. Two days after the party’s victory was assured, its leading newspaper, Nam Nāṭu, carried the headline, “Tamiḻttāy’s Desire of Many Years Fulfilled.” The Muracoli’s front-page cartoon showed Tamiḻttāy, a smile on her face, placing a crown on Annadurai, her “chief son.” And it was declared that Tamiḻttāy’s victory was the fruit of penances undergone by her followers for Tamil’s sake: “In order that Tamiḻttāy be enthroned, in order that Tamiḻttāy should abide with honor, so that Tamiḻttāy may be crowned…so many became prey to gunfire, so many drowned in an ocean of red blood, so many martyrs set themselves on fire, so many great ones passed away. This we know. Today, we see Tamil blooming everywhere. You must all go to the Legislative Assembly. You will hear good Tamil there.”
The DMK takes great pride that so many of its leaders—Annadurai, Nedunceliyan, and Karunanidhi, among others—have been hailed as great scholars of Tamil and of literature in their own right. So, for many Dravidianists, the DMK’s victory finally fulfilled Bharatidasan’s dream, voiced years earlier in 1945, that “only the Tamilian who knows Tamil should rule as the chief minister of Tamilnadu” (Bharatidasan 1969: 19).
Regardless of what its opponents may say or statistics may reveal, the DMK has promoted itself as selflessly dedicated to the Tamil cause. Party literature as well as government publications provided details of the measures that it undertook to promote the language: the increasing use of “chaste” and “good” Tamil in administrative and public facilities; the publication of Tamil encyclopedias, scientific manuals, and textbooks; the increasing support of Tamil scholars and Tamil studies both within and outside Tamilnadu; and so on—programs pursued by the Congress government as well to varying degrees. In addition, under the DMK, Hindi was in effect legislated out of state schools in 1968; steps were taken, although not successfully, to introduce Tamil as the exclusive language of higher education and as medium of worship in high Hindu temples; and the state itself was renamed Tamilnadu, “land of Tamil.” DMK cultural policy also focused on creating a new literary and historical canon, by drawing upon the findings of tamiḻppaṟṟu, especially upon contestatory classicism and Dravidianism. Not surprisingly, the poems of the Canḳam corpus occupy a hallowed place in this canon, Karunanidhi himself offering a new interpretation in 1987 (Karunanidhi 1987a). Similarly, the Tirukkuṟaḷ, the new “scripture” of Dravidianism, is valorized, as is the Cilappatikāram, as exemplars of the “secular,” “egalitarian,” and “chaste” essence of true and pure Tamil culture, free from the influences of Sanskritic Aryan Brahmans with their priestly ways.
Correspondingly, a new pantheon of secular icons surrounding the presiding deity, Tamiḻttāy, has sprung up. It includes Tiruvalluvar, the author of the Tirukkuṟaḷ Kattabomman, who died a martyr’s death during the late-eighteenth-century British expansion into South India, and who is considered a paradigmatic symbol of Tamil heroism (Ramaswamy 1994); and Kannagi, the heroine of the Cilappatikāram, who is imagined as the ideal Tamil woman, renowned for her chastity and wifely fidelity (J. Pandian 1982). Similarly, Ramasami and Annadurai were lionized for giving Tamil speakers their “self-respect,” and many DMK narratives contain laudatory poems on their achievements. And it was under DMK rule that Chinnasami and his fellow devotees who burned themselves alive were immortalized. New mythologies and praise poems on all these figures were written and circulated. Their life stories were narrated and offered as paradigms for Tamil speakers to emulate. Commemorative memorials were set up, and festivals conducted in their honor. In 1968, the government used an academic gathering in Madras, the Second International Conference of Tamil Studies, to treat the populace to a spectacular celebration of Tamil, featuring giant floats of Tamiḻttāy, Tiruvalluvar, and other Tamil icons. The party’s leaders must believe that such acts carry symbolic as well as political capital, for as recently as 1984, its election manifesto chose to present its achievements to the electorate in the following terms:
In order that Tamiḻttāy's jeweled crown should shine, We built the historic temple to Valluvar whose fame reaches the very skies; And the world-famous new town of Poompukar with its Cilappatikāram museum, seven stories high! And a fort in the memory of Virapandya Kattabomman at Panjalamkurichi. We enabled all these, not just one, not just two, but plenty! plenty!
And yet, as critics as well as supporters of the DMK are quick to ask, have such gestures really helped the cause of Tamil? I quote Sivagnanam, who, despite his recent rapprochement with the DMK, lamented thus:
A museum commemorating the Cilappatikāram and a memorial celebrating Kattabomman have been built. The names of ministers and homes have been changed. Street names have been changed, and so have the names of towns. But Tamil’s fortunes have not changed. Formerly, Tamiḻttāy was worshipped three times a day. Today, she is worshipped six times a day. She is worshipped with great pomp and splendor. But the chains that fetter her arms and legs have not been destroyed.…Tamil will not grow by changing the names of streets, towns, and gardens.
Dravidianism and its Discontents
And this is a lament that we continue to hear to this day, even after about a century of Tamil devotional activity. Sivagnanam’s statement points to a fundamental problem with which the Tamilnadu state has had to contend, especially in the past three decades or so, when it has been under the rule of political parties which are ostensibly dedicated to the Tamil cause. In addition to confronting the crucial issue of which Tamil to promote—“classical” Tamil, “pure” Tamil, the “people’s” Tamil, and so on—there has been growing awareness that the socioeconomic and political realities of Tamil’s status as a regional language within the linguistic economy of a multilingual nation-state, itself embedded within a larger global environment in which English dominates as the world language, preclude the active implementation of public policies that will ensure the supremacy of Tamil in all spheres at all times, the ideal of Dravidianism (on this, see Tamilkudimagan 1990). Strapped by financial and political constraints, it has been easier for the state to indulge in symbolic activities, such as changing street names and instituting official anthems, rather than to ensure high quality education in Tamil studies, or to create job opportunities that would convince Tamil speakers that the study of Tamil is a viable end in itself. Tamil’s devotees undoubtedly recognize the value of the symbolic act, but Sivagnanam’s lament also reminds us that Tamil devotionalism demands much more, especially from a party that claims to be ruling on behalf of Tamiḻttāy. From the start, Dravidianism, like Indianism, placed its hopes in the political process. The establishment of a Tamil state and the Tamilization of the political apparatus, it was proclaimed, would ensure the triumph of Tamil, everywhere and in everything. And yet, this has not happened. This is a tragedy that casts its long shadow not just on Dravidianism, but on the rest of the Tamil devotional community as well.
This has not been the only cross that Dravidianism has had to bear. The Congress’s policies caused the increasing disenchantment of devotees of Indianist sentiment and compelled several to embrace Dravidianism. Similarly, the empowerment of the DMK has accompanied the progressive Indianization of the message of Dravidianism, as its radical separatist vision and its credo that Tamil is everything have been progressively diluted in favor of the Tamil community’s coexistence with India. Numerous compromises made by the DMK government on linguistic and cultural policies may be cited to support this claim, but perhaps the most illuminating here is the sanitized version of Sundaram Pillai’s 1891 hymn that was instituted as the state “prayer song” in 1970.
Of course, the state song is still loyal to Dravidianism’s “secular” recasting of Tamiḻtteyvam, “Goddess Tamil,” as Tamiḻttāy, “Mother Tamil.” The lines from the 1891 hymn that likened Tamiḻttāy to the primordial lord Shiva—which neo-Shaivism kept alive through the next century—are excised, on the grounds that an appropriate prayer song for a modern Tamil community should have no religious or sectarian associations. This significant erasure is not surprising given radical Dravidianism’s antagonism to the divinization of Tamil and to Hinduism. And yet, the government order explicitly refers to Tamiḻttāy as the “goddess of Tamil,” a slippage that is not accidental. For it indexes the progressive accommodation with religiosity that characterizes DMK cultural policy through the 1950s and 1960s. It also reminds us that within Dravidianism itself, Tamil increasingly took on the mantle of conventional Hindu deities, even as it displaced them.
Next, the recast anthem comes close to compensatory, rather than contestatory, classicism’s stance on Tamil, for the government also deliberately excised the much-quoted lines of the original hymn that had referred to Sanskrit as a “dead” language and had declared the superiority of the ever-enduring Tamil (kaṉṉittamiḻ). In his reminiscences, Chief Minister Karunanidhi maintains that these lines were not incorporated into the state prayer song because “it is not appropriate to disparage or ridicule other languages, and to use inauspicious words such as ‘ruined’ or ‘dead’ in a hymn in praise of Tamiḻttāy to be recited at government functions” (Karunanidhi 1987: 233). Yet, as we have seen, both contestatory classicism and Dravidianism built their arguments on the assumption that Sanskrit was a “dead” language whose very presence had sucked the life out of Tamil.
Finally, Sundaram Pillai’s hymn was selected over numerous others precisely because it simultaneously acknowledges the legitimacy of both tirāviṭa nāṭu (Dravidian nation) and paratak kaṇṭam (Indian nation). Indeed, the government insisted that the state’s prayer song would in no way supplant the Indian national anthem: while the former would be sung at the commencement of official functions, the latter—and no other—would be recited at their conclusion. Thus the modern Tamil community—as envisioned by the DMK government in this hymn—has been symbolically framed in terms of its dual “Dravidian” and “Indian” heritages, a position that clearly conforms more closely to the Indianist, rather than to the radical Dravidianist, imagining of Tamil. In what ought to have been Dravidianism’s paradigmatic moment of triumph—the institution of a daily celebration of Tamil and Tamiḻttāy by the DMK—it appears as if it is Indianism, and its vision of Tamil as part of the Indian whole, that wins out.