One of the persistent pieces of given wisdom in Indian political discourse is that the Dravidian movement was a progressive one. In the popular imagination, these were people of exemplary integrity who worked to eliminate caste and gender privilege.
To examine this claim, let us take a famous story from the Dravidian mythos and take a few steps behind the stage to see what really happened.
Bharathidasan was a popular and acclaimed poet whose writings drew many a young man and woman into the Dravidian movement. His birth name was Kanakasabai Subburathinam, but he used the pen name Bharathidasan out of respect for the Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi. Among the men who were impressed by him was C N Annadurai, or ‘Anna’, the leader of the DMK and the first Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu from the Dravidian movement.
Bharathidasan had already been conferred the title ‘Pavendhar’ or ‘Kind of Lays’. Annadurai went further ahead and conferred on him the title ‘Puratchi Kavingnyar’ or ‘Revolutionary Poet’. Annadurai was himself later given the title ‘Perarignar’ or ‘Great Scholar
When Bharathidasan was in his 50s, the younger leaders of the Dravidar Kazhagam, led by Annadurai, wished to gift him with a purse, as a token of honour for the service he had rendered to the cause of Tamil literature and to the Dravidian cause.
Accordingly a collection was taken our and in a grand function organized at Pondicherry in 1946, a purse was presented to Bharathidasan. The popular legend also has it that Anna did not want to give the purse, but instead kept the purse in his palms and asked Bharathidasan to pick it up, since a poet’s hands should never be held below, in a gesture of receiving and always above, to show his benediction. This story is repeated as an instance of the extraordinary grace of Annadurai.
Periyar and Bharathidasan
Where was Periyar in this situation? In 1946, Annadurai had not yet started the DMK and was very much in the DK, led by EV Ramasamy. It was Bharathidasan’s stand that since EV Ramasamy was not an ethnic Tamil, a separate political led by Tamils was required. He had apparently refused Ramasamy’s proposal to publish some of his poetry. There was, thus, some ill-feeling between the two.
It is reported that Ramasamy was against any such collection for the personal use of Bharathidasan. His reasoning was that Bharathidasan had never left his employment as a Government teacher, continued to draw his salary and was entitled for a pension and hence did not really need this money. He also published his works commercially and was thus entitled to an income from his writing also. Additionally, Bharathidasan’s personal lifestyle did not guarantee that he would manage a large sum well. Ramasamy was also annoyed that he had not been consulted and is reported to have said – ‘Someone writes a couple of songs and becomes a Revolutionary Poet. Does this warrant so much expenditure and effort?’
It may be noted that Bharathidasan was never against British rule, had never participated in the Indian freedom struggle, nor in the anti-Hindi agitations of 1937 and as a consequence had never been imprisoned. His only imprisonment was on account of an accusation of personal misdemeanour on Bharathidasan’s part.
Having made his opinion felt, Ramasamy did pledge a sum of Rs 150 for this purpose. It is not known whether he really did pay this amount.
In Bharathidasan’s own account, the total sum announced was Rs 25,000, but he claimed to have received only Rs 20,000. He also claimed that 4 different people had announced that the expensive shawl he was honoured with at the function was their contribution. Further, he claimed that he never got to see the receipts for funds collected in his name, even though ‘Murasoli’, Annadurai’s daily publication, in its coverage of the event announced that all receipts had been handed over to Bharathidasan.
A Decade Later
In later years, seeing this incident being played up larger-than-life and showing Annadurai in a very positive light, Bharathidasan might have felt somewhat slighted and made to feel like a supplicant.
Whatever may be his reasons, his writings in Kuyil, his home publication reveal a very unflattering picture of Bharathidasan, the man.
In 1958, he writes – ‘People tell me that Annadurai gave me a stage, a grand shawl and handsome purse. Was it Annadurai who spent this money? What was his situation at that time?’. He then proceeded to unleash a flowery, metaphorical torrent of abuse directed at Annadurai’s female relatives. The accusation was that Annadurai was dependent upon their earnings in a very unflattering manner.
He also implied that Annadurai curried favour with T N Raman and had himself included in the committee to conduct the purse-gifting function. He implied that Annadurai and T N Raman had some caste connection. It may be noted that C N Annadurai was a Kaikolar, a Sengunthar sub-caste with the title Mudaliar. Bharathidasan also belonged to the same Senguntha Mudaliar caste. One wonders what was the implication behind Bharathidasan’ characterization of the friendship between ‘two melams’ (drums)
In 1958, T N Raman and Bharathidasan met in court over a dispute. In this, the accounts from the award ceremony in 1946 were requested. Bharathidasan claimed he had never received it from Annadurai. In a few weeks after this incident, Bharathidasan ended one of his tirades in his magazine by calling Annadurai a ‘the$%l magan’ or ‘son of a w$%re’.
While this entire story might have read like a piece of muck-raking, it blows open some of the myths of the Dravidian narrative. This was a very casteist group of people who would abuse each others’ female relatives at the slightest provocation. They also had little compunctions about using the idea of women’s honour for the purpose of settling political and personal grouses.
- Page 133, 134, Dravida Mayai, Part 1 Subbu.
- Page 167, Dravida Mayai, Part 2 Subbu.
- Ma Venkatesan, Tamil Hindu