There’s a founding paradox at the heart of the Dravidian movement, in its very name. Like the word ‘Hindi’ is Persian in origin, the word ‘Dravidian’ is actually Sanskrit. For a concept that’s taken to mean a lot of things—but at its core a strong sense of linguistic separateness—this marks out a canvas bristling with ironies. Yes, there is a Dravidian family of languages, but a whole movement was carried out in its name that never much referred to the rest of them, except by holding up Tamil as a sort of master code—the fount of everything else. Yes, it did impact the social landscape and imagination profoundly: but at some level that was iffy too, marked by a capture of power by middle castes, with even hard-core Tamil-speaking Dalits on its periphery. Did all the passion get used for a mere transfer of power? Does it live on as a powerful idea with potential? Or, a century on, has a liberation ideology been flattened to shallow, two-dimensional pop-kitsch cutouts?
The vibrant force it had in pop culture contains clues to this double life, with ideas gradually turned to spectacle and finally hollow tokenism. In 1947 came the Tamil film Kanjan (Miser) directed by Kovai A. Ayyamuthu, a Congressman and idealist, who also penned a song for the film. The lyric, in praise of the Tamil language, became very popular on radio and on gramophone records which sold well. Of course, the prodigious output from the film industry in Madras up until the early forties, before war-time censorship slowed production down temporarily, had dwelt on an assortment of themes—mythology, the freedom struggle, strong reformist takes on untouchability and temple entry, widow remarriage and temperance, to name a few.
And yet, a Tamil identity as such began to be depicted in films coming only after Independence, says film historian S. Theodore Baskaran. He traces it to Kanjan, not its storyline, of course, but its famous lyric. He recalls meeting Ayyamuthu much later, in 1974, and asking him how he picked the subject for his song in Kanjan. The director thought for a moment, says Baskaran, and replied: “It was in the air.” It indeed was. The then Madras Presidency was in the throes of its second wave of anti-Hindi agitations—the first one having erupted a decade before, in 1937, when Rajaji as chief minister sought to introduce Hindi in secondary schools. After nearly half a century of a new pride in Tamil as a rich, ancient language, Hindi was seen as an imposition. At the helm of this dissent was the charismatic figure of Periyar.
By 1947, it had been about three years since Periyar’s Justice Party had morphed into the Dravida Kazhagam, some of whose leading lights, themselves popular stage names, would go on to become big scriptwriters taking up various social issues and deliver some of their best-known creative work—Nallathambi and Velaikari by C.N. Annadurai in 1949 and, three years later, Parashakti written by M. Karunanidhi. By then, the idea of the Dravidian identity too, as a supposed unifier of the southern people, was heading into a trajectory of its own.
The anti-Hindi agitation at its peak in 1965
But, was it ever meant to be a unifier of the Dravidian people, is the contentious question that commentators have extensively discussed all along—a hundred years, to be precise, since the founding in Madras of the South Indian Liberal Federation, or what’s known as the Justice Party. It was a non-Brahmin party whose leading lights were T.M. Nair, a British-educated doctor from Malabar, the lawyer Theagaraya Chetty, from a business caste, and C. Natesa Mudaliar, also a doctor. It went on to win elections four years later in the Dyarchy and participated in government until the late 1930s, when the Indian National Congress came to power in Madras.
In a sense, this social base remained its core, contributing to the ambiguities about who the movement represented. “Even in Tamil Nadu, they were not able to project who the Dravidians were. Once you say Dravidian, it includes five other languages. The confusion prevails till today,” says Dalit leader Dr K. Krishnasamy of the Puthiya Tamizhagam party. “If they were able to share power with all sections of the people, it would have been happily accepted and at least we could have said it is a halfway reformist movement,” he says. But, instead, what it achieved was to dethrone Brahmins from political power and bureaucracy and establish the authority of the intermediate castes, he says. “In these hundred years, there’s nothing to celebrate for the downtrodden and marginalised people. It has gone from bad to worse,” he says. “So, in my opinion, it is not a progressive or reformist movement, it becomes a reactionary movement, that’s all,” he says. They were not able to create a casteless society at all.”
Not everyone disagrees. “The Dravidian ideology was a Trojan horse to the way of power. After they won, they left it,” is the sharp critique Tamil-Malayalam writer B. Jeyamohan has to offer. Of course, it’s a fairly widely acknowledged fact that the Justice Party was a collaboration of the non-Brahmin upper castes which came together as a way to resist the growing clout of Brahmins in the British rule as land revenue officers and in other government posts. “The British literally cut the land rights of Tamil upper castes; a similar thing was happening in Kerala as well,” says Jeyamohan. The party thus formed, he argues, had only political ambitions under the British rule and they found the need for an ideology which would encompass the various linguistic groups. “After Independence, slowly Dravidian ideology was left behind and the Tamil identity was taken ahead. Now they have Dravidian in their name only,” he says. “There was no necessity in (the modern states of) Kerala and Andhra and Karnataka. They even don’t know who Caldwell is,” he claims.
This latter part is an argument that finds favour with the right wing, which has traditionally attributed motives to Irish missionary Robert Caldwell institutionalising the Dravidian theory in the first place. Caldwell’s magisterial study of the comparative grammar of the southern languages, nonetheless, is generally accepted as a scholarly work and led to the Tamil renaissance in the early twentieth century.
“There were no takers for the Dravidian movement in any other state because Dravida is not an ethnic race,” says H. Raja, a BJP veteran in Tamil Nadu. It was essentially a movement led by communities ranged along the middle of the social ladder, he says, and glorifying Periyar as a social justice figure is not acceptable. “Whether or not we agree with their ideology or principles, they were espousing some cause, that is, the upliftment of the backward communities,” he says. But, he claims there is no ideology left in either the DMK or AIADMK, its political successors. The Dravidian movement, he says, has become “totally eclipsed from the political arena”.
Some of that criticism could be a case of the pot calling the kettle black, says R. Manivannan, professor of political science at Madras University. “Fundamentally rooted in a caste discrimination, there has to be an alternative discourse. The Dravidian identity is very powerful for providing an alternative discourse,” he reckons. And it was only after Periyar took over, with his electrifyingly radical and heretic words, that it became a mass movement. It was also around that time, in the thirties, that the movement started to use theatre for propaganda. As Baskaran notes, there were about 250 documented drama companies travelling in the Madras Presidency at the time. “They wrote a number of dramas glorifying some characters who are traditionally decried as villains, like Ravana,” says Baskaran. The first one was a play called Iraniyan Allathu Inayettra Veeran, a story about Iraniyan or Hiranyakashipu. The well-known stage name M.R. Radha, an ardent Dravida Kazhagam man, gave a fillip to the movement, says Baskaran.
Jeyamohan says it was natural for power-longing social groups to emerge across the country in the latter part of freedom struggle. “Various political movements emerged with this motive. The Dravidian movement is one among them,” he says.
Curiously, other regional cinema wasn’t so heavy on political rhetoric, though social reform was a recurrent theme. “In Karnataka, cinema was never used for any political ends. It was purely a kind of expression, highlighting social injustice, but not as propaganda,” says well-known filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli. It was, he says, the critical insider’s point of view, as U.R. Ananthamurthy often liked to say. “Multiple perspectives were one thing we always retained in Kannada literature especially, and so also in films. Hardline assertions were not there,” he says. Other experts point out that even non-Brahmin Kannada writers at the time didn’t make a distinction about scriptures as necessarily Brahminical texts. Noted historian Prof Chidananda Murthy also cites the air of mutual give-and-take between Kannada and other languages, especially Sanskrit. “Just as we have adopted words from English, the Kannada language has accepted a lot of words from Sanskrit, and vice-versa. There are Kannada words in Sanskrit as well, which means all languages have mutual borrowings,” he says.
Some experts reckon the politics of state reorganisation, starting with Andhra in 1952, could perhaps explain the later narrowing out of the Dravidian movement, as a predominantly Tamil-focused limited politically to Tamil Nadu. It wasn’t that linguistic nationalism was confined to Tamil Nadu alone, though it took the lead in opposing Hindi, Manivannan feels. “But in Tamil Nadu politics, it became the weapon of resistance. In other states, there was no need for them to offer this resistance through language or the Dravidian identity,” he says. For instance, in Kerala, it was primarily the Congress versus the Left parties by the 1950s—it became a separate state in 1956, which, consequently, also weakened the Left’s hold in residual Madras.
There was a time when, in the great Periyarist melting-pot, all manner of ideas of dissent bubbled: atheism, leftism, caste annihilation, even a sense of internationalism. A century later, two rival parties—congealed power blocs—colonise the whole space. Though their future seems riddled with uncertainties, they offer a parody of what’s needed. Which is, deep introspection: to ensure that resistance to chauvinism does not end up as its mirror image.