Bhamini Lakshminarayan Shilpa Phadke
Cultural Studies – I
27 September 2015
History, Identity, and Herstory:
A Simultaneous Reconstruction and Deconstruction of the Dravidian Movement
A friend’s father takes every opportunity he can to point out how unfriendly Tamil Nadu is to outsiders. ‘All of the buses have signs that are only in Tamil,’ he complains. Friends who visit the state complain about the auto-drivers, who attempt to take advantage of those who do not already know Chennai (formerly known as Madras). Indian patriots complain about the sympathy the state showed during the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle for power, and that the last time a national party won legislative power in Tamil Nadu, it was in 1962, when it was still known as Madras State. In the public consciousness, the Tamil identity seems to favour its own.
‘The term “identity politics” is used as a term of abuse by those who see themselves as occupying some unmarked identity such as “Indian citizen.”’1 The phrase identity politics is often employed when discussing the trajectory of the Dravidian Movement, although the exact events occupy a nebulous space in our memory. In our collective consciousness, the Dravidian Movement acts as some sort of metaphor for a form of anti-Indian nationalism – albeit a form that did not have drastic implications on the Indian nation-state because of its democratic processes and stances on minority protection. It stands as a metaphor for a form of identity politics that sought to define itself by its distinctive identity. The questions that arise within the Dravidian Movement are thus: Whose was the community that it aimed to represent, how did it arrive at this identity, and how did it construct this identity’s demands?
Having grown up as a second-generation migrant in Bengaluru (formerly known as Bangalore), and speaking more English than Tamil, I was never particularly conscious of a Tamil identity, unless it was the 14th of January – when my family would celebrate Pongal instead of Shankranti. I cannot remember a time when I was not aware that I was Brahmin – though I had no idea of what being upper-caste could possibly mean until my older sister came home with a poor report card, and my father warned her that ‘as a Brahmin girl,’ she would never get into a college unless she scored the highest possible marks.
However, I never connected the two identities – being Tamilian and being Brahmin – as holding any particular meaning until I worked in a school in Nagarkudal village, near the city of Dharmapuri, between June-September 2014. When it came to conversations with the students, I found that we often could not understand each other. This was mainly because of my own poor Tamil, or so I believed, until I realised that there were other, compounding factors. For instance, I would ask them to wash their hands before eating (‘kai alambitu va’) and be met by blank stares, until one bright student suddenly realised the problem: I was speaking Brahmin Tamil. ‘Kai karavitu va!’ she exclaimed, repeating my instruction in the form of Tamil that is more widely spoken. At this point, I was forced to realise that being Tamilian did not instantly give me access to the people who lived in Tamil Nadu – I was limited by my language. In a sense, I was limited from interacting with people because I was Brahmin, and I did not know how not to be.
Being a woman is something that I have always been conscious of, in the limits and restrictions it places upon my access to the world around me. Thus, it intrigues me to locate the intersection of these three identities – Tamilian, Brahmin, and woman – in its interaction with the world around itself. In all of the scholarly work surrounding this particular Movement, I have come across none in English that focuses on the particularity of the experience of the upper-caste woman’s. Thus, in this paper, I attempt to document this previously ignored narrative. In an interrogation of the memories of five upper-caste women through a series of telephonic interviews conducted between August – September 2015, I attempt to discover their remembered history, or rather, their herstory of the Movement, and locate their understanding of it.
‘Working with memory is never simple or unproblematic.’2 The interviewees in question are the surviving female members of a family that was born and brought up in Kanchipuram (formerly known as Conjevaram). Their narrative draws on their experiences between the period of 1933 – 1967, with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam claiming power in the Tamil Nadu legislature under C. N. Annadurai in 1967. Working with their memory is not simple, because theirs is a highly educated and well-exposed family that has also had a fair amount of engagement with the literature surrounding this Movement post the period that I am locating this paper in. Thus, theirs is a memory that is constructed, not just through lived experience, but through the narrative and textual experiences that they have engaged with afterwards. As a consequence, I attempt a symptomatic reading of their memories, locating them within the space, time and cultural context that they occupied.
Working with these memories and the subject of this paper is possibly problematic because of my own relationship to this family and this narrative. Not only am I a native Tamil-speaker and an upper-caste woman, but the interviewees were my maternal grandmother and her surviving sisters, and these were a part of the experiences that shaped the story of my family. Thus, this Movement and these memories are also viewed through the gaze of one who has some amount of identity located within the context of the paper in itself.
Their past is my herstory as well.
Self-identifying myself as a Tamilian, Brahmin, and a woman, and being related to the women I am interviewing, I do not attempt to position myself in the position of an unsympathetic observer. I instead acknowledge my own position and do not attempt to negate it, but articulate it, in an attempt to negotiate it while keeping in mind my own subjectivity. Without the possession of this particular identity, it is possible that I would not been interested in these particular narratives, and I certainly would not have had the ease that I did in accessing them. However, in the reading of my interviewees’ memories, I attempt to privilege the idea of an alternative narrative in history, rather than their particular narrative, though I admittedly locate it as most relevant to my own.
The Movement in itself comprised multiple smaller Movements, all located within the idea of a struggle against Brahminical, Aryan hegemony – a caste struggle, a class struggle, a linguistic struggle, a gendered struggle – a struggle for identity. The Movement had wide-reaching consequences, including but not limited to the first amendment to the Indian constitution introducing Article 15(4) in 1951, ensuring the reservation of seats for non-Brahmin aspirants in educational and governmental institutions, as a result of protests in Madras state against a Supreme Court judgement. But today, when we look back upon the Movement, Periyar, anti-Hindu protests, MGR and Shivaji Ganeshan’s films all occupy the same hazy space. But while the Dravidian Movement occupies a nebulous space in our memory, so do all events and histories. In this paper, I attempt to articulate the constructed nature of the histories that form what we perceive to be a cohesive and continuous timeline of events, emotions, and actions. This is contextualised not just in the genesis of the Dravidian movement, its objectives, its articulation of identity, language, and culture, but also the interviewees’ memories of it, and my own reading of them all.
Chakravarti argues that ‘At specific junctures the sense of history may be heightened and the past may be dramatically reconstituted, bringing into sharp focus the need of a people for a different self-image from the one they hold of themselves.’3 In this regard, I first look at the genesis of the Movement – the process of the articulation of the Tamil identity as one that was separate from the “Indian” nationalist identity through the framing of the Brahmin and the non-Brahmin, the Aryan and the Dravidian identities. I then contextualise this framing of identities in the memories that were articulated by my interviewees, who broadly remembered the movement along three lines – first, the protests against Brahminical Hinduism; next, the language protests – particularly, the protests against Sanskrit; and finally, their memory of the class struggle that they remember to have been the underlying cause. Ultimately, their lived experiences and memories are framed by their own identities, and thus, I attempt to draw on their memories of growing up as women during this Movement, particularly given the Movement’s stance on the subordination of women.
Though sentiments about the oppressive nature of Tamil society’s hierarchies may have been expressed well before there existed any political form to the sentiment, the Dravidian Movement is generally agreed to have begun in 1916, with the release of the Non-Brahmin Manifesto.4 It was written by a group of prominent nationalists, including T. M. Nair and Pitti Theagaraya Chetti, who disagreed with the Indian National Congress in that India was not ready for self rule since that would result in a replacement of British rule by Brahmin rule. The Manifesto repeated the phrase ‘non-Brahmin’ thirty times, indicating its recognition of a cohesive identity that was encapsulated by it. However, there were many who doubted the truth of a singular political ‘non-Brahmin identity.’ The Times of India wrote that ‘No one who knows the bitter feuds between the right hand and left hand non-Brahman castes of Madras will accept the implication underlying Mr. Chettiar’s manifesto that the non-Brahmans are a single, homogenous group, capable of common or united action, even as against the social and religious supremacy of the Brahminical caste.’5
The identity of the Brahmin, on the other hand, is seen to be one that belongs to a continuous history; a history of the Aryan race. However, the colonial conquest of India, in their establishment of authority, portrayed the older forms of Brahminical authority as ‘effeminate, unmanly, and worthy of conquest by a virile, masculine race of conquerors.’6 In doing so, they undertook the ‘gradual ‘demasculinisation’ of a once virile race of Aryan conquerors.’ Pandian argues that the establishment of the Brahmins as the once-mighty Aryan race took place as a reaction to colonisation, in the articulation of a history and culture that preceded the coloniser.7 V. Geetha further argues that, in the articulation of a ‘nation that could break through the bonds of colonial rule,’ this act of identity-creation was contingent upon the creation of a masculinity and was thus undertaken ‘in the realm of sexuality.’8
In the context of these arguments, we locate Tamil works such as G. Subramania Iyer’s nationalist history, Arya Jana Ikiyam Allathu Congress Mahasabhai (Unity of the Aryan People or the Congress Party).9 This ‘authentic’ Indian history was ascribed to the Aryan, which was equated to the Congress Party, and thus the Indian – and was arguably necessary for the cause of a united Indian nationalism. In this same light, the Dravidian, the Tamil newspaper of the Justice Party, compared the Congress Party to an agraharam (the part of the village in which the Brahmins exclusively live in). 10 Brahminical Hinduism, with its emphasis on Sanskrit texts, framed the ‘authentic’ and ‘historic’ past that were used to create the Indian identity that existed outside that of the colonised identity. The construction of this identity was aided by two of the main intellectual themes of the time – Orientalism, and Theosophy, which played a role in popularising these Orientalist ideas.
The Orientalist discourse, epitomised by works such as Max Muller, attempted to establish the Aryans as ‘the prominent actors in the great drama of history,’11 drawing parallels between the Aryans in India who had composed the Vedas – regarded as their ‘Bible’ – and the Aryans who at that point of time inhabited Europe, and, in doing this, drew a distinction between the Aryan, or Indo-European, and the Semitic/Turanian races. This version of history was propagated by theosophists such as the Theosophical Society and Annie Besant, and played a significant role in the construction of upper-caste selfhood and nationalist identity creation.
The construction of any form of nationalism, Anderson argues, is based on an imagined community, and not necessarily constructed in terms of shared linguistic, racial, or religious origin.12 Chatterjee problematises the incompleteness of this stance, claiming that in the reappropriation of this form of European nationalist construction, ‘our imaginations must remain forever colonised.’ In this same argument, Chatterjee locates the two domains of the colonised – the material and the spiritual. The spiritual domain was the one within which the nationalist stirrings occurred, as ‘the ‘inner’ domain bearing the ‘essential’ marks of cultural identity.’13 Thus, it is within the framing of the spiritual, or cultural domain, that a nation’s community is imagined.
It is within the framework of the spiritual domain that the ‘authentic’ Indian identity was constructed, arguably as one that was an upper-caste Hindu male. It is within the spiritual domain as well, then, that the ‘Dravidian’ identity was constructed, arguably as one of the lower-caste Hindu male, or the non-Brahmin.
The identity of the non-Brahmin was articulated as one that was oppressed by the religious doctrines of Brahminism, was oppressed by the linguistic normalisations of the Brahminical tongue, and that was oppressed by the material claims of the Brahmin.
E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, popularly known as Periyar14, left the Indian National Congress in 1925, alleging that the party’s interests reflected only those of the Brahmins in India. He allied with the Justice Party, and went on to rename it the Dravida Kazhagam (the Dravidian Front). He located the construction of “self-respect” among the lower-castes as vital to their full attainment of selfhood, so that they could ultimately free themselves from the oppression of Brahminical Hinduism. In this Self-Respect Movement, considered to be one of the main threads of the Dravidian Movement, Brahminism is located as the cause of the unequal structures and hierarchies in India. To Periyar, the identity of the Brahmin Hindu male was that of the oppressor, while all other identities were oppressed.15
Pandian argues about the ‘transitive’ nature of the Self-Respect Movement, in that it used one particular element to ‘produce a network of references to other elements through a set of discursive associations.’16 By this logic, each element could stand as a substitute for the other – Brahminism, Aryan nationalism, Hinduism, religion, patriarchy, Sanskrit, Hindi, class privilege – all stood as indicators for each other, and were all critiqued in the context of the Brahmin. In this, the Brahmin stood as a ‘trope’ for all institutionalised forms of power that were not substantively accessible to the vast majority of the non-Brahmin.
‘He who created god is a fool, he who propagates god is a scoundrel, and he who worships god is a barbarian,’ was a popular slogan Periyar used in his post-nationalist political career. In 1955, Periyar advocated a public burning of the Indian flag, arguing that ‘The students learn the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in their study of history, believe that Rama and Bharata ruled the country…and, on that basis, stand worshipping Bharat Mata.’17 He argued that adherence to Brahminism was, in fact, adherence to Aryanism, and advocated a ‘three-nation theory’ with the creation of a separate Dravidanadu out of colonial India, as opposed to the ‘two-nation theory’ out of which Pakistan was created.
Despite his agitations, Dravidanadu was not carved out of India. As a consequence, the oppressive, Aryan figure of the Brahmin was constructed as the colonising power over the “original” inhabitants of the South – the non-Brahmin. Brahminical texts – primarily, the Manusmriti, Ramayana, and the Gita, were critiqued, rewritten, and reinterpreted to bring to light an allegedly inherently oppressive religion. Komalavalli Rangamannar18 notes an irony in the retellings of Hindu narratives. A popularised retelling of the Ramayana in Tamil Nadu cites Rama, the Aryan, as the antagonist and Ravana, the Dravidian, as the defamed hero. She points out that in Brahminical cannon, Rama was, in fact, Kshatriya by birth, and that Ravana was Brahmin – thus the Dravidian retelling is ironic, she argues, in the context of the Brahmin/non-Brahmin identity struggle.
‘He was a religion hater,’ Jayalakshmi Sarangapani19, remembers of Periyar. ‘A god hater. He once had a procession in Erode, where he was from, in which he took a cut-out of Rama and tied a garland of chappals around his neck.’ In her memory, Periyar is constructed as one who is universally anti-religion, due to the nature of his protest against Hinduism.
However, Periyar himself was known to draw on Buddhism in his framing of his rationalist philosophy, and, in 1964, convened a conference in Erode to propagate Buddhism. Later that year, he visited Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) to attend the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s assumed birth.
In the reading of Periyar’s opposition to Brahminism, one must examine the construction of the universalised Hindu faith in itself. Metcalf notes that, in order for the British Orientalists to understand the diversity in the Indian religious faiths, they ‘insist[ed] upon the centrality of “Brahminism” as the historic core of the Hindu faith, and to regard so-called popular, or devotional, Hinduism as a “whole vegetation of cognate beliefs sprouting up in every stage of growth beneath the shadow of the great orthodox traditions and allegories of Brahminism.”’20
My interviewees come from a family that practices Vaishnavite Brahminism, considered to be the non-native Tamilian form of Brahminism, which is primarily Shaivite. However, Komalavalli points out that, of the twelve important saints in Vaishnavite Brahminism, only two were Brahmin. In her reading of her religion, Hinduism is not a history that is constructed by the Aryans, or even the Brahmins. Periyar’s reading of Hinduism, on the other hand, assumes a universality in the historical practices and prescriptions of the religion in constructing the hierarchies in society, to which he constructs rationalism as the only viable response.
The use of Sanskrit and Hindi were protested against as the languages of the oppressors. A series of agitations took place in in a swell of anti-Hindi agitations that were fuelled by threat of the imposition of Hindi as the national language, and the existing compulsion to learn Hindi in school. Sanskritised Tamil, too, was to be abandoned, in favour of the local, non-Brahmin, Saivite Tamil.
Periyar argued that Sanskrit in fact created the oppression of the lower caste. There was no equivalent, he argued, to words like jati in non-Sanskritised Tamil. The Sunday Observer, sympathetic to the Dravidian Movement, observed the relationship between the Sanskritised honorific ‘Shri’ and the Nazi ‘Herr,’21 which Pandian argues locates the ‘Aryan, produced by Orientalism and adopted by the Brahmin,’ in the position of the Nazi aggressor.22
In an assertion of non-Brahminical identity, the form of Tamil spoken by the Tamil elite was discouraged. The form of Tamil that was used by Periyar, Annadurai, and other proponents of the Dravidian movement was the Tamil spoken by the non-Brahmin.
Surya Gopu23 and Geetha Vijayaraghavan24 both remember that they made a conscious effort to speak the non-Brahmin Tamil while they were in school. ‘I would deliberately avoid Brahmin Tamil because I could get more friends that way,’ Geetha remembers. ‘When I wanted to talk to them I would quickly shift to their language so they would feel comfortable. I would do this without even knowing it most of the time.’ Surya and Geetha both remember being scolded by their families for inadvertently slipping into non-Brahmin Tamil – ‘Shudra Tamil’ – while at home.
However, Surya also notes that ‘The Tamil spoken now is highly influenced by Sri Lankan Tamil. The way we write it has changed. The way we speak it has changed – instead of saying ch, we say s. I don’t know how much of an authentic identity was really formed.’
Komalavalli concurs, by adding that ‘Tamil is the only language with the sound zh.’ Because of this, she explains, even simple words like vazhapazham (banana) are difficult for non-Tamilians to pronounce. As a consequence of the Dravidian movement, which encouraged a more simplified spoken Tamil, ‘they now say valapalam instead of vazhapazham.’ She laughs. ‘In order to maintain their unique identity, the language lost what made it truly unique.’
Ritha Rajan25, a classically trained Ph.D. in Carnatic music, speaks of the impact of the movement against Sanskrit on Carnatic music. The prolific Tamil Brahmin writer ‘Kalki’ Krishnamurthy was among those who defended the Tamil Esai Iyakkam’s (Tamil Music Movement)26 demand for the performance of only Tamil songs in Carnatic music concerts in his widely read Tamil magazine, Kalki. However, Ritha contextualises this argument in her own manner, saying that ’Carnatic music is anything from this Deccan region, it isn’t just in Sanskrit. It isn’t just pro-Brahmin. But there was this movement within the Dravidian Movement to have only Tamil songs performed. This was a good thing, because a lot of the most beautiful music is in Tamil. But even in this case, they did not want to perform the Tamil songs that were written by Brahmins.’ She tells me about the classical Tamil poet Gopalakrishna Bharati’s Nandanar Charitram27, which tells the story of a lower-caste man’s complete devotion to Shiva, contrasted to the practices followed by his oppressive Brahmin landlord. Bharati himself was a Brahmin, ‘so they stopped performing it. What sense did that make?’
The Dravidian Movement argued that the form of Tamil that was spoken by the elite was constructed to reflect the Aryan identity, and, instead, privileged Shaivite or non-Brahmin Tamil. The sort of Tamil spoken in Jayalakshmi’s family was Vaishnavite, Iyengar Tamil. However, she points out that languages evolve over time, and that even Tamil that is spoken in different parts of Tamil Nadu have different influences – the Tamil spoken in Hosur has elements of Kannada, the Tamil spoken in Palghat has traces of Malayalam, the Tamil spoken in Vellore is influenced by Telugu. ‘What is the problem with the influence of Sanskrit?’
C. N. Annadurai began his political career under Periyar’s mentorship, but, in 1949, split from the Dravida Kazhagam to form the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (the Dravidian Progressive Front). In 1967, his government became the first non-Congress government to rule Tamil Nadu, and Dravidian political parties have ruled the state ever since, with the exceptions being two periods of President’s rule.
While the five women I interviewed had several associations with the Dravidian movement, being Tamilian, Brahmin, and women, what truly engaged their interest in this movement was their close association with C. N. Annadurai. Not only was Annadurai born, raised, and elected in Kanchipuram, but he studied with their father, received letters of recommendation from their grandfather, and was a close friend of their maternal uncle’s.
‘Anna was a bosom friend of my Mama’s (maternal uncle),’ Jayalakshmi remembers, locating her family in context of the movement. Surya remembers that ‘they even died within one day of each other. When my uncle heard that Anna had passed away in ’69, he gave up and died the next day.’
Thus, it can be considered that they were, if not at the heart of the Dravidian movement, certainly located within the viscera of it. In this regard, I felt it pertinent to ask them why they felt the movement had arisen in the first place. Their narrative locates the movement not as anti- Brahminism or even anti-caste, not as an assertion of Tamil identity or even Dravidian identity, but as a movement that was anti-Brahmin because of their material well-being.
Jayalakshmi explains that ‘Brahmins were highly educated, and they held all of the top positions in the British administration. They were very well respected lawyers and doctors – did you know,’ she stops mid-way, ‘that your grandfather’s mother’s grandfather was the first High Court judge under the British rule? V. Bashiyam Iyengar. He was Sir V. Bashiyam Iyengar because he was Knighted.’ In her narrative, the Dravidian movement was a response to this material and cultural well-being that the Brahmins enjoyed. ‘There was Ramaswamy Mudaliar and Krishnaswamy Mudaliar, the twins, and the Chettiyars – but otherwise, the Brahmins had the lead in all of the good positions. The non-Brahmins were – how do I say this – jealous, because they couldn’t qualify for the same jobs.’
Jayalakshmi, though, admits that there were many Brahmins who did, in fact, abuse their power, but notes that this can occur among the powerful regardless of their community affiliation. Surya is quick to admit that the Brahmins ‘had it coming. They did a lot of wrong – there were many petty things that they did.’ She tells me that her own Aunt, who was a very kind woman, still used to have very particular practices about eating when the servants were passing through the house. ‘There were good Brahmins, but they usually had a very narrow outlook. They had to be put in their place.’
‘The problem is,’ Surya continues, ‘that the political parties capitalised on this and they used it to garner votes, rather than to make any real changes. They knew that political power lay in the masses, and they said anti-Brahmin things to turn non-Brahmins against Brahmins to project an image of helping the downtrodden. There were several genuine leaders who wanted to make genuine and needed changes. But what good the political parties did was very little, and what they gained was a lot.’
Jayalakshmi seems to be echoing Pandian, who contextualises Chatterjee’s domains of the spiritual and the material for the Dravidian movement as a whole – in that the battle for identity in the spiritual domain was to claim ownership and control of the material domain, which was at that point dominated by the 3% minority community in Tamil Nadu, the Brahmins.28
The women that I interviewed were not allowed to actively engage with or participate in politics. Surya remembers that her parents never spoke to her about the politics that were happening in the town, and she was far too young to go for any rallies while she lived in Kanchipuram. She remembers that her father would stand on the fringes of some of them, and come back and discuss them with her mother. When Geetha was younger, her older, male cousins would discuss the activity surrounding the Dravidian Movement – the public meetings and the issues that were raised in them. She would attempt to listen to their conversations as she passed from one room of the house into the kitchen and, by and by, pick up information. However, while they do not have a particular memory of an impact of the Dravidian Movement on the articulation of their identity as women, they do remember what it was like to grow up at that time as a member of their sex. Chakravarti argues that in the articulation of the “authentic” past, ‘Hindu liberals and conservatives alike…foregrounded the Aryan woman as the only object of historical concern.’29
In the nationalist construction, it is the upper caste woman who came to the fore, to stand for a ‘generalised “Hindu” womanhood.’30 The behaviour of the upper-caste woman, in her adherence to “Hindu’ culture” despite her forays into the modernised world with an advanced education and skill-sets, acted as an ‘index of upper-caste male self-worth.’31
In the articulation of the upper-caste woman in the Dravidian Movement, I found that the family of women I interviewed felt as though they had liberal parents, who allowed their daughters a ‘respectable’ amount of freedom while they were growing up. In fact, Surya tells me that she also played with the boys – she ‘climbed every tree in Kanchipuram with them.’ She laughs, and tells me that my grandmother, her older sister, used to scold her and say that their parents were giving her too much freedom.
Geetha remembers that the women in her family were very well educated – even her mother, she says, could read some English because she had been taught to by an Anglo-Indian woman. Educated families treated women well, she recalls. Her family would quote ideas about women’s empowerment and equality from the books they were reading, and the women in the family were treated with dignity and respect. Her father also let her mother travel for pleasure – she remembers her mother and her Aunt travelling alone to Madras to see the English film Cleopatra in the theatre. The women in Kanchipuram were treated well, according to the women I interviewed, and the caste and religious barriers amongst them were weaker than those amongst the men. Ritha remembers that her father had a client, a Muslim woman, who was involved in a property dispute. She remembers her mother inviting her into the home and serving her coffee. ‘As far as ladies were concerned, they were all friendly.’ Her grandmother was a member of a ladies’ club which included members from different castes – she tells me of a group photograph of them together which some uncle or aunt must still have. Komalavalli and Jayalakshmi remember very clearly that their mother and grandmother were close to Annadurai’s mother, grandmother, and aunt.
On the other hand, Periyar locates both lower castes and women as victims of Brahminism – as women were ‘universally’ oppressed by Brahminical caste society due to the necessary control of their sexuality in order to maintain caste structures. By emphasising self-respect marriages, a refusal of motherhood, and promoting rationalism and self-respect, Periyar sought to undo the basis of oppression in India, that of the historicised “Brahminical patriarchy”32.
There is a fair amount of scholarship that has been written about Periyar’s commitment to the overcoming of the subordination of women by the structures of caste. Periyar’s ideas are located in opposition to M.K. Gandhi’s, whose principles are identified with the Brahminical writer and poet Thiru Vi. Ka.. In an analysis of Thiru Vi. Ka.’s work, it is argued that ‘there is no female body here, no female person but only a generous and ever fertile womb.’33
However, despite their exclusion from these politics, four of the five women I interviewed all remembered one particular political sentiment that was expressed in the the Dravidian movement: ‘Every child in every Brahmin mother’s womb must be killed,’ is a sentence that they attributed to Periyar. This sentiment seems to have particularly horrified them, and they cannot reconcile themselves to the idea that Periyar is identified with the idea of women’s rights by a denial of the right of a woman to undertake motherhood.
Periyar’s argument of women’s rights is further weakened in their eyes by what is often viewed as his hypocrisy in his marriage to Maniammai, a Brahmin woman who was far younger than he was, at the age of 74. This was, Jayalakshmi tells me, also the reason C. N. Annadurai resigned from the Dravida Kazhagam to form the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. ‘E. V. R. (Periyar) changed his views according to convenience,’ Ritha states.
Finally, my interviewee Geetha points out that ideas about women were not really the ideas that really connected with Periyar’s audiences. ‘In those days, they gave hate speeches. People were either afraid or they were energised. If he wrote about women’s empowerment, that wasn’t the message that reached the masses.’
Stuart Hall and David Held noted that ‘citizenship has entailed a discussion of, and a struggle over, the meaning and scope of membership of the community in which one lives. Who belongs, and what does belonging mean in practice?’34 Geertz argues that the primordial sentiment required for community formation arises from the assumed ‘givens’ of social existence.35 Anderson argues that nationalist sentiment arises from an ‘imagined’ sense of community.36 Chatterjee goes on to contextualise the domain of the community in the spiritual or cultural realm.37 In the consideration of the scholarly body of work that locates the stirring of identity-based sentiment, one must again ask – whose identity did the Dravidian Movement represent, and how did it locate it?
In our collective memory, the community that the Dravidian movement represented was that of the anti-national Tamilian identity; that which was anti-Hindu; that which spoke Tamil, not Hindi; that which claimed the right to a separate state of Dravidanadu as opposed to being a part of the Indian Union.
The Dravidian movement argued that the Indian nationalist sentiment was constructed on the basis of Aryan, Brahminical Hindu sentiment. It argued that Brahminism was a philosophy that was the basis of Aryan dominance, in the subordination of the non-Brahmin on the basis of the varna system of the caste hierarchy, in terms of the purity/pollution discourse and the divided labour profiles. Brahminism subordinated women as well, due to the regulation of their sexualities in order to reproduce caste. To the Movement, the transfer of power from the British to the Indian represented the transfer of power from one coloniser to the other – from the white man to the Aryan Brahmin. It is also argued that the Dravidian claim in the spiritual domain was a means to rectify the distribution of wealth, power, and access in the material domain, which was primarily in the hands of the Brahmin.
While it certainly laid a claim to a particular identity, it is arguable that this identity was, in itself, constructed.
In the narratives of people I interviewed, they located themselves as Tamilian Brahmins. However, their own histories and memories are contingent upon their own location within the gender, caste, and class hierarchies of Tamil Nadu. Their own reading of their personal history cannot be located outside of the space of their own personhood. In their construction of the event, it was anti-Brahmin, and not anti-Brahminism. Despite its initial impetus and philosophy, the narratives and scholarly work I have read point towards the Brahmin figure as a ‘trope’ for all institutionalised forms of hierarchical power – that the Dravidian Movement devolved into a gain- seeking political movement against the Brahmin.
In this paper, in the presentation of the narratives of these five upper-caste women, I have not attempted to draw any conclusion on what the Movement truly stood for, or to identify what it should stand for in our memory today. Rather, I have attempted to look at how we construct our identities. How do we decide which history is the relevant and which is the irrelevant, which is the constructed and not constructed, in the formation of our identities? If the identity of the Hindu, the Brahmin, the non-Brahmin, the Aryan, the Dravidian, the Tamilian, the nationalist – if identities are all constructed, are they all to be considered irrelevant? What is to be considered history and myth, fact and fiction, identity politics and identity reclamation?
In the reconstruction and deconstruction of this history, I have come to conclude that all histories and identities are constructed, but not irrelevant. What counts as history is the idea that our own identity privileges, due to our position in the intersection of these various constructions.
To those of us who grew up outside Tamil Nadu, outside the political activity of the Dravidian Movement, the Dravidian Movement is a metaphor of anti-nationalism and Tamil chauvinism. For those who grew up within the identity that the Dravidian Movement seemed to fight for, it is a metaphor for a long-overdue assertion of identity, and a fight against hegemonic domination. For those who grew up outside the identity that the Dravidian Movement seemed to fight for, but within the political activity of the movement, it is a metaphor for a principled argument that turned into vote-bank politics. For those who seek to understand history, it can be seen to be a metaphor for the many intersecting narratives of contestation, of the terrain of struggle within which we attempt to construct our meaning and identity.
1 Menon, Nivedita. ‘How Natural is Normal? Feminism and Compulsory Heterosexuality.’ Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India. Eds. Arvind Narrain and Gautam Bhan. New Delhi: Yoda Press, 2005. 33. Print.
2 Butalia, Urvashi. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. New Delhi: Penguin, 1998. 10. Print.
3 Chakravarti, Uma. ‘Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi?: Orientalism, Nationalism, and a Script for the Past.’ Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History. Eds. Kumkum Sangaria and Suresh Vaid. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990. 27. Print.
4 Irshick, Eugene F. Politics and Social Conflict in South India: The Non-Brahmin Movement and Tamil Separatism 1916-1929. Berkley: University of California Press, 1969. p. 358-67. Print.
5 Unknown. Times of India. Unknown 1916. Print. Rpt. in New India. 2 January 1917. Print. Rpt. in Pandian, M.S.S. Brahmin and Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present. New Delhi: Permanent Blackman, 2007. 2. Print.
6 Geetha, V. ‘Gender and the Logic of Brahminism: Periyar and the Politics of the Female Body.’ From Myths to Markets. Eds. Kumkum Sangaria and Uma Chakravarti. New Delhi: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1999. 199. Print.
7 Pandian, M.S.S. Brahmin and Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present. New Delhi: Permanent Blackman, 2007. 56. Print.
8 Geetha, V. ‘Gender and the Logic of Brahminism: Periyar and the Politics of the Female Body.’ From Myths to Markets. Eds. Kumkum Sangaria and Uma Chakravarti. New Delhi: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1999. 201. Print.
9 Iyer, G. Subramania, Arya Jana Ikiyam Allathu Congress Mahasabhai (Unity of the Aryan People or the Congress Party). Madras: National Press, 1888. Print.
10 In the light of the fact that thirteen out of fifteen representatives from Madras Presidency in the All-India National Congress Committee of 1917 were Brahmins, the paper wrote: ‘This committee deserves therefore to be styled as the ‘All-India Agraharm Committee” and not the “All India Congress Committee.”’
‘Madras Native Newspaper Reports for the Week Ending 28 July 1917.’ Dravidian, 21 July 1917.
11 Muller, F. Max. Chips From a German Workshop, I. Rpt. in Chakravarti, Uma. ‘Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi?: Orientalism, Nationalism, and a Script for the Past.’ Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History. Eds. Kumkum Sangaria and Suresh Vaid. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990. 40. Print.
12 Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983. 5. Print.
13 Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and Its FragmentsL Colonial and Post-Colonial Histories. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992. 6. Print.
14 Though I refer to him as ‘Periyar’ throughout this paper, it is interesting to note that my interviewees never called him by this moniker, but referred to him as ‘E.V.R.’ or ‘E.Vee.Ra.’ I contend that this, too, can be located within their Brahmin identity.
15. Geetha, V. ‘Gender and the Logic of Brahminism: Periyar and the Politics of the Female Body.’ From Myths to Markets. Eds. Kumkum Sangaria and Uma Chakravarti. New Delhi: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1999. 205-206. Print.
16 Pandian, M.S.S. Brahmin and Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present. New Delhi: Permanent Blackman, 2007. 188. Print.
17 Pandian, M.S.S. Brahmin and Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present. New Delhi: Permanent Blackman, 2007. 208. Print.
18 Rangamannar, Komalavalli. Personal interview. 17 September 2015.
She was born C. Komalavalli in 1933 in Kanchipuram, is currently a resident of Chennai, Tamil Nadu.
19 Sarangapani, Jayalakshmi. Personal interview. 16 September 2015.
She was born C. Jayalakshmi in 1936 in Kanchipuram, and is currently a resident of Hyderabad, Telangana. She is also my grandmother.
20 Metcalf, Thomas R. Ideologies of the Raj, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 136. Print.
21 Sunday Observer, 22 March 1942
22 Pandian, M.S.S. Brahmin and Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present. New Delhi: Permanent Blackman, 2007. 232. Print.
23 Gopu, Surya. Personal interview. 17 September 2015.
She was born C. Surya in 1945 in Kanchipuram, and is currently a resident of Melbourne, Australia.
24 Vijayaraghavan, Geetha. Personal interview. 17 September 2015.
She was born C. Geetha in 1950 in Kanchipuram, and is currently a resident of Chennai, Tamil Nadu.
25 Rajan, Ritha. Personal interview. 17 September 2015.
She was born C. Ritha in 1948 in Kanchipuram, and is currently a resident of Chennai, Tamil Nadu.
26 Pandian, M.S.S. Brahmin and Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present. New Delhi: Permanent Blackman, 2007. 81. Print.
27 Bharati, Gopalakrishna. Nandanar Charitram. 19th century.
28 Pandian, M.S.S. Brahmin and Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present. New Delhi: Permanent Blackman, 2007. 72-76. Print.
29 Chakravarti, Uma. ‘Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi?: Orientalism, Nationalism, and a Script for the Past.’ Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History. Eds. Kumkum Sangaria and Suresh Vaid. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990. 28. Print.
30 Geetha, V. ‘Gender and the Logic of Brahminism: Periyar and the Politics of the Female Body.’ From Myths to Markets. Eds. Kumkum Sangaria and Uma Chakravarti. New Delhi: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1999. 201. Print.
31 Geetha, V. ‘Gender and the Logic of Brahminism: Periyar and the Politics of the Female Body.’ From Myths to Markets. Eds. Kumkum Sangaria and Uma Chakravarti. New Delhi: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1999. 201. Print.
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