Mu Ka: The Politician-Poet...


...or is it the poet-politician? Making a distinction for the legendary heart of Tamil pride is difficult, as he seemed more gleeful in the company of intellectuals than in the Assembly

G Ulaganathan

G Ulaganathan

The author is a senior journalist based in Bangalore and has worked with two major English dailies, the Indian Express and Deccan Herald, He is also a visiting professor to a number of universities and colleges and writes for NYT. Currently, he is Bureau Chief (South) of Parliamentarian

“April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land…

So goes the opening lines of the famous literary masterpiece `The Waste Land’ by TS Eliot. Had he been living today, perhaps he would have started his work by saying “August is the cruellest month….

August has been a month of disasters—be it the death of eminent men like VS Naipaul, Kofi Annan, Somnath Chatterjee, Ajit Wadekar, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, so on—or the unprecedented natural calamity that has paralysed life in Kerala and Kodagu in Karnataka.

The passing away of three Titans in Indian politics, Atal Behari Vajpayee in the North and Karunanidhi in the south and Somnath Chatterjee in the East, has had the whole of India mourning during the entire month.

Both Vajpayee and Karunanidhi had many things in common. They were the fulcrum around which their parties, Jan Sangh /BJP and DMK revolved for over half a century. And both were poets, apart from being able administrators. Men of letters in their own languages, Hindi and Tamil.

Born Dakshinamoorthy on 3 June 1924 in the remote village of Thirukuvalai in Nagapattinam District, Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi had a chequered life and career. He became Chief Minister of Madras state for the first time in 1969. And on 13 May 2006, he became the Chief Minister for the fifth time, this time for the state of Tamil Nadu (Madras state was renamed Tamil Nadu during his chief ministership). Karunanidhi was more interested in drama, poetry, and literature during his school days and was completely engaged in social movements by the time he was 14.

The Kallakudi agitation (1953) was his stepping stone to a long political life. The original name of this industrial city near Tiruchirapalli was Kallakudi. Dalmiyas, who set up a cement plant here, is from North India and with the concurrence of the then Congress government in Tamil Nadu, changed the original name Kallakkudi to Dalmiyapuram.

The DMK opposed the name change as it was seen as North Indian oppression of Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi and his comrades put up posters against the name “Dalmiyapuram” in the railway station name board and blocked the passage of trains.

The tension that built up led to two people dying in police firing and Karunanidhi was arrested.

The original name was restored and there was no looking back for this young man, who was also given the title `Kallakudivendran’ (one who won Kallakudi).

As his political graph started rising, with support and encouragement from two other giants of the Dravidian movement, EVR Periyar and CN Annadorai, Karunanidhi started riding on two horses, politics and literature and arts. Karunanidhi began his career as a screenwriter in the Tamil film industry. He was famous for writing historical and social (reformist) stories which propagated the socialist and rationalist ideals of the Dravidian movement to which he belonged.

The Tamil film `Parasakthi’ was a turning point in Tamil cinema, as it espoused the ideologies of the Dravidian movement and also introduced two prominent actors of Tamil filmdom, Sivaji Ganesan and SS Rajendran. The movie was initially banned but was eventually released in 1952.

It was a huge box office hit, but opposed by orthodox Hindus since it contained elements that criticised Brahmanism. Karunanidhi is known for his contributions to Tamil literature. They cover a wide range: poems, letters, screenplays, novels, biographies, historical novels, stage-plays, dialogues and movie songs.

He went on to write over 100 books and thousands of essays in his party organ, the Murasoli daily. His popular editorial in which he fondly addressed his partymen as ‘udanpirappe’ (dear brothers) kept lakhs of his partymen eagerly waiting for the copy of Murasoli every morning for nearly 76 years. (Last year the paper celebrated the 75th year of its publication).

The Litterateur

Some of the well-known books written by Karunanidhi include Sanga Thamizh, Thirukkural Urai, Ponnar Sankar, Romapuri Pandian, Thenpandi Singam, Nenjukku Needhi, IniyavaiIrubathu and Kuraloviam.

Karunanidhi’s stage plays include: Manimagudam, Ore Ratham, Palaniappan, Thooku Medai, Kagithapoo, Naane Arivali, Vellikizhamai, Udhayasooriyan and Silappathikaram, many of them later made into movies.

Interestingly, though he was known as an atheist, in his last years, he had written the story and screenplay on Sri Ramanujacharya and is presently being telecast in his Tamil TV channel, Kalaigner TV.

Slightly Red!

He was also greatly influenced by Communist philosophy.

“If I had not met EVR and Anna, I would have become a hard-core Communist,” he would often say.

He had strong bond with the Communist leaders like Jyoti Basu, Mohan Kumaramangalam, Kalyanasundaram and so on.

Says Prof Suba Veerapandian, a DK leader (he is now the general secretary of the DravidaIyakha Tamizhar Peravai) and a close friend of the late leader: “One of his earliest protests were in support of famers in Tamil Nadu, which was started by the Communists in Tamil Nadu. It was called `Nangavaram Uzhavar Porattam (farmers protest in a place called Nangavaram) seeking higher wages for farmers ploughing the fields. “He continued to fight for the downtrodden along with the comrades belonging to both the communist parties. In fact, he was the one who first declared May Day as a public holiday and also changed the name of a famous park in Chennai, Simpson Park to May Day Park,” adds Suba Veerapandian, who is himself a well-known Tamil scholar and is a much sought after leader for Tamil TV debates. He had great regard for Communist leaders from across the country and maintained close contacts with leaders like Sitaram Yechuri and Prakash Karat.

Suba Veerapandian also gives us interesting information; “Karunanidhi strongly supported the late West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu for prime ministership in 1996, when the Third Front was all set to form the government. Unfortunately, Basu could not become PM as the party did not back him. So, Karunanidhi proposed Deve Gowda’s name and he became the PM”.

The only time he felt upset with the Communists in Tamil Nadu was when they supported MGR, who had broken away from DMK and formed his own party. He felt betrayed by leaders like Mohan Kumaramangalam and Kalyanasundaram, both of whom won the elections with DMK support.

Lifelong Legislator

At the age of 33, Karunanidhi entered the Tamil Nadu assembly, winning the Kulithalai seat in the 1957 elections. And he remained undefeated until the time of his death.

He was regular at the Assembly whenever it was in session and his ready wit and wisecracks inside the House are plenty. Only in the last two terms, during Jayalalitha’s government he avoided going to the Assembly. Confined to a wheel chair, his party wanted some special seating arrangement for him inside the house but the Speaker, after taking instructions from Jaya, bluntly refused. So, he stayed away with a lot of regret.. He has been elected to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly 13 times (from 1957 to 2016 elections) and once to the now abolished Tamil Nadu Legislative Council.

Ram Setu

He was a close ally of the Congress and took potshots at BJP often, though he had a liking for Modi and interacted with him often when both were CMs.

In response to the Sethusamudram controversy, Karunanidhi questioned the existence of the Hindu God Rama. He said: ‘It is said there was a God thousands of years ago called Ram. Do not touch the bridge built by him. I ask who this Ram is. Which engineering college did he graduate from?” His remarks caused a firestorm of controversy.

Says Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former Governor of West Bengal and a respected scholar himself: “Mu Ka has dominated the Dravidian movement as unrivalled, as unsurpassed. He has seen it through a national emergency, President’s Rule, the obloquy of financial scandals, the fluctuating fortunes of elections. He has seen it all. Superstition, discrimination, north-centrism and the undermining of the federal structure have been challenged by him as by no one else.”

Far Passage

It is a strange coincidence that he passed away on the 77th death anniversary of Poet Rabindranath Tagore who was one of his favourite writers whom he often quoted in his works.August 7, in 1941 and in 2018, saw the beginning of a long-winded funeral and mourning of two legends’ death.

Karunanidhi used to say in private that he enjoyed being amidst poets and literary personalities rather than the mundane cabinet meetings. One can see a very cheerful, laughing Karunanidhi when he was with the poets or the personalities from the film industry.

No wonder that his death has created a big void not only in Tamil Nadu politics but in Tamil language and its literature as well.


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