Chennai, August 7 (The Hindu/D.B.S. Jeyaraj): Muthuvel Karunanidhi, former Chief Minister of the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu and President of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), film script writer, Tamil scholar and champion of social equality, passed away at a private hospital in Chennai on Tuesday after a prolonged illness. He was 94.
The end came at 6.10 p.m., hours after the Kauvery Hospital announced that he was “extremely critical” and “unstable”. Mr. Karunanidhi was under treatment at the hospital after his health suffered a setback to his health past midnight on July 28 at his Gopalapuram residence.
Before being moved to the hospital, the nonagenarian leader was suffering from fever and infection for the past few days and was treated round-the-clock by a team of doctors and nursing personnel at his house.
Mr. Karunanidhi fell ill in October 2016 due to a drug-induced allergy. The veteran leader was admitted to the hospital for “optimisation of nutrition and hydration” in the first week of December 2016 and later, for a throat and lung infection.
He had undergone tracheostomy, a procedure to optimise breathing.
Since then he was staying away from active politics and made only a few public appearances, the last one on June 3, 2018, when he turned 94.
On July 28, the day he was moved to the hospital, he entered his 50th year as DMK president.
Mr. Karunanidhi was born on June 3, 1924, at Thirukuvalai, now in Nagapattinam district (then in the composite Tanjore district) and did his schooling in nearby Tiruvarur. His father Muthuvel was a nagaswaram player and his mother Anjugam, a housewife.
Sri Lankan journalist DBS.Jeyaraj writes: Known widely as “Kalaignar”(artiste), Karunanidhi had been leader of the DMK since 1969 and served as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for a total of 19 years.
The nonagenarian “Kalaignar” who celebrated his 94th birthday on June 3, had held office as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister five times from 1969 to 1971; 1971 to 1976; 1989 to 1991; 1996 to 2001; and 2006 to 2011.
Karunanidhi’s health had been on the decline since 2016.The silver tongued orator renowned for his powerful speeches over the years had been “silenced” due to a speech impairment.
His movements too were restricted and had to be pushed around in a wheel chair. Still he was receiving and meeting dignitaries and also visiting the DMK party office “Arivaalayam” (Temple of Knowledge) from time to time.
Karunanidhi remained the party leader, a post he had held for more than 49 years.
While Karunanidhi remained as “de jure” DMK leader, his son MK Stalin functioned as the “de-facto” leader and heir apparent in his capacity as “Seyal Thalaiver” or Working Leader.
Thousands of DMK members and supporters from all over Tamil Nadu had flocked to the hospital premises mounting vigil over their leaders health. They kept chanting “Neendu Vaazhha Thalaivar” (live long leader) and “Meendu Vaa Thalaiva,” (come back leader).
There had been widespread outpourings of grief in the state and despite the “atheist/agnostic/rationalist” ethos of the Dravidian movement, special poojas seeking the blessings of the Amighty had been conducted in different places of worship.
A very large number of Indian political leaders, including Indian Vice-President Venkiah Naidu, Defence minister Nirmala Sitaraman and Congress party chief Rahul Gandhi had visited Kauvery hospital.
Many others including Prime minister Narendra Modi kept inquiring about the DMK leader’s physical condition. Many eminent personalities issued statements and tweets expressing concern over Karunanidhi’s health.
In Tamil Nadu despite deep political differences there is a genuine consensus of concern over the DMK patriarch’s health.
India’s Elder Statesman
Whatever may be his faults and foibles in his colorful yet chequered political past, Muttuvel Karunanidhi was no ordinary politico but a veritable political institution.
Although the patriarch of Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu state, the veteran politician Karunanidhi was arguably India’s elder statesman.
He was first elected to the State Legislative Assembly in 1957 and had not lost an election since. No Indian politician can boast of such an unbroken record. He had been at the helm of the DMK for 49 years leading the party through thick and thin.
He was dismissed as state Chief Minister twice by the central Government of India. His party was defeated several times at the polls. On one occasion Karunanidhi was the sole victor from his party at the Assembly polls. In spite of all these setbacks the indefatigable Karunanidhi had always bounced back.
His ardent supporters would fervently hope that their leader would once again “return” this time too.
Karunanidhi was born on June 3rd 1924 in the village of Thirukkuvalai now in the Thiruvaaroor district of Tamil Nadu. His parents Muttuvel and Anjugam were of Isai Vaelaalar stock. The Isai Vaelaalar community had been historically a talented artistic community. Some of India’s greats in the spheres of music,dance,drama and cinema hail from this caste group.
Karunanidhi’s given name at birth was Daksinamoorthy.He later changed the “Sanskritized” Dakshinamoorthy to the more Tamil sounding Karunanidhi (though that was also Sanskrit!).
His foray into active politics was in 1938 when he participated in an anti-Hindi agitation at the age of 14. He formed a student political organization while a high school student and started the journal “Murasoli”(Drum Beat) which still remains as the DMK flagship newspaper.
Karunanidhi quit secondary school studies and became a political activist while working freelance for newspapers and contributing articles. He also became a stage actor and playwright. Later he ventured into films as a script writer.
This brought him much recognition and more remuneration which helped him greatly to carve out a name for himself as a politician. He was a versatile, multi-talented writer and stage actor.
It was the well-known actor M.R.Radha who bestowed upon him the title “Kalaignar”(artiste) when the drama “Thookumaedai”(Gallows) was staged for the 100th time. Karunanidhi wrote and acted in the play.
“Kalaignar” Karunanidhi developed a writing style for cinema that was flowery and alliterative(adukku Mozhi), and soon became very popular. His reputation had producers advertising their movies by proclaiming, “Story and Dialogue by ” Kalaignar Mu. Karunanidhi”. When film titles were projected in the cinema halls, his name would be shown ahead of the stars and greeted with applause.
There were others to follow Karunanidhi in both content and style from the DMK camp — Aasaithamby, Krishnaswamy, Maaran and Kannadasan etc. But Karunanidhi was the master in that genre surpassing even his mentor and leader Annadurai.
Screenplay and Dialogues
Karunanidhi had written the screenplay and dialogues for over 60 films.The first two films he wrote scripts for were “Rajakumari” and “Abhimanyu”. However Karunanidhi was not credited for those films. It was his third film “Marutha Naattu Ilavarasi” released in 1950, for which Karunanidhi was first credited as script writer in the titles.
Among the films scripted by Karunanidhi are Manthiri Kumari, Parasakthi, Manamahal, Panam, Manohara, Thirumbi paar, Malaikkallan, Pudumaippithan, Kuravanji, Raja Rani, Arasilankumari, Iruvar Ullam, Rangoon Radha, Pudaiyal, Kaanchi Thalaivan, Poompuhaar, Poomaalai, Avan Pithanaa, Marakka Mudiyumaa, Pillaiyo Pillai, Paalaivana Rojakkal,Uliyin Oasai and Ponnar Shankar.
It is said that he received 3000 rupees for his first film. However in later years he got up to Rs.7.5 million to script a film.
Kalaignar also formed a film company called Mekala Pictures in partnership with others and produced several films. Later his nephew and former Indian Cabinet Commerce minister “Murasoli” MK Maaran took over the company. In addition to being a script writer and playwright, Karunanidhi had also written film songs. He was also a reputed creative writer having written many novels and short stories.
He was also well-known for explaining classical Tamil literature in elegant yet simple prose. Two of his outstanding works are “Kuraloaviyam” and “Sangath Thamizh”.He had also written a four -part autobiography named “Nenjukku Neethi”.
Interestingly Karunanidhi’s family has had and continues to maintain close links with the Tamil film industry. Apart from Karunanidhi, his nephew and former cabinet minister Murasoli Maran, who is no more, was also a former film script writer. Maran’s brother Amirtham was a cinematographer. Maran’s sons Kalanidhi and Dayanidhi are co-owners of the “Sun” TV network . They also produce films under the banner “Sun Pictures”.
Karunanidhi’s son and heir apparent M.K. Stalin too has dabbled in acting, as the hero of a TV serial “Kurinji Malar”. Stalin’s son Udhayanidhi is both a successful film producer as well as actor who has played the hero in many Tamil films. His wife Krithika directs films.
Karunanidhi’s younger son Thamizharasu’s son Arulnidhi has made his mark as lead actor in some films. Elder son Azhaghiri’s son Dayanidhi is a film producer and distributor. Karunanidhi’s eldest son MK Muthu also had a short lived film career as an actor-singer. Moreover the DMK chief’s “second wife” Rajathi was a stage actor who got involved with Karunanidhi as his “Thunaivi” (companion) when acting in dramas penned by Kalaignar. Their daughter Kanimozhi who is a Rajya Sabha MP is the owner of “Kalaignar TV.
If cinema and politics are inter-twined in Tamil Nadu then Karunanithi’s family seems to be immersed in both.
Although Karunanidhi is known nowadays as a political leader(and rightly so) there is no denying that it was his association with films that gave him the necessary popularity with the masses of Tamil Nadu.
This is due to the peculiar course of politics in Tamil Nadu where the influence of cinema on politics has been of a phenomenal nature. Popular film personalities have enjoyed great support among the masses.
Unlike in north India, Tamil Nadu film personalities served as an integral component of their parties. In most cases, they were the ‘axles’ around whom their party wheel revolved.
Significantly, from 1967, most Chief Ministers in Tamil Nadu have had connections to the silver screen – Annadurai,Karunanidhi,M.G.Ramachandran,Janaki Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa Jayaram.The exceptions have been the current Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswamy and earlier O. Panneerselvam nominated as “caretaker” CM on three occasions.
With a population of more than 70 million , Tamil Nadu has the third highest literacy rate among the states of India. The state is also home to India’s original rationalist movement, started by E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker (Periyar).
Known as the Suyamariyaathai lyakkam, or self-respect movement, it promoted healthy political protest against caste oppression, the imposition of Hindi as the national language and superstition in religion. Periyar also founded the Dravida Kazhagham or Dravidian Party in 1943, to which both today’s ruling party All -India Anna -Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham(AIADMK) and chief opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham(DMK) trace their lineage.
In spite of this “Dravidian” heritage of rationalism and self-respect, it is Tamil Nadu that has allowed film stars to exercise political hegemony like no other. How this situation came about is a bizarrely unique story.
Struggle for Indian Independence
The involvement of popular artistes in Indian politics dates back to the struggle for Indian independence. Back then it was more a case of singers, musicians and drama artistes involving themselves at a provincial level, where explicit and implicit messages extolling the virtues of Mahatma Gandhi and independence were conveyed to the audience.
Social reform was also advocated. Congress party leader Sathiyamurthy was one who recognized the political potential of actors and singers and began utilizing their services in the Tamil speaking areas of the former Madras presidency. The singer-actor KB Sundarambal and the TKS Brothers Drama troupe being glittering examples in this sphere.
The message of Swarajya was projected through song recitals, street dramas, folk theater, stage plays and later through silent and “talkie”films.
Logic gave way to patriotism in many instances. For example the mythological film “Sathi Anasuya” had women of the Puranic era weave “Khadar” on the hand loom in keeping with Mahatma Gandhi’s tenets.
As the film industry bloomed, some films were perceived by the erstwhile British rulers as possessing seditious content. The authorities clamped down on some “objectionable” films, a notable example being the Tamil film Thyaga Bhoomi (Land of Sacrifice) made in 1938. It was written originally for the screen by “Kalki” Krishnamurthy and serialized in the Tamil journal Ananda Vikatan. The film directed by K. Subramanyam spoke eloquently against oppression of women as well as against British rule.
The advent of Independence in 1947 and the early post-Independence years saw cinema and politics take different directions in North India. Though there was some political content in certain movies, there was no overt politicization. Likewise, a few North Indian movie stars did get involved in politics but never played a pivotal role. In recent times many actors North of the Vindhyas have been involved in election campaigns. Several have been elected MPs with a few becoming Ministers too.
To generalize , Northern film stars are essentially “ornaments” for the respective political parties and not decision makers wielding real power.
However, in South India, and particularly in Tamil Nadu, politics and cinema have been inextricably intertwined in a big way. The larger-than-life image of actors like N.S. Krishnan, M.G. Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, SS Rajendran N.T. Rama Rao, and Jayalalitha, dominated the political scene. As stated earlier political leaders like former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and his mentor and predecessor C.N. Annadurai also came in from careers in cinema, as screenplay and dialogue writers.
Dravidian Consciousness and Ideology
The role of cinema in the political history of Tamil Nadu provides interesting insights into present-day developments. The politics of Tamil Nadu for the past 75 years has been pervaded by notions of the Aryan-Dravidian divide. This concept itself is not very scientific and has been greatly mythologized. Nevertheless, this Dravidian consciousness and ideology has helped politicize significant sections of the Tamil masses and has sustained whole political parties and movements.
According to its proponents, the original inhabitants of India were the Dravidians and it was the invading Aryans who took over the north and pushed the Dravidians southward. In addition, the Aryans also imposed their caste structure on the Dravidians, who had until then a classless society. This hierarchy placed the Brahmins on top. Dravidian ideologues maintained that Tamil Brahmins were not Tamil even though they spoke the language, but were alien Aryan relics. While its social reform platform was quite progressive, the Dravidian movement’s crude version of the Aryan-Dravidian interface and its venomous antipathy towards Tamil Brahmins left much to be desired.
Socio-historical reasons had enabled the Brahmins to remain the ruling elite in the state. They were better educated and dominated most fields, including the professions. In addition there was the stamp of authority provided by orthodox Hinduism. The emerging non-Brahmin elites chose to adopt the Dravidian ideology to overthrow what they saw as Brahminic hegemony. The clearly perceived position of power that the numerically inferior Brahmins enjoyed, made them vulnerable targets. The democratic process made easy the mobilization of non-Brahmin caste groups on the basis of the Dravidian ideology.
Dravidian languages are 19 in all, of which Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Tulu and Kannada are the most prominent. Interestingly, there were few takers for the “Dravidian” ideology among the other South Indian states of Andhra Pradesh (Telugu), Kerala (Malayalam) and Karnataka (Kannada). However, it took firm root in Tamil Nadu.
The original political demand of the Dravidian parties was a Dravidian state comprising present-day Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. It later modified itself into a secessionist movement, focused on Tamil Nadu alone.
It was only after the 1962 war with China that the DMK dropped its separatist demand in the interests of national unity and security. It now agitates for greater autonomy within the Indian union.
Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK)
The DMK was born in post-independence India. Karunanidhi’s ascendancy in politics basically corresponded with that of the DMK’s rise in TamilNadu. The parent Dravidian movement of the DMK was the Dravida Kazhagham (DK) founded by E,V.Ramaswamy Naicker known as “Periyaar” (great person) .It was opposed to participation in politics.
But Periyar was autocratic. A group of dissidents, including Karunanidhi, revolted under the leadership of Conjeevaram Natarajan Annadurai and formed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) in 1949. Starting out as a social reform movement, the DMK later decided that change was impossible without capturing political power through democratic means.
In 1957, the DMK decided to enter electoral politics and secured 15 seats in the State assembly and two in the Indian Parliament. In 1962, the figure went up to 50 in the State assembly and eight in Parliament. 1967 saw it capture power for the first time when it got 138 out of the 234 seats in the State. The DMK also won all the seats (25) it contested for the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament).
Annadurai became Chief Minister. He changed the name of the State from the previous Madras to the present Tamil Nadu (Tamil Country/Land). Annadurai died in 1969.He was succeeded by Karunanidhi who was earlier the Public Works Minister.
In 1971, the party registered a landslide victory when it captured 184 seats in the state and 23 in Parliament. The party seemed invincible.
But 1972 saw a major split. The DMK’s chief vote gatherer and matinee idol Maruthoor Gopalamenon Ramachandran, or MGR, broke away from the party and floated his own that year. He named it after Annadurai and called it Anna DMK. It was later changed to All India Anna-DMK.
MGR’s party won three elections in succession, securing 125 seats in 1977, 130 in 1980 and 125 in 1984. Karunanidhi had to remain content as Opposition Leader for 11 years. When MGR died in 1987 December, his wife Janaki succeeded him. But the government fell after one month, due to Congress machinations.
With MGR’s leading lady and then propaganda secretary Jayalalitha also staking her claim to party leadership, a split resulted. In 1989, a divided ADMK contested as two factions led by Janaki and Jayalalitha. The Janaki faction (one seat) was trounced by Jayalalitha (24 seats) but the DMK under Karunanidhi romped home as the winner.
After Rajiv Gandhi’s death, the Jayalalitha-Congress combine routed the DMK in 1991. Only its leader, Karunanidhi, managed to win. In 1996, the DMK was returned to power and retained it till 2001.Jayalalithaa returned to power in 2001 and was de-throned by Karunanidhi and the DMK in 2006.
The wheel turned again in 2011 and Jayalalithaa became Chief Minister. She followed it up by winning again in 2016. However she fell ill and passed away in December that year.
Her arch rival Karunanidhi too had begun to decline in health since 2016.
Karunanidhi’s Son M.K.Stalin
The DMK was not doing well either. Karunanidhi’s son M. K. Stalin has donned the leadership mantle but there are strong doubts whether he can deliver. The recent RK Nagar by-election was a shock to the DMK. It was expected that the DMK would win because the AIADMK votes were split among the official candidate and the dissident independent candidate. In spite of split votes, the independent candidate came first and AIADMK candidate second. DMK finished a poor third. Of course the “cash for votes” syndrome was rampant.
Attempts by smaller parties including the leftists to form a common front as a third alternative failed miserably at the 2016 polls. Casteist and parochial parties have a community vote bank but are unable to transcend those barriers.
The BJP and Congress have again and again demonstrated that their national appeal does not work in Tamil land. Against that backdrop it is felt that a political leadership vacuum exists in the state. There is a need for change from 50 years of Dravidian politics.