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Changing Mores of the Dravidian Movement
N Sathiya Moorthy
16 May 2005

The 'Mother's Day' on Sunday, May 8, and the 'Akshaya Tritiya', or Akha Teej', falling on Wednesday, May 11 this year, may have marked a further turning-point in the traditional Dravidian mores. It had witnessed a revival and the peak through the 20th century Tamil Nadu, but evolving circumstances had begun rendering it inconsistent, redundant and irrelevant to the times in the last quarter. The two celebrations within a matter of three days in 2005, apart from proving to be further symbols of consumerism in the India of the 21st century, also turned out to be a reflection on the changing ethos of an evolving society, which one had once thought was beyond further change and evolution on the social and societal fronts.

Not that Indians as a whole, or the Tamils in particular, should not celebrate motherhood in the same way as the westerners do, but it's only in the last decade or so that the likes of the Mother's Day, and more so the Valentine's Day, have become a festive habit for the Dravidian youth - urban or rural, male or female. The white man had pitched his tent along the Coromandel Coast over five centuries ago, but he had not brought either the Valentine's Day with them, nor left the Mother's Day behind him. Nor did the westernized Indian generation adapt them either, though it was in the Dravidian heartland that the British Raj had founded its roots - militarily and administratively first, and politically and socially, later.

Compared to the Mother's Day, May Day, which celebrates the triumph of labour, has been here for decades now - and not just in Tamil Nadu. But then, the May Day has been losing much of its original charm and inspiration for the working class - organised or otherwise - in recent years. This is particularly so since the advent of the reforms era. The perceptible attitude-shift in public perception regarding approaches to life and lifestyle influencing such changes may require a deeper study.

That way, the Akshaya Tritiya becoming a day for every woman and every home across Tamil Nadu to purchase jewellery is an even more recent phenomenon. If it had been a low-key affair even the year before in metropolitan Chennai, this year it was preceded by weeks of media campaigns by individual jewellery marts -- across the State. Many of them also opened advance booking-counters for the day's purchases, and shops began doing brisk business even before the crack of dawn. 

As an aside, media reports quoting a local official of the World Gold Council in Chennai put five days of Akshaya Tritya-related gold sales in the State at 25-30 tonnes, valued at Rs 1,500-1,800 crores. This compares with the whole year's sale in 2004 for all of south India, and also the rich west Indian States of Maharashtra and Gujarat -- weighed totally at 15 tonnes. It should have been a revelation to the economist and the industry that so much of household money (not much of it hardcore savings) could be mobilized in a matter of days. 

It is not just about consumerism, or even the traditional Indian love for the yellow metal. Nor is it just about the kind of money that is available to expend in a matter of days, in a State that was stricken by years of drought. The economist could take note of the floating money, which could be canalized for development. To some, it's the kind of money, which ends up as unproductive, return-less 'dead investment' that in turn should be discouraged. Yet, in tradition-bound India, gold has got divinity and religiosity of a kind attached to it, with possession of the yellow metal seen as a sound and dependable investment, capable of being liquidated at a high premium.

The celebrations of the Mother's Day and the Akshya Tritiya kind have relevance to the Dravidian psyche in the changed circumstances. One, it has marked a departure from the 'Tamil social ethos', to which the Dravidian societal identity had been stapled for decades now. Two, it means the ready acceptance of 'celebrations' identified with the 'aliens', and unaccustomed to the locals. This is more so in the case of Akshya Tritiya, which only the once-much-despised 'Aryan-Brahmin' community in the State had known - and observed as a universal remembrance day for the departed family members, if at all.

These are instances pointing to a stagnation, if not reversal in anti-Brahminism, and also a possible restoration of symbols associated with the Brahmin community in 'Dravidian Tamil Nadu'. It is generally accepted that the Akshaya Tritiya had not been associated with gold-purchases until last year, or maybe the year before. For one thing, such stories have a genesis in the perceived practices of the North, which used to be another hated commodity in the Dravidian scheme of things until not very long ago. More importantly, even such beliefs, if proved to be tradition, would have been dismissed as 'superstition' (some of them associated with the Brahmin community) by the 'rationalist Dravidian movement' in another era.

Talking of Dravidian ethos and superstitions, it was only a year or two back that the whole of Tamil Nadu went on a shopping-spree for 'green-coloured saris', bright or light, Kancheepuram silk, or cheap cottons. The rumour had it that brothers needed to give away green-coloured saris to their sisters for the longevity of the latter's husband. It was superstition, pure and simple, but at the end of the year, the whole of Tamil Nadu had picked up close to one-crore green saris, totally priced at Rs 300-400 crores. This year too, a similar rumour on yellow or maroon-coloured saris began doing the rounds, but not many were fooled. 

Ahead of such rumours had come the story of Ganesha idols drinking milk. This had thrilled the Hindu community across the world as never before, and just for a day or less. There were many takers for the same in 'Dravidian Tamil Nadu' as well, what with many families in urban and rural areas having sons or siblings settled in western nations. Most of these overseas kin has had their education back home, and were holding hi-tech jobs in 'advanced nations' like the US.

In a way, it had begun in the early Seventies, only years after the Dravidian flag-bearer in the DMK had captured political power in Tamil Nadu. It was then that the annual pilgrimage to the hill shrine of Lord Ayyappa in Kerala came to be introduced to interior Tamil Nadu. Until then, the pilgrimage was a low-key affair restricted mostly to the regions bordering Kerala, that too to the southern districts that had formed part of the erstwhile princely State of Travancore, where the hill shrine is located. Soon it caught on, and became fashionable, until it had acquired the status of a family religious habit in most Tamil homes. 

Interestingly, at least a part of Lord Ayappa's introduction to the Tamil masses owed it to the earlier phases of the 'Dravidian campaign'. against the Hindu faith. Even while ridiculing the Ganesha, and asking when would the day come for them to blast off the Srirangam temple, the Dravidian leaders would pick on the mythology about Ayappa's birth. They mused, and amused themselves, as to how a child could be born out of a wedlock between two men - Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu, the latter in the Mohini avtar. 

It may not just be a coincidence that the 'black dress' of the Dravidian movement's followers was contemporaneous with the 'Black Shirts' of Adolf Hitler. Nor could it be argued that the militant anti-Brahminism of the former had not drawn from the 'ethnic-cleansing' against the Jewish population across Europe (which, of course, had preceded Hitler and his Nazi Party). Maybe because the Brahmins nearer home were seen as a 'lesser evil', or maybe because the Dravidian movement had no access to back-up political power at the peak of its advent, acceptance and spread, militancy against the community had stopped with cutting off their tuft and sacred thread. A third reason could be the need for social moderation when political power became an obsession. 

Today, in contrast, the 'black shirt' of the Dravidian movement from the days of 'Periyar' E V Ramaswamy Naicker is better known as the traditional attire of the Sabarimala pilgrim during his annual 41-day abstinence period. Better still, it's in Tamil Nadu of the late 20th century, and not in Kerala, that the 'black dress' of the Ayappa devotee became popular, first. More black, and alternate saffron dress for the pilgrims sell now in Tamil Nadu in a year or less than through decades of Dravidian glory. What more, no one now talks about the equality of women, as used to be the Dravidian wont at one time, what with the Sabarimala laws precisely restricting their participation to the 'non-reproductive' age-group.

Compared to the Sabarimala pilgrimage, the advent of the annual Ganesh festival, on the lines of the more popular ones across Maharashtra, is a late entrant to Tamil Nadu's socio-political scene. 'Political' because the exercise was introduced by the 'Hindutva brigade' long before the phrase itself had gained currency in the region, and the traditional Dravidian forces, in power and out of it, were vociferous in their criticism and strident in their efforts to stall them, year after year. If anything, this only helped the 'Ganesha movement' to spread and grow at a faster pace than possibly envisaged. Of course, neither Ganesh, nor the annual Ganesh, popularly known as Pillaiyar in the State, is new to Tamil Nadu. But it was only in the late Seventies and early Eighties that the 10-day long street-corner celebrations became known, along with the end-day visarjan in the sea or other water bodies. 

There is now greater moderation on both sides, which in a way is an acceptance of each other's presence on the horizon. Yet, the fact that the revival of the cult of the 'elephant god', which used to be another butt of criticism, joke and homily for the Dravidian movement even as late as the early Seventies, should acquire ready acceptance across a wider and larger segment of the Tamil population is also a yardstick for measuring the changing mores of the society. If anything, the clock has come a full circle, and there is more religion and religiosity across the State now than possibly before the 'Periyar movement' broke on the scene some 60 or 70 years back.

For all this however, the emaciated Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), now under K Veeramani, a political and familial heir of Periyar, continues to be a social organisation, training its guns against 'brahminism' even while selectively backing a Brahmin Chief Minister like Jayalalithaa, in her acts of 'anti-brahminism'. In a way, Jayalalithaa's emergence as the 'supreme leader' of the Dravidian movement, despite her Brahmin background, is seen as an end of 'Dravidian' social supremacy in the political affairs of the State. In an intervention in the State Assembly during her first term as Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa described her ascendancy as the 'ultimate stage in the evolution' of the Dravidian movement. 'Evolution', or 'parinaama-valarchchi', a derivative-phrase in Tamil coined by the Dravidian movement, which continues to be a favourite term of Dravidian scholars like DMK president M Karunanidhi. That was also the term that Jayalalithaa had used, with confidence and purpose. 

Before Jayalalithaa, the AIADMK founder and popular Tamil film star, the late M G Ramachandran, was a Malayali by birth. However, the DMK could not spur 'anti-Malayali feelings' on this score when he walked out of the party as it had done with 'anti-Brahmin feelings' in an earlier era. That way, even Periyar was a Kannadiga by birth, and at the height of the 'Malayali controversy' surrounding MGR, his AIADMK supporters floated a theory that 'pachchai Tamizhan' Karunanidhi was had Telugu origins. In the current generation, MDMK General Secretary Vaiko, who is seen by many as more Tamil than most, including Karunanidhi, is a Telugu by birth, and is believed to feel more comfortable in the language while in family circles.

Education and employment, apart from the passage of time since the inception and evolution of the Dravidian movement have all contributed to this change in attitudes. What is now acknowledged as the 'Dravidian movement' has had origins in the 'non-Brahmin movement' of the Justice Party variety and the like in the first quarter of the 20th century. A single-agenda organization, the Justice Party served out its purpose after coming to power in the then Madras Presidency, by introducing reservations in education and employment in the Government service through two "Communal G.O's", of 1921 and 1924. Not long after came the Government take-over of most temples and temple lands, often identified with the Brahmin community at the time.

Having served out its agenda while in power, and given the evolving socio-political climate in which Gandhiji's Congress was displacing local movements of the kind, the Justice Party became redundant after a time. It had to await the re-discovery by Periyar a decade later, when the Congress itself had acquired political power under the Government of India Act of 1935, and was seen as closer to serving out its own 'one-point agenda' of Independence. Whatever social agendas that the Dravidian movement had managed to revive through greater militant-posturing in matters concerning 'Brahmins and their gods' were served out when what is now commonly accepted as 'anti-incumbency factor' against the Congress Government of the day, contributed to the elevation of the DMK to power in a geo-politically shrunken Tamil Nadu of 1967. 

Much of the 'Dravidian agenda' was served out with the advent of the Dravidian political-power. Adding strength to the argument would be the 1972 split in the DMK, which until then was only an 'umbrella organisation' of Tamil nationalist-rationalist forces - precisely as the Congress was one on a larger plane until Independence was achieved. The immediate purpose and agenda having been served, the inherent deficiencies and differences within such umbrella organizations had to come out, and that's also what happened to the Congress after Independence, and to the DMK after 1967. Yet, to their credit, it should be said that the DMK and the AIADMK between them have managed to retain politico-electoral power since, to the exclusion of other social and political ideologies. Political power in a democracy has also meant moderation, and inclusion of larger sections, as the more strident BJP too found out after coming to power at the Centre decades later. This, coupled with the distance in time and consequent emotional-linkages, has also robbed the Dravidian movement of its greater relevance as used to be the case. 

The inevitable exposure of such inherent weaknesses in the Dravidian movement again is reflected in the emergence of other social groups, and their political parties, like the PMK, identified with the numerously-strong Vanniar community. Earlier, the Vanniar community had identified with the DMK, until it felt sidelined in the internal scheme of the party. It should thus surprise none that the AIADMK is identified similarly with the equally militant Mukkulathore community in the South. If at one stage the Scheduled Castes and Tribes in the State had seen the Congress as its saviour, and shifted allegiance to the AIADMK for some time, today, there is a spurt of social organizations and political parties promoting the interests of differing denominations of the Dalit community. Today, the very acceptance of the Hindi term 'Dalit' for referring to the 'untouchables', whom the Dravidian leaders had resented calling as 'Harijans', a term coined by Gandhiji, should be another symbol of the evolutionary process.

Starting from the chief ministership of the late Congress leader Kamaraj, full 13 years before the DMK came to power, Tamil Nadu had begun witnessing socio-political changes on the education and employment fronts, to which the Indian Independence too had contributed in a small measure. If anything, the attainment of Independence meant that the nation was ready for the next national agenda, which should be and turned out to be an internal affair, focusing on socio-economic reforms. Yet, it was only States like Tamil Nadu that had evolved enough on the socio-political front, to be able to exploit the emerging situation. It was also thus that the DMK, when formed after a rift in Periyar's Dravidian movement in1949, could marginalize the Communist Party, which at one time was seen as an emerging functional alternative to the Congress in the region.

Early education under the British rulers may have helped Tamil Nadu to kick-start employment-related issues in the form of 'reservations' long before Independence became visible. Greater educational opportunities for the downtrodden classes, first under the 'Kamaraj rule', when free education and free mid-day meals became the order for school children, and then under the 'Dravidian rule' of the DMK and the AIADMK, have created a new awareness among larger sections of the society. Now communities are learning that the Brahmins alone might not have been their only, or immediate 'curse', after all. Definitely, 'Brahminism' was at the top of the social and administrative pecking order, and needed to be demolished if the 'percolation effort' were to be induced. This in turn has led to the revelation that for the lowest of the low in the State, their 'greater curse' comes in the form of immediately superior, or dominant caste in individual villages and taluks. There is diffidence on the one hand, and demand for greater employment opportunities, on the other. 

The birth of a new generation under new socio-economic conditions, and their own education has meant the advent and acceptance of new ideas, and often the dumping of old concepts and perceptions - either consciously, or otherwise. Tamil Nadu today turns out 75,000 engineering graduates and doctors each year, not to mention thousands of graduates and post-graduates in other streams. The 'passive influence' of the media in effecting the change-over, and reflecting the same, too cannot be overlooked in this context. Hindi serials 'speaking Tamil' on Doordarshan in the early days of television explosion might have contributed to the average Tamil youth and housewife giving up the politically-induced resistance to anything from the North of an earlier generation. 

Today, even road-side shops in small hamlets sport the Valentine's Day cards, and their natives studying in engineering colleges in the bigger towns greet their 'Moms' on the Mother's Day - on their mobiles. While the Sabarimala pilgrimage, with its abstinence-component built in to it, has become a way of life for many Tamil homes, and the Ganesh festival, or Vinayaka Chathurthi, too has come to stay with certain moderation and modifications compared to the militant advent of the Seventies, 'Akshaya Tritiya' has become a new fad. 

Once steeped in culture and tradition, the average Tamil is not overly concerned about remembering his dead on the Akshya Tritiya, if at all that's the significance of the day. Instead, their women now crowd jewellery shops on a day that would have been considered inappropriate and inauspicious even by the religiously-minded and superstition-conscious sections of the populace until not very long ago. There are also larger crowds in temples across the State on the New Year Day by the Georgian calendar than on the Tamil New Year Day, which anyway is a crowd-puller in its own right. All of this goes to add strength to the argument that the larger Tamil community, and also the Dravidian movement, which has played catalyst to the socio-political evolution in the region, has come a full circle in the past century - which could be correctly described as the 'Dravidian century'.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.