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Updated: April 20, 2010 15:50 IST

A stalwart of the Dravidian movement

A. R. VENKATACHALAPATHY
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C. N. Annadurai (1909–1969), with a balding pate, tobacco-stained teeth, stubble chin and a captivating husky voice, stood barely five feet and two inches. But he strode Tamil Nadu politics like a colossus. Anna, as he is widely known, harnessed the ideas and energies unleashed by his mentor Periyar E.V. Ramasamy and securely accommodated Tamil nationalism within the Indian nation-state. His imprint on the Tamil language, both in print and on the platform, was distinct, with numerous emulators and imitators. Unfortunately, Anna has been ill-served by biographers. For want of a competently written biography in English, the non-Tamil readers were hugely handicapped in understanding the man who made a lasting impact on Indian politics. In bringing out this book, R. Kannan has addressed this long-felt need.

The author traces the eventful life of Anna from his birth in a modest weaver family in Kanchipuram. Getting a degree throughPachaiyappa's College, he chose a career in politics and cut his political teeth in the Justice Party that had a non-Brahmin base. His moment came when he was spotted by Periyar and groomed as his lieutenant.

Anna-Periyar bond

The best part of the book is the detailed treatment of the relationship between the two. From being Periyar's protégé, Anna developed a style of his own in politics and public-speaking, won a big following, struck an independent political path, and took the non-Brahmin castes to the seat of political power. He played a leading part in the first anti-Hindi agitation (1937–39), wrested the non-Brahmin plank from the conservative Justicites and, using his unmatched propagandist skills, rallied the Dravidian movement under Periyar. However, there was a rift growing between the two leaders on the issue of pursuing political goals. While Periyar was firm about staying out of electoral politics, Anna spearheaded a strand that eyed state power as an instrument of reform and change. Using Periyar's mismatched marriage as a pretext, he led a split and formed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (1949).

Even though Periyar lambasted the DMK, Anna maintained his composure throughout and, in 1967, when he became Chief Minister — after the DMK's historic triumph at the polls — even dedicated his ministry to his mentor.

Career record

Kannan deftly charts the high growth graph of the DMK and Anna during the immediate post-Independence decades. The narrative is particularly informative where he deals with the inner-party dissensions, the factional tussle between E.V.K. Sampath and M. Karunanidhi, the split in the wake of Sampath's fast, and the rise of MGR.

The abdication of the secessionist ‘Dravida Nadu' demand; Anna's memorable stint in the Rajya Sabha, where he held his own against Parliamentarian stalwarts while expounding the principles of federalism and opposing the imposition of Hindi; and the momentous anti-Hindi agitation (1965) that propelled the DMK to the seat of power — all these get adequate treatment. When, within two years of his chief ministership, Anna fell a victim to cancer, a sense of tragedy was palpable all round.

It is no easy task to write on the life of Anna. Not only Anna but many of the DMK's stalwarts revelled in flowery language but not without subtleties, nuances, and innuendoes. It takes an insider to follow the allusions. The author is quite up to this task, especially as evinced in the way he reads the allegorical stories and essays that Anna penned during the run up to his break with Periyar.

The publication is however not without shortcomings. Biography is the art of portraying a personality in context. While Anna emerges as a gentle leader moved by emotions, accommodating divergent views, preferring to be led rather than chart the course of history, the historical and political context is not adequately delineated. The names of Tamil politicians, often with their highfalutin sobriquets, are likely to confuse the non-Tamil readers.

The last two decades have seen the emergence of a new body of writing that can be termed ‘the new social history of the Dravidian movement'. Unfortunately, the author has chosen to ignore this and has remained content with repeating shibboleths about the Dravidian movement. His frequent recourse to quotations from the writings of P. Ramamurti, Kannadasan, and Jayakanthan has served neither to illuminate the narrative nor enhance its readability.

Kannan has made a thorough use of Anna's voluminous writings to tease out biographical details. Yet some research into the archival material from government sources and newspapers would have undoubtedly helped in giving the much-needed variety and depth to the narrative.

This is not to gainsay the importance of this biography of Anna. Competent biographies of Tamil personalities are rare in English. Hopefully this will not be the lone sparrow in that biographical summer.

ANNA — The Life and Times of C.N. Annadurai: R. Kannan; Penguin/ Viking,11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-100017. Rs. 550.

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