Author and advocate R. Sundaravandhiya Thevan talks about his book in which he has documented the life and history of Tamil folk clans.
‘Captain Rumley and his troops marched into Vellalore village near Melur and brutally killed over 5,000 Kallars in a single day as they vehemently refused to pay tax to the British Company Raj’ – (Page 516, Piramalai Kallar Vazhvum Varalarum).
“The carnage that happened in 1767 is recorded in the year’s gazette,” notes R. Sundaravandhiya Thevan. “See how history hails king Kattabomman and the Marudhu brothers as heroes who fought the tax system. But we have comfortably forgotten those 5,000 martyrs — simply because they are no kings. They are just common people!”
Sitting under the neem tree in his modest home at Usilampatti, Sundaravandhiya Thevan discusses Communism, Antonio Gramsci’s Marxist writings and correlates socialist theories and populist ideas to native Indian communities and their ways of life.
“In India, classical literature has always glorified kings and their kingdoms. The people who lived on the fringes of society never found a mention in these. Even Tamil Sangam literature bears only minimum references to those who lived outside the royal fold,” alleges Sundar. “But, folk history,” he asserts, “can never perish. The tales are still alive among the farmers and workers in the villages. And I have documented and scrutinised these stories in my book.”
Sundar’s book Piramalai Kallar Vazhvum Varalarum, released two years ago by Sandhya Pathipagam, is a result of extensive research spanning eight years. It takes a holistic look at the life and socio-economic structure of all the classes of the subaltern. The first part records the numerous oral stories that are in circulation even today and the second half analyses rare documents and historical evidences. “I travelled to nearly 500 villages all over southern Tamil Nadu and ended up with a dozen notebooks of hints and famous tales,” beams Sundar. Nearly 2,000 copies of the book have already been sold.
Living beyond generations:
It was at a roadside tea stall that Sundar found his calling. “I heard a school boy narrate a story about his ancestors. And it struck me that I had read the same story in Louis Dumont’s A South Indian Subcaste that was written in 1947. That’s when I realised that these stories live beyond generations and centuries.” In the course of his research, there were times when Sundar encountered discouraging statements from family, friends and strangers.
American-Indian anthropologist Ananda Pandian who was doing a study on the Cumbum Valley Kallars, played a major role in inspiring Sundar to continue his research. “He encouraged me to write about the sufferings and struggles of the folk communities. Caste histories have always been promoted. I wanted to present plain truth,” he says. “Every caste group claims a royal lineage today. Unfortunately, they are unaware of the fact that aristocracy can easily be uprooted and overthrown. But it’s the working clans that survive time and the onslaught of invasions and wars.”
An anthropological thesis
“Caste should be seen as a system and not a sentiment. The deciding factors of caste have differed during various time periods. Once, it was based on clothes and food. Then, occupation demarcated the various castes. And today, political and economical status translates into caste which everyone clings to,” observes the Economics graduate. “My book is not a casteist creation. It’s an anthropological thesis that brings to the fore the realistic issues our society faced at a time,” he asserts. According to Sundar, geographical divisions of the erstwhile Tamil land had a great impact on the behavioural and cultural patterns of the communities that lived in the regions. “Those who lived in the fertile plains and rich forests naturally had a better socio-economic condition, as we were largely an agrarian society in the past,” he notes. “But the clans that lived in dry regions were oppressed and relegated by the successive ruling classes. And till date, economic policies of the Government remain biased.”
Sundar cites the example of the Periyar and Sirumalai irrigation channels that were laid during the British Raj. Wherever the water reached, the farmers became a rich clan. And where it didn’t, the community continued to struggle and their behaviour remained rugged and they were called ‘uncivilised’. “When they resisted the tax system, they were branded ‘criminals’ and that’s how the Criminal Tribes Act came into being,” says Sundar, showing copies of related documents from 1871 onwards. The latter chapters of Sundar’s book give an in-depth idea of the Act.
Sundar is currently involved in a research on the folk religion of native Tamil people. “My desire is not to preserve history but to properly document it,” he says.