T. Saravanan and A. Shrikumar look back at the life of K.P. Janaki Ammal, who fought for the rights of the common man.

The office of the Communist Party-Marxist was crowded on March 1, not for any routine preparatory meeting for a demonstration, but a memorial gathering to remember K.P. Janaki Ammal, the courageous daughter of Madurai who took on the British and faced many challenges that came her way.

In fact, she was hailed as one of the first women in South India to be arrested by the British. “She was never hesitant to raise her voice for the welfare of the people. And going to the jail was as common for her,” remembers freedom fighter I. Mayandi Bharathi.

As a theatre artiste, freedom fighter, congress worker and later a communist — the contributions of Janaki Ammal cannot be undermined. Even as a 12-year-old, little Janaki was able to strike a chord with her booming voice during theatre performances. When untouchability was prevalent, Janaki chose to pair with S.S. Viswanathadas on stage, even as many women artistes hesitated to act with him citing his caste.

Vetkam Ketta Vellai Kokkukala, viratta viratta vaareegala...,” she would sing to drive home the spirit of the freedom movement. She was first arrested in 1930 while giving a performance in Tirunelveli and served jail for a year.

Born as the only child to Padmanabhan and Lakshmi in 1917, Janaki’s early life was spent in penury. She lost her mother when she was eight and was brought up by her grandmother. As an eighth-grade school drop out, she joined music class. A skilled singer that she was, Janaki Ammal joined Palaniappa Pillai Boys Company for a salary of Rs.25 per month. Later, she went on to become the lead actress and earned over Rs. 300 per performance. Janaki Ammal married Gurusamy Naidu, a harmonium player in the troupe.

Her rising interest in politics and the freedom movement restricted her acting as she began to dedicate her time and money to social service. Janaki spent her fortunes accumulated from theatre earnings for the people. She joined the congress party in 1936 and served as the office bearer of Madurai Congress Committee and always sang patriotic songs in party meetings. Slowly she grew in stature becoming an important speaker and moved to the Congress Socialist party. Inspired by the Communist philosophy, she joined the Communist Party in 1940. In 1967, Janaki was elected to the State Legislative Assembly from the Madurai East constituency.

Many remember Janaki as a gritty fighter. She would raise her fist and take to the streets demanding justice. She led many agitations for regularization of wages for mill workers, farmers and the labour class. “She visited villages on foot gathering people’s support for the cause. Even today, the villagers around Thuvariman, Sholavandan and Thirumangalam areas identify the communist party as ‘Janaki Amma katchi,” says Chellam, councillor, Madurai Corporation.

It was at Ponmalai near Tiruchi, that the feminist in Janaki came to light. She along with Ponmalai Paapa Umanath founded the Tamil Nadu Democratic Women’s Association in 1974 and became its first president. Her speeches on women’s liberation and empowerment and gender equality shaped up new ideals in the minds of people. She was instrumental in introducing women into politics. “Amma inspired many of us to take up positions and responsibilities in the party,” recalls her friend Nagammal.

Janaki was a strict disciplinarian. Yet, her kind-heartedness and motherly love sunk differences between the party functionaries. During the Emergency, Janaki sold all her jewels and silk saris to feed party cadres. “We used to melt the gold and silver zaris of her ‘thahattu podavai’ (silk saris) and sell them off to make both ends meet,” says Nagammal.

Janaki spent her last days in the party office, then located on Mandayan Asari Street. She was happy with whatever little she had in life. Though her friends offered her gifts, she never accepted. Janaki even declined freedom fighters pension and the ‘thamarai pattayam’. Repeated jail terms and hard work deteriorated her health and she died of asthma on March 1, 1992.

(With this article, we conclude our series on leading women of Madurai)

N. Nanmaran, Former MLA, CPM

“I remember Janaki Amma as a strong-willed woman. She was very close to me and my wife and treated us like her own son and daughter-in-law. As a small boy, I listened to her speeches. She inspired me to embrace communism. She always spoke for the downtrodden and the neglected. Her social knowledge was exemplary and she guided me in my political life. I had the opportunity to be by her side during her last days. Those were highly emotional moments. She wanted the party members to carry out her funeral rites.”

Chellam, Councillor, Madurai Corporation

“My father Veerbhadran was a very good friend of Janaki Amma. She used to visit our home often and I was always in awe of her grit. She used to relish ‘Ennai Kathirikai Kuzhambu’ and every time she visited us, she wanted my mother to prepare the dish. Janaki Amma was the leading light for so many women in the region to enter politics those days. It was only from her, that I learnt to overlook discrimination based on caste, gender and religion.”

B. Nagammal, party functionary

“My association with Janaki Amma started as a kid, when she trained me to sing and act in the theatre. I and her step-daughter Subbulakshmi opened the plays with our songs. Janaki Amma used to write her own songs and compose music. I have accompanied her to villages to stage plays. She wrote a hard hitting play on the Bengal famine and I shared stage with her and her husband Gurusamy Naidu. Amma was a selfless giver. Whatever she had, she used to share it with others. For my marriage, she gifted me one of her expensive silk saris without a second thought.”

I. Mayandi bharathi, Freedom fighter

“When I think of Janaki Amma, her orotund voice comes to my mind. She was a powerful speaker who energised the crowd with her words. When Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose visited Madurai, she brushed aside criticism from other congress members and whole-heartedly welcomed him along with Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar.”

R. Padmakumari, Trustee, K.P. Janaki Amma Memorial Trust.

“Janaki Amma was an embodiment of simplicity. The few times I have seen her as a kid, I remember her wearing only ordinary cotton saris. She was down-to-earth and communicated with love and affection. In 1993, we started a Trust in her memory for the development of women and children. We have worked extensively in Usilampatti to eradicate female foeticide and infanticide. We also assist girl children in school education and run a tuition centre in Mathichiyam.”