This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of P. Jeevanandam’s death. When Jeeva died suddenly on the morning of January 18, 1963 at the age of 56, Tamil Nadu lost one of its finest communist leaders and politicians. The communist party organ Janasakthi reported two days later that no less than two hundred thousand people attended his funeral held at Kasimedu cemetery in Madras. Tributes and condolence messages poured in from communist leaders from different parts of India, his followers and political rivals alike in Tamil Nadu, Tamil literary personalities, artists and film actors.
Indeed, it may not be an exaggeration to claim that no other communist leader in Tamil Nadu before and after claimed as much a stature and respect from different sections of people as Jeeva. This is largely due to the democratic spirit he imbibed by participating in different progressive movements ranging from anti-colonial nationalist movement under the leadership of Gandhi, social reformist Self-Respect Movement with Periyar, and the communist movement. A brilliant orator and a man of literary taste and talent, Jeeva’s lasting contribution to Tamil Nadu is the founding of Tamil Nadu Art-Literary Federation (Tamil Nadu Kalai Ilakkiya Perumandram) in 1961, a forerunner of all progressive art and literary movements.
Born in 1907 in a village of Boothappandi in Kanyakumari district, Jeeva’s life spanned five and a half decades during which he participated in several movements, the longest association being the Communist movement in Tamil Nadu from late 1930s. After Independence, when Madras legislative assembly elections were held in 1952, Jeeva contested from the Communist Party and won from Washermanpet constituency in the working class heartland of North Madras.
While he was the Member of Legislative Assembly, Jeeva campaigned for education in Tamil and supported the linguistic reorganisation of states. He opposed Rajaji’s controversial educational policy by voting against the proposal in the assembly.
In 1959 he edited Thamarai, the literary organ of Communist Party of India in Tamil Naduto which a number of progressive and young writers contributed. The songs he composed were unfailingly sung in the labour meetings and trade union activities.
Jeeva is remembered among the enthusiasts of Tamil literature as someone who popularised the poems of Subramania Bharathi among the Tamil public. A Tamil writer and a critic associated with the Progressive Writers Movement in Tamil Nadu once referred to Jeeva as ‘living Bharathi’ (nadamadum Bharathi). Intervening in the Madras Legislative Assembly debate on the nationalisation of Subramania Bharathi’s works in March 1955, Jeeva appealed to the Speaker of the Assembly to question the veracity of the “authorised version” of Bharathi’s poems that was circulating in Tamil Nadu. He observed that the revolutionary poems related to socialism and criticism of caste were deleted in the “authorised version” and requested the Speaker to direct the Education Minister to take action on this issue. It was Jeeva who established the social perspectives of Bharathi for the first time.
For many contemporary writers and artists in Tamil Nadu, Jeeva was an inspiration. While he was the editor of Janasakthi, innumerable writers and artists who were not always members of the Communist Party constantly visited his office. Writer Jayakanthan has noted in his book on journalistic experiences that Jeeva was unanimously acknowledged as an enthusiast of literature within the Communist Party and someone who could guide young writers in the field of art and literature from a communist perspective. Jeeva strived to create a ‘united front’ in the cultural sphere embracing writers and artists in Tamil Nadu with a democratic and progressive outlook. A membership in the Communist Party by an artist or a writer was never a prerequisite set by Jeeva for his interaction with them though he never compromised on the party stand at any point.
Sundara Ramaswamy, another literary figure in contemporary Tamil literature has written a brilliant near-ethnographic memoir of Jeeva titled Jeeva Ninaivodai in which he has explained Jeeva’s personality and his experiences with him. Jeeva comes out as the Marxist democrat, who encouraged the autonomy of the writer in the persona of Sundara Ramaswamy. When at moments the latter experienced a troubled relationship with the Communist leaders and party, Jeeva was present to support and encourage the writer. On such occasions Jeeva reminded Sundara Ramaswamy of his task as a writer in the transformation of society.
The Tamil Nadu Art-Literary Federation founded by Jeeva played a crucial role in recovering and publishing the folklore of popular classes. The meeting of Tamil Nadu Art-Literary Federation provided an opportunity and inspiration to collect folk literature in Tamil Nadu. The conference formed a ‘Folklore Research Committee’ and entrusted the responsibility on Na. Vanamamalai to lead the committee. If U.V. Swaminatha Iyer was responsible for recovering and publishing the classical Tamil literature, it was Na. Vanamamalai, supported by Jeeva and several members of the Tamil Nadu Art-Literary Federation, who should be credited for recovering and publishing the folk literature of Tamil Nadu.
Jeeva led a simple life. He used public transport and lived in a hut till the end of his life. When the former Chief Minister Kamaraj offered government housing, Jeeva declined the offer citing the lives of millions of people without housing. At a time when the status of the political class of the nation is plagued by corruption and mismanagement of public resources, Jeeva’s life reminds us of simplicity, honesty, and commitment for social change. Jeeva epitomized the life of the true democrat in modern India.
V. Rajesh is Assistant Professor of History at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)