The proposed Tamil Thai statue in Madurai will impose an archaic and patriarchal iconography on an idea that has multiple imaginings and interpretations

The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister’s plan to erect a 100-foot statue of Tamil Thai in Madurai, a pre-modern Indian city that is perceived to be the cradle of Tamil civilisation, has brought to the fore a politics of cultural hegemony centred on symbolism.

While culture and identity have played an important role in the politics of postcolonial India, language, culture and visual iconography have been central to Dravidian politics, especially from the late 1960s. Even today, politics in the State witnesses increased competition over public symbols and the strategic location of cultural signifiers.

The use of language as a central element is evident in the political discourse of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). When the party first came to power in 1967, it renamed the State of Madras as Tamil Nadu. Subsequently, the DMK conducted Tamil conferences, gathering Tamil scholars from all over the world to eulogise and discuss the greatness, antiquity and opulence of Tamil language and culture.

As S.V. Rajadurai and V. Geetha have noted, the ornate speeches of its chief, M. Karunanidhi, and its elaborate, garish party rallies set a standard that others in the State felt compelled to follow. European scholars who worked on Tamil were praised by the DMK and statues were erected in remembrance of their work. This political discourse provided the DMK with momentum to spread its brand of Tamil nationalism and allowed the party to emerge as the vanguard of the Tamils.

Claiming a share

For V. Geetha, the Tamil Thai initiative of the present AIADMK government is an attempt to claim a share of whatever little Tamil glory the writers and publicists of the DMK have left for them, and there isn’t much. “From the Sangam classics to the Cholas, from the pride in being an old trading culture to speaking of how we established our control over South-east Asia, the DMK has done it all. And it seems to me the present dispensation is trying to create its own gallery of heroes.”

The contemporary situation in the State suggests that the kingdoms of the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas have become very pliable and contested signifiers for at least half a dozen intermediate as well as Scheduled castes in the State.

The day after Jayalalithaa announced that her government would erect a memorial for Karikala Cholan for building the Grand Anicut, an organisation belonging to an intermediate caste in northern Tamil Nadu placed an advertisement in regional dailies congratulating her for building a memorial to one of their ancestors. It further said that by doing this, she had made the king’s descendants (i.e. caste members) proud.

Immediately, many intermediate and Scheduled castes followed suit, printing posters and releasing advertisements in major Tamil dailies and even in an English daily claiming that Karikala Cholan was their ancestor and thanking the Chief Minister for the proposal to build a memorial. In Madurai, for the castes locked in generational feuds, this icon became a highly contested signifier where competition over ancestry has intensified not only in public spaces but has also spread to the social media.

Largely seen as the AIADMK’s answer to the DMK’s 133-foot-tall statue of Tamil savant Thiruvalluvar in Kanyakumari, the upcoming Tamil Thai statue project is the latest manifestation of the State’s symbolism-centred cultural politics.

Much criticised models

Tamil scholar Manonmaniam P. Sundaram Pillai was the first to talk about Tamil Thai. In his 1891 novel Manonmaniyam, he penned a song, “Invocation to Goddess Tamil” which was used as the official State song by the DMK government in June 1970. In 1981, MGR’s AIADMK government declared open a Tamil Thai statue in Madurai on the occasion of the Fifth World Tamil Conference in January 1981.

In fact, the model of the statue with an archaic female figurine as Tamil Thai was criticised, and the hard-core Dravidian atheists dubbed the idea of erecting a statue as irrational claiming it an attempt to turn imagination into visual form.

Misrepresenting the female

Following Patricia Uberoi, who has analysed iconography and female representation in general, it is hard not to see Tamil Thai as a classic example of the objectification of woman as something to be appropriated, possessed and exchanged in the social relations of cooperation and competition among men. Visible and valorised she may be, but she is very much a figment of the patriarchal imaginations of modernity in colonial and postcolonial India, says historian Sumathi Ramasamy in her book Passions of the Tongue.

There is also a wider irony. “To construct this statue at a time when Tamil education’s fortunes are at an all-time low is both ironic and cynical,” says Ms. Geetha. For her, “the quiet abdication of modernising the teaching of the language, the way in which our education system at the school level especially has not sought to engage with the rich and exciting literature that has been produced by subordinated castes, including Dalits, fishers, peasants, particularly women from these backgrounds, and the introduction of English in a thoughtless way in government schools,” stand in stark contrast.

One of the things that this colossal statue would bring is a possible halt to the multiple imaginings that the very figure has seen over the years. Thus, there is no definitive representation of Tamil Thai: the statues at Karaikudi and Madurai differ visually, and disseminated images of Tamil Thai over the years have had her in various distinctive elements.

In the visual iconography, for example, Tamil Thai can be seen wearing a sari and blouse in the modest style associated with a middle-class woman. But in a large number of instances, including the official State poster, she appears in garments truer to a more archaic iconographic tradition. The colossal figurine planned would likely bring with it a consistent iconographic presence in which subaltern imaginations of the icon are swept away.

Ms. Geetha also argues that Tamil Thai is a figment of a patriarchal imagination that does not want to grow up and engage with adult, intelligent women, and would rather that it remains infantile: to surrender to a maternal figure is both sentimental and comforting, while denying women their equality, dignity and justice. “In this imagination, Mother Tamil appears as a domesticated woman, not the avenging mother of our folk tales, or the hardworking working class mother.”

There is also a danger that the icon will remain as another example of monumental statuary that represents state power and arrogance more than anything else.

As always, those who rule in the name of the Tamil people will claim to be the people themselves. Sadly in our increasingly coercive democracy, sovereignty rests with whoever can shout the loudest and most aggressive claims on its behalf. Or build the grandest statues.